SPOILER WARNING: Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016)
A lot can be said of Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), as it is the first live-action Star Wars film to be in the position of not having to start anything that will last longer than a single film. The actions before it have been mostly detailed and the actions following it are practically set in stone. Because of this, all the film has to be concerned with is providing a compelling story to precede the events of the original Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). And precede the film it certainly does. But while it may fill in one of the gaps in the Star Wars canon and bring to life events that had only been spoken of in the films prior, Rogue One also must wrestle with the fact that it changes the films surrounding it. Whether these changes are intentional on the part of the filmmakers remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that the third act of Rogue One alters how one must view the first act, and even parts beyond that, of the 1977 film.
None of this is to say that Rogue One is a bad film. In many ways, the film “does Star Wars” better than 2015’s The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams) did. Less concerned with homage for the franchise that it finds itself in, Rogue One sticks more to pastiche and this allows the film to work better as its own piece. There are the presumably mandated cameos here though, with R2-D2 and C-3PO making appearances that stretch out for just a little too long. This is minor, however, when compared to the unnecessary shoehorning in of Ponda Baba and Dr. Cornelius Evazan. For those who do not care to search the Star Wars wiki like this writer had to in order to discover their names, these two characters are the ones that pick a fight in the bar with Luke in Star Wars, which results in the loss of Baba’s arm by way of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. But though these scenes may slow down the film, each one does stall the pacing, the rest of the film is more concerned with replicating the look of the original films while throwing out subtle nods to the lore of the franchise.
Concerned with pastiche as it may be, Rogue One still does manage to alter many of the things said and done in the first act of Star Wars by way of the former film’s third act. If viewing the 1977 film before Rogue One then the impression given is that Leia is simply caught in the middle of the rebellion and that Darth Vader may be overstepping his bounds to some degree, especially by allowing the indiscriminant killing of the crew of her ship. All of this makes out Vader as something of a mad dog. After all, he is more than willing to attack a peaceful vessel that he perceives may have some involvement with the Rebellion. And even though the audience ultimately knows that Leia is involved with less than legitimate acts in the eyes of the Empire, Vader is portrayed as someone that is simply going on leads and is therefore much more nefarious.
However, what is shown in Rogue One changes much of this. Leia, and her entire ship for that matter, are shown to have actually been at the battle that is mentioned in the text crawl at the beginning of the original film. Vader is shown to have known this as well, as he witnesses their departure and the actual physical transference of the stolen plans to the ship. And while this has the effect of wrapping up any and all loose ends, much better than Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) did for that matter, it also has the effect of changing how Darth Vader, Leia, and the characters that surround them are perceived. Overall, Vader is made to be less of a ruthless inquisitor, as seen in Star Wars, and more of a raw military force. He is Grand Moff Tarkin’s trump card, called in to wrap up the battle between the Rebels and the Empire. In the same way this changes Leia and the crew of her ship. The act that she is putting on in the beginning of the film is weakened, and the rest of her crew looses some of the sympathy they generate when it is implied that they may have not known what their princess was involved in.
Altering motivations, knowledge, and power balances does not make Rogue One a weaker or worse film, but it does call in to question the purpose of the film. A weak argument is that Rogue One further legitimizes the actions as a whole taken in the original film. While the events in the 2016 film do give motion to things that had only been spoken of prior, the original film does not need another film to make what happens in it worthwhile. The 1977 film mainly serves as a tale of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo becoming a part of something bigger than themselves by way of their own motivations, but also because of catalysts that they have no control over. And while Leia and the Rebellion are critical to these actions, their more important function is to serve as further motivation for Han and Luke. Rogue One makes no mention of either of the latter characters. It is principally concerned with the Rebellion and their efforts and because of this the two films, for the better, are very different.
The purpose of Rogue One then, is to fill in a gap. As stated, it does a good job of setting the stage for the previously existing following film. And though it does this by way of telling how the Rebels stole the Death Star plans, it also delegitimizes some of the Rebellion’s efforts in the film that it is setting up. By revealing that the exploited flaw in the Death Star was an intentional one, the film weakens the later efforts of the Rebellion down to simply the acting upon of an externally provided opportunity. The Rebels are no longer intuitive enough to create their own opportunities and victories, but instead they are helped along by someone whom simply harbored resentment towards the Empire. This alteration is perhaps the greatest negative effect of Rogue One. While it would be possible for the film to legitimize the actions of Galen Erso (the literal architect of the Death Star’s flaw) to the point that the undoing of the Rebellion’s intuitiveness is warranted, such actions are never taken. Instead, the audience is barely shown and mainly told of Galen’s resentment towards the Empire, and not to the point that his efforts become more compelling than those of the Rebellion. This is not a completely fair comparison given that the Rebellion has six films of motivation prior to Rogue One, but the film compares one of its characters to it so the comparison is made.
Overall, any prequel will have the effect of altering the film or films that it precedes in one way or another. Where Rogue One is different though is that the actions that it encompasses had already been established and though the film did not change these actions or events, it still managed to alter how other films in the canon are perceived. The original 1977 film does not need the 2016 one to make it a convincing or interesting film, but Rogue One takes these steps nonetheless. This does not mean that it is completely meritless though, as there are enough interesting and new features and characters in the film to make it a worthwhile addition. Rogue One is not a bad film, and as mentioned it is better at showing respect to the franchise than the 2015 effort; but in the end it still provokes enough needless reinterpretations to the original films that its overall effect on them is a negative one.