Michael Giacchino's challenge, in taking the composer's seat for a film in the Star Wars franchise, is representative of that faced by everyone involved with Rogue One.
John Williams's score for the original Star Wars (1977) was arguably the most influential film score of all time: it ensured that the classic symphony orchestra would continue to be the default sound of Hollywood movies into the blockbuster era that was then being ushered in and is now with us more than ever.
Furthermore, in continuing to score the next six films in the franchise, with at least one more yet to come, Williams crafted a body of work that's more than outdone his inspiration: Wagner's Ring cycle, with its epic long-form development of musical ideas based on leitmotifs representing different characters and ideas.
Having continued through the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, and the post-Lucas sequel trilogy now in progress, Williams has become the only individual to have a major, active creative role in every single Star Wars film — until now.
While Williams works on the score for next year's as-yet-untitled Episode VIII, Giacchino was tapped (after reshoots pushed the picture outside the availability window of original hire Alexandre Desplat) to create the music for Rogue One: a film that exists within the continuity of the Star Wars universe, but outside the numbered "saga" installments.
It was at once the most and least enviable film-scoring assignment of the century. How do you take the reins in such a situation? Giacchino's solution, like that of director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, was to anchor his work in the well-known stylistic universe of Star Wars while also telling a new story for a new generation.
Rogue One chronicles an adventure that was referred to in the original Star Wars: the mission to retrieve the plans for the Empire's planet-crushing Death Star, so that Luke Skywalker and friends could have a go at destroying the megaweapon.
The film — as has been previously revealed — opens without the traditional crawl of backstory text, but that registers as perhaps the most radical break with the established Star Wars aesthetic. That, and the fact that on-screen titles identify selected locations, and there are none of George Lucas's beloved cross-screen wipes.
Our heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who we meet as a young girl hiding from Imperial troops come to force her engineer father (Mads Mikkelsen) to aid in the development of the Death Star. Her family connection gives the adult Jyn a unique opportunity to help a band of rebels make a play for the plans.
Anyone who's seen the first three minutes of the original Star Wars knows how this ends, if not the specific fates of the characters we meet on this voyage. What's fascinating about Rogue One is how the filmmakers intricately weave their creation into the well-established Star Wars framework.
That doesn't just mean characters — Darth Vader shows up, still voiced by James Earl Jones — but an entire universe. Biology. Technology. Clothing. Symbology. Even food science: yes, the blue milk makes a cameo.
(The deepest reference goes back over four decades, to the first drafts of the original Star Wars script. I won't spoil the surprise, but hardcore fans will immediately recognize a word that looms large in Lucas lore even though it's never before been heard onscreen.)
Rogue One spends a lot of time on Yavin Four, the moon established in Star Wars as the location of the rebels' hidden base, but other than that the locations are new to this cinematic universe. That makes production designers Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont, both Star Wars veterans, perhaps the real stars of this show.
Since Star Wars technology is portrayed as evolving over time, no film since the original trilogy has existed in this specific moment in the universe's fictional history, and Edwards and his team positively glory in the specific details they're able to crib from Episode IV. Even the hairstyles are redolent of 1977: when the Rebel Council meets, it could be an ad for Wella Balsam Instant Conditioner.
Edwards is known for his facility with cinematic scale, and he also gives us a New-Hope-era universe freed from the confines of stop-motion animation: we get to see X-Wing starfighters battle AT-ATs, and the clash plays out in ways that the original film's effects team, pushing the envelope though they were, could never have dreamed.
Of course, the original trilogy still looks great — even, in fact especially, in its pre-retrofitted version — because the effects were so visually striking and were incorporated into such a compelling story. That's where Lucas slipped up in his prequels, particularly the first two: without interesting characters, all the attention was on his cartoonish effects.
Edwards and Episode VII director J.J. Abrams are drawing on superior technology, but they also understand how to use their CGI effectively: much as Lucas himself used practical effects in 1977. Keep the action moving, don't congratulate yourself, and focus on emotional resonance rather than bland spectacle.
Rogue One demonstrates that the success of The Force Awakens wasn't a fluke: the people at Disney know how to cultivate fans and to repeat what works about a formula without dragging along the things that don't. Rogue One isn't apt to be as emotionally resonant as so many fans — new and old — found The Force Awakens, but it's set up different expectations for itself. This is, in a sense, all backstory, and it functions best when understood as such.
As for Giacchino, how does he do? Well, he does a pretty good job of doing "John Williams" without being John Williams. He uses Williams's orchestra (with a few departures for exotic details, as Williams himself is wont to make), and hews closely to the master's musical language. For an attentive composer, it's not difficult to figure out how Williams would handle a moment when, say, you have a lot of TIE fighters flying in your face: the brass! Goose the brass!
Giacchino dips occasionally into Williams's book of themes, but does so sparingly — and, in fact, some of his original music (for example, the title fanfare) comes closer to the uncanny valley than the CGI does.
When we hear the Force theme, for example, it's long and low. Ditto for the Imperial March, which introduces Darth Vader in an expressionist sequence that demonstrates it's possible to show restraint in a way that goes completely over the top. Who's complaining, though? Of course that's what Darth Vader's house looks like.
Where Williams's absence is most conspicuously felt is in the lack of memorable themes to accompany the new characters. Williams has said he agreed to score Episode VII just so he could write music for Daisy Ridley's character Rey — and there it was in Force Awakens, a pristine newborn theme just waiting to be spun into gold. Giacchino also takes us for a spin, and even if his ride isn't quite as gleaming, it's still transporting.