By now, even the most casual Star Wars fan knows that the latest entry in the franchise, Rogue One (in theaters now), recounts the efforts of the Rebel Alliance to acquire the plans for the Empire’s first Death Star. That premise is based on a single line found in the opening crawl of 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope, and while Rogue One is being positioned as a standalone adventure, it’s first and foremost a prequel.
Unlike George Lucas’s Anakin Skywalker-centric prequel trilogy, however, director Gareth Edwards’s saga functions as a direct lead-in to A New Hope. How direct? Well, reports from earlier this year revealed that Rogue One‘s story would end a mere 10 minutes before the opening of the original Star Wars movie. How Rogue One‘s plot ultimately connects to the greater Star Wars timeline is a fascinating bit of reverse engineering some 40 years later. And now that we’ve seen the movie, let’s break down how it happens.
Warning: Massive spoilers to follow, so stop reading now if you haven’t see Rogue One.
Edwards’s tale focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her band of unlikely Rebels — battle-hardened Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind staff-wielding Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), heavily armed warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and wisecracking reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) — as they plan to steal the schematics for the Death Star. That planet-destroying weapon was designed, under duress, by Jyn’s father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who buried a catastrophic weak point in the design — a nifty bit of sabotage that Luke Skywalker will exploit at the end of A New Hope. (That addition to Star Wars lore also finally answers the age-old of question of why the mighty Empire was so careless as to build a supposedly impregnable superweapon with such a spectacular flaw.)
Watch Gareth Edwards explain why ‘Rogue One’ doesn’t have an opening crawl:
Jyn and company eventually infiltrate the tropical planet of Scarif, an Imperial outpost where the Death Star’s plans are kept in a heavily fortified base. Disguised as Imperial guards and accompanied by K-2SO, Jyn and Cassian sneak into the compound’s enormous file chamber, while the rest of the Rebel team engages in a deadly firefight with waves upon waves of Stormtroopers and Death Troopers. Imperial bigwig Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is also on the hunt, trying to chase down Jyn and Cassian. At the same time, the Rebel fleet is caught in a fierce air battle with the Empire above Scarif, as they try to destroy the planet’s shields so Jyn can transmit the plans.
After successfully obtaining what they’re after and surviving a shootout with Krennic, Jyn climbs to the top of the complex’s communications tower. Once the shield is destroyed, she beams the Death Star plans to a Rebel starship. We quickly learn that the Rogue One team’s sneak attack was actually a suicide mission: One by one the characters fall in heroic fashion until only Cassian and Jyn are left alive. Their survival is fleeting: The Death Star, commanded by the malevolent Grand Moff Tarkin (a creepy, CGI-reanimated version of the late Peter Cushing), fires its weapon on the base to destroy all remaining traces, and Jyn and Cassian embrace on the shoreline, waiting for the shock wave to consume them.
Meanwhile aboard the Rebel fleet, the situation is devolving: No sooner has a soldier made a physical copy of the coveted plans onto a familiar-looking disc than the Rebel capital ship is crippled by Imperial forces and boarded by Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers. A Rebel guard sprints with the disc to a jammed escape hatch that they desperately try to open as Vader (wielding his signature red lightsaber — the first time we’ve seen one in the movie) starts to cut his way through the helpless squad.
Even in the face of Vader’s rampage, a doomed Rebel guard manages to pass the disc through the opening in the hatch. The Rebels on the other side can now make their escape, and we see a familiar vessel — the Tantine IV! — pull away from the capital ship before Vader can reach it. In the film’s final scene set aboard the fleeing craft, we see yet more Rebel guards running the plans into a chamber where an instantly recognizable white-robed figure accepts them. “What is it they sent us?” a guard asks. Princess Leia, made youthful again with CGI, looks up and says, “Hope.”
Watch the opening scene of ‘Star Wars:’
With that final image, savvy fans will realize that Rogue One ends mere moments before the opening sequence of Episode IV, in which Vader’s Star Destroyer pursues and boards the Tantive IV, capturing Leia just after she uploads the plans — along with a “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” holographic message — into the trusty R2-D2. (Interestingly, R2 and C-3PO do make a cameo in Rogue One, but back on the Yavin base and not aboard the blockade runner.)
So Lucasfilm wasn’t kidding when the company said there would be no sequel to Rogue One — in terms of the franchise’s chronology, almost nothing exists between it and George Lucas’s original film. (Also, the Rogue One crew have all clearly met their makers.) If that’s a disappointment to fans, they’ll likely be satisfied by how all the interlocking puzzle pieces of the saga’s timeline click together in the end, giving us a sturdy bridge to the trilogy we know so well.
Watch the ‘Rogue One’ cast demonstrate how to play with their action figures: