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It's a testament to the mythic power of Star Wars that laser swords, a bellowing space ape, fiery explosions in zero atmosphere, bickering robots, and an invisible, telekinetic power just seemed to make perfect sense. But one enduring plot hole is a literal plot hole: that thermal exhaust port on the first Death Star that allowed the moon-size battle station to be destroyed with a single shot.
Okay, so how exactly did that get there? Why would the Empire's doomsday architects incorporate such a catastrophic design flaw? And how did the Rebellion find out about it? Almost 40 years after the release of the original movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (out Dec. 16) is preparing to answer those questions with a battlefield heist tale that will conclude just before the events of A New Hope.
It's a new kind of movie for Lucasfilm, a stand-alone story that explores territory beyond the core "saga" films: the first three classic movies, George Lucas' prequels, and the new trilogy that will continue in 2017 with director Rian Johnson's Episode VIII. After J.J. Abrams firmly reestablished Star Wars as the center of the pop culture universe with the record-demolishing The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm and its parent company Disney are now looking to capitalize on the Sarlaac-esque fan appetite by delivering a new movie each year. One key to the future will be venturing backward in time: Because Rogue One is set earlier in galactic history, it can—and will—resurrect some iconic characters that fans thought were gone forever. (More on that later.)
Rogue One is set 34 years before last year's The Force Awakens, and roughly two decades after tyrannical Emperor Palpatine seized power in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The Death Star is how he intends to maintain dominion over star systems that are starting to rise up against him, and the movie tells the story of an outlaw named Jyn Erso (The Theory of Everything Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) and her band of soldiers, assassins, and smugglers who might be enemies if they weren't united in one mission: to get the blueprints for that apocalyptic superweapon. "It's really patterned after a World War II movie," says producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. "The Rebel alliance is in disarray. Pretty panicked. Up against it." For these freedom fighters, it's do or die. Chances are, some will end up with the latter fate.
The story was first proposed to Kennedy by executive producer John Knoll, the legendary Industrial Light & Magic visual-effects designer. (He and his brother invented Photoshop. You're welcome.) "I thought it would be really fun to do a Mission: Impossible-style story of a Rebel spy mission," Knoll says. The opening crawl from the original 1977 Star Wars provided the template, but there were other dots they could connect from that movie, too. "There are bits in the dialogue between Princess Leia and Darth Vader [in A New Hope], where he says, 'Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies,'" Knoll adds. "That means those things have to happen in this movie."
When director Gareth Edwards (2014's Godzilla) signed on to direct Rogue One, his aim was to tell the type of story he and his friends used to make up with their action figures. "What we've done with this film is try to take a left turn instead of a right," Edwards says. "We're in the same universe, the same places, in the same time frame. But we're seeing something we haven't seen before."
Jyn is also a new kind of Star Wars protagonist, far from a wide-eyed innocent like Rey or Luke Skywalker. She's a troublemaker, a criminal. Volatile, but streetwise. Before reluctantly joining the Rebellion, she runs afoul of it. "She has been detained and is being given an opportunity to be useful. And by being useful, it may commute her sentence," Kennedy says. "She's got a checkered past, and has pretty much been on her own since she was 15. She's a real survivor. She becomes a kind of Joan of Arc in the story."
The mission is also personal for Jyn because her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelson), is a brilliant physicist who is being sought by both sides. "Galen is a person who has knowledge and expertise that is of interest to everybody," says Kiri Hart, Lucasfilm's head of story development, who coordinates all the different narratives, from the movies to TV shows like Rebels to novels and comic books. "He's one of those people that has insight into specific aspects of just how the universe works."
Jyn appears to have more in common with a certain wiseass smuggler who will be the focus of the next stand-alone film: a young Han Solo story, coming out in 2018, which takes place before he encounters Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi in that cantina on Tatooine. The main difference between these anthology films and the trilogies is that the earlier films focused squarely on the Skywalker family. Rogue One shifts the spotlight to other inhabitants of the galaxy, but that doesn't mean it will be completely devoid of Skywalkers. Lucasfilm is now ready to confirm a major one.
"I think we can talk about Vader..." Kennedy says.
Cue the heavy breathing.
Come on. How disappointed would you be if Darth Vader wasn't in this movie?
Setting Rogue One just prior to the original trilogy allows Lucasfilm to bring Vader back in his sinister prime along with a few other classic characters—although for now, they're revealing only the man in black. James Earl Jones, 85, will return as the foreboding voice, with a variety of performers behind the mask. (David Prowse, now 80, was often inside the suit in the original trilogy.)
Kennedy says Rogue One has to make careful use of Vader. "He will be in the movie sparingly," she says. "But at a key, strategic moment, he's going to loom large."
At this point in the chronology, the Rebels are barely familiar with him. Even within the Empire, Palpatine's masked enforcer is more myth than everyday presence. "There's definitely an underlying feeling that there is a power—a dark power—available to the Empire, and that if you overstep your mark, you will suffer the consequences," says Edwards.
One goal of Rogue One is to step away from the Jedi and Sith to explore the heroism of people who don't traffic in the Force. "The Jedi are pretty much extinct, so a lot of that spirituality is dying out and people are losing their faith," says Edwards. "This idea that magical beings are going to come and save us is going away, and it's up to normal, everyday people to take a stand to stop evil from dominating the world."
That rebel squad of regular heroes is played by a deliberately diverse ethnic mix from our own planet, meant to reflect a galaxy filled with a wide variety of humans from many different worlds (not to mention a healthy mix of creatures and aliens). "People are coming to the Rebellion because something has happened that has galvanized or politicized them," says Hart. "The question just becomes: What are those triggers for different people in different places?
Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) plays Capt. Cassian Andor, a Rebel stalwart who anchors the loose cannon Jyn. Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen (Ip Man) is Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior monk who is not a Jedi but follows the path of the Force, and Chinese martial-arts actor and director Jiang Wen (Devils on the Door Step) plays Baze Malbus, Chirrut's Force-doubting rough-and-tumble protector.
Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) costars as uptight cargo pilot Bodhi Rook, and Forest Whitaker is a violent insurgent known as Saw Gererra, a character that first turned up in season 5 of the animated Clone Wars TV series. Rounding out this band of brothers is Firefly star Alan Tudyk, using motion capture to perform the droid K-2SO, who, like Jyn, is seeking a bit of redemption.
Keeping with the Star Wars tradition of planets with a single ecosystem, one key battleground in Rogue One is on a world that might resemble a relaxing seaside holiday destination if not for its proximity to the nascent Death Star, the Imperial Walker AT-ACTs (All Terrain Armored Cargo Transports) stomping palm trees, and the new fang-like interceptors known as TIE Strikers screaming overhead. "This South Pacific, tropical-paradise planet subconsciously leads into some of the imagery associated with World War II," says Edwards. When the Rebels storm these beaches, they'll be exchanging fire with new classes of stormtroopers: dust-colored Shoretroopers and sinister, onyx-faced Deathtroopers.
Rogue One's central antagonist is also a newcomer to galactic lore: Director Orson Krennic (Bloodline's Ben Mendelsohn), an ambitious Imperial apparatchik who intends to use his squad of Deathtroopers to pulverize this uprising and ascend into the Emperor's graces. "The bad guy is a lot more terrifying when he's really smart, and really effective," says Knoll. "There is a lot of palace intrigue going on in the Empire, with people conspiring to move up the ranks and sabotaging each other. There's not a lot of loyalty there."
He and Vader aren't friends, in other words. They're barely allies, and Krennic is understandably threatened by the Sith Lord. "Vader doesn't really play by the rules," Hart says. "He's present in the military structure, but he's not beholden to it. He's not accountable to anybody, really, except Palpatine." With Vader looming, Krennic has a lot of motivation to keep the Empire's plans from going awry.
Rogue One endured its own change of plans recently, with a few weeks of reshoots currently under way. (The Force Awakens underwent similar changes.) Some online rumors speculated that 40 percent of the movie is being redone and the gritty war movie is being shifted to a lighthearted caper, but EW's sources say this isn't true. Logic bears that out: It would be nearly impossible to reshoot half of an effects-heavy movie in the summer and still finish it for a December release.
Kennedy said the alterations are meant to pump up emotion and action within existing scenes, and Edwards insists the hardscrabble vibe of the movie has not been compromised. "A film is a very creative, organic process, and it evolves over time," he says. "There's no right or wrong. There's just 'better' and 'best,' and with Star Wars, nothing but the best is going to do. So we're just putting a lot of pressure on ourselves until the very end, making this the greatest film it can be." Think about it this way: If the Empire could go back and plug that exhaust hole in the Death Star, don't you think they would?
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