Rogue One is infinitely better than Episode VII, and here are some brief and scattered thoughts as to why. Where the latter asked Hey what can we replicate?, Rogue One again and again and again seems to ask What can we do differently? Where can we take chances? As a result, Rogue One—which tells a story whose ending we've known since 1977 and whose general outline we've considered for just as long—surprises from the first minute. Episode VII, on the other hand—a film about which we knew nothing—indeed, a film whose writers loudly disclaimed and invalidated the entire "expanded universe" of hundreds of novels so as to have a free hand in storytelling—somehow managed to be derivative and styrofoam-ish, a shiny new sports car whose owners resolutely drove under the speed limit.
By the time I saw the original Star Wars, things like the Death Star and and Darth Vader were fixtures in popular culture. I'm not sure that they were ever scary, exactly. One was something that was always going to be destroyed, no question, and the other was always Luke Skywalker's father and destined for redemption. Accordingly, their presences in the films were less existential threat and more challenges for heroes to overcome. The story was never, "Will our heroes succeed?" Instead, it was: "How will they succeed?" This does not diminish the original trilogy in the slightest because the storytelling is superb, the universe inventive, and the characters and their arcs absolutely nailed.
The same should apply to Rogue One. That is to say, the question from the first frame should have been "how," because we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the Death Star plans will be stolen, and the battle station eventually destroyed. And yet I never felt comfortable during this movie. I never felt that sense of: "Ahhhh! OK, that's great. That makes sense. Very good! That explains that!" Instead, I spent its duration wondering if they were going to pull it off. If they were going to survive. If this thing—this rebel alliance—would ever get its act together. There was never a sense of inevitability. The writers never tried to be clever or convince me of their cleverness. They simply wrote a damn good story that was thrilling and scary and wrenching. They didn't lean on expectations; they launched from them.
A lot of this has to do with the style and tone of the film. If A New Hope is Patton, Rogue One is Saving Private Ryan. People die. Good people sometimes act with cruelty and callousness. When someone gets shot, they feel it and you feel it. Even the Stormtroopers—bodies through which our heroes wade in every other entry in the series—earn the sympathy of the audience. Our heroes gun down a squad of white-armored baddies, and you sometimes flinch. Those guys didn't ask for this. They weren't torturing puppies and snatching babies from cribs. They were probably drafted, sure as hell didn't want to be at whatever meaningless posting they were given, and basically just wanted this whole rebellion to go away so the galaxy could have a little peace.
And the Death Star! My god, that thing is terrifying, a looming, hulking presence whose power is so well known and yet when used even sparingly wrenches the viewer. When it appears on the screen, you start to worry. You feel its danger and terrible possibility. And you feel the reasoning behind its construction. If you live in the Star Wars universe circa. Episode IV, you've been at war all your life. You're tired. There has never been a moment of peace, and dammit you've earned respite. If it takes building a giant weapon to stop this "destructive conflict," so be it. It's worth it! It's a simple solution to a messy problem.
And messy it is. Our heroes in this movie do bad things and suffer terrible losses. They pay dearly to steal the plans to the Death Star, and I'm not sure I can ever see the original again without thinking about that. That's good storytelling.
Contrast all of this with Episode VII. It feels silly to type this about fictional characters in a fairy tale universe, but having seen the sacrifices that went into building and destroying the Death Star, it's insulting to audiences and heroes alike that the writers of The Force Awakens lazily said, "Well let's just give the bad guys a Super Death Star that can destroy an entire solar system. How do the good guys stop it? Let's just have Han say some technical handwavium about flying lightspeed into the shield, and they all just shoot at it until it blows up. Who's up for lunch?"
Rogue One made Episode IV better because both are superbly crafted. They strengthen one another. Rogue One shames Episode VII because Episode VII is lumbering and stupid. It highlights all of that film's weaknesses. It reveals how ordinary VII is, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. For all the scorn they've unfairly received, the prequel trilogy is never ordinary. It is never lazy. It is never derivative. And just as Rogue One makes the original film better, the Clone Wars series and Rebels improve the prequels, and vice versa. What a playground George Lucas has crafted over 40 years! What a latticework on which epics can be hung!
A final thought that bears noting. Rogue One makes very apparent something unexpected in the Star Wars universe: that the Jedi are holding storytellers back. If you're a writer and you have in your sandbox invincible, magic heroes, then there's no problem that can't be solved through invincibility and magic. It's deus ex machina stretched over two hour intervals, and a magic arms race is the only solution. How do you stop magic, invincible heroes? By creating magic-er, invincible-r villains! How do you stop them? More magic! More invincibility! After a while, the audience is driven to the brink of total exhaustion and nothing matters because everyone can do everything. (Marvel films have the same problem.)
Rogue One (and the original trilogy) work precisely because nobody has superpowers, or because there's such a tremendous imbalance in said power that it's nullified, more useful skill than anything else.
Episode VIII has finished shooting, so if there is a halo effect to Rogue One, it won't be felt in that film, and whatever story has been set up in the sequel trilogy will have no choice but to play out as designed. Because Disney will drown us in Star Wars until the crack of doom, there is hope, however, for films in the far future. I lament that the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie is squandered, though.