Rogue One’s opening is odd for a Star Wars movie. No crawl, no traditional John William drum gallop. It’s a prologue. Prologues may be new to the cinematic texture of Star Wars, but they’re old hat in the official tie-in novels and the now-defunct expanded universe. Recall, for instance, the gruesome smile of one Grand Admiral Thrawn in perhaps the most famous Star Wars EU novel, Heir to the Empire. That introduction, where Thrawn laughs off a retaliatory strike by an opposing planet, serves the same basic function of Rogue One’s opening, a dollop of tone-setting exposition.
Rogue One shares more than just its intro with the EU. It is, by its very nature, fill-in-the-blank fan service, a story that seeks to both deepen the Star Wars mythos and pander to fans who care about that sort of thing. Like Kathy Tyers’ Return of the Jedi follow-up, “The Truce at Bakura,” or Michael A. Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron books, or the Shadows of the Empire video game, it’s about those moments before, after and in-between the familiar. And like the best EU, it knows what fans want. Rogue One’s most talked-about scene isn’t the nuclear annihilation of its two leads or the gallant space battle atop a screened-in library planet; it’s that final Vader cameo, a deliciously violent moment that fans always wanted but the original films failed to provide.
The Star Wars anthology movies were always going to take this approach. It’s a safer bet, business-wise, to inch away from the main Skywalker saga, but only so far. And while most of Rogue One’s big call-outs are standard for even casual fans – Vader, Tarkin, Leia, the droids – it also pays homage to the animated series Rebels and unused concept art from the original trilogy, things only diehards might notice. So while blue milk and Ponda Baba and Anthony Daniels will haunt the peripherals of Disney’s Star Wars universe until all good will is spent, that’s really not so bad, all things considered.
I’m less concerned with those familiar trappings and more concerned with how long-time fans might engage with this new reality. I get the sense from Rogue One that the standalones are less about opening the world to those who are unfamiliar, and more about pleasing the upper-echelons, the people who need to see Vader in slaughter-mode because they’ve always wanted to, not because it adds weight to the story (although in this case, it might). There’s value to that sort of storytelling. It’s payoff for decades of small-screen or on-page devotion. Finally, a big-budget movie is permitting Star Wars pipe dreams. Who honestly thought we’d ever see Ralph McQuarrie’s Vader castle on the big screen? It’s a euphoric treat for a Star Wars fan.
But how does this EU approach change what we expect from a Star Wars movie? Moreover, how will this determine the value life-long fans place in the trilogy films, which are more likely to play it safe, straight and new?
One sentiment I overheard about Rogue One from a fan: “I knew I loved the movie when I heard kids in the audience crying.” I imagine for fans that expect Star Wars to grow up with them, that’s exactly what they want out of this new era: the gruesome and real, with a knowingness that comes from living in this miserable world for so long. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes the good guys die. But is that really what Star Wars is about?
In the EU novels, sure. In the video games, sure. But Star Wars on the big screen has always been more space fantasy than Spacepocalypse Now. It’s about Luke Skywalker staring at those binary suns and dreaming of worlds faraway. It’s about Leia’s declaration of love in the face of Han’s imminent death. It’s about Rey using the Force to summon a lightsaber away from an evil goth prince. Even the prequels stuck to broad-stroke politics and Jedi stuff. Rogue One, by comparison, is a more painstaking look at the immoral side of a Rebellion that kills and tortures and snipes their enemies. It’s not just an EU story; it’s a ground-level WWII story with Star Wars dressings. By the end, you wonder if this enriches what comes next, or makes it look silly.
With tie-in material, you can simply look away. Don’t buy the books you don’t care about. Don’t play the games that feel a little off. But Rogue One is a major motion picture, and released so shortly after The Force Awakens that there’s no easy way not to compare the two. And what’s funny is that the major complaints for both aren’t so far apart. The Force Awakens gets flak for mining A New Hope’s basic plot, but Rogue One ham-fists needless elements from the same movie into a story that might play more elegantly without them. Both are over-reliant for different functional purposes. But while The Force Awakens is focused on the world of repetition George Lucas brought to life, Rogue One feels too indebted to its hidden details. Why was the Death Star so easy to blow up? Why was Vader so pissed on the Tantive IV? You don’t need the tie-in comic because you have Rogue One.
How this approach affects the films going forward is anyone’s guess. The Han Solo movie will, by design, mine from what we already know, and will almost definitely take liberties with things better left unsaid. But that relationship to a beloved preexisting character can prevent the tonal challenge that may, like Tarkin’s re-animation, mar Rogue One’s test of time and its place in the Star Wars universe.