Let’s start with a confession: I didn’t like The Force Awakens. I found it to be an overly referential re-tread of the original saga, every character and setting and event and action and story beat a deliberate and pointed callback that denied the film its own identity. Each aspect of the entire experience was so derivative that were it an instalment of any other franchise it would have been lambasted rather than lauded for its slavish supplication.
This is what makes Rogue One such a massive improvement; instead of a two-hour fanservice circle-jerk, the film is entirely its own beast. Yes, it’s part of the overall narrative of the saga, but it ultimately stands on its own, to the extent that if you had somehow never seen any of the other Star Wars movies you could still follow and enjoy the story. “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR,” read A New Hope’s opening crawl, and it’s from this hitherto unelaborated upon piece of saga history that the film takes its inspiration.
Centring the plot is Jyn Erso, a twentysomething criminal snatched by the Rebellion to facilitate an introduction to an extremist guerrilla leader who has come into possession of information regarding a certain Ultimate Weapon that the Empire has developed to crush its enemies. That brief task was Jyn’s only place in the plans of the rebel commanders, but subsequent developments force her into a pivotal position, one that ultimately becomes so significant that without her the entire mission is doomed to failure.
The embodiment of the reluctant hero, Jyn makes it clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with the Rebellion, but as events progress she is pulled increasingly further in and eventually takes the responsibility of seeing the mission through to the end when nobody else will. And as it just so happens that Jyn’s father is the Death Star’s architect, forced into service when Jyn was a young girl, it makes the journey as personal for her as it is fateful for the rest of the galaxy. Even though the resolution is never in doubt given the piece of lore from which the story was taken, its vague reference doesn’t account for anything that happens along the way. Basically, we know more or less how it ends, but anything goes when it comes to how we get there.
Despite its standalone status, the film contains plenty of nods and cameos that link it to the previous films (as well as the Clone Wars and Rebels animated TV series), including some unused footage from A New Hope seamlessly spliced in, and also ends a 40-year-old pop culture running joke by providing retroactive justification of exactly why the planetkilling superweapon had such a tiny yet catastrophically exploitable weakness.
For all its popularity, at its core Star Wars is an incredibly formulaic saga driven by basic genre archetypes, its fantasy-as-science-fiction structure practically a checklist of overly familiar storytelling topes, albeit presented in a wonderfully entertaining and distinctive manner. Rogue One, however, is a tale grounded in the dirt and the shadows, where instead a hero’s journey with highfalutin tales of prophecy, destiny and magical space knights wielding laser swords and psionic powers, it focuses on the kinds of people who don’t get written about in the history books. Spies, insurgents, assassins, thieves, saboteurs; the people who carry out the unpleasant and objectionable work required to maintain the advancement of the Rebellion so the lawful good paragons can maintain their air of moral superiority. There’s not going to be a medal ceremony for these guys.
It’s this moral ambivalence, along with the determination to continue expanding the saga beyond the parameters of the original films, that allows Rogue One to not only put the true creativity back into Star Wars, but also the actual war.