By Brad Dell
“You’ve barely scratched the surface!” My springboard phrase — a launch into my oft-repeated speech about how much casual Star Wars fans are missing by not indulging in the Expanded Universe (EU). The tales of the Skywalker bloodline in the first two trilogies were just six brush strokes in the intricately imagined universe. If well-read on the “Jango Fett: Open Seasons” and “Republic Commando” series, you know there’s an entire history and culture behind Boba’s Mandalorian armor. It doesn’t just “look cool.” If you read “The Han Solo Trilogy,” you know why Han was so conflicted in his relationship with both Leia and the Alliance. He was fresh from having his heart broken by the death of his old flame and member of the Rebellion, Bria Tharen. You know why the Jedi and Sith first began their galaxy-ripping feud, what Luke did to train between “Empire” and “Return,” how lightsabers work. At least, you knew all this before Disney bought the franchise in 2012 and declared the EU void. Suddenly, my dusty heaps of Star Wars books, comics, and games were nothing more than decades-old fan fiction.
Before then, we had already learned the story of how the Death Star plans fell into the hands of the Rebellion. Well, two conflicting stories: that of Kyle Katarn in the “Dark Forces” game and that of the Battle of Toprawa, as told in “The Han Solo Trilogy.” The bitter fan in me didn’t see why there should be a retelling of a story that had already been covered. I wanted to just go on believing that Katarn and Toprawa were still somehow relevant — even if their stories did contradict each other. I didn’t think a two-hour film could weave a tale better than a full game or a couple of books. Yet I left “Rogue One” thinking it was one of the most masterfully told tales presented so far, original EU and otherwise. Director Gareth Edwards did so many things right, that I’m ready to forget the old lore surrounding the Death Star plans and replace it with Jyn Erso’s story. Despite the run-length of the film, it not only stands well on its own, it also injects depth into the original trilogy, much like the EU once did.
“Rogue One” strips the Rebellion down and goes beyond the movement being idealistic, disciplined “good guys” — something not seen before in the films, but often depicted in books and comics such as “Star Wars: Rebellion.” In the original trilogy, the Galactic Civil War just didn’t seem emotionally complex. Everything was too black and white, it was the Dark Side versus the Light. George Lucas attempted (through the prequels) to articulate the ‘grey’ of war on-screen through the implication that the Rebellion was built on the foundation of terroristic Separatists, but even that was lost on many casual viewers. “Rogue One” has protagonists corrupting their moral compasses on the behalf of the movement, leaders melting down and scattering once things get too real, Rebels killing each other because of competing resistance ideologies. It presents the Rebellion in its growing pains — not quite yet a solid Alliance. And, as the film shows, the Rebels had to grow up fast, baptized by fire in one of the fiercest on-screen battles in Star Wars history. Death by death, viewers are given new reasons to root for the downfall of the Empire. My next viewing of “A New Hope” will be a more somber experience, with these characters’ sacrifices in mind.
This new context is also extended to various technicalities. Finally, people can’t complain about how an engineer/architect ‘accidentally’ designed a superweapon with such a gaping vulnerability. We now know why Bail and Leia Organa are directly involved with the plans and how the princess/ambassador ended up on Tantive IV. Critics were once answered by, “Read the comics/books and you would know!” Now, they can be answered by, “Seriously? You didn’t watch ‘Rogue One’?” A classic complaint about Darth Vader simply not seeming dangerous is deflated in the final scenes of the film: the raw, brutal power of the Sith is put on full display, unrestrained by hesitation to kill his former master and son (or lack of CGI in the ‘70s/’80s).
Despite being labeled a ‘standalone’ film, it actually becomes a critical support for the original trilogy, plugging various holes in “A New Hope” and quieting classic critiques. It also doesn’t forget to have fun: There’s fan service like the nod to “Knights of the Old Republic” by including a Hammerhead cruiser and reasoning behind Luke being given the call-sign Red Five (the original Red Five met his fiery doom above Scarif). Having Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba make their appearance in Jedha City was like something straight out of the “Star Wars Tales” comics.
I admit a lot of my bitterness has faded since viewing “Rogue One.” Like Darth Grinch, my heart is steadily swelling as I read social media reactions — people clamoring for more stories in the universe. They want the backstories of classic characters like Mon Mothma, of new fan-favorites like K-2SO. People want more. Was “Rogue One” worth scrapping the EU? Time and future additions to the new canon will tell. But at least it’s fueled a renewed interest in the universe beyond the Skywalkers.