Feature: Does Rogue One work as a standalone?

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Reportedly earning over $220 million in its first week, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has garnered widespread praise from critics and audiences, arguably putting to bed any lingering doubts over the rejuvenation of the Star Wars franchise. Nevertheless, Rogue One has its detractors, with some criticising its pacing and shallow characterisation, while others have fallen foul of the film’s gritty war movie tone. One question that has been consistently asked of the film is whether it works on its own. Indeed, sold as a non-episodic, distinct outing of the series, Rogue One raises some interesting questions around the accessibility of long-running blockbuster franchises and the brand awareness expected of modern cinemagoers.

To find out whether Rogue One really can stand on its own, we asked two non-Star Wars aficionados for their thoughts on the new film. First up is Sophie from West Sussex, who saw the original trilogy as a child but hasn’t revisited it since. She also somewhat reluctantly saw last year’s The Force Awakens after not being able to get tickets for the James Bond film Spectre. She says she enjoyed Rogue One, but not as emphatically as everyone else, though she admits that “It does have a good balance as a family film. It ticks all the boxes for kids and adults”. Sophie was surprised, however, when she realised that the new film didn’t follow on directly from The Force Awakens, believing Rogue One to be the highly-anticipated Episode VIII, due late 2017.

It’s perhaps a surprising expectation given the film’s extensive marketing as a non-episodic anthology film, but a potent reminder that casual cinemagoers are not necessarily keyed into the pre-production narratives and debates that seem to dominate contemporary filmmaking. Why wouldn’t Episode VIII directly follow VII? Certainly, on the surface it seems bizarre for the seventh instalment to be followed by something that fits in between Episodes III and IV, and a stark example of why non-devotees to franchises can feel shut out of the convoluted narratives and impenetrable continuity of series like Star Wars or the increasingly expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, Sophie still thinks that in the final analysis, Rogue One stands on its own, even if she is less effusive about it than hardcore fans.

Interestingly, one of the most discussed elements of the film – the CGI versions of Peter Cushing -passed both of our subjects by. While Sophie knew that digital trickery must have been at play for the de-aged Carrie Fisher, she admits she was fooled by the spectre of the late, great Cushing, putting it down to the fact that she wasn’t familiar with the actor. Claire, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was also oblivious to Cushing’s uncanny performance as well as Fisher’s last-minute cameo, assuming that the studio had simply cribbed existing footage from the old films. Prior to Rogue One, Claire had never seen a Star Wars film, admitting that while she knew a few key characters by sight – “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad”; “Princess Leia’s the one with buns on her head” – those commonly recognisable visual cues meant little to her.

It’s Claire’s perspective, perhaps, that is the key to our central question: it’s hard to find an adult who really never has seen Star Wars, but almost impossible to find someone who isn’t at least partially aware of its iconography. In that sense, Rogue One can never be truly ‘standalone’, anchored as it is to the franchise’s imagery as well as its narrative. While most people aren’t going to spot every obscure reference or allusion in in the new film, it’s difficult to imagine anyone not recognising Darth Vader’s mask or indeed Princess Leia’s hair. Star Wars’ most famous images are so universally recognisable that they have effectively transcended their direct contextual meaning to become part of the broader language of film – indeed, Vader is instantly recognisable as the villain precisely because of the cinematic vocabulary of his black costume, frightening mask and distorted voice, which all derive from common cultural tropes that signify evil.

Likewise, we understand the Stormtroopers, borrowing their names from German First World War soldiers, stripped of individuality by their suits as the robotic slaves of the Empire, contrasted against the scrappy, diverse rebels. This shorthand cinematic grammar helps general audiences to unconsciously understand the narrative stakes, with the original trilogy’s allusions to Kurosawa and John Ford bringing texture and depth for sharp-eyed cineastes. Rogue One functions in the same way, drawing allusions to Second World War and Vietnam iconography, and contemporary Middle-East geopolitics, it also draws on the series’ rich catalogue of imagery to tell its story. The proof is in the pudding: our subjects agree that for the eighth film in the series, Rogue One is told well enough for the non-faithful to understand and enjoy.

But there is a more interesting and pressing question than whether the film works as a distinct story. Meaning in films derives from a complex corpus of influence, symbolism and tradition; filmmakers depend on commonly understood symbolic tropes for audiences to decode their work. None more so than that of Star Wars, whose web of cultural influences and mythic narrative structure are among the series’ most enduring qualities. Edwards’ film is as dependent on those codes as any other, and simply wouldn’t function without the audience’s common understanding of their meaning. It’s not that Rogue One does or doesn’t stand on its own, it’s that as part of a rich continuum of cinema, it doesn’t need to.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell