The Force Awakens may have been the last Star Wars movie a multiplex audience claps for. I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on the Thursday night before its official opening date, technically when the sweaty die-hards should have been gathering in hoards. But the Battery Park Regal cinema was strangely chill, getting a ticket the week before had been surprisingly easy, and my fellow moviegoers seemed more like finance bros kicking back after a day at the office than toy-lightsaber-wielding obsessives. (I was probably the only person in the theater who gasped when Jimmy Smits showed up.) Going to see another Star Wars film a year after the grand return of perhaps our most beloved modern film franchise kind of felt like seeing any old movie. There was no fanfare, and no great expectation. We’re officially in the era of Star Wars normalcy.
Rogue One is the second release in the potentially endless Disney-Lucasfilm era, so it’s probably time to change the yardstick by which we measure the franchise. The Force Awakens let us hold on to the belief that this franchise might still be a very rare golden goose whose eggs would all be of a recognizable lineage. That film, which took place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and brought back all three of the original trilogy’s leads, was a reboot, and a relatively non-divisive one at that. Its responsibilities were wholly different from Rogue One, a semi-side-quel based on a notorious logistical quibble in the original 1977 Star Wars film. Rogue One exists not so much to repeat the past as to shade it in. Perhaps because of that, it’s been the first Star Wars film to genuinely divide critics (the consensus on the prequels is pretty unified, albeit in the other direction), which can only be a good thing.
A reboot is inherently an act of criticism. Sometimes the criticism is that the original work wasn’t successful, but there’s a germ of an idea in its bones worth revisiting. Far more often, though, the criticism is positive: “Man, this was great! Let’s see if we can find out why and do it again.” It seems like it should go without saying, but reboots can’t exist without the passage of time—either nostalgia, a changed cultural context, or a combination of the two is the only thing that gets one into production.
What made the Star Wars prequels so fascinating was that they weren’t reboots. (At least not from an artistic perspective. From a commercial perspective, they were the biggest reboot of all time.) George Lucas—correctly, to his credit—surmised he had already made the first Star Wars trilogy and didn’t need to do it again, then went on to make three films about trade negotiations and senate disputes. For all their failures and wild miscalculations, you have to give them credit for looking and feeling like no film made before, including any of the Star Wars movies. They are at times radically anti-nostalgia. Which is surprising—given how savvy Lucas was about the licensing potential of powerful mythologies, which is dependent on the way people imprint on brands, he had absolutely zero interest in the safe investment of repetition. (This didn’t stop the prequels from making many millions of dollars.)
When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and had J.J. take the wheel for Episode VII, it was the first time that those raised on Star Wars were now its custodians. This is apparent in every frame of The Force Awakens, a charming, reverent, fully-functional franchise reboot. J.J. Abrams, unlike George Lucas, had never made the original Star Wars trilogy, and as a fan, he could not resist the urge to see what it would be like. But Abrams was just the overture: long before The Force Awakens debuted, the names of younger, less-thoroughly-vetted directors were attached to the sequel and anthology films. It was easy to imagine a director who has had less time to establish their voice getting lost in series’ gargantuan shadow. In other words, Rogue One director Gareth Edwards was going to be the first Star Wars director we might actually worry about. Exciting!
Edwards’ hire was announced just a week after the opening of his 2014 Godzilla riff, his first big-budget studio gig after his cult 2010 film Monsters. As franchises, Godzilla has more in common with James Bond than Lucas’ space opera; its titular monster doesn’t have a mythology so much as a series of hallmarks. The telltale screech, a crowd of people looking up in horror, a blast of atomic breath — these elements don’t depend on a cast of characters or even a particular setting (though Godzilla works best on Earth). The success of Edwards’ film was in how he took those familiar elements and reminded us what they actually were, what they might actually be like to experience.