(Medium-size Rogue One spoilers follow.)
To the shock of no one, there’s a healthy heap of nostalgia in the latest Star Wars franchise expansion, Rogue One. The whole movie is a callback to the series original installment, A New Hope, insofar as it chronicles the events immediately preceding that world-alteringly lucrative 1977 classic. But in addition to the overall concept, Rogue One also pays tribute to the existing Star Wars legendarium through a smattering of references and cameos. If you want to know why the people in your theater were cheering at seemingly random moments, here’s a list of reasons why:
The film’s cold open features a scene of domestic tranquility for the Erso family. Papa Galen, mama Lyra, and daughter Jyn live on a remote farm located on a blustery world. Inside their farmhouse, we see a pitcher of some kind of pastel-blue liquid. This is an homage to Bantha Milk, an aquamarine dairy product served up by Luke Skywalker’s Aunt Beru in A New Hope. The drink we see here probably isn’t actually Bantha Milk, though, as one has to milk a Bantha for it, and those carpet-elephants only live in desert terrain. I can’t imagine interplanetary shipping of this tasty substance is much of an industry, but maybe it keeps really well?
When grown-up Jyn gets rescued by the Rebels, they take her to their headquarters on a verdant jungle-world called Yavin IV. It’s actually a moon, not a planet, and it also served as the Rebel lair in A New Hope. This is the first new scene set there since 1977.
You’re watching Jyn talk to Rebel leader Mon Mothma about war-type stuff and then, all of a sudden, bam, there’s Jimmy Smits! He’s reprising his role as Bail Organa, a longtime Galactic politician who served in the Republican and Imperial senates and covertly acted as a prime mover in the Rebel Alliance. Most important, he was the adoptive dad of Princess Leia, doing a decidedly better job at it than her black-cloaked biological father would have. Smits played Bail in the Prequel Trilogy, making this the first appearance of a prequels-only character since that much-derided triad concluded in 2005. Don’t get too attached to him, though, as he dies offscreen when his home planet of Alderaan gets blown up in A New Hope.
As our heroes leave Yavin IV on the first leg of their mission, a white-helmeted Rebel dude in an outdoor watchtower gazes at their ship through some kind of binoculars-type contraption. This is a direct echo of a shot in A New Hope when the X-wings take off from Yavin IV to fight the Death Star.
Grand Moff Tarkin
Jar-Jar Binks isn’t in Rogue One, but he’s there in spirit insofar as this film, too, has a CGI-based character who spelunks in the Uncanny Valley. However, this time around, Star Wars went full Polar Express by crafting a computer-generated human: Grand Moff Tarkin. Though Darth Vader is the guy who gets all the limelight, one can make a solid argument that Tarkin — a ruthless Imperial officer and the commander of the Death Star — was the primary antagonist of A New Hope, where he was played by the late, great Peter Cushing. Given that Cushing was too dead to appear in Rogue One, the creators opted to re-create him with ones and zeroes, and though the end result is unintentionally unnerving, it’s unmistakably our boy Tarkin.
Ponda Baba and Evazan
Meanwhile, on the desert world of Jedha, Jyn and her compatriots Cassian Andor and K-2SO literally bump into a threatening chap with a porcine nose, who proceeds to shout at her about how dangerous he is, before his whalelike friend eases him away. These are Evazan and Ponda Baba, respectively — two lowlifes first seen in A New Hope’s famed Cantina scene. There, Evazan makes a similar set of threats to Luke at the bar. When Ponda tries to help his pal out, Obi-Wan Kenobi chops Ponda’s arm off, thus ruining his architectural career.
Also on Jedha, Cassian makes a passing reference to the fact that there are Whills nearby. The Whills are a mystical order of Force-sensitive mystics who taught the late Qui-Gon Jinn how to achieve a kind of eternal life.
When we meet Forest Whitaker’s character for the first time in non-flashback form, he’s a well-known anti-Imperial terrorist whose tactics are too extreme for the Rebel Alliance. However, there was a time when Saw was a bit more chilled-out. A younger version of him played a major role in a story from the fifth season of the Cartoon Network series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. There, we saw Gerrera work with Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker to fight the Separatist Army on his home world of Onderon. Disillusioned after his sister was killed in the fight, he became a hardened warrior, eventually being spoken of in hushed tones by the Rebels in the Rogue One prequel novel Catalyst. He hasn’t aged well since his first appearance; it’s been a rough few decades for the Galaxy.
When Imperial officer Orson Krennic seeks an audience with everyone’s favorite Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, he doesn’t travel to the Imperial capital of Coruscant. Instead, he jets off to a charred planet riddled with lava, where the fallen Jedi maintains a Mordor-esque castle. It’s not labeled as such, but this appears to be the planet Mustafar, where Vader became disfigured during a pivotal fight with erstwhile mentor Obi-Wan in Episode VI — Revenge of the Sith. Apparently, he’s into exposure therapy?
When an Imperial butler tells Vader that he has a visitor, we don’t see the big guy in his usual outfit — instead, his horrifying body is unclothed and suspended in a vat of liquid. This is the healing substance known as Bacta, which we’ve previously seen repairing the body of Vader’s son, Luke, after his escape from the Wampa in Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.
On the tropical world of Scarif, we hear a pair of Imperial Stormtroopers shooting the space-shit, and one of them mentions the discontinuation of “the T-15s.” This could be an offhand bit of nonsense from the screenwriters, but it might also be a reference to the T-15 hyperdrive generator, a piece of equipment first mentioned in a video game tie-in to Episode I — The Phantom Menace. It’s not that important an object, so there’s not much significance here.
When a Rebel squadron flies off to Scarif to help our heroes, a tall robot made of golden metal and a short robot that looks like a garbage can watch the deploying X-wings. These are C-3PO and R2-D2, minor figures you may remember from earlier Star Wars films.
Red and Gold Leaders
Okay, this one was lovely and weird. During the climactic space battle, leaders for the Blue, Red, and Gold Squadrons of the strike force drive the charge. The latter two may be, like Tarkin, CGI re-creations of actors Drewe Henley and Angus MacInnes, who played those respective pilots in A New Hope. It’s also possible that this was recycled footage from the original.*
Once Jyn, Cassian, and the gang succeed in transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebels, we see a 3-D vector graphic representing them pop up on a screen: a re-creation of the graphic first seen in the pre-strike briefing about the Death Star in A New Hope. Thankfully, they kept intact the infamous visual error of the original: The circular depression that fires the laser is placed on the ship’s equator, not its northern hemisphere.
The Plans for the Plans
Once the Rebels have their precious information, they have to figure out how to get it to the right people. Leader Mon Mothma consults Bail, who says he’ll reach out to a Jedi that he knows. He’s referring to Obi-Wan, who is at the time living a hermetic life near Luke on Tatooine. Mon also asks how he’ll get the plans to Obi-Wan in the first place, and he says he’ll give it to someone he trusts with his life. He’s talking about his daughter, Leia. Once he has this idea, he walks out a doorway and starts talking to someone named Captain Antilles. That’s the guy who has possession of C-3PO and R2-D2 as of the beginning of A New Hope, which is why they’re on the ship carrying Leia and the plans and, therefore, why R2 ends up delivering her “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” holo-message to Obi-Wan.
The Tantive IV and Its Precious Cargo
Speaking of the ship carrying Leia: We get to see it in the final moments of Rogue One, when it escapes from the defeated Rebel fleet above Scarif after the surprise arrival of Vader’s legions. This sucker is the Tantive IV, a blockade runner that you might remember as the first moving object you see in A New Hope, flying through space above Tatooine while being pursued by Vader’s Star Destroyer. In case an audience member at Rogue One doesn’t pick up on that connection right away, the film makes it clear through yet another creepy bit of CGI: In the last shot, we see a re-created version of young Carrie Fisher aboard the Tantive IV, holding the plans and saying they represent hope. But not just any hope, and certainly not an old hope. Nah, son, this is a new hope.
*This post has been updated to reflect that the nature of the Red and Gold Leader footage is unclear.