Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing Rogue One and the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).
Thanks to the merchandised, quasi-scientific diligence of the Lucasfilm marketing department, we know the size and technical specifications of each Death Star. The first, which features prominently in Rogue One, was 74 miles wide; floating alongside Earth’s moon, the superstructure would look like a pebble. The second Death Star was larger, and the Starkiller Base was larger still. Each Death Star once hosted a massive colony of Imperial soldiers, droids, and starships, but the space station required only a small control room to execute its signature offensive capability: firing a hyper-concentrated laser beam at any given target, including a planet, and watching it explode. It emerges as a weapon at the beginning of A New Hope, and looms throughout the entire original trilogy of films. Despite its modest size in the grand planetary scheme, the Death Star is the Star Wars universe’s narrative center of gravity. It is the “Star” in Star Wars.
The Death Star’s prominence is used as evidence when people complain that J.J. Abrams made The Force Awakens (2015) as a shameless facsimile of the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope (1977). Essentially, they’re identical stories: a Jedi novice from a desert planet links up with a scattered band of rebels to do battle with a lunar superweapon, which the rebels rally to destroy with an assault on the base’s exhaust ports. At this point, even a casual Star Wars viewer could navigate the trench to destroy the thing, no targeting computer necessary.
The Death Star serves as a handy storytelling device, too. For the viewer, and for members of the Rebel Alliance themselves, all three Death Star models interpret an otherwise convoluted civil war through a unilateral capacity for genocide. This simplifies the ethics of the conflict pretty quickly. The rebels are refugees, and the brutal, invasive, territory-hungry Empire is the Third Reich. And there you have it: a space opera with great stakes and a clear dramatic trajectory, with all flights converging upon the Death Star.
When you view the Star Wars saga chronologically — beginning with The Phantom Menace and continuing through The Force Awakens — Rogue One marks the second appearance of the Death Star, following its brief introduction in the final minutes of Revenge of the Sith. It’s worth setting the scene here: Filled with quiet anticipation, Darth Vader stands with Emperor Palpatine on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, and the two men stare upon the construction of their floating superweapon. The shot marks the completion of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, and it redefines Emperor Palpatine’s theater of conflict. Leaving the messy combat of the Clone Wars behind them, the Imperial Forces would go on to launch two Death Stars and countless Star Destroyers into space and position themselves as a massive, unmatched air force that patrols the universe, doubling as an intergalactic barracks chain.
During the Clone Wars, though, the future Stormtroopers were just a bunch of clumsy foot soldiers shuffling in white plastic armor. In the 32 years between the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi and the destruction of the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, the Star Wars universe was largely redefined by the notorious prequel trilogy of the 2000s, which dramatized the Clone Wars — in which Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi once fought together — as the theater of conflict that preceded the titular “Star Wars” of the original trilogy. With the production of The Phantom Menace in 2000, George Lucas decided that young Anakin Skywalker was the fateful star of the Star Wars cosmology, and so the story shifted to the earlier, murkier struggles over tariffs, war powers, and federalism. But without a Death Star of sorts, the prequels lacked clarity. The Jedi Order distrusted the Galactic Senate for totally unclear reasons, and the Galactic Senate took advantage of the development of a massive clone army to fight … who, exactly? (Ah, right: a renegade trade organization — basically, the WTO against the world.)
It’s only with the introduction of the Death Star that the Rebellion has a true point of attack in the Star Wars universe, the total incarnation of the Empire’s power, and the greatest challenge for the Rebellion’s purpose. A New Hope may be the origin story of Luke Skywalker, with the original trilogy marking the key plot points of his epic journey, but Rogue One is the origin story of a figurative threat, itself a mute character of sorts, that has eclipsed Luke in the grand scheme of things. Rogue One is our fifth glimpse at a Death Star, which — despite the Rebellion’s best, successful efforts, time and again — seems built to outlive everyone.
Realistically, the Death Star is a neat rallying point for a symphony of aerial combat special effects, staged against a black and starry backdrop. Return of the Jedi splits the Rebel assault on the second Death Star into several, intermittent dogfights among the star cruisers and Star Destroyers, before Lando Calrissian makes his end run. But even that movie manages to bend its narrative chaos to the simple objective of destroying the big ball of genocide in the sky. Visually, the Battle of Naboo in The Phantom Menace and the Battle over Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith are the weakest orchestrations of the prequels, largely owing to a general chaos that makes it difficult to distinguish who all is aiming at what, and for what objective. The Republic wins the Battle of Naboo due to the fluke introduction of a child pilot. The Battle over Coruscant ends because the film editor says it ends.
Contrast those sequences with the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope and the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, where the respective Death Stars aren’t just toy assets, but compelling threats that stab at the Rebellion’s existence and purpose.
The Death Star has lost some of its luster due to overuse and, I’d argue, some gross misuse in The Force Awakens. In A New Hope, the Empire’s destruction of Alderaan is the culmination of a tense, personal stand-off between Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, whom Tarkin ultimately betrays by blowing up the planet despite the princess’s (false, but believable) confession of the Rebel base coordinates.
In The Force Awakens, General Hux’s command of the Starkiller Base is impersonal and meaningless in comparison: he orders the wanton destruction of several random planets — most of them unnamed, but apparently including Coruscant — to make a display of the First Order’s resources and resurgent might. This time, however, the genocide is bloodless, and there’s no mourning; the Resistance goes about its daily business without pause.
It’s fitting, then, that Disney and Gareth Edwards should choose to break from forward continuation of the series chronology to revisit the false moon where it all started, making a big fuss about the superweapon’s schematics in the process. With careful study, we might see where later Death Star models might go terminally wrong. And while Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke will certainly advance the villainous lineage of the Sith in Episode VIII and beyond, it’s the Death Star we should all be worried about; whenever the Rebels strike one down, the next is more powerful than they could have ever imagined.