It's hard to think of a film that was under more scrutiny than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Coming off the surprise announcement of Disney purchasing Lucasfilm for the grand sum of $4 billion, it was the post-Return of the Jedi continuation of the Star Wars saga fans never thought they would get, but always wanted. Not only was it bringing back franchise legends Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher to the roles that made them cinematic icons, Episode VII was also introducing a new generation of heroes and villains to carry the series through the sequel trilogy. In the end, Force Awakens managed to live up to the incredible hype; the reviews were positive across the board, the American Film Institute named it one of the best movies of 2015, and it grossed $2 billion worldwide at the box office.
And yet, just one year later, there may be a project that's under more pressure than The Force Awakens. No, it isn't its direct sequel, 2017's Star Wars: Episode VIII, but it's part of the same franchise. An argument can be made that this December's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has more to prove than Star Wars 7 did, especially considering Disney's master plans for the galaxy far, far away moving forward. Recently, the spinoff film has made a number of headlines regarding reshoots and why exactly they're being carried out. Even as Lucasfilm attempts to clear the air, there are many worried about Rogue One, highlighting just how important it is for the studio to get this film "right."
Star Wars: An Annual Tradition
The Force Awakens being a disappointment would have been a tremendous monkey wrench in the Mouse House's strategy, and the same can be said for Rogue One. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the intention is for the franchise to go on past Colin Trevorrow's Episode IX, though he doesn't know when other films would be released. But if that is to be a viable goal, Lucasfilm probably needs the standalone Star Wars Story line to connect with audiences even more than the sequel trilogy. The main appeal of the anthologies is that they can blend genres and be different kinds of films from the traditional space opera tone of the numerical episodes, and Disney needs people to care about the movies separate from the main storyline.
One could say that in the event the spinoff experiment is a let down, Disney could simply put all of its resources into developing more installments of the Skywalker family saga, Episode X and beyond. The studio may very well still do that, but it shouldn't put all their eggs in that basket if this train is to keep going for decades. The first two trilogies of the saga followed a similar formula. First, a hero with a troubled past discovers he has powers and is destined for greater things; then, that hero trains and grows stronger in his abilities; lastly, there's a showdown with great evil. It's still too early to tell, but the sequel trilogy seems to be abiding by this pattern, only with Rey in place of Anakin or Luke Skywalker. After harnessing her Force abilities in Episode VII, she's now off on Ahch-To to learn more from the elder Luke.
There's no denying the inherent appeal of this, as it adheres to the classic hero's journey trope that's so well-known. At the same time, there may be only so much the filmmakers can do with the classic "it's like poetry, it rhymes" mantra that George Lucas popularized while making The Phantom Menace. As beloved as The Force Awakens is, it was justifiably criticized for borrowing too many plot beats from A New Hope. It did enough to stand on its own and pave an exciting future, but even its most impassioned supporters had to admit a few noticeable similarities. What would the reaction be if Episode X began with a "normal" person living life on a desolate planet before going off on an awe-inspiring journey? X-Men: Apocalypse has shown franchise fatigue is a real thing, and there's only so many times you can run with certain themes before they start to get stale.
This is where the anthology films become so valuable. They're the ideal way for Lucasfilm to bank on the Star Wars brand while also mixing things up. The studio's president, Kathleen Kennedy, has said that the traditional numbered episodes will always be part of the Skywalker saga, a generational tale. Rogue One is how they can play outside of those conventions, and they need to ensure there's a strong enough hook for casual audiences and die-hards to get enthused about the spinoffs. This can be done by adding in classic characters like Darth Vader and Han Solo (who's rumored for Rogue One), or by delving deeper into the well-versed mythology and showing viewers a different side of things. But it all starts in December 2016, and Lucasfilm is in another position where they need their tentpole to be a smashing hit.
Reason to Worry?
The initial rumors about the infamous Rogue One reshoots claimed that they were the result of a test screening gone wrong, an order by panicked Disney executives fearful about the film's overall appeal. Ensuing reports debunked the test screening theory (only Lucasfilm, Iger, and Alan Horn have seen it), but the picture has become so clouded that some fans are unsure if they should be concerned that the final product is going to be a step down following the highs of The Force Awakens. Lucasfilm's account to Entertainment Weekly about the reshoots should calm some of those nerves, but they're still prevalent.
As we've said before, reshoots do not immediately spell doom. Just about every big budget blockbuster has them, giving the filmmakers an opportunity to fine tune certain aspects before the theatrical premiere. Typically, pickups are budgeted for and scheduled well in advance, which was the case with Rogue One. According to the most recent updates, director Gareth Edwards hopes to lock in final picture in August, which is two months from now. Everything appears to be proceeding as planned, with just smaller character moments to be filmed. The crew isn't redoing entire plot beats, so Lucasfilm seems to just be trying to make a good film great. Fans will apparently "go insane" after the Rogue One presentation at Star Wars Celebration 2016, and they want to deliver something that lives up to that billing.
That said, this past week has caused some confusion over who actually wrote the Rogue One audiences will see this winter. John Knoll and Gary Whitta are credited with the story, while Chris Weitz is responsible for the screenplay, per IMDb. Christopher McQuarrie was said to have given the script a polish last year, and now Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns and Tony Gilroy have been connected to the project. It sounds like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but only time will tell. Films of this scale are no stranger to ghost writers coming on board to do some uncredited work, and it's worth pointing out that Force Awakens underwent changes during its writing process as well. Where it stands now, Lucasfilm is most likely happy with the story they have and want to enhance specific aspects. No page one rewrite was commissioned, so they probably just preferred to have multiple pairs of eyes on the script, counting on people they trusted.
Nevertheless, Rogue One has a cloud of uneasiness hovering over it, and the onus is on the studio to turn things around quickly. As Star Trek Beyond recently illustrated, all it takes for opinion to change is one well-constructed trailer. Luckily, Star Wars will have the ideal venue in Celebration next month, as well as possibly San Diego Comic-Con to showcase more footage. Lucasfilm obviously wouldn't tell EW if there were serious issues with the film, but their sources are about as close to official confirmation fans will get that the sky isn't falling until they get a chance to judge it for themselves. The supposed controversy looks to have been overblown, and the movie remains on target for December 2016.
Though it's not the next step in Rey's journey, nor will it reveal the completion of Kylo Ren's training, Rogue One is still a very important part of Lucasfilm's plan for the future of Star Wars. The galaxy is a very expansive place with endless possibilities for stories, which is why the anthology films are so exciting. They represent an effort to make the universe larger, rather than continuously focusing on the same family trying to constantly save the day. With the freedom these provide, it's extremely pertinent that the Star Wars Story line of movies gets off to a roaring start, since one mediocre or bad installment can derail everything. Ask The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Fortunately, most signs are pointing to Rogue One being another strong entry in the Star Wars franchise. The first trailer got a number of viewers enthused, and the endless speculation about Darth Vader's big screen return is a tantalizing prospect for longtime fans. Once the fuss over the reshoots dies down and Lucasfilm ramps up the marketing efforts, moviegoers will once again be counting down the days until they can return to their favorite galaxy. Ideally, we'll all be able to look back on this with amusement, laughing about the premature doubts cast. There's still about six months to go, but if Lucasfilm remains confident, viewers have little reason to not trust them.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in U.S. theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, and the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.