AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in December, 2016.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story contradicts the Original Star Wars. Not the trilogy; just the original 1977 movie. This article is a nerdy litigator’s exercise in construction, but stick with it. This ain’t CinemaSins. It’s fun.
I assume two things:
(1) The Original Star Wars is the controlling authority, i.e. “canon.” Anything that comes later must be reasonably consistent with it.
(2) I assume that the events at the beginning of the Original Star Wars right where the events of Rogue One end. Rogue One as a movie makes it clear that it intends for events to line up exactly – that there is no major skip in time or location, no detour, and no pit stop or character pickup.
So let’s start with trying to get a grasp on what the Original Star Wars film believed had happened or was concurrently happening during its beginning. What was the context behind, for example, the space chase that opens the film? What were the characters doing, what were they concerned about, how were they behaving, what did they think about what the other was doing, and why? What, if anything, informs us of the present events that open Star Wars?
Here’s the opening text crawl.
To further contextualize the setting of the Original Star Wars, we must also note some key dialogue.
First, there is Darth Vader’s interrogation of the rebel guard on the blockade runner. Second, there is Vader’s first encounter with Princess Leia on the same ship. Third, we must note the immediate subsequent discussion between Vader and the imperial commander, for which there is no available clip. I have reprinted it below.
Commander: “Holding her is dangerous. [If] word of this gets out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”
Vader: “I have traced the rebel spies to her. Now she’s my only link to finding their secret base.”
Commander: “She’ll die before she’ll tell you anything.”
Vader: “Leave that to me. Send a distress signal and then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”
Then, there is Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi.
There is also this incredible sequence involving the Empire’s plans for dealing with the Rebellion and Vader’s instruction about the Force.
Finally, there is this brief moment between Leia and Han Solo after they’ve escaped. Again, no clip was available.
Leia: “At least the information in R2 is still intact.”
Solo: “What’s so important? What’s he carrying?”
Leia: “The technical readouts of that battle station. I only hope that when the data’s analyzed a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet.”
So how can we summarize this and what other details can we strongly infer from all this?
A battle has just been fought with spaceships where the Rebels won something against the Empire. But during that battle, the Rebels also had an espionage unit of some kind that stole the Death Star plans – plans Leia hopes (but doesn’t know), and at least one member of the imperial high council fears – will reveal an exploitable weakness in the station’s architecture. The spies then beamed the plans to Leia over “several transmissions” which her ship properly received (or perhaps “intercepted”). Darth Vader traced them to the ship, takes the ship, finds her, and then kidnaps her while ordering a political cover-up.
However, in brazenly engaging her vessel, taking Princess Leia captive, and killing everyone else, Vader may have just committed an egregious overstep and opened a political can of worms. Or at least, it would be a serious liability if the Senate were ever to find out. After it’s revealed that the plans are not in the ship’s main computer (one of the first places they thought to look) the helmsman Vader strangles in mid-air (Captain Antilles?) insists to his dying breath that this is a councilor’s ship on a diplomatic mission. Although she has an obvious ulterior motive, this is a line Leia repeats straight to Vader’s face*. Additionally, Leia also chastises Vader for his brashness here, signaling that the Senate will crucify him once they learn what he’s done. Vader’s own lieutenant, himself rather clearly concerned about the delicate political situation, reminds Vader of this as well.
Vader’s retorts, however, are also interesting. He shows his hand here because he can. His answers, comebacks, and inquisitions are intelligent and entirely on substance. Before he ragdolls the helmsman, he asks: “If this is a counselor’s ship, where is the ambassador?” The question might be rhetorical, but he orders that all the passengers must be brought to him alive and the ship stripped. This is slightly clarified later when he speaks with Leia, warning her that she needn’t play coy with him by pretending to be on a “mercy mission.” But he specifically chooses to answer her charge by telling her about the transmissions beamed here from the rebel spies. And when he answers his lieutenant, he is confident that the Senate will not be a problem because they’re going to cover up the whole thing by sending a distress signal from the blockade runner and then telling the Senate that (when the imperials answered the signal) they found no survivors. Remember – at all times, Vader is telegraphing his play.
As for why the ship was in orbit of Tatooine in the first place? Leia had come to specifically recruit Obi-Wan Kenobi and bring him to Alderaan herself. But once it fell under attack, she could only send R2-D2 along with those secret plans, in the hopes that the imperials would lose the trail.
A plain understanding of the words and events of the Original unequivocally states that this was the story. If it wasn’t obvious already, we’ve got a problem here.
In Rogue One, it is revealed that Galen Erso deliberately constructed the Death Star with the reactor shaft and exhaust port weakness so that it could be destroyed, and even designed a way for his daughter to find it. Jyn Erso, after sharing this information with the Rebel assembly and unsuccessfully begging them to attack Scarif head-on, leads a covert mission with a small team to steal her father’s plans – an effort that the Rebels later join once it seems like they might actually succeed. And prior to the battle, Bail Organa hints that he will send someone he trusts to recruit an old friend and ex-Jedi to the cause.
The Rebels engage the imperial fleet and orbital station above Scarif to facilitate distraction for Erso. In the ensuing battle they destroy two Star Destroyers, one of which crashes into the planetary shield that then allows the Rebels to bomb the imperial base and provide air cover for the men on the ground. More importantly, after the shield goes down Erso successfully transmits the plans to the Rebel flagship. Then the Death Star shows up and glasses the entire city. Forced to flee, the Rebels retreat, but are cut off by Darth Vader’s arrival. The rebels upload the plans onto a small data disc and try to escape the disabled ship. Vader boards, cuts off their escape route but for an ajar door, and massacres them all in the hallway. But the final guard slips the plans through the crack in the door a moment before Vader cuts him down. The remaining rebels board the blockade runner and detach from the ship just in time to get away as Vader stares at them from space.
Aboard that ship, Princess Leia is given the disc and confidently declares that hope is restored.
To interpret the text of Star Wars reasonably means to read it all together, not to just cherry pick moments in Rogue One to determine whether they contradict a given line here or there. For example, the first easy discrepancy between the text of the Original and the events of Rogue One is the fact that the stealing of the plans isn’t a thing that happened during a battle in which the Rebels won their first victory against the Empire, so much a thing that was the entire battle. On its face, the text crawl implies that two separate events took place at the same time – one being the battle and the other being the stealing of the plans – but were that the only problem, it could be chalked up to mere semantics. The same would be true if the case against Rogue One rested on the word “intercepted,” which Vader initially uses to describe the blockade runner’s acquisition of the transmissions.
Rather, the true first strike against the film is this issue coupled with the Darth Vader’s account of events as stated in the Original. By specifically referring to “several transmissions” that were “beamed” aboard Leia’s blockade runner by Rebel spies (which he “traced”), Vader explicitly repudiates the entire final sequence of Rogue One. For one, the beaming of the transmissions that took place in Rogue One went to the Rebel flagship, not the blockade runner, which in the film was effectively little more than a large escape pod. For two, upon Vader’s interception of said flagship, the Rebels put them onto a data disc and physically transported them to the blockade runner. Vader himself boarded, cut the power, and then rampaged through the hallways precisely for the purpose of halting their escape. Vader very clearly saw the Rebels smuggle the disc through the crack in the door; worse, he then smashed the door and saw the blockade runner take off. None of this constitutes any reasonable definition of the word “tracing.” Or “beaming.”
What could save the film here is if the word “traced” is alternatively interpreted to suggest that he traced culpability to Leia herself by finding her at the head of the ship. But the contrast between the events of Rogue One and the dialogue of the Original plainly refute this. Vader was told repeatedly (by both the hapless henchman and Leia herself) that the blockade runner was a civilian transport carrying a Senatorial figure. An odd thing to tell the very agent of evil who watched that very transport flee the Rebel flagship in a battle after he came within an inch of boarding it himself, if the events of Rogue One are to be believed. Diplomatic vessels rarely come from battles. Obviously they were lying, but Vader’s response, at least the first time, was strictly on the merits – asking where the ambassador is if the blockade runner was really a counselor’s ship. That’s another odd thing to say if you knew what ship you were chasing the entire time. In fact, Vader’s words imply that he did at least believe one thing – that there were “passengers” on board.
If indeed, as Rogue One would have it, Vader (and presumably others) can specifically place the blockade runner at the battle where the Rebels brazenly attacked an imperial orbital and librarian outpost, and that the surviving Rebels who made it on board know that, then two things must be true. First, there is no conceivable reason for anyone captured on the blockade runner to lie this way. Second, there should be little political risk associated with holding Leia than the commander suggests, nor is it especially “bold,” as Leia charges. It is the answer any civilization with a competent police force would expect to be doled out to terrorists, insurgents, seditionists, and actors of war. The Original Star Wars implies some plausible deniability but Rogue One holds the opposite; the Rebels apparently have none at all.
And it then makes even less sense for Vader to conceal his raid on the blockade runner. By ordering the launching of a distress signal followed by a message to the Senate that all aboard were killed, Vader kept his shadow operations from political accountability. There is no reason to do that if he knew from the beginning that the blockade runner was a vessel of war.
Leia’s message to Obi-Wan presents another odd choice of words if the events of Rogue One are to be believed. In no serious form of English (or Galactic Basic) could the blockade runner have “fallen under attack.” It narrowly escaped Vader’s grasp in a battle, with the crew’s clear expectation that the hunt for their heads and computer drives was on. Nor would a ship full of Rebels, having just survived by the skin of their teeth, and who know (1) that the Empire knows what they carry and (2) is hot on their trail, schedule a stop to recruit someone to join the cause. Yet the dialogue of Rogue One declares in passing that this is precisely the plan. Just before the fighting began, in a clear wink to the fans, Senator Bail Organa dispatched a “trusted” messenger to find an old friend (we can only assume that messenger to be Leia and that friend to be Obi-Wan). Yet Leia was on the blockade runner as it fled the battle above Scarif (and thus part of the battle), which means that the plan was to first involve Leia in the battle and then send her straight on that recruiting quest. Some absurdities blow themselves open.
The point is not to speculate on what the characters’ intent was so much as discern what their words meant. That blockade runner being at that battle in the first place is precisely what makes Rogue One canonically suspect. Vader clearly knew all too well that Leia was not on some “mercy mission” or any other kind of innocent endeavor that would afford her such surprise at his tractor beaming. But given the plain dialogue in the Original, it is utterly inconceivable to think that the reason for that was because he himself witnessed that very blockade runner escape his clutches moments earlier during a space battle. Strike two.
Finally, and perhaps most glaringly, Rogue One fails canonical muster because of an issue that this Vanity Fair article already noted. In the Original, neither the imperial high command nor Leia knew that there was a readily exploitable weakness in the Death Star’s structure. Rogue One acknowledges the former fact but plainly rejects the latter. Leia expressed her hope, after their escape from the Death Star, that when the data was analyzed a weakness would be found. In Rogue One, we may assume that Director Krennic dies before he can tell anyone about the weakness that he knows about. But Jyn Erso tells the Rebel Alliance of the specific weakness that exists in the structure. They need the plans to actually find it, but they know for a fact that a weakness exists.
This problem cannot be addressed by simply assuming that the Rebels didn’t believe her. Their willingness to join the battle and assist Erso’s ground team is an implicit act of faith in Jyn herself, her resolve, and the hope that it can lead to a victory. It is ridiculous to assume that all of the Rebels who survived the battle over Scarif suddenly forgot about the fact that there was, in fact, a weakness.
In their efforts to make Rogue One a standalone film within the Star Wars saga, and, as many have suggested, to use the film to explicitly fix some of the plot holes that can be found in the Original, the creators have decisively erred in keeping the film compatible with the rest. As fans of the material, we have no choice but to conclude that – on a basic reading and understanding of the events, words, and expressions of the Original – the two cannot co-exist. And since the Original, as I assumed at the beginning of this, is the ultimate authority for what constitutes Star Wars, only one conclusion remains.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fails the canon. The authorities might label it so, but the real fans know better.