Well, no one saw that coming. “Rogue One,” the new stand-alone Star Wars movie, is the best since the beloved original trilogy. With a new tale, it’s much better, and far fresher, than last year’s fun but nostalgic “The Force Awakens.”
The surprise is fitting, for here’s a little secret about Star Wars: Its narrative arc wasn’t fully planned out in advance. Some of the most important plot points came to George Lucas, author of the first six episodes, awfully late. At the early stages, he had no clue that Darth Vader would turn out to be Luke Skywalker’s father. And Luke and Leia as twins? That was a late inspiration — an ingenious (if also creepy) way of resolving the romantic triangle involving Luke, Leia and Han.
“Don’t tell anyone but when ‘Star Wars’ first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either,” Lucas wrote to the writers of the terrific television series “Lost” after its final episode. “The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance.”
Star Wars works in large part because Lucas was able to find ways to strike out in new directions that somehow fit with what came before, but also make you see everything in a new light. The saga has a host of “I am your father” moments: sudden revelations that produce an instant of shock and incredulity, immediately followed by an immensely satisfying click of recognition, a sense of inevitability.
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The power of these inspired moments come from the fact that the author, no less than the audience, could not have anticipated them at the earliest stages. And because Lucas managed to produce that click, he made our initial disbelief dissipate.
Which brings us to “Rogue One,” which is based, unpromisingly, on just two throwaway sentences in the opening crawl from “A New Hope,” the film that started it all back in 1977: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During that battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR.”
“Rogue One” tells the story of those Rebel spies. They aren’t Jedi knights, but some of them believe in the Force — holding fast, even desperately, to what seems to be a dying faith in its power. The tale lacks the epic sweep of earlier episodes, but the script turns that into an advantage. This is a story of ordinary people who rebel against tyranny.
But it’s hardly just that. More gently than its predecessors, the film touches on each of the enduring Star Wars themes — a child’s need to find good in an apparently evil parent; the existence, at every moment, of freedom of choice; and the possibility of redemption, even for those who have done horrible things.
Best of all: By seamlessly connecting its own dark story to the very start of “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” makes that old tale new and far more resonant. Its famous opening scenes are no longer just a random shoot-’em-up in outer space, with a terrifying Darth Vader on some kind of mission and funny droids making a daring escape. Those scenes turn out to be the culmination of an improbably successful raid by a team of diverse, doomed fighters, each of whom has a past and a capacity for friendship, sacrifice and love. Their names have been lost to history — but we, at least, know who they were.
For the cognoscenti, “Rogue One” is full of clever, winking references to Star Wars trivia, including abandoned ideas from early Lucas scripts (such as the clunky phrase “May the Force of others be with you”). True, it lacks an “I am your father” moment, turning the narrative upside-down. But its stirring final scenes offer their own immensely satisfying click, turning the narrative right-side-up — and redeeming everything that has come before.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”