Warning: Major spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ahead
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was as close as a Star Wars movie has gotten to being considered a box office risk since the original opened in theaters almost 40 years ago. As a direct prequel to A New Hope, Rogue One features a cast of largely unfamiliar characters and a premise that means the audience already knows how it will end before it even begins – the broad strokes, at least. A swathe of positive reviews from critics and fans alike have allowed Gareth Edwards’ prequel story to dispel any doubts, conquering the weekend box office with a massive $156 million domestic debut, and this was helped along greatly by the fact that Rogue One‘s trailers touted the return of one of the greatest movie villains of all time: Darth Vader.
Of course, Darth Vader is more than just a compelling bad guy. Within the Star Wars universe he is the “Chosen One” – marked from birth with the grand destiny of bringing balance to the Force… though not in the way that the Jedi High Council might have hoped. In order to bring down the Empire and the Sith, Anakin Skywalker first had to join forces with them and unleash years of horror and atrocities upon the galaxy. Ultimately there was only one person who could help Anakin Skywalker fulfill his destined role: his own son, Luke Skywalker.
Star Wars is frequently cited as one of the most classic examples of the Hero’s Journey in cinema, with young Luke Skywalker whisked away from his mundane life on Tatooine and taken on an adventure that eventually leads to him destroying the terrifying specter of the Death Star. Of course, Luke was helped along by a convenient vulnerability in the superweapon’s design: a thermal shaft leading directly to the main reactor, to which a single shot can blow up the whole station.
Although war is frequently the backdrop for Hero’s Journey stories, war itself doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to this narrative structure. Rather than a single plucky hero saving the day with a masterful trick shot, wars are complex and prolonged and generally resolved only after the efforts and sacrifices of thousands. Rogue One boldly tackles that reality in a way that makes it hugely valuable and insightful as a precursor to A New Hope. The driving force behind the movie’s narrative is not the question of whether or not Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her fellow Rebels will be able to retrieve the Death Star plans (since we already know that they succeed), but how they will achieve that goal. And in telling that story, Rogue One becomes a tender-hearted ode to the unsung heroes of the Star Wars universe.
Perhaps the closest comparison to Rogue One within the sci-fi genre is Ender’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card’s sidequel novel that shows the events of Ender’s Game from a different perspective: that of the hero’s best friend. In Ender’s Game, the titular hero is by all appearances a one-of-a-kind child prodigy who bravely and skillfully conquers every obstacle in his path and becomes the hero of all mankind (albeit by terrible means). Ender’s Shadow, on the other hand, follows Ender’s right hand man, Bean.
Bean is the result of illegal genetic experimentation that leaves him with a drastically shortened lifespan. His story begins with him being found hidden in a toilet tank as a baby, and he spends the first few years of his life as a starving street urchin on the streets of Rotterdam – a far cry from Ender’s wealthy home and loving parents. Bean’s intellect and talent for strategy is arguably even greater than Ender’s. He too overcomes great odds while armed with nothing but his sharp mind, and as Ender’s Shadow unfolds it emerges that Bean was actually helping Ender behind the scenes all along, and managed to see through the manipulation of the adults guiding Ender’s path (something that Ender himself could never do). It’s the best kind of parallel tale: one that casts the original and better-known version of the story in a whole new light.
Similarly, Rogue One takes one of the best known sci-fi movies of all time and manages to shine a whole new light on its story. It may be impossible to ever see the opening title crawl of A New Hope in the same way again, knowing what lies behind this succinct summary:
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Though Rogue One was presented as an ensemble piece from the moment the very first promo image was unveiled, it’s also true that Jyn is the protagonist of the movie and the driving force behind its plot, since her father is one of the architects of the Death Star and holds the key to destroying it. As the second female protagonist of the Disney era of Star Wars, and one of very few female characters in the movie, Jyn has been subject to keen attention and close criticism from the start. That criticism has certainly run the gamut of opinion: Jyn was labelled an all-powerful “Mary Sue” when she had barely spoken a dozen words in the teaser trailer, but in the wake of the movie’s release was denounced as a less empowered character than The Force Awakens‘ Rey, on the grounds that Jyn has “little agency,” “relies on others to point her in whatever direction the movie needs her to be in,” and “doesn’t get to name the team.”
It’s certainly true that Jyn doesn’t retrieve the Death Star plans all by herself, dragging the rest of the Rogue One team behind her on the adventure. Thanks to the blunt honesty of reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), the audience is specifically told in the movie’s final act that Jyn doesn’t have even the slimmest chance of reaching the Death Star plans without help from her fellow Rebels. But to characterize this as a “sidelining” of the movie’s protagonist is to misunderstand what kind of movie Rogue One is. Unlike The Force Awakens, in which Rey is both literally and figuratively empowered by her own drive and destiny, Rogue One is a film about people empowering one another to overcome impossible odds.
The final act of the film could easily have strayed into more traditional Star Wars narrative territory, by keeping the battle between the Rebels and the Empire as background noise and focusing solely on Jyn’s journey through the Imperial base. Instead, every member of the Rogue One team plays an indispensable role in retrieving the Death Star plans – from K-2SO sacrificing himself to hold off the Stormtroopers and give Jyn and Cassian time to climb the tower, to Bodhi Rook figuring out how to get the plans to the Rebel fleet, and General Raddus taking action to break Scarif’s shield gate. The movie drives home the point that without everyone playing their part -even unnamed characters, like the Rebel crew members who run the Death Star plans to the Tantive IV – Luke Skywalker would never have known how to destroy the Death Star in the first place.
While the story of a central protagonist following their destiny and saving the day is a tried-and-tested formula in crowd-pleasing blockbusters, and that narrative thread does indeed play out in a softer way through Jyn’s storyline, Rogue One is at its heart a film about ordinary people without grand destinies, magic powers, or fabled lineages. While the name Luke Skywalker is famous throughout the galaxy in The Force Awakens, it’s doubtful that any of the main saga’s new heroes will recognize the names Jyn Erso or Cassian Andor. And yet, by telling a story about the collective bravery and sacrifice required to get Luke Skywalker exactly where he needed to be, Rogue One retroactively adds new weight to one of the most famous and pivotal moments in Star Wars history.