Why 'Rogue One' Is a Better 'Star Wars' Movie Than 'The Force Awakens'

Both last year's episode and this year's spinoff movie rely on fan nostalgia – but only one of them is trying to say something with it

Both 'The Force Awakens' and 'Rogue One' rely on fan-service nostalgia – only one of them manages to rise above the Easter eggs say something with it. Credit: Lucasfilm/ILM..©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Never mind the subtitle: From literally its first seconds, which ditch the Pavlovian jolt of the series' opening crawl and John Williams' unmistakable fanfare blast of a theme, Rogue One establishes its intention to be a very different kind of "Star Wars Story." The first film in the franchise set outside a trilogy framework since George Lucas birthed this far-away galaxy in the long-ago year of 1977, director Gareth Edwards' stand-alone spinoff/prequel has a rhythm and tone all its own. The settings are murky rather than majestic. The action is punishing (in a PG-13 sort of way, but still) rather than pulse-pounding. The characters are grunts and guerrillas rather than swashbuckling scoundrels or men and women of galaxy-shaping destiny. Compared to the throwback thrills of The Force Awakens, in which J.J. Abrams and his team strove to recapture the feeling of the original trilogy, this feels like its own film.

But in a paradox fit to baffle a Jedi Master, Rogue One is also deeply indebted to Star Wars history and mythology. The writing team of John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy built the entire storyline around an old fanboy joke: Why in Palpatine's name would the Empire make its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, go supernova with a single well-placed shot?

From this very nerdy premise, the film works backward. (Spoiler ahead, but you knew this.) It tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the grown, criminal daughter of enslaved Imperial scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). Feigning acquiescence to his captors, the elder Erso secretly works to undermine the planet-killing project from within, incorporating a weakness he then risks his life to share with the Rebel Alliance. The movie's final moments take place just minutes before the start of the saga's first installment, now known as A New Hope, with a partially digitized Princess Leia receiving the data files containing the battle station's fatal flaw. The rest – via R2-D2, C-3PO, Luke Skywalker, and ("Help me") Obi-Wan Kenobi – is history.

If this ultra-direct tie to the saga's start weren't enough, Rogue One comes loaded with Easter eggs galore. In addition to the young Leia's CGI-aided guest appearance, her Episode IV antagonist Grand Moff Tarkin is a main character – this despite actor Peter Cushing's death over two decades ago. And his digital resurrection barely scratches the surface of what the movie offers hardcore Star War-riors, since there are callback cameos abound. R2-D2 and C-3PO bleep and kvetch their respective way through a few seconds of audience-pleasing screentime. Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan, aka the walrus-faced guy and his weird-looking sociopath friend from the original's cantina scene, have a run-in with main characters Jyn and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); the latter delivers his ersatz catch-phrase "You just watch yourself!" Gold Leader and Red Leader, the commanders of the attack run on the first Death Star that serves as the original movie's climax, appear via recycled footage from the cutting room floor.

But wait, there's more! From set design to droid classifications, the earlier films are constantly shouted out. AT-ATs, AT-STs, Imperial probe droids, those little black mouse-like 'bots that scurry around stainless corridors, the retrofuturism of the Empire's intimidating space stations – they're all on hand. So are uniforms, and even hairstyles, the galaxy hasn't seen since 1977. Key planets from Yavin IV (the Alliance's HQ) to Mustafar (the unnamed but unmistakable lava planet where Obi-Wan whupped Anakin Skywalker's Sith behind) show up. Even the non-movie Star Wars Universe gets in on the act, with kyber crystals and Saw Gerrera – a character from Disney's various Star Wars cartoon series, now played by Forrest Whitaker – putting in appearances.

The cast of ‘Rogue One’ discuss the first standalone film in the 'Star Wars Anthology’ series.

In other words, Rogue One contains more Star Wars head nods, hat tips and hidden treasures than an eight-year-old's toy collection and a San Diego Comic-Con exhibit hall combined. So why is it, then, that the film somehow feels fresher than The Force Awakens' nostalgia?

Think back to Force's major settings and story beats. The three planets on which the bulk of the action take place – Jakku, Takodana and Starkiller Base – evoke the desert, forest, and arctic landscapes of the original trilogy's Tattooine, Endor and Hoth, respectively. The story centers on a young adult stranded in a sandy world, awakening to their Force-dictated potential in the face of opposition from a black-masked wielder of the Dark Side, with Rey and Kylo Ren taking the place of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Tentacled menaces threaten our heroes, with Han Solo's captured Rathtars standing in for A New Hope's dianoga and Return of the Jedi's Sarlacc. Dangerous dogfights and narrow escapes dominate the action sequences, as they did in The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. Good guys attempt to blow up a superweapon by finding its secret weakness, a plot point so familiar that Solo himself cracks a joke about it. The hugely entertaining performances of relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, best-of-their-generation contenders Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, and even lions-in-winter Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher may disguise it, but in artistic terms, this is a very conservative film.

By contrast, Rogue One looks like an alien life form. No snow. No forest. Some sand, but mostly as the surroundings for Jedha, as teeming a city as the series has shown us since the prequels' skyscraping metropolis of Coruscant. No edge-of-your-seat dogfights and "yahoo!" escape sequences – the only thing these characters escape is death, and then only briefly. There's a tentacled monster, but it's used as a method of "enhanced interrogation" rather than presented as an apex predator. The goal of the final fleet-on-fleet battle isn't to destroy a superweapon, but simply to run interference so the method to destroy said superweapon can be smuggled out of storage and preserved until the time comes. Most importantly, none of the major new characters – whether they are one with the Force or in the service of its Dark Side – are men and women of destiny ... because none of them, literally none of them, survive the end of the film. As far as survival and celebration are concerned, this thing makes Empire look like Jedi. It's doing something no other Star Wars film has ever done: depicting the life and death of everyone who sacrificed so the Skywalkers, their friends and their foes could decide the fate of the galaxy.

Which is not to say that this is, necessarily, the recipe for a classic film. Days out from first watching Rogue One, it's hard to say whether its attempts at innovation with in the Star Wars framework are 100-percent successful. The lack of traditionally paced action sequences may have been a deliberate choice, but their easily intelligible highs and lows would have been welcome amid the insurgent-style bloodshed. A taste of any of the first six films' brightly colored vistas would have been welcome after a couple hours of dirt, grime, and pouring rain (though the finale 's tropical beach setting stood out markedly thanks to the rest of the movies ' gloom). And killing every major new character? None of the film's non-franchise antecedents dared to do this, whether war movies like The Dirty Dozen or Saving Private Ryan, westerns like The Magnificent Seven or sci-fi/horror classics like The Thing or Predator. Trying to squeeze this bleakness into the bright shiny Lucasfilm template may well be a fool's errand.

But it's something we haven't seen these movies try before, and that's the main thing. While The Force Awakens contented itself with putting a contemporary gloss on tried-and-true formulae, Rogue One took a shot at something new. The former used nostalgia as a currency and fan service as a cudgel; this semi-peripheral addition to the canon uses both of these elements for riffing and a big-picture–narrative spackle, but also as grist for making a statement. War is hell, regardless of whether it's a long, long time ago and involves AT-ATs. We know the costs because we know the outcome. Force is a Greek tragedy; Rogue One wants to be a human one. No matter how many CGI Tarkins you throw into the mix, that ambition is worth saluting.