Last night, the premiere showing of Rogue One took place. What that means to the non-media layperson is this: some people know the greatest question we have had with the first “Star Wars Story.” How will the filmmakers handle the problem of fans knowing the ultimate outcome of the mission taken on by Jyn Erso and her compatriots?
It’s not a new problem for a Star Wars film, but a problem nonetheless. We have known for some time – 39 years to be exact – that the mission to steal the Death Star plans was successful. We knew that before ever laying eyes on Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Less than one minute into the original Star Wars, the opening crawl tells us :
“During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.”
This is the same kind of knowledge that caused significant issues for the prequel trilogy. We already knew what happened to Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, etc., leaving us precious few open ends to generate ample drama or suspense. It could have been achieved with better writing and direction. But the writing was lazy, if not incoherent, and George Lucas was clearly rusty at the helm.
Since we have similar knowledge about the outcome of the mission at the center of Rogue One, where will the drama lie? What will keep us on the edge of our seats? The answer can be found in the film’s major advantages over the prequel trilogy: we have no idea what happens to the main characters.
The fate of the characters works as a device for suspense only as much as director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weit, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta are able to make us care about them. Audiences formed quick attachments to Luke, Leia and Han as well as Rey, Finn and Poe. Can the creators of Rogue One achieve the same connections between the team of spies and the audience?
No matter how the story unfolds, there are only three possible outcomes for the Rogue One team.
Most Likely Outcome : Some survivors, some casualties
The most likely fate of the team is that some characters will be killed and some will survive. It makes sense that at least one character needs to survive to escape with the plans. But, that may not necessarily be the case.
Traditionally, action movies that feature a team of characters have a few dramatic deaths to highlight what is at stake, while one or more of the protagonists gets the job one and barely escapes. Examples are too numerous to list, including Predator, every Alien film and – coincidentally – the original Star Wars.
Disney may want some characters to survive in order to use them in future shows, films or comics. If everyone dies, then all future potential projects with these characters dies, too. Although, if Darth Maul returned, anyone may.
There have been a few significant death scenes in the Star Wars films (Qui-Gon, Padme, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Vader, etc.). Any of the Rogue One characters being killed will actually add weight to the original Star Wars because we will know that the stolen plans R2-D2 is carrying came at a significant cost. Up until this film, did you ever wonder how many – or if ANY – spies were killed trying to get the plans?
The potential drawback of survivors, however, is how to explain the complete and utter absence of these characters from the original trilogy. If Jyn Erso survives the mission – the most important in the history of the Rebellion to this point – then how can it be explained that she simply disappeared thereafter? Wouldn’t she remain a major part of the fight?
There are plenty of ways they can write her out of the story at the end of the film, but it will take great storytelling to make it believable.
Less Likely Outcome : Everyone survives
It is hard to recall an action movie in which none of the protagonists are killed. Since we know the outcome of the mission, the life and death of the characters is the only thing hanging in the balance. To have them all survive, even if narrowly, will be a bit of a cop out. How dangerous can the mission be if everyone emerges unscathed?
The tension of the Rogue One squad fighting for their lives – and some of them losing – will be the climax of the story. If everyone survives, it will feel as if the audience has been strung along for no reason with no consequences.
Of course, if every member of the Rogue One team lives, there will be plenty of spinoff stories for the characters. But it will ultimately be a significant detriment to the film.
It is hard to even think of an action film in which none of the “good guys” gets killed along the way. It’s practically a requirement of the genre.
Least Likely Outcome : Everyone dies
The least likely (and my most preferred) outcome is that every member of the Rogue One team perishes. This might seem counterintuitive. How does the mission succeed if no one survives?
In my imagination, a dying Jynn Erso crawls to a terminal to transmit the plans to the Tantive IV just before Vader finishes her off. Yet another example of why I don’t write movies, perhaps.
However, should the entire team die, it would add a tremendous amount of importance to the plans in A New Hope. If the movie is done well, the sacrifice of the Rogue One team would linger throughout A New Hope, a constant reminder of what was lost. It makes the Death Star plans less of a McGuffin and more of a tangible item of value.
It would also explain why none of the characters seemed to participate in the ongoing fight against the Empire. The survivors should have also been on Hoth or a part of the Battle of Endor. Obviously the logistical reason is these characters weren’t imagined yet, but to retcon it any other way may be sloppy.
If some of the Rogue One team are dispatched by Vader personally, it adds yet another wrinkle to the original Star Wars. Imagine when Vader emerges through a cloud of smoke on the Tantive IV he is just days removed from chasing down these spies we had come to care about.
There are precious few examples of non-horror films where all of the protagonists dies. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were just two people. This Is the End was a comedy. The Perfect Storm fits the bill, but that is an entirely different kind of movie altogether.
It is also hard to imagine Disney green lighting a movie in which everyone one of the main characters is killed. It doesn’t seem to be in the company’s nature, but perhaps they will surprise us. After all, this is a war movie, which in itself is not usually in Disney’s wheelhouse.
Rogue One has an opportunity to distinguish itself from every other Star Wars film. The mission will ultimately be a success, but we also know the heroes will not – for one reason or another – go on, at least not on film. For the first time, we will see the complete story arc of multiple characters in one movie.
Rogue One has an enormous task to manage. Introducing new characters, making us invest emotionally and then resolving – for better or worse – their fates in a meaningful way is challenge that will determine the success of the film and possibly add new meaning to the original trilogy.
The innate problem built into the Rogue One story and whether to not can be overcome, will likely dictate whether future Star Wars films will be set is such close proximity to the original trilogy.
If it fails, it likely alters the Disney strategy forever. If it succeeds, all of our questions may soon be answered.