Star Wars fans are a finicky bunch, and it’s only become a more pronounced cultural phenomenon over the course of three superb movies, three below average prequels, and even a strong restart from just last year.
In many ways, the next Star Wars movie that’s set to come out, Rogue One, has plenty of problems stacked against it. It’s yet another prequel to Episode IV designed to expand upon a specific cadence of the mythology (the Death Star plans, in this case). It’s coming out just one year after Episode VII got fans excited about Star Wars again, which means it doesn’t have nearly the same amount of buildup or momentum (though low expectations would work in its favor if it ends up being average or worse).
In addition, an increasing number of fans and critics are already starting to dread franchise fatigue, thanks mostly to Disney announcing that they essentially want to make movies out of the Star Wars universe forever, or at least as long as people will keep showing up for them. No longer will years go by to ease and refresh demand, for better or worse. That’s a hard marketing pill to swallow for the countless fans who genuinely love the originality and patient timing of Star Wars, and Rogue One is just the first of these anthology movies. In a fitting way, it represents the first of what look like a long list of cash grabs to come out of Disney and Lucasfilm.
Despite all of this, however, almost everyone is gushing over this movie. It’s actually a bit remarkable to consider that this marketing team has only needed a few teasers and trailers to recapture some of the excitement from last year so soon. To date, the first teaser is my favorite trailer period of 2016, simply because of its merits as a sci-fi movie with great production value, not solely out of a desire to see Star Wars on the big screen again. So while not everyone is as hyped about Rogue One, a large number of both casual moviegoers and staunch critics are expecting the film to be pretty great, and perhaps better than Force Awakens.
For the record, I’m one of the handful of critics who definitely liked The Force Awakens, but I wasn’t quite as swept away with it. There were numerous problems I had with the film the more I sat on it, but nearly a year later, my mind is still made up that it was a necessary transition movie. A gateway into new kinds of Star Wars movies only Disney can make, and I’m more optimistic about that future thanks in no small part to everything shown so far in Rogue One.
Again, this movie is based on a premise that I have to believe only a handful of fans ever really wanted to see before Disney made the announcement years ago. It seems more suited for a TV series or short story, not a feature length film intended to hold us off until the next legacy movie. And it’s easy to assume the greenlight has plenty to do with Darth Vader showing up again to increase audience turnout on his appearance alone, though I’m convinced, like many others, that his role in the movie will be quite limited.
So what is it about Rogue One that has everyone so convinced that it will be a high quality blockbuster?
A lot of it has to do with the basics in storytelling provided by the trailers. Even before set photos came out, Disney told fans to expect more “war” from this Star Wars movie, as this anthology chapter would focus almost all of its time on soldiers and rebels, rather than Jedi and Sith. The trailers only proved that point in earnest, while also demonstrating how different this new film promises to be from Force Awakens, which was widely criticized for mimicking the original trilogy far more than it needed to. Rogue One appears to be like no other Star Wars movie before it, which is a characteristic not very many fans have expected for quite some time.
For the most part, we’ve always known that these Star Wars movies would follow a basic formula. In the original trilogy, we knew the good guys would somehow prevail and that Luke Skywalker would become the Jedi he was always destined to be. Lucas never tried to hide that these movies were sci-fi frameworks of the Hero’s Journey, and he got away with it because he told the story in a unique and surprising way. The prequels were also easy to wrap your head around because we all knew the end result. The mystery only lied in how Anakin would ultimately succumb to the dark side.
Rogue One is somewhat similar in that we know how the movie will ultimately end. The rebels will succeed in stealing the Death Star plans, which will lead to the opening moments of A New Hope. But that’s not at all what these trailers wants us to think about. The trailers have so far focused heavily on the characters, not really the plot details. It focuses on their reaction to an insurmountable challenge, not the challenge itself. And of course, it helps that just about every new face we’ve seen has been intriguing, visually striking, and well-cast.
Thanks to the trailers, we’re going into Rogue One wondering how this mission will affect these soldiers and misfits, beyond whether or not they’ll live or die (though we’re curious about that as well). This is why Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) allegiance is suggested to be fleeting in that first teaser. Could she become evil? Will she survive? Will these characters show up again in other movies? These mysteries are far more interesting and provoking than the sales pitch of Force Awakens, which boiled down to: you’re going to love these new heroes we made for you.
That’s fine for the big budget feature movies, but what has so many people genuinely curious about Rogue One is the freedom this type of story belongs to. From what we can tell, it isn’t shackled by test market research and the pressure of building out a decade long story. It can simply be an experimental character drama that just happens to be set in the background of one of the most engaging fictional universes ever put to film. And for now, that’s more than enough to get everyone excited.