Exploring the music, characters, and worlds of the first galactic stand-alone.

In the midst of conflict, there can still be joy. There must be. It’s the only thing worth fighting for.

That has always been the key to Star Wars, the story of a whole galaxy in the grip of a cruel regime and the powerless many who rise up to resist. As X-Wings pirouetted through space and zeroed-in on targets, as Imperial bunkers fell and orbiting battlestations detonated, the Rebels laughed, they loved, they rejoiced. Sometimes they cried out in agony. But they always got back on their feet.

In EW’s new cover story, we explore how Rogue One, the first stand-alone story in the franchise (out Dec. 16), aims to change things by bringing a grittier, battlefield tone to the fantasy series. But it’s also clinging to the heart of what all Star Wars movies are: A celebration.

Of friendship. Of loyalty. Of family. Of hope.

That’s what it felt like making it, too.

“Even though there’s a lot of pressure on this movie, it’s really impossible to feel it because it reminds you so much of when you grew up and when you felt most comfortable,” says director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), speaking from Skywalker Sound in Northern California, where he was tweaking the final audio mix earlier this month. “It’s hard to get intimidated when you can constantly look left and see a Stormtrooper or look right and see an X-Wing. It just feels like you’re at home again.”

But the pressure is real nonetheless. The stakes are greater than just one film because Rogue One, which reveals how the Rebel spies stole the Death Star plans featured in the original 1977 movie, not only reshapes the past of Star Wars, it will chart a path for future movies.

After relaunching the franchise last year with The Force Awakens, which marked the first step in a new trilogy, Lucasfilm decided to experiment with how far they could expand their cinematic universe by rewinding the chronology and telling a story that doesn’t focus on any of the original characters – except the looming presence of Darth Vader in the background.

In EW’s cover story, we talk with the team planning future movies about their major meeting in January to mark out films well beyond 2019’s Episode IX. We also spoke with Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Doctor Strange, Up), a last-minute addition to the Rogue One team, about his breakneck score that he describes as the galactic version of World War II music.

Are you #TeamLightSide or #TeamDarkSide? This week Entertainment Weekly is both — with two collector covers, one with Felicity Jones’ Rebel agent Jyn Erso standing before the moon-sized Imperial battle station. (Pre-order it here now). Another, featuring Darth Vader, is being sold exclusively in Barnes & Noble stores. So head to your nearest B&N to pick up your copy this week.

As Thanksgiving approaches, our not-so-secret plan is to bring joy to Star Wars fans everywhere. Stay happy, stay strong, and remember Jyn Erso’s own words: “Rebellions are built on hope.”

Credit: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm
Credit: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

To read more on Rogue One, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Tuesday, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
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