You can classify Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as all kinds of things: a standalone movie, a spin-off, an expensive toy commercial, but at its heart the movie is a direct prequel to the most famous and beloved Star Wars of them all: the original 1977 film. Unfortunately, instead of revealing an unexpected moment of a familiar storyline, Rogue One recycles the exact same plot device of the original film: the top-secret plans to the ultimate interstellar mobile battle station, the Death Star. Supposedly, the tension of Rogue One rests on the fate of these plans, meaning Jyn Erso and her Rebels hardest task isn’t to steal these plans, but getting us to care about it at all. How do you make general audiences pumped about a movie with such an obvious built-in advanced spoiler?
Everyone going to see Rogue One knows 100% for sure that the Death Star plans are successfully stolen. Before a single face or helmet was glimpsed, the original Star Wars told us with yellow text that “rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR.” Thirty-nine years later, telling the story of how they managed that theft was apparently a good enough reason to greenlight a huge contemporary Hollywood film. Basing an entirely new movie off-of half of a sentence from one of the greatest movies of all time is pretty unprecedented.
Paradoxically, that makes Rogue One somehow both the riskiest Star Wars movie ever, and also the safest.
The safe stuff comes from the very familiar Star Wars aesthetics: X-wing fighters, AT-AT walkers, people standing in front of green 1970s space maps, in other words, blatant pandering to the nostalgia fans have for the old films. But the plot is recycled too, in 1977 the Death Star plans are a lovable cheap plot device, and the design flaw of the two-meter wide exhaust port, a convenient, and cheesy contrivance. The lack of technical explanations for why ships flew, why blasters blasted, or how the Death Star destroyed planets were much vaguer than other contemporary science fiction of the time. In fact, the lack of “technobabble” in the original Star Wars is part of what set it apart and is wholly linked to its slick genius. The Force worked based on magical willpower, the Death Star traversed great distances because it just did, and its fatal design flaw was discovered at the last minute because the Rebels got lucky. The narrative elements of this original movie weren’t really designed to withstand the amount of scrutiny Rogue One has created, but that’s supposedly okay because the plot of this new Star Wars movie isn’t about a sweeping relatable story. Instead, it’s predicated on a hair-splitting detail.
And that technical stuff — the huge reliance on the specifics of sci-fi technology — is exactly what makes Rogue One risky. Despite all the talk about the movie being “gritty” or “different,” Rogue One essentially presents a story with stakes that are both recycled and moot. Meaning now we’re supposed to take all Death Star blueprint specifics way more seriously than ever before. And thats a tricky prospect, because the plausibility of the Death Star is already fairly thin. Paying more attention to its non-plausibility just makes it less cool and compelling.
So, that means the only hope for Rogue One creating interest in something other than fan service, nostalgia, or the technical readouts of that battle station, lies in what its new characters can deliver. If Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Îmwe and the rest of the new Rebel team can somehow hit a balance between being stock archetypes, and crowd-pleasing heroes, then the movie could be elevated out of its copy-cat plot-framing. Without copious amounts of character charm, Rogue One has to rely on the novelty of its sci-fi concepts alone, which is pretty much a check it can’t cash right now. The Star Wars movies may be awesome, but the diminishing returns of genuine imagination is dismal.
Box office numbers will probably make Rogue One a moneymaker, but its critical and mainstream legacy are fairly dubious. The Force Awakens moved Star Wars forward in time in ways that were both very familiar, and occasionally surprising. That film’s MacGuffin: a map that lead to Luke Skwaylker, had the luxury of not making a lot of sense because at least it was new. And, it’s impossible to imagine a film being made in 30 years time which focuses on the people who made the map to Luke Skywalker’s location. Just like the Death Star plans in the original film, the less you think about that map to Luke Skywalker, the more you can enjoy the movie.
Like the design of the Death Star itself, Rogue One appears to have a major flaw that could easily lead to referential implosion. Jyn Erso has to be much more than heroic to make Rogue One into a truly great movie. She’ll have to be complex and three-dimensional, something the franchise has always struggled with, preferring to build around archetypes of Princess Leia’s badassery again and again. Jyn Erso and her cohorts have to be human and new enough to distract us from thinking too hard about an absurd plot, one with an ending that is already written in the stars.