Warning: the following post contains spoilers from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, so if you have not seen the movie and care about what happens in it, proceed with caution. I have also placed a warning before the spoiler paragraphs.
The Star Wars franchise is one of the few certainties in life anymore. The Original Trilogy, might not be the greatest films ever made, but they probably matter the most to the greatest number of people. Even with the Prequel Trilogy that George Lucas released to the world from 1999 to 2005, for all their flaws, I still find myself going back to them. The Phantom Menace came out when I was in 3rd grade, Attack of the Clones was in 6th grade, and Revenge of the Sith was in 9th grade, and by the time they came out, I was already so in love with the originals that I wanted more than anything for the prequels to also be good. In my early 20s, I experienced a similar feeling with the fourth season of Community, when NBC fired Dan Harmon and you could really feel a change in tone on the show without its creator in the writers’ room.
The big difference between Star Wars and Community is that while Community needed to bring its creator back to get good again, Star Wars needed its creator to leave in order to move forward. George Lucas built two generations of great childhoods with the Star Wars trilogy, and subsequently ruined them by building another trilogy around the greatest villain in the history of cinema as a whiny kid turned angsty teenager, by showing us that the legendary Jedi Knights of which Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda were the last, were nothing more than glorified tax collection agents, and by adding unnecessary editing to the old movies we loved so much.
When Lucas sold the rights to the franchise to Disney in 2012, it meant that this beloved intellectual property was going to be worked on by a fresh set of eyes, and by a company that had already injected new life into Marvel Comics with unprecedented success. One of the more overlooked signs that things have been pretty good the last few years is that if someone told me in 2011 that two more Star Wars movies would be made before Barack Obama leaves office, and that they would be the two best Star Wars movies of my lifetime, I would not have believed them, but it happened.
With Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it was refreshing in its familiarity. J.J. Abrams’ reboot followed the beats of the original 1977 film, and put my mind at ease that the movie series I cared so much about was in good hands. At the same time, the movie I was really looking forward to was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This was the first of a few anthology movies, separate from the main Star Wars episodes. There is already a young Han Solo movie in the works, but like the Marvel Cinematic Universe that Disney has built into a formidable empire, in order for more of these movies to get made, the initial ventures need to be successful. The next paragraphs are where the spoiler disclaimers up top come into play.
Rogue One begins in a way different from any Star Wars film to date. Sure, it begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but there is not opening crawl to follow. This is a Star Wars story, not a Star Wars episode. Already, the difference is felt. The movie focuses on characters we have never met before, and will never meet again, because everybody dies. Every other Star Wars movie before this one had character shields. You knew the Millennium Falcon was going to get through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back because Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO were on board. The ship was going to be fine.
Even the characters we had met before had mostly known fates. Jimmy Smits reprises his role from Revenge of the Sith as Senator Organa of Alderaan, and he leaves the Rebel base on Yavin IV and sends his daughter to retrieve the plans to the Death Star to go back home to Alderaan… and die when that planet is destroyed by the Death Star, as first seen in 1977. Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the likeness of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994 but was reanimated by the magic of computers, dies when the Death Star is destroyed later on in the same movie. Darth Vader dies in Return of the Jedi, but his descendants continue to be the central focus of the Star Wars episodes. The only characters from Rogue One who are still alive at the end of The Force Awakens are Princess Leia (who was also given the Peter Cushing treatment to make Carrie Fisher 19 again), C-3PO, and R2-D2, who appear onscreen for less than a minute combined, and considering the 2016 deaths of Carrie Fisher and Kenny Baker, two of the three may have uncertain futures in the series beyond Episode VIII.
This kind of mortality in a gritty war movie take on the Star Wars universe is a game-changer. Finally, after waiting 17 years since The Phantom Menace, fans finally got the prequel we deserved. It opens the door for different kinds of stories to be told with the backdrop of a universe I have still yet to tire of exploring. Rogue One was not without flaws, and the first hour of the movie was a little messy, but the final battle was legit, and I came away invested in a bunch of one-off characters once their ship was destroyed and it was clear that their rogue mission was a one-way trip. I went in with high expectations, and still got my mind blown. Well done.