“Rogue One” Cracks Open the Door to the Star Wars Universe

The “Star Wars” franchise is generally classified as science fiction but for many years now it’s really been in the process of metamorphosing into a genre of its own. It’s hard not to look at the last seven films and miss the fact that as a whole they have become increasingly, almost pathologically self-referential, governed by their own increasingly solipsistic rules and conventions, preoccupied with burying the original trilogy further and further in useless proprietary trivia.

This momentum towards meaninglessness is what each new episode must contend with. Last year’s “The Force Awakens,” in its slavish devotion to recreating tropes and devices we’d seen in the franchise before, had the effect of making the vastness of space seem small, hermetic, and starving for possibilities.

In many ways “Rogue One,” the latest installment and the first “standalone” film, doesn’t quite escape these expectations. Throughout its two hours and thirteen minutes, it busies itself with conveying meanings that only the most ardent devotees of Star Wars will ever be able to decipher. It’s peppered with details and characters and allusions to not just its theatrical predecessors, but also to the television shows and novels and video games and toys that we’re all supposed to be buying so that we can enjoy the next movie, television show, novel, video game or show.

“Rogue One”

Yet “Rogue One” also manages, somehow, to sneak in a real story in the midst of all that fan service. It’s not the most original story, or the most vividly rendered, but it’s a highly entertaining one that achieves a workable truce with the demands of its unique, Disney-owned form. It’s the tale of a rag-tag band of misfits, led by a conflicted protagonist, who attempt to steal a critical MacGuffin that could tip the balance in an exhausting war. Along the way you get distrust and scheming and then reversals of fortune and leaps of faith and heartening epiphanies, and some intensely choreographed shoot ’em ups and explosions too.

You’ve seen all of this before. It echoes many hallmarks of war movies and heist flicks—and that, maybe more than anything is what makes this movie work so well. Despite all of its sly winking and nodding towards the initiated, this movie is ultimately interested in more than its sandbox, this fictional universe in which people duel with light swords and you can hear explosions in outer space. Alongside the fan service, there are references to “The Longest Day,” “The Dirty Dozen”, “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Le Cercle Rouge,” “Rififi” and scores of other films. By borrowing liberally from these relatively fresh sources of inspiration, director Garett Edwards returns us to what made “Episode IV” so fascinating: the idea that you could pastiche together dozens of bits of cinematic history and create a wholly immersive and novel world out of them.

All of this may sound like rewarding a triumph over low expectations, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that. Frankly, until now every installment in this series since 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” has been terrible. “Rogue One” seems refreshing simply because it was directed and apparently reworked with an eye on making it survive as a movie on its own merits. And because it cracks open the door to its universe just a bit and lets in some new ideas.

For some fans like myself who have always felt that there’s more to explore in this franchise, this is its most salient achievement: “Rogue One” effectively proves the inherent sturdiness of the Star Wars universe. It shows that it’s possible to tell more than just that one same old story about hiding critical data in a droid which makes its way to a reluctant hero who finds the Force, et cetera et cetera. The result is that it makes this far, far away galaxy feel more porous and sprawling, less predictable and much, much more interesting.