By Tom Anderson
It is fair to say that, since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012, the content that has been produced has been met with a range of mixed feelings from longtime fans. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of that at this point, it is also fair to say that the film Rogue One (2016), the second film produced since the Disney acquisition and the first side story not considered party of the numbered Star Wars ‘saga’, was generally received as perhaps the best piece of post-Disney Star Wars media created. Since then, I have gradually come around to that view myself, but it did take time. (To avoid confusion, I should say that I have not seen any of the TV series – some of which, like The Mandalorian, have also had critical and fan acclaim – because I am not willing to pay for yet another on-demand streaming subscription).
I have penned many (many) Prequel Problems articles involving Star Wars, yet Rogue One is arguably the purest example of a prequel anywhere in the franchise. It tells the story of what happens immediately before the first Star Wars film (later retitled Episode IV: A New Hope, referred to as ANH hereafter) and expands on the brief lines of the original iconic opening text crawl from 1977: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armoured space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plan that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy...”
I have previously opined on the textbook Prequel Problem that a later work of fiction, based entirely on expanding a brief description such as this, often nonetheless somehow ends up contradicting said description (in facts or at least in spirit). Star Wars itself is no stranger to this; I always think of the line in Episode II about Ansion between Anakin and Obi-Wan in the lift, which had the entire book The Approaching Storm based on it, yet said book doesn’t link to it particularly well. Conversely, considering its source material was almost forty years old and had doubtless been played out in fans’ imaginations for much of that time, Rogue One, in my opinion, rises to this challenge remarkably well.
In my view, one of the most fascinating aspects to the Disney takeover and de-canonisation of previous Expanded Universe (now ‘Legends’) material is that one now gets to see different takes on the same ideas. Rogue One is one of the best examples of this, as is its fellow side story Solo, which we’ll get to eventually. The old Expanded Universe naturally considered the question of what the capture of the Death Star plans was like, but this was a surprisingly scattershot and inconsistent affair (conversely, the ‘many Bothan spies’ of the second Death Star’s intelligence in Return of the Jedi got a more coherent treatment in Shadows of the Empire). Multiple different authors in different forms of media tackled the question at different times, with the result that the fanon welders got to work and today the Wookieepedia ‘Legends’ article is a ridiculous (but impressive) work depicting multiple parts of the plans being captured by multiple people at multiple times and put together. OK, maybe that’s a more realistic take on what intelligence work is actually like, but come on. This is one of those cases where Disney chucking out the EU former canon is unambiguously an improvement.
Similarly, oddly enough much of the lore of the Death Star in ‘Legends’ wasn’t coherently put together until the titular novel Death Star (2007) which lasted only a handful of years before its canon was thrown out! (Possibly the person most annoyed by this was US TV host Conan O’Brien, who had persuaded Lucas to give General Motti the canon first and middle names ‘Conan Antonio’ in the book). Much of the details of the capture of the plans was first discussed in the video game X-wing (1993) and, given the limitations of technology at the time, was hardly in a form that could be readily consumed by fans who didn’t play the games. Therefore, it’s not surprising that authors ignored (or were unaware of) this and came up with their own take on the iconic capture. EU veterans Timothy Zahn and Michael A. Stackpole collaborated on the novella ‘Interlude at Darkknell’ (1999) which involves their own characters (Senator Garm Bel Iblis and Moranda Savich for Zahn, Inspector Hal Horn and Ysanne Isard for Stackpole) being involved in the plans getting to the Rebels. (Interestingly, this became sufficiently well remembered that Darkknell and Bel Iblis’ Rebel contact was inevitably re-canonised back into some of the supplementary material for Rogue One!) A number of other authors also got involved; in one of her rare missteps in constructing a coherent backstory for Han Solo, A. C. Crispin has Han’s Rebel former girlfriend Brea Tharen and her troops capture the plans on Toprawa (a planet which is punished for the Empire for its ‘complicity’ by being smashed back into the Stone Age) while Kyle Katarn also ends up capturing what Wookieepedia euphemistically calls a ‘supplemental’ set of plans in the game Dark Forces. Yeah, right. Look, Rogue One doesn’t have a lot to compete with when it comes to ‘Legends’ here, does it?
I should also summarise the background lore of the Death Star’s construction (though not coherently assembled until the aforementioned titular novel). In the EU/‘Legends’, the Death Star is constructed around the prison planet of Despayre in the Hormuz system (their tourist board must have their work cut out for them) using its slave labour; Grand Moff Tarkin then promptly tests its planet-killing superlaser by destroying Despayre and all its people. As the weapon is not yet at full power, this takes more than one lower-power shot to crack the planetary crust and destroy it that way, rather than annihilating it altogether. This is witnessed by Rebel agents. The Death Star was designed by Imperial scientist Bevel Lemelisk (who is repeatedly killed in gruesome ways by the Emperor for his failures and transferred to a new clone body using the Force) and the naive young alien Qwi Xux, who thought she was designing a device for extracting ore from dead planets. (Many other books also imply other people and organisations were involved, with a scene with Raith Sienar in the post-Episode I novel Rogue Planet amusingly being immediately contradicted by the Death Star being portrayed as Separatist in origin in Episode II!) The Death Star’s fatal flaw exploited by the Rebels in ANH, its unshielded exhaust port, is a genuine oversight, with the novel Death Star further hinting it was karmically caused by the Empire’s mistreatment of its slave labour – it was spotted during construction, but never fully reported and corrected due to a slave falling ill.
Now let’s turn to Rogue One (for obvious reasons, spoilers abound). Before we consider it as a prequel and a piece of cinema, let’s compare and contrast how it tackles the depiction of the construction of the Death Star and the capture of its plans. The end of Episode III had (unrealistically) depicted the Death Star already under construction many years before, so the writers of Rogue One manage to incorporate an explanation into their plot by suggesting its construction keeps running into problems. The film opens with a flashback in which the main villain of the piece, Director Orson Krennic, tracks down the scientist Galen Erso in exile on the quite dark planet Lah’mu with his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn. Krennic (whose name always reminds me of Krennel from the X-wing comics and books) needs Galen to come back and fix the Death Star’s problems, despite his moral opposition to working on such a weapon. Galen ends up being captured and Lyra is killed, but Jyn escapes and is rescued by Some Dude (more on this later).
Time skip, and fifteen years later an Imperial cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (pretty much always referred to simply as ‘The Pilot’ in the film) defects to the Rebels with a message from Galen; the Death Star is under construction around a desert moon named Jedha, and is nearly complete. A Rebel intelligence officer named Cassian Andor learns of this from an agent on the very dark Ring of Kafrene, whom he then kills, ’cause this film is edgy. Cassian breaks Jyn out of an Imperial labour camp on the very dark planet of Wobani; the Rebels (based on Yavin IV as seen in ANH) need her to approach her father. Cassian is also secretly ordered by the Rebels to kill Galen rather than rescue him, ’cause this film is very edgy (more on this later, too). Cassian, Jyn and the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO travel to Jedha, where they meet a blind, spiritual warrior named Chirrut Imwe and his burly mercenary friend Baze Malbus. They are caught up in a fight; Jedha was traditionally a holy place for the Jedi (it’s implied, but never said, the names are connected) and the locals are rebelling against both Imperial mistreatment and the Imperials taking kyber crystals, traditionally used for lightsabers, to power the Death Star’s weapon. (The EU/’Legends’ also did something like this, but in a much vaguer way).
In the process of this, they manage to meet Some Dude’s rebel extremists (who are busy torturing The Pilot) and get the message from Galen. Galen talks about how he has deliberately incorporated a flaw into the Death Star, but conveniently doesn’t say what it is (to be fair, I suppose he might be concerned the message could fall into enemy hands and then the flaw corrected). Instead, they must retrieve the plans from the Imperial archive on the planet Scarif. In the middle of all this, the Death Star is finally completed and CGI Tarkin tests its superlaser on the holy city of Jedha, not at full power; ‘That won't be necessary. We need a statement, not a manifesto. The Holy City will be enough for the day. Target Jedha City, prepare single reactor ignition.’ (My favourite line in all of post-Disney Star Wars, incidentally, as you may be able to tell from the homage I played to it in my book “The Twilight’s Last Gleaming”!) Jyn, Cassian, The Pilot, Chirrut, Baze and K-2SO all escape from the oncoming shock wave of the destruction, but Some Dude and his men don’t because reasons. Their ship goes to hyperdrive still in the planet’s atmosphere, which is one of those things about post-Disney Star Wars that probably annoys only me, but does undermine all those times in the original trilogy where they had to fight their way out of orbit before escaping into hyperspace. At least they use dialogue here to imply it’s dangerous and risky.
Anyway, from The Pilot’s information they know Galen is being held captive in an Imperial research facility on the very dark planet of Eadu. They go there and Cassian is about to shoot him with a sniper rifle but then doesn’t, because the film isn’t that edgy. Krennic proceeds to kill all the other Imperial scientists but Galen because, erm, and then it turns out the Rebels were directed to attack Eadu separately and X-wings and Y-wings bomb the facility. Galen actually dies from this rather than the Imperials, sorry, we forgot that this film is meant to be edgy. (Sarcasm aside, the portrayal of collateral damage from Rebel bombings is actually done quite well, though one could argue whether this means the upcoming battle isn’t the Rebels’ ‘first’ victory as said in the ANH opening text crawl). Aside from this bit of war-is-hell and Cassian’s character development, the whole Eadu sequence feels like one of the weaker and more phoned-in parts of the film.
Meanwhile, Krennic goes to Mustafar out of Episode III and meets Darth Vader, who force-chokes him a bit for talking abck so long-time fans can feel satisfied. This is a very obviously phoned-in cameo that serves no real purpose but I don’t really care, sometimes the rule of cool overrides such nitpicking. (Same goes for a very brief cameo of C-3PO and R2-D2, though the bit on Jedha with the two minor villains from the cantina on Tatooine is a bit stupid).
Back on Yavin IV, the question is whether to attack Scarif so they can retrieve the plans, but the Rebel leadership don’t want to because they’ve now decided to cosplay as Lord Halifax for no reason and the struggle against the Empire is now hopeless. Jyn earnestly tells them that ‘rebellions are built on hope’ for the trailer, due to the 2010s law that All Trailers Must Sound As Generic As Possible, and instead she – with help from her new friends – decides to go and do it herself. They steal a ship and give it the callsign Rogue One (title drop). OK, this does make sense and is a nice name, but it remarkably confused me and every other longtime Star Wars viewer who went in assuming it’d have something to do with Rogue Squadron. Maybe the idea is that Rogue Squadron were inspired by this name?
They get to Scarif, and Scarif is brilliant – easily the best new planetary setting in any of the post-Disney Star Wars films. I am probably the only person who received this as ‘aah, it’s Thalassean from Total Annihilation’ but my point is that having war-is-hell on a nice pleasant tropical beachy islandy setting hasn’t been done before in Star Wars, which is odd considering how much of its space combat was inspired by the Pacific War in WW2. We even get special tropical beach edition stormtroopers and AT-ATs (collect them all) which is nice. Also, it’s not dark like almost every other planet in this film (we’ll get to that). Everyone plays their part in the infiltration; Cassian and Jyn go into the facility while the others stage attacks as a distraction, much to the confusion of Krennic in the facility. Cassian and Jyn eventually find the data, which is stored on a big 1970s data tape for aesthetic consistency with ANH (I appreciated it, I don’t know if anyone else did).
Eventually it turns out that the Rebel leadership decided to go in after all, and a fleet led by Admiral Raddus (the beta version of Admiral Ackbar) arrives and attacks the two Imperial Star Destroyers there. They do a cool manoeuvre that involves crashing the Star Destroyers into each other and then into the planetary shield generator, taking it down so Cassian and Jyn can go on the roof of the tower and beam the data to the Rebels. This works, even though the Death Star shows up shortly afterwards and takes out the top of the tower with its superlaser (Cassian and Jyn have got off by this point, but they, along with everyone else, end up dying after having their moment of glory; Krennic is also killed by his own weapon). Did we mention this film is edgy? In all seriousness, the idea that all the people behind stealing the planets end up dying was already semi-consistently present in the EU/‘Legends’ and does feel appropriate, though I was a bit surprised to see it on the big screen.
The Rebels have got the plans; however, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer shows up and attacks, boarding the flagship (so, er, was this really the Rebels ‘first victory’?) Darth Vader goes through lots of corridors like in the start of ANH killing people, but now with better special effects, and the data disk is passed from hand to hand. Eventually, in a big reveal, it turns out there’s another ship inside the flagship, which drops away and escapes Vader – it’s Leia’s corvette from the start of ANH, and CGI Leia tells us that they now have ‘hope’ (title drop for ‘next’ film). It’s thus nicely set up for you to go straight into ANH, where you can then watch the exact same sequence of Vader going through corridors killing people, but now with 1977 special effects – wait, don’t think they thought that through.
Snarking aside, Rogue One does a pretty damn good job of fitting with what we might have envisioned for those brief lines in the original ANH text crawl. From a prequel point of view, probably the most impressive thing about it is that it feels like a story worth telling. On paper, it sounds like very much the sort of concept where a critical voice might say “Do we really need to see this story? Does every bit of backstory need to appear on screen?” Yet it manages to justify itself. Also very impressive is that our characters feel unique. One of the biggest problems in Star Wars, very visible in role-playing games and the Adventure Journal short stories, is that writers find it difficult to conceive new characters that aren’t just slightly modified copies of the characters everyone knows. Essentially it’s the problem that if one wants to ‘play at’ Star Wars as a kid, one wants to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker or whoever, not random stormtrooper #13. But if you introduce characters who are Han Solo But He’s Wearing A Hat, you just cheapen the existing characters and the significance of their stories – especially if you add endless Jedi, as the EU/’Legends’ is very guilty of. The character of Chirrit Imwe is very impressive in this respect; not a Jedi, but merely someone who takes inspiration from them, who fights while repeating his iconic mantra about the Force, and goes on to save the day. Cassian Andor also manages not to feel like any other Star Wars character, with his distinctive accent and his grim attitude stemming from fighting for the Rebellion as a child soldier, dedicated to the cause but far from starchy or official. Even K-2SO manages to do something genuinely new with a Star Wars droid character, which I would have thought was a phase-space exploration challenge on the same level as mathematicians trying to find a new tessellating shape.
I don’t know if the writers took explicit inspiration from the EU/‘Legends’ in the destruction of the Holy City – probably not given the remote canon of the former – but they pull the same trick of making the destruction of Alderaan still feel ‘specially’ horrifying, because the Death Star’s devastation of its own birth world was achieved through a lower-power shot and incomplete destruction. The big space battle over Scarif, one of my favourite parts of the film, also felt like a realisation of the EU/’Legends’ (the games, the X-wing novels, etc.) on the big screen. At first I did feel it was an example of Star Wars feeling too static, with the Rebels with capital ships, a Mon Calamari admiral, etc., so it feels like Return of the Jedi – whereas I’d always pictured the Rebels at this point as being limited to just fighters and so on. However, reading back that original 1977 text crawl did change my mind. I do think the bit with Leia’s corvette dropping out of the flagship feels too contrived and changes the perspective of the start of ANH where the Rebels are claiming they’re on a peaceful diplomatic mission, when Vader just saw that. (In the EU/‘Legends’, as depicted in the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, the plans are just transmitted to the corvette which is on an alleged diplomatic tour). However, that’s a relatively minor quibble and it is an unexpected plot twist. Conversely, I feel that the change of the Death Star flaw to a deliberately introduced one is a big improvement – it makes it much more realistic that the Rebels could find it in ANH after only having a brief time to go through the plans.
Now let’s talk about some criticisms. When I first saw Rogue One, I tended to compare it to the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale. Both of these hit you between the eyes with how ‘different’ and ‘edgy’ they want to be from the start; Rogue One lacks an opening text crawl and goes straight in to the action, while Casino Royale shifts the James Bond gun barrel sequence to after an opening scene (and makes it look like ridiculous strawberry jam, but that’s another rant) in which Daniel Craig smashes a bloke’s head against a sink in a public toilet to show how gritty this is going to be. Similarly, Rogue One having Cassian kill his informant (although it’s because he was wounded and would be captured, to be fair) feels a bit gratuitous. I used to characterise both films as having a first hour which feels like a complete waste of time and you might as well turn up to the cinema an hour late and not miss anything of importance, followed by the rest of the film which is worth watching.
While I’ll stand by that for Casino Royale, on later viewings I feel it was too harsh a take on Rogue One. Really, I was more thinking of (as I hinted above) how Rogue One, especially the earlier parts, is way too dark – I don’t mean in the edgy way, I mean literally. It goes to more planets than most Star Wars films, and an awful lot of them feel confusingly, indistinguishably dark. I doubt the average viewer can keep up with the idea that they’re supposed to be different planets. Atmospheric storytelling is one thing, but if I’ve paid eight quid for a ticket I kind of want to be able to see the actors, lads. As I hinted above, one reason why I liked Scarif so much was because it was a breath of fresh air – showing you can do dark events on a nice sunny tropical setting, as indeed they already did on the desert of Jedha (or Tatooine in other Star Wars films). The use of too cold a camera temperature is not a unique flaw to this film – one of my few criticisms of the otherwise excellent recent Dune film was that the blazing hot desert of Arrakis has never felt so cold and dark on screen.
The other problem I had with Rogue One, which is relatively minor, is the character of Saw Gerrera, who I referred to as ‘Some Dude’ above because I’m still not sure who he actually is. He’s a minor character introduced in one of the multiple, confusingly-titled Clone Wars cartoons from back in the day, and is now an extremist rebel who’s broken with the Alliance (faint shades of Zahn’s Bel Iblis vs Mon Mothma, but not the same). It’s not a major issue because we do get the point of his role in the story fairly readily, but it left a bad taste in my mouth how he’s portrayed as a cameo people are expected to get. I remember Episode III also doing this, and it’s bizarre to me that, out of all the supplementary material one might expect a film to reference, why on earth those cartoons? I may be biased here because no channel I can receive ever seemed to show them, but still.
In summary then, Rogue One is both a good prequel and a good film. Don’t let my nitpicking above distract from the fact that it successfully threads the needle on the great challenges of feeling like an adequate prelude to one of the biggest and most iconic films of all time, manages to create unique characters whose loss we mourn, and even has time for memorable moments of humour amid the seriousness. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that it raised the bar too high for later Disney Star Wars products...
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.