The “Star Wars” franchise has never been one to adhere to doling out its offerings in linear fashion — you name another franchise that starts with its fourth film, heads back to its story’s start 22 years later, then crafts an entirely new trilogy to follow all that still more years later — and its first standalone feature, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” won’t be breaking that tradition. But while Gareth Edwards’ new film isn’t actually a part of the three trilogies that make up the current entire existence of the “Star Wars” cinematic universe, it will fit into its timeline.
The film, starring Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, takes place just before the action of “A New Hope” and centers on a preexisting storyline — the merry band of misfits who stole the Death Star plans for the Rebel faction — which means that, while it’s not part of the trilogies, it very much has its place in their world. But despite all the possibilities and exceptions tied to being, well, “a Star Wars film,” the team behind the feature wants to make it clear how different this next offering is.
At this year’s Star Wars Celebration, the “Rogue One” team — including director Gareth Edwards, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and most of the film’s cast — hit the stage for their first official panel. Despite an audience that clearly revels in the world of “Star Wars” (this is, after all, an event dedicated to anything and everything from a galaxy far, far away), messaging about the film’s unique characteristics was hardly in limited supply.
The panel even opened with a twist on the opening crawl from “A New Hope,” which played out on the big screen mostly as is, before being interrupted and disrupted by fresh text offering up a hint at the story we’re about to see. It’s “A New Hope,” but it’s not.
Host Gwendoline Christie, who recently joined the franchise with her turn in “A Force Awakens” and seems nothing less than totally amped to be a part of the festivities, asked Kennedy a big question early on: What is a Star Wars Story?
“The thing is, we have this amazing opportunity to be able to tell stories inside this incredible universe,” Kennedy said. “In the past, all the ‘Star Wars’ movies have been made either as sequels, prequels and now we can have these standalone stories that can explore different characters, different planets, different experiences all the way around.”
Kennedy also pointed to the hiring of Edwards, who previously helmed the indie darling “Monsters” and the recent “Godzilla” remake, as indicative of the different perspective that “Rogue One” offers. For her, Edwards’ style of often filming things himself, camera in hand, spoke to what she wanted the new film to look and feel like.
“It is a style that is unlike any other ‘Star Wars’ movie,” she said. “This is going to be an incredibly immersive experience when you see ‘Rogue One.'”
But that doesn’t mean that Edwards is eager to totally break away from “Star Wars” lore, as the director made no bones about his lifelong affection and obsession with the franchise. “It’s just been the most insane, most surreal experience you could ever have. Every day, just when you think you’ve had the craziest day in your life, the next day tops it.”
The quest for something new also extends to the film’s characters, including Jyn Erso, who star Felicity Jones said is “not a character who is asking, ‘Who am I and where am have I come from?’ We know that about her. We know where she’s come from, and that fact is what propels the story and is the beginning of Jyn’s journey.”
So, no, fans won’t have to spend hours trying to detail Jyn’s backstory or her family tree. We’ll already know it (and we do already know that her father is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who was tight-lipped about letting slip more than that fact.)
Also breaking with “Star Wars” tradition? Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic, who Christie introduced as “a different kind of Imperial villain.”
“Yes, he is,” Mendelsohn said. “He’s an Australian kind. We do villainy very well.”
He added, laughing “He is smarter, I think, than most of his predecessors. He’s more inventive. He’s perhaps a little sexier than some of them. Not quite as sexy some of the others.”
But of course the similarities are still there. Beyond the basics of good versus evil — Rebels versus the Empire — “Rogue One” will also offer up unlikely heroes of all stripes, including a wacky droid, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk and a pair of new characters who can’t help but believe in the power of The Force. Played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, Chirrut and Baze are a set of best friends who still put their trust in The Force, even during a period of time when the populace is under the impression that anything and everything Jedi-related has been destroyed (sound familiar?).
And then there’s Forest Whitaker’s character, a George Lucas creation named Saw Gerrera who has already appeared in the animated series “The Clone Wars.” Whitaker got one of the biggest rounds of applause when he made his way on stage, with fans seemingly very happy to see someone they know on a stage populated by newcomers. For the “Star Wars” world, even making something new is better when it features something known.
The panel featured two new pieces of video — a sizzle reel that mostly functioned as a handy delivery service for both new material and talking head marketing centered on what sets this one apart — and at least offered up a different look and feel for the material. As advertised, Edwards’ “war movie” certainly seems like it’s hitting some new notes and embracing a different filming technique. As the first standalone “Star Wars” feature, expectations are certainly high, and “Rogue One” does seem like the right vessel for telling a new story with some familiar traits.
But can this much-touted standalone film really make a mark based on its own merits? With the opening of “Rogue One” still half a year away, it remains to be seen if the film’s creators and talent have been able to temper both their excitement over the possibilities and respect for the franchise to make a film that truly is able to exist as its own entity. One that actually can stand alone.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will open on December 14.