Regardless of whether you think it’s political or not Rogue One is a very worthy entry in the Star Wars saga, not only because it presents itself as unlike any other movie in the galaxy far, far away we’ve ever seen, but also because of its level of earned fan service. That kind of geek glad-handing is a bit of slippery slope in resurrected franchises like Star Wars. As director Gareth Edwards said in the Star Wars Celebration Reel, Rogue One is a bit of a tug-of-war between his fandom and his creative impulses: “If you’re too respectful of [A New Hope] and dare not do anything new or different or take a risk, then what are your bringing to the table?” It’s a film filled with opportunities to fawn over all the wrong awesome things, and to undercut the legitimate reasons why people latched on to those iconic details in the first place. But perhaps the best thing Rogue One has done in this regard is to make lightsabers important again, and all it needed was a minute in a darkened starship corridor with Darth Vader.
Spoilers from here on out
Edwards and his screenwriter collaborators Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy had the wherewithal to realize that what made Vader a great villain isn’t to actually have him be ever-present, but rather to feel that he’s ever-present. Vader appears in Rogue One for about five minutes tops, if that. In all, he’s in about two scenes, and they both reinforce that he’s better served as a looming threat than an overbearing and overused bad guy. There’s some great Vader moments throughout the film: Force-choking Director Krennic while making a spectacular pun is probably the most memorable part of the movie. But it’s the final scenes of the film where Vader reminds us of the power of lightsabers and the fact that no mortal can stand against a trained Force-user wielding one.
As the Rebel fleet tries to escape a hard copy of the data Jyn and the others sacrificed theirs to get, good old Darth shows up in his star destroyer and promptly boards with landing party. A Rebel bottleneck occurs on the ship when a door becomes jammed during evacuation, and they’re trapped in darkened hallway. Vader’s iconic breathing is the only thing they hear until a red lightsaber blade pierces through the darkness and illuminates the faces of the petrified onlookers. Vader slices and dices and Force-pushes and -chokes the lot of them, and just as he’s about to grab the plans for himself, they evade his grasp and the soldiers get the disc into the hands of Princess Leia, who then makes her getaway on her ship, the Tantive IV (as seen in the opening moments of A New Hope).
If the inevitably cacophonous cheers in the movie theaters during this moment weren’t such a dead giveaway, this is not only the biggest fan-service-y moment in the movie but also one of the most important.
It is a surprisingly brief scene, but its here where we realize that lightsabers aren’t the ubiquitous weapon bandied about in George Lucas’s prequels. It’s not just the fact that The Phantom Menace had more Jedi and consequently more lightsabers, it’s that we lost the concept of a lightsaber being a sacred and elegant weapon altogether. They’re weapons that lost their luster after being used too much as the cool must-have toy/trinket/gadget for every Jedi, Sith, and fan thereof. Once the lightsaber was not only ubiquitous in every Star Wars movie, but also in every fan’s home, the weapon of considerable power began to feel like part of a requisite school supply list, or Star Wars starter pack. Darth Mauls double-edged lightsaber might have been a “Holy Shit!” moment but by the time we got to Obi-Wan dispatching a four-saber-wielding General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith, the power of the lightsaber was seemingly limitless and subsequently laughable.
That’s why watching Vadar wield that familiar red beam was so powerful. We were watching it through the perspective of those who had never seen a lightsaber before, those who had only heard the mystical legends of a weapon so great. Those Rebel Alliance soldiers were facing a miniature version of what destroyed the planet below them, that stopped blasters at the turn of a dime, wielded by a man who really didn’t need a weapon at all. And they were scared shitless. The feeling of being trapped rats in a cage awaiting their inevitable slaughter is how watching an approaching lightsaber is supposed to make the characters and the audience feel. In that moment you realize the real reason Rogue One is an incredible Star Wars movie: It uses lightsabers as a compelling and truly terrifying last resort.
While we can’t say for sure that anyone will wield lightsabers again in Episode VIII, it’s extremely likely that we’ll see Kylo Ren, Luke, and Rey all show off their various talents. And now thanks to Rogue One, any lightsaber play will be much more significant and weighted than that in the trilogy that came before it.