The Force Awakens was a huge milestone: the first continuation of the Star Wars movie saga since 1983's Return of the Jedi. But the upcoming Rogue One is just as important to the future of Star Wars, if not more so. Warning: minor spoilers ahead...
There's a lot riding on Rogue One's X-Wings. The first stand-alone story in Disney's revitalized Star Wars movie machine is going to be different from the other seven episodes in the franchise for a lot of reasons — and its success or failure could have a major, permanent impact on all Star Wars movies yet to come.
In the very unlikely event you don't know, Rogue One is about a group of Rebellion pilots who are tasked with getting the plans for original Death Star — the plans Princess Leia gave to R2-D2 in A New Hope. It's been described both a heist movie and as a war movie, which means it's going to be the first Star Wars movie with a specific theme to it beyond its general "space fantasy" aegis. Presumably, this will also be the first Star Wars movie not to include a Jedi (or possibly even anyone with Force sensitivity). Perhaps most importantly, it's going to be the first Star Wars film without a Skywalker at its center.
And that's the question: Are audiences ready for Star Wars sans Skywalkers? Given the current international appetite for all thing from a galaxy far, far away, right now I am certain people are more than willing to take a chance to find out. I also have zero doubt that ticket sales for the first weekend will be amazing, and that the movie will turn a profit. But that's doesn't mean the movie will be enjoyed. If ticket sales drop precipitously after the first weekend, or word-of-mouth turns bad — or, basically, if this movie sucks — Rogue One may make a profit, but it will also make audiences much more wary of all the other Star Wars stories Disney plans on churning out until the world ends.
A relative failure wouldn't stop Disney from making more standalone Star Wars films, but the next spin-off on the slate is a young Han Solo movie; after that, the movies that are most often rumoured to follow include solo adventures for Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Mining the histories of these well-known, beloved characters is smart and obvious. But it's also kind of a bummer to think that the Star Wars movies are going to perennially stick to the same dozen or so characters, when there's literally an entire galaxy to explore.
This is why Rogue One is so important. Sure, it links directly to A New Hope, so audiences do understand the stakes immediately and easily. But other than a rumoured appearance by Darth Vader, this movie stars an entirely new group of heroes, with an entirely new battle against the Empire. Getting a more in-depth view of the Rebellion — and getting to see just how desperate its fight against the Empire was in the heights of its tyrannical power — would be fascinating enough. But the chance to see, on the big screen, what life in the Star Wars universe is like for regular people, people who don't hang out with ultra-powerful space-wizards, is even more enticing.
This movie has the potential to give us a wider view of the Star Wars universe than we've ever seen before — literally an entire universe full of stories LucasFilm and Disney could tell. There could be countless heroes and villains out there, who are just as cool as Han Solo or as terrifying as Darth Vader, but we'll never know, unless someone gets to tell their stories. There are other battles against the Empire, other foes to vanquish, other adventures to be had, and surely some of them have to be more interesting than giving us a bit of back-story on characters we already know pretty well. (Han Solo may be one thing, but every part we know of Boba Fett's life prior to Empire Strikes Back was dumb, and we're all very aware that Jedi used to be arseholes. I do not actually need more Fett or Obi-Wan in my Star Wars movies.)
Rogue One is a first step into this larger world. But if the movie doesn't perform to its expectations, both financial and critical, Disney is almost certainly going to step right back, and concentrate solely on established Star Wars characters for its future stand-alone films. This is hardly the worst fate in the world, to be sure — but what an opportunity would be missed!
The reason most of us fell in love with Star Wars in the first place is that it felt real. All those little details — the fact that vehicles looked used, the allusions to the past, the countless aliens you saw once and never again — made it feel like countless things were happening not just off-screen, but all around the galaxy. This sense that every character, seen or unseen, has his/her/its own agency, life, goals, whatever, is what made this elaborate, epic story about a family of space wizards seem real. I am completely confident when I say that a great deal of Star Wars' enduring appeal comes from its near-miraculous ability to make the unreal seem so real.
Rogue One has the opportunity (maybe onus is a better word) to realise this fundamental quality of the Star Wars universe on screen — to attempt to see if the depth that has always seemed a part of the franchise is in fact real, or merely an illusion. The answer depends entirely on the fate of this first stand-alone film, and thus it will shape the future of the Star Wars movies far more than the Force itself. Are the pilots of Rogue One up for this integral mission? I'm sure they're standing by.