Rogue One Was a Minor Miracle

Rogue One sets itself apart from other Star Wars films seconds after it starts. There is no opening crawl, no wall of yellow font drifting into a star field. The franchise logo doesn’t appear, and the John Williams fanfare doesn’t kick in. There is merely the title card informing viewers that it’s “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”—and then bam: The action begins.

A prequel taking place at the height of the Empire’s militaristic might, 2016’s Rogue One chronicles how the Death Star plans came to be possessed by the rebels. But beyond that connective tissue and the galactic setting, the film bears little resemblance to past tales about Jedis, Sith Lords, and Chosen Ones. It primarily follows an ensemble of new characters, none of them named Skywalker, Solo, or Palpatine. The Force is mentioned but not wielded. Rogue One aims, as the director Gareth Edwards put it, to portray “the reality of war” and thus features a tone that is darker and grittier than that of other Star Wars movies.

Not that these differences mattered at the box office. Released with the subtitle A Star Wars Story, the film netted more than $1 billion worldwide, becoming the 20th highest-grossing film of all time during its initial run. Since being rereleased in theaters at the end of August, Rogue One has added another milestone to its sales tally, breaking into the top-10 list of IMAX earners—a promising sign for the upcoming Disney+ series Andor.

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Star Wars, of course, is always good business. But the continued success of Rogue One doesn’t come only from its association with recognizable intellectual property. Nearly six years after its initial release, the film stands apart as a rare franchise-extending project that has actually justified its existence. Today’s pop culture is overwhelmed with cinematic-universe expansions, many of which feel like unnecessary trivia-delivery machines rather than original stories set in a well-known world. Rogue One, though, is a spin-off that doesn’t feel like a knockoff. Indeed, given how the latest trilogy of Star Wars films concluded, the movie can be seen as something of a minor miracle.

Consider the way the film looks. Every prequel or sequel must straddle the line between being fresh and being familiar. Too many of these projects think that world-building simply means including fan-service cameos and references alongside a sprinkling of random new details. Although Rogue One winks quite a few times at those in the fandom who check Wookieepedia regularly (look, blue milk!), the film isn’t content to merely remind viewers that they’re watching a Star Wars movie. It strives to evoke the delight, awe, and thrill of discovery that this universe conjures at its best. The visual language of the original trilogy draws a stark contrast between the lived-in grubbiness of spaceship interiors and the wondrous, petrifying vastness of space. Rogue One does the same, devoting much of its screen time to establishing scale and texture. Yet it distinguishes itself too by toying with audience expectations: The film is devoid of George Lucas’s signature transition wipes. An X-wing raid happens at nighttime; a major battle ensues on a sunlit beach dotted with palm trees. Darth Vader’s massacre of rebel troops occurs in a cramped hallway. These shots dazzle for how they place classic components and characters in surprising contexts.

The new characters, meanwhile, aren’t just new—they’re deeply ordinary, an unusual trait for Star Wars protagonists. Rogue One’s heroine, Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), isn’t a princess; she begins the film as a disillusioned nobody, uninterested in leading or assisting anyone. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is a captain in the Rebel Alliance, but he makes clear that his story is not special: His remorse over what he’s done in the war echoes the feelings of countless other fighters. Even K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the Imperial droid reprogrammed to assist Cassian, is defined by profoundly human motivations, sacrificing himself for the greater good and, in doing so, becoming just another nameless casualty of war.

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When the film was released, many critics saw these archetypal traits as a weakness, arguing that the new characters felt shallow next to the backstory-laden Skywalker types. But Jyn’s crew allows Rogue One to observe the world of Star Wars from an unexpected angle: the ground-level, midi-chlorian-free, lightsaber-less foot-soldier perspective, where decisions have to be made on morsels of intelligence and where, more often than not, one’s moral compass is the only reliable tool available. In the growing library of spin-offs, Rogue One’s quotidian ensemble feels refreshing: These characters are not royalty. They’re not related to anyone audiences have previously met. They’re not superpowered in any way. In fact, they have very little power at all.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss these characters without noting the way Rogue One ends: with all of them dead. The film concludes with a coda that underlines the hope their mission brought to the Rebel Alliance, but the finality of their stories hits hard. The film’s audience knows going in that the characters’ central mission will succeed, but Rogue One uses that to its advantage, enriching both the story it’s telling and the larger universe it’s serving. No other Star Wars film depicts so viscerally the brutality of actual war, and few franchises have dared to permanently kill off so many so quickly. In The Rise of Skywalker, the Sith Lord Palpatine returns “somehow.” Every character dusted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes it back just fine. Even the humans in Jurassic World aren’t getting eaten anymore. Rogue One’s deaths show the everyday toll of the conflict that exists in the backdrop of every Star Wars movie.

Back in 2016, Rogue One was dogged by headlines about reshoots as well as hand-wringing over whether the Star Wars films should be considered “political.” Rewatching it recently, I barely remembered that the film had gone through any behind-the-scenes turmoil. It may be a Star Wars story, but Rogue One went, well, rogue—to the kind of results no franchise has come close to achieving since.

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