SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for the ending of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If you have not yet seen the film, please bookmark this page and save it until you have a screening opportunity!
Depressing as it is, Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has an impressively satisfying ending. In the run-up to the release, many fans questioned why none of the main characters have ever been featured in any other Star Wars stories set after the prequel, and the blockbuster definitively answered that question by having every one of them sacrifice themselves in the name of the mission. Naturally, this wasn't the easiest ending to put together, but as screenwriter Gary Whitta recently explained, the filmmakers knew they had to go with it because it was just too complicated trying to go for anything "happier":
The fact that we had to jump through so many hoops to keep them alive was the writing gods telling us that if they were meant to live it wouldn't be this difficult. We decided they should die on the surface [of Scarif,] and that was the way it ended. We were constantly trying to make all the pieces fit together. We tried every single idea. Eventually, through endless development you get through an evolutionary process where the best version rises to the top.
Gary Whitta recently explained this part of the development of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story while speaking with Entertainment Weekly -- following a brief rundown on the path that the filmmakers almost took with the conclusion. As we previously reported about, there were drafts where the relay race getting the plans away from the Empire wasn't included, and instead it all wrapped up rather nicely, with Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and the rest saved by Rebel rescue ship.
Thankfully Gary Whitta, Gareth Edwards, and the other creative minds behind the project realized that this was not the proper way to bring Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to an end, and the proof that this was the right decision rests in the way in which the prequel movie actually does a proper job enhancing elements of the original trilogy. More than just answering the question of why Jyn Erso & Co. aren't featured characters in the original George Lucas movies, it also does a nice job filling in other smaller gaps in the franchise (like providing an explanation as to why Luke Skywalker is leading a group called Rogue Squadron in Empire Strikes Back).
At the end of the day, it's also just easy to appreciate Rogue One's ending because it's just so rare to have a truly bittersweet ending for a blockbuster in Hollywood. It would have been cookie-cutter, boring and unsatisfying if everyone lived through the war movie that was the latest chapter of the Star Wars franchise, and the truth is that the heroes' sacrifice at the end legitimately changes the way that you reflect on the characters and the film as a whole. Thanks to Empire Strikes Back, there is a nice tradition in this sci-fi saga of dark conclusions, and Rogue One is an excellent continuation of that idea.