Star Wars: The Force Awakens left audiences desperate to know WWLS? (What Will Luke Say?) But fans will be waiting quite some time to find out. The new film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which opens in Australia on December 15, does not continue the trilogy begun last year.
Rogue One is, instead, the first of Disney and Lucasfilms’ standalone Star Wars movies. The main Star Wars saga will continue as a trilogy - with a film released every two years - which means fans will have to wait until 2017 to learn about the fates of Rey and Finn. Standalone films, meanwhile, are planned for every other year through to 2020.
Although Rogue One is being touted as independent of the main Star Wars story (dedicated to following the fortunes of the Skywalker family), it does fit within the franchise’s broader arc. The first Star Wars in 1977 began with Princess Leia attempting to smuggle stolen plans to the Death Star so her rebel allies could plan an attack on a planet-destroying space station. Rogue One jumps back in time from this point, telling the story of a desperate mission by a ragtag crew to steal those plans from the Galactic Empire and deliver them to Leia.
Still, prequels are a potentially risky move for Star Wars. As viewers, we already know the outcomes of much of the story. In the case of Rogue One, we already know that the mission will be successful and the plans will, after some unexpected detours, be delivered to the rebel alliance.
What we do not know at this stage is who, if anyone, amongst the team sent to retrieve the plans will survive. The lure of Rogue One for audiences must therefore be in experiencing the thrill of the journey to a known end rather than anticipating the shock of the unexpected.
From what little the trailers have revealed so far, it seems that Rogue One will follow a fairly standard Dirty Dozen style narrative formula. Disparate misfits are assembled to undertake a suicide mission that will likely send them to their deaths – but also promise redemption from past sins. (It does, however, have the added bonus of an appearance by Darth Vader and an extremely menacing Ben Mendelsohn playing imperial officer Director Orson Krennic.)
Perhaps of most appeal to audiences of a certain age may be the opportunity to once again delve into the aesthetic of the original trilogy. Since Rogue One takes place in the same time period, costumes and equipment will be designs familiar from the earliest films such as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
In fact, the early teaser trailer for Rogue One earned the admiration of fans when it was revealed the movie featured giant ATAT walkers, huge mechanized assault vehicles that tower above the battlefield on stilt-like legs. The walkers – a fan favourite – have not been seen in action since the Hoth battle sequence in The Empire Strikes Back.
It remains to be seen just how well audiences will respond to Rogue One, and whether they will be confused by the non-sequential narrative. As Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez learned through their unsuccessful double-feature experiment Grindhouse (2007) not everyone is paying attention to your press releases.
Grindhouse gave audiences two features for the price of a single – one each from Rodriguez and Tarantino – with a selection of fictitious movie trailers separating them. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, in spite of months of hype and fanboy expectation, casual audiences were confused by the film and many were reportedly leaving the cinema during the faux trailers after seeing only half the show.
Most moviegoers are casual fans who expect all necessary information to be provided by the movie they are seeing. This could be a problem for Rogue One, if rumours of another controversial choice are true. Rogue One, it is said, will be the first Star Wars movie to begin without a title crawl.
Since 1977, seven Star Wars movies have begun with the now iconic yellow crawling text. It established just enough backstory to set up the action about to burst onto the screen.
Originally intended as a homage to Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, the title crawl, in this case, would have been the perfect opportunity to warn audiences that Rogue One is not what they were expecting to see (ie an update on Rey, Finn and Luke).
Of course, all of this is simply conjecture. And in the coming years we will see just how much Star Wars the world can stomach. New standalone films in 2018 and 2020 will feature respectively a young Han Solo (to be played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) and, perhaps not coincidentally, a young version of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
Rogue One tells an established story but will do so with largely unknown characters. However recasting Han Solo in a stand alone film is a bold and risky move. Harrison Ford is one of the most beloved actors of the franchise – replacing him has sparked some extreme reactions from fans.
And while Boba Fett became an unexpected favourite after his brief appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, sometimes the mystery of a character appeals most. Do we really need or want to know everything about him?
The immense cultural standing of Darth Vader – once the greatest movie villains of all time – was severely undermined by the existence of the prequel series as we saw Anakin Skywalker shift from irritatingly precocious child hero to brooding, angsty teenager (and the butt of memes) before eventually becoming Darth Vader.
Here’s hoping that as Disney and Lucasfilm move forward by looking backward they do so without making similar mistakes.