This post contains minor plot spoilers for the beginning 30 minutes of Rogue One.
Standing before a crowd of journalists in a private movie theater at Skywalker Ranch this past weekend, Gareth Edwards made an appeal to the hardcore fans. “I feel like I’m standing on sacred ground,” he told the audience. Edwards, the director of the upcoming Star Warsstandalone film Rogue One, knows the significance of his position. He’s only the second director, after J.J. Abrams, to helm a Star Wars movie since creator George Lucas sold the franchise to Disney in 2012.
Edwards pointed to a spot in the theater, the center seat in a row halfway back. Whoever is sitting there is lucky. It’s where Lucas used to sit when reviewing sound for the Star Warsprequel trilogy, after Lucasfilm’s sound effects and mixing division was moved to Skywalker Ranch in 1987. The symbolism isn’t lost on the audience, which is about to witness the first 28 minutes of Rogue One, ahead of its official premiere. It’s a mixed crowd, with some serious critics, yet a healthy amount of Star Wars diehards lucky enough to work for a film or comic book blog influential enough to attract Lucasfilm’s eye. Just a few days ago, Edwards revealed, he showed the film to Lucas himself, and got his approval. “I can honestly say I can die happy now,” Edwards said.
Underneath the giddy excitement of watching not-yet-public footage, the screening highlighted the inherent contradiction hanging over the film. Rogue One, due out on December 16th, is not a proper Star Wars movie, like last year’s The Force Awakens. Instead, it’s a spinoff billed simply as “A Star Wars Story.” It’s technically a prequel, set before the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope. It’s focused on the team of rebels who steal the Death Star plans that serve as the Macguffin for that film.
In the grander scheme of Star Wars as a business, Rogue One represents Disney’s risky gamble that it can transform one of the most celebrated film franchises in history into a never-ending content machine, capable of churning out stories for… well, forever. Disney didn’t buy Lucasfilm for $4 billion so it could make a new trilogy of movies and call it quits. It invested in Star Wars as a universe, much as it did with Marvel in 2009.
Unlike the deep well of Marvel superhero lore, which seemingly extends infinitely, Star Warsis a more delicate brand with an uncertain track record. Lucasfilm has never tried to plant the spirit of Star Wars in something fresh and more focused, without the word “episode” in the title. It’s uncharted territory. And while Rogue One sounds like a simple story, drawing from a easy-to-recognize moment in the Star Wars timeline, it still carries an immense weight on its shoulders. The young Han Solo movie, in development now, is the second standalone film in the works, and it will no doubt be taking cues from the way Rogue One is received.
The biggest challenge is figuring out what ingredients in Star Wars comprise its true identity, while the biggest fear is finding out that the magic can wear off if the recipe is wrong. Rogue One is the testing ground for that experiment. From what we’ve seen so far, the strategy appears to be a carefully concocted mix of old and new, bold and risk-averse. There are trailers showing Darth Vader, but not a lightsaber in sight. You’ll see X-wings soaring the skies, but no Millennium Falcon. The first Stormtroopers of the film are not bright white, but jet black instead.
Instead of playing down these contradictions, or Rogue One’s more ancillary impact in the grand scheme of Star Wars, the film seems to embrace its role. The opening of the film contains a familiar message: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in plain, blue type on a black screen. But instead of transitioning to the famous Star Wars opening crawl, Rogue One jumps right into the action, showing a young Jyn (Felicity Jones) and her scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) on a remote planet shortly after the events of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.
It’s a gutsy move, signaling that the movie is both a Star Wars tale and not at the same time. It features a familiar setting with an alien cast of characters that previously existed only in recap form. By abandoning the scrawl, Lucasfilm and Disney are illustrating the challenge of preserving originality while maintaining a connection to the source.
Edwards has been vocal in his desire to make a war movie about rebels resisting an oppressive empire, one that just happens to be set in a galaxy far, far away. In interviews after the screening, the director says his team even began pre-production by using PhotoShop to doctor World War II and Vietnam photographs with Star Wars elements, including X-Wings in the background and Stormtrooper helmets on real-life soldiers. “We need to differentiate ourselves from the saga,” Edwards said of his mindset in approaching the first standalone film.
Fans will recognize almost none of the characters in Rogue One, and we’re unlikely to see them again in the main series. “Doubtful” is the word Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy used when asked in a press conference on Sunday about Rogue One’s characters popping up in Episode VIII or IX. Instead, we’re getting our first Star Wars film with, as Kennedy puts it, a clear “beginning, middle, and end.”
Within minutes, Rogue One begins introducing viewers to its ensemble cast in a blitz of fast cuts jumping light years. We meet young Jyn and her father Galen, who’s detained by the Empire to help with construction of a planet-destroying superweapon. As an adult 15 years later, Jyn is a vagabond and criminal enlisted by the Rebellion to make contact with an extremist military figure known as Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), one of the few names Star Wars fans may recognize from the animated Clone Wars saga.
In short order, Jyn teams up with Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). They run into Chirrut Îmwe, a Force-sensitive blind fighter played by the excellent martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, and his companion, assassin Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Meanwhile, Imperial pilot and turncoat Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is now working with the rebels. He holds the key to reaching Jyn’s father and obtaining the Death Star’s schematics.
Keep in mind, this is all laid out in the first 25 minutes of the film. Without question, Rogue One is a fast-paced, no-nonsense action film above all else. Its wartime overtones also help give it a darker, more modern feel, even though it dials back the on-screen aesthetics to the 1970s. “We’re making a period piece, sort of,” Edwards said. “We’d tell the crew, ‘We’re making a film set in 1977.’”
There are still glimpses of the fan-pleasing Star Wars flourishes. At least in this first segment, much of the music composed by Michael Giacchino feels like a standard continuation of John Williams’ iconic scores. Yen’s portrayal of Chirruet will quickly make him the champion of Jedi-loving viewers, while Tudyk’s K-2SO is handily the best, most inventive droid personality yet. Tudyk plays him with a mix of childlike naïveté and adult humor that strikes the same chords Groot does in Guardians of the Galaxy. That makes K-2SO a great addition to the roster of famous Star Wars droids.
Yet even in the few glimpses shown, Rogue One does feel like a departure for Star Wars in key ways. It doesn’t rely on nostalgia, recurrent characters, or narrative momentum to drive the story. Its characters are not binary heroes. They’re presented as blends of self-serving and altruistic with a keen sense of justice, yet a cloudy moral compass and without a lot to lose. We also know how the tale ends the rogue crew gets the Death Star plans, which Princess Leia ultimately transmits to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. So it’s less about where we end up, and more about how it happens and who survives. The film is trying, above all else it seems, to tell a story about the Rebellion and the complex characters it recruited in the dark days after Darth Vader rose to power.
Star Wars fans may struggle with what role Rogue One will play in the larger series, or how it will serve the upcoming main installments. Without lightsabers or a Skywalker, how can this be a real Star Wars movie? But it’s clear this is meant to be both a branching-out point and a gateway. “I think the great thing is, this could be a real introduction to the whole franchise to many people who haven’t necessarily followed it,” Kennedy said.
The philosophy has certainly worked for superheroes. After 2008’s Iron Man, we’ve seen 13 films drawn from the Marvel universe, with another 11 in the works. So far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has generated more than $10 billion at the box office. After Disney scooped up Marvel in 2009, it studiously began planning this intricate framework, with help from Marvel president Kevin Feige. So far, it’s proven to be the most successful franchise expansion in cinema history.
Marvel has succeeding largely by drawing in new viewers while simultaneously pulling back the hardcore fans. It uses a variety of directors and writers. Lesser-known characters get brought into the fold mostly as a way to experiment. Ant-Man was a slapstick comedy with Paul Rudd. Guardians of the Galaxy was an earnest attempt to please non-comic book fans by removing the baggage of marquee superheroes. And then, every couple of years, a mammoth Avengers movie drops to bring it all together and break box-office records.
The question now is whether Disney can do the same with Star Wars. It’s a property fiercely protected by its fans, some of whom would rather let it die than see it tarnished. The Force Awakens was the careful first step, and Rogue One is now a more bold branch off the main storyline. If it succeeds, Edwards’ war-time movie about rebels, spies, and anti-heroes could determine the future of the Star Wars brand for years to come.
“We’re looking at each of these movies without a rulebook,” Kennedy says. “It’s very much in the spirit of what George Lucas did in the beginning.” That rulebook may not exist now, but you can be sure Lucasfilm is in the process of writing it. Because Rogue One is not a full-fledged episode in the main saga, it may not have the clout to tank the brand name, unless it truly flops with critics and fans alike. (Early record-breaking ticket presales make that quite unlikely.)
But it could certainly inform future directors, screenwriters, and actors how to handle — or not handle a Star Wars spinoff. Later this month, we’ll know for sure whether it’s a cautionary tale, or a roadmap for the future.