How did this (Death Star) get made?
Medium-size Rogue One spoilers ahead.
There’s a useful literary concept that comes from the world of fanfiction: fix-it, a term for stories that “fix” the canonical version of a given tale to make it more satisfying. A fix-it is a subcategory of the concept of the retcon — the act of retroactively overriding or reframing an existing story in a subsequent work. Sometimes, it means outright rewriting a bit of plot so a beloved character doesn’t die, or a distasteful narrative beat never happens. But more interesting are the fix-it stories that don’t seek to change the original work, but rather to fill in the blanks.
In such cases, the writer will take some infuriating plot hole or an inconsistency of characterization — Khan inexplicably remembering Chekov in Star Trek II, Scully’s motherhood going unmentioned in later X-Files material, why a computer virus can affect human bodies in Mega Man X — and come up with a plausible fictional explanation. When done well, it can be an elegant effort of streamlining and invention; when done poorly, it can just make the original story even more baffling. Nitpicky Star Wars fans can rejoice, because this weekend’s Rogue One is a shining example of the former. In one simple scene, a major problem from 1977’s Episode IV — A New Hope is solved in a way that will leave eagle-eyed geeks breathless. It’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that Star Wars has, historically, been terrible at retcons.
The examples of such creative errors are legion and infamous. There’s the loathed alteration that George Lucas made to Han Solo’s encounter with bounty hunter Greedo in the special edition of A New Hope: instead of Solo slyly and cold-bloodedly shooting his Rodian rival by surprise, the new version has Greedo shoot at Han first, making the killing blow a boringly noble act of self-defense. In 2002’s Attack of the Clones, Lucas erased dozens of cool stories from novels and comic books about Boba Fett by retroactively explaining that the jetpacked gent was actually a clone of his bounty-hunter dad. Solo’s infamous boast that he “made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs” — a unit of distance, not time — was eventually explained by a labored workaround involving black holes, replacing the simpler interpretation: that Han was a terrible bullshitter.
To be fair, there have been some useful (and, significantly, non-Lucas-executed) attempts at official fix-its in the Star Wars corpus. For example, Tom Angleberger’s 2015 young-adult novelization of Return of the Jedi explains how Leia can say she remembers her mother despite Revenge of the Sith revealing that her mom died in childbirth. According to Angleberger’s text, Leia secretly isn’t sure whether her memory is real. But though that’s useful, it’s in no way aesthetically satisfying — it accounts for the line by undermining it. Similarly, the inconsistencies with Boba Fett’s filmic origin story and the reams of contradictory content that came before has all been forced and awkward: Remember all those stories where Fett’s real identity was a guy named Jaster Mereel? As post-2002 works told us, that was actually just a totally separate guy who knew Boba. In other words, canonical Star Wars fix-it is nothing new, but it’s almost always been irritating at best and actively damaging at worst.
Not so in Rogue One, thank the Force. The big fix-it moment comes about halfway through the story, when Felicity Jones’s rebellious loner Jyn Erso gets her hands on a holographic message from her long-absent father, Galen, played by the eternally glamorous Mads Mikkelsen. A brilliant scientist and engineer, Galen was long ago taken prisoner by the Empire and pressed into helping that totalitarian regime construct its world-exploding Death Star. On the dusty planet of Jedha, Jyn watches a recording in which her father reveals what he’s been doing all these years, and what she has to do in order to save the Galaxy.
Before we go any further, we have to establish the problem that the movie fixes here. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance is able to destroy the aforementioned planet-killing space station through a highly improbable David-and-Goliath maneuver. Despite the fact that this sucker is the size of a moon and the crown jewel of Imperial engineering, the secret schematics that the Rebels swipe reveal that the whole thing can be destroyed if you shoot a couple of small torpedoes into a tiny exhaust port that’s just sitting on the surface, unprotected. Aim your gun correctly and flick your thumb on the firing button and you’ll make this massive mechanical horror go kaboom. How could such a disproportionate chain reaction be possible? And why the hell would the Rebels even know such a tiny flaw exists, given that the schematics are likely to be insanely complex?
Enter Galen. He informs Jyn — and loyal longtime fans — that the exhaust port was his idea. During his captivity, he realized that, even if he died, the Empire would still finish the Death Star, so his best move was to use his unenviable position for the greater good. Over time, he carefully and covertly inserted that Achilles’ heel into his loathsome cosmic WMD. It was so well hidden that the only way one could find out about it would be to personally hear it from him, so he gives the information to Jyn in the tape, as well as instructions on how to find the plans. Spoiler alert: She does, and the way is cleared for the Rebellion’s success in A New Hope.
It’s so fantastically simple and makes all the sense in the Galaxy. Not only does the fix tie up the loose ends, it also provides Rogue One’s most interesting connection to the existing films. It’s not empty fanservice like the various unnecessary cameos scattered throughout the run time, nor is it a cheap laugh line designed to make us proud that we can get insider-y references. It genuinely fleshes out this beloved mythos. The revelation is also a true surprise: The whole point of the movie is that it explains how the Rebels got the plans, but you don’t see Galen’s secret coming. The news also doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story; indeed, it pushes the story along with renewed urgency, since there’s suddenly hope for the characters that the Death Star might be destroyed. Plus, we get to hear the expository information intoned with classily restrained urgency by a truly great Dane.
Let the scene be a lesson to future Star Wars installments, especially prequels like the forthcoming Han Solo solo film. Hell, given that every studio’s clamoring for continuity-filled cinematic universes these days, there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for fix-it retcons. We already got another good example earlier this year, when Tony Stark told us in Captain America: Civil War that he was back in his armor in Avengers: Age of Ultron, despite ostensibly quitting in Iron Man 3, because he went back on his promise to Pepper Potts, just one of the many times he’s done so. So it’s not impossible to do well. We live in a strange new world of byzantine pop-culture tapestries, and any tapestry is going to have flaws in the stitching. An expert hand will reweave with great care and graceful precision; a lesser stroke will tear the whole thing up.