Like other supposed production troubles that happened with Rogue One, the film had some concerns in signing on and keeping a composer to tackle the score. Initially, it was French composer Alexandre Desplat, who had signed on for scoring duties back in March 2015 and was eager to begin working on the music. However, schedules did not align with the film's secondary reshoots and he was forced to leave. Enter Michael Giacchino into the fray.
Giacchino is not unfamiliar with either Williams's musical vernacular (Jurassic World comes to mind) and even Star Wars, having scored for the Disneyland Star Tours attraction before. 2016 in particular has been extremely kind to him, with the composer turning out scores for now four major films in this year alone. Fresh off the heels of Doctor Strange, and asked to take over scoring duties soon after Desplat's departure, Giacchino was faced with only four-and-a-half weeks to create over 90 minutes of music for one of the largest space operas of all time, with recording sessions happening over the course of a month or so. Fans were initially skeptical of the score's final quality due to these time constraints and the heavy responsibility Giacchino was meant to carry. With the scores for Zootopia and Star Trek Beyond laughable, and Doctor Strange a remarkably aural and sonic masterpiece, did Giacchino succeed with Rogue One in continuing one of the greatest aspects of the Star Wars franchise?
The first and most obvious difference between Rogue One's score and the main Star Wars films is identity. This is very much a Michael Giacchino score, with all of his sonic palette at full use and prevalent on the composer's own trademark styles. String ostinati, thunderous timpani, war drums and other exotic percussion, brass fanfares and rips, piano chords, and some other tender moments all return in context for a Star Wars film. The action cues, save for the musical nods to previous films in the series, are also very much in Giacchino's style and do well to highlight the intensity of the warfare on screen. Cues which stand out in these veins include "Jedha City Ambush" and "Confrontation on Eadu," with "Star-Dust" and "Your Father Would be Proud" notably sentimental.
With that being said, however, the other distinguishable factor of this score has to do with its overall harmonic structure and tonal language. Try as it might to provide callbacks to the previous films and emulate the language John Williams has created, the overall thread connecting the music together is much simpler harmonically. This isn't as much of a detriment as it appears to be, though. The new primary themes Giacchino has created for Rogue One are nice, but different compared to other main themes of Star Wars. Jyn Erso's primary theme, for example, is strikingly powerful, even though it's not one of Giacchino's best character-driven themes overall. First heard in "A Long Ride Ahead" (2:42), this stirring theme is brought back multiple times during her adventures, primarily in strings or woodwinds. Its best moments are at the end of "Confrontation on Eadu" (6:57), at full orchestral power, as well as in "Your Father Would Be Proud" overall. The track "Jyn Erso & Hope Suite" also includes some beautiful performances of the theme, but isn't that particularly strong as a cue.
In all honesty, though, the other major new theme of Giacchino's score overpowers Jyn's theme and is much more memorable even though it appears less in the film. This theme is for Orson Krennic's faction of the Imperial Army and their efforts to complete the Death Star. In many respects, it really feels like a close sibling to Williams's "The Imperial March" because the theme is built on the ever-famous triplet motif predominating its cultural legacy and actually developing it into something new. This new Imperial Theme is first heard in "He's Here for Us" (0:34) and makes dramatic appearances at the beginning of "When Has Become Now". However, other than the excellent cue "The Imperial Suite," the theme disappears from the rest of the soundtrack as all-too-familiar faces take over the final stages of the Death Star. Onscreen (and not on the album), it appears a few more times, with lasting impressions.
In terms of connecting Rogue One to the rest of the Star Wars series, there is plenty here to constitute precursor material of what's to come in A New Hope. It simply wouldn't be a Star Wars film without hearing John Williams's main theme at some point, which only appears at "Scrambling the Rebel Fleet" (1:08) very briefly. It's surprising that the main title theme doesn't appear at all when the Rogue One title flashes onscreen (specifically in the track "A Long Ride Ahead" at 3:37). Instead, Giacchino employs a third theme meant to be for the Rogue One team, which appears again in places such as "Rebellions Are Built on Hope" (1:10). The appearances of Darth Vader are appropriately treated with "The Imperial March", found in "Krennic's Aspirations" (2:05) and in the beginning of "Hope." Although this is a time many believe the Jedi to be completely extinct, there are still moments when the theme for the Force is heard for the characters who believe in it. Tracks such as "Rogue One" (1:41) and "Trust Goes Both Ways" (0:41) poignantly include Williams's Force theme for dramatic depth and weight, with the latter cue nicely juxtaposed as counterpoint to Jyn Erso's theme.
In some instances, Giacchino does go above and beyond by including musical cues from places least expected. Finally, at last, the ominous but lesser-known Imperial motif Williams created for A New Hope returns and is given a new purpose in "Krennic's Aspirations" (2:43). The rebels' brilliant fanfare makes a quick appearance in "AT-ACT Assault" (1:26), as well as a surprising and fleeting recollection at 0:32 of Williams's Imperial Walker music from "The Battle of Hoth" in The Empire Strikes Back. The end credits suite combining Williams and Giacchino's music (not included on the album) even includes the original ending fanfare found in the last few seconds of A New Hope, now the second appearance of this music in the franchise. Even Williams's Death Star motif, ominous and brilliant, is briefly heard at the very end of "Star-Dust" where one would least expect it to occur, used as a stinger for the end of the cue. Unfortunately, it's the only appearance of this particular motif in the entire score. One would think that, given the main enemy is this iconic weapon of destruction, there would be more muscled representations of it, but this is not the case.
The cue "Hope" is probably the most connective tissue to A New Hope overall for obvious reasons. It begins with Darth Vader's singular greatest moment in the film, accompanied by the Imperial March akin to the style Williams's own "Duel of the Fates" or "Battle of the Heroes" in terms of choral majesty and dramatic weight. This segues into a recollection of "The Rebel Blockade Runner" cue from A New Hope (for reasons that contain pretty weak spoilers) before ending with the Force theme once again. It's one of the best tracks on the entire album and a perfect transition into the familiar adventures that are about to take place.
Unfortunately, the single biggest flaw of this score is that it's not very memorable when looking at the big picture. It's not lackluster in terms of orchestral might and musical content, but it does show some weaknesses in a few places, especially with the new character themes (save for Giacchino's Imperial Theme). It's extremely difficult, and even a little unfair, to compare this score to John Williams's contributions over the last 40 years or so, but this is a Star Wars movie. While the bar has been set pretty high, but not high enough that it can be matched by other composers, it's a huge challenge to be able to achieve the level of artistry and craft that the previous composer had already set. To Giacchino's credit, though, and given the insanely short amount of time he had to complete the job, the Star Wars franchise could have been left with much worse results.
For what it's worth, Rogue One does have a good score and really allows Giacchino the opportunity to breathe new ideas into this iconic franchise. Similar to the film itself, the score starts off robust and uncertain but eventually progresses into some great action sequences and some decent creative output. While the opening 20 or so minutes are the weakest on the album, the musical vernacular becomes much more interesting later on and much more complex. The callbacks to previous films in the series are appropriately placed and used effectively to whet the appetites of the older and enduring Star Wars fans, with the exception of the Death Star motif. If only there had been more cues included on the actual album! Once again, we have a Star Wars album release where only a small portion of the final product (this time, 69 out of maybe 100 minutes in total) is sold to retailers. The unreleased end credits suite for the movie, although not the best in the series, does include that last fanfare from A New Hope as an entirely new recording and it's wonderfully mixed!
As with The Force Awakens, it's not entirely certain where Rogue One's score will stand with the others. It's not certain if Giacchino's new themes will leave a lasting impression either, representative of ideas and characters that have not appeared as often as other iconic ones. Whatever the case may be, it is a good score from the composer, an impressive feat for a short amount of time available, and a very different, but mostly interesting, take on the Star Wars saga.