Just as every “Star Wars” film over the past four decades has opened with the same 10 words, so must any story about the franchise begin: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”
“Star Wars” fans have been led on a journey through a modern mythology that has spanned 10 films, following the exploits, adventures and redemption of the Skywalker family as the lightsaber was passed from father to son and on to a new generation in last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
This week’s release of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” diverges from that path, beginning a new excursion and lineup of heroes.
“Rogue One” is the first of the “Star Wars” anthology films. It shares the same galaxy, timeline and plot points with the original 1977 “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” but it is a distinctly different kind of “Star Wars” film.
Gone are the familiar faces of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca. Gone, too, are the beloved droids R2D2 and C3P0, who up until now held the distinction as being the only characters to appear in all the films. A few old friends return, including Galactic Senate Loyalist leader Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, the adopted father of Princess Leia. Ironically, the most familiar “face” we will “see” will be hidden beneath the iconic mask of Darth Vader, with James Earl Jones reprising the voice of the legendary villain.
“Rogue One” introduces a slate of new characters: Jyn Erso, Capt. Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook and former Imperial droid and scene-stealer K-2SO. Taking his place among the list of “Star Wars” villains will be the caped Director Orson Krennic. The ensemble nature of the film has been likened to classic war movies such as “The Dirty Dozen.”
The lead character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is an independent, strong-willed character with a checkered past. She is forced to take on a leadership role in a high risk heist.
Last year’s “Force Awakens” also featured a strong female lead in the character of Rey.
Angela Filotei, 41, of Clairton is a lifelong “Star Wars” fan. “It’s about time little girls got to see powerful female characters and not just frilly princesses,” she says.
“Princess Leia was strong in her own way, but I don’t think you get to fully appreciate that in the original series. At least not in the way you do with these newer characters,” Filotei says, adding she is eager to see how the studio and storyline continue to develop those roles.
“Rogue One” takes place before the events of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” as the Rebel Alliance has learned of Emperor Palpatine’s new weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. The film revolves around the mission of a “ragtag” crew of rebels recruited to steal the plans for the Death Star. As with most “Star Wars” films, the story and production have been shrouded in secrecy — but it’s safe to say they achieve their objectives though “many Bothans may die to bring that information.”
The excitement surrounding the release of last year’s “Force Awakens” was in direct anticipation of the return of the popular cast from original trilogy. It had been preceded by a 30-year hiatus from those characters and a 10-year drought from the last “Star Wars” film — “Revenge of the Sith.” The enthusiasm of fans helped propel “The Force Awakens” to the No. 4 spot of highest-grossing films of all time at more than $2 billion.
With the release of “Rogue One,” fans won’t have old friends to greet them. If successful, it will add not just a new chapter to the franchise but a new series and opportunities to explore new worlds in the “Star Wars” mythos.
A solo Han Solo film following the dashing young smuggler already is slated for release in 2018, with a Boba Fett film following in 2020.
It’s familiar territory for Disney, which reinvigorated the superhero genre with its Marvel films, spinning off and introducing characters and creating an ever-evolving universe. Marvel currently holds three of the top 10 grossing film spots.
The success of “Rogue One” will depend largely on its ability to build upon its pre-existing fanbase. That fanbase has grown across multiple generations through films, video games, books and multiple animated series.
In fact, one of the characters in the film, Saw Gerrera, first appeared in the 2008 animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Including him is an effort to unify and connect the “Star Wars” media galaxy and appeal to fans of the show.
“Star Wars” is a fan-driven empire, and while George Lucas often held his fans with disregard, Disney is keen on appealing to their interest and rewarding their loyalty.
It can be a delicate balancing act of giving fans what they want while throwing in a few surprises.
Brandon King, 29, of Greenfield remembers the first time he was introduced to “Star Wars.”
“I was 11 years old, and my dad sat and watched the movie (‘Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope’) with me,” King says. “I remember my dad being very excited for me to see it and my mom being unhappy because it would ‘turn me into a nerd!’ ”
Over the following evenings, King and his father watched the next two episodes in the film series.
“It brought us very close,” King says.
That early indoctrination to the “Star Wars” mythos is a common theme among fans.
Pitcairn resident Dan Beltz, 42, was introduced to “Star Wars” at a much younger age. Although he was too young to remember viewing “New Hope” in the theater as a toddler, he remembers having the toys.
“I had the toys right out of the gate,” Beltz says. “This was before VCRs, so you couldn’t just rewatch the movie. So I would re-enact the story with my action figures over and over.”
Beltz has remained a lifelong fan. He is now the executive officer of Garrison Carida, the regional chapter of the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers, a group of more than 204 volunteer members who cosplay as Darth Vader’s loyal minions. The group makes frequent visits to children’s hospitals and participates in charity events. The group will be on hand for this weekend’s screenings at Century Square Luxury Cinemas in West Mifflin.
Beltz is looking forward to the release of “Rogue One”: “I got my ticket over a week ago.”
He recalls waiting eight hours in line to see “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” when it was released in 1999. “I miss the experience of waiting in line. I waited in line for Pink Floyd tickets at Three Rivers Stadium and I waited in line for ‘Phantom Menace,’ both were very special times for me.”
Fans who grew up waiting not only in long lines, but for “a long time” between films will have a much shorter wait. There are “Star Wars” films debuting every year through 2020, which doesn’t seem so far, far away.
Joe Wos is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.