As readers of this blog are aware, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan. I was crushed when the Expanded Universe was remade into Legends, and was generally disappointed by The Force Awakens last year. I follow the Star Wars Report (an excellent site with quality podcasts), and have dived headfirst into the new(ish) Star Wars miniatures fleet battle game Star Wars: Armada (the best tabletop game I’ve ever played, period). I had the distinct pleasure of viewing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Sunday, December 18th, and I have to say, without reservation, this is now my favorite Star Wars film by a county mile. A more detailed review follows this, but for now, this is your OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING. I repeat, this is a SPOILER WARNING (for both Rogue One and The Force Awakens, though the latter has been out for a year).
Before we get much further, I would like to make a point about how I rate the Star Wars films. I have only five Star Wars films I can rate, out of the eight that exist. You see, I don’t actually remember the first time I saw the Original Trilogy. I remember watching it as I grew up, and that it was a pretty regular choice for many years, but I don’t actually remember the first time I saw the films. To that end, the original three movies, Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, are the only three films in my mental library that are ungraded. They exist as something of a cinematic zero point, albeit an extremely high one. For that reason, while I can say whether or not a film is better or worse than one of the Original Trilogy, I can’t rate them on a favoritism scale, and thus they are out of the running for my favorite, either of the franchise or all-time. Perhaps that is unfair, but that is the way I am and I make no apologies for it.
Further, as one of the links at the beginning of this post noted, I am a Legends Loyalist. Much, probably a significant majority in fact, of my time in the Star Wars franchise was not in the films, but in the universe that formed around them, the games, novels, and other media that formed the fuller universe George Lucas’ vision opened the door to. As I noted then when Legends was created, the Expanded Universe’s strength lay in a diversity of vision and story that had created characters like Admiral Gilad Pellaeon of the Imperial Navy during and after the Galactic Civil War, and the Jedi-turned-Sith Revan in the Republic’s ancient past. It had fleshed out film characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi with the stories about his time with Mandalorian leader Satine Kryze, and gave life to the Alliance to Restore the Republic’s struggle after the Battle of Endor to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy at large. When the Expanded Universe became Legends, I advised Disney to remember what the Expanded Universe did right, to explore stories in ways beyond the traditional hero’s journey of the Skywalker clan, to retain the lived-in nature of the Star Wars universe, and to consider a broader version of story-telling that encompasses the visions of all sorts of authors and creatives.
The Force Awakens failed that test. It did nothing to expand the Star Wars universe in a meaningful way, only reset the clock. Again the evil Space Fascists built a Giant Galactic Destruction Sphere, which was again defeated by a handful of one-man starfighters in a desperate bombing run. Again new heroes went through their own Hero’s Journey, discovering faith in themselves and each other and certainty about their place in the universe. At least for me personally, The Force Awakens relied on nostalgia to guide you through a story that you had already seen, and to cover up where the new direction of the Star Wars universe lacked. As the mold for the new generation of Star Wars cinema, The Force Awakens is a poor and unappealing example.
Rogue One shatters that mold, in every way that matters. Once again we are thrust back into the Galactic Civil War, where the Rebel Alliance is yet to score truly major victories in its insurrection against the Empire. We are given a new cast of characters, all different, unique characters whose backstories provide a new take on the events of the Star Wars universe. Gone are the sage knights of Obi-Wan and Yoda, and naive purity of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia (rest in peace, Your Highness). Instead we see the dark corners of the Alliance, the spies, saboteurs, and killers that do the work of a rebellion. And we are presented with a grand story that not only reinforces the Original Trilogy, but enhances those films, particularly A New Hope with a new light that reinforces those stories’ themes with new and prescient urgency.
This is not to say that Rogue One is flawless. I agree with many a critique of the film that its pacing is inconsistent, and that the movie clearly shows editing done after principal photography had lapsed. For the first thirty minutes of the film, the audience is catapulted around the galaxy, meeting characters, noting important setup, then once more blasting off to the next point without time to digest what we have seen. In this way, Rogue One learned the wrong lesson from The Force Awakens, pacing does matter, and it matters quite a bit. Should a director’s cut come along and add, for example, five or ten minutes, I imagine that could be corrected quite easily. Of the CGI characters, I will say the same. While CGI has come a long way since even TRON: Legacy, a more circumspect camera around Grand Moff Tarkin wouldn’t have hurt the film (though Leia I barely noticed, perhaps because her appearance is momentary.)
The other major critique of Rogue One I have heard is this: where The Force Awakens is a remix/remaster of A New Hope, Rogue One does the same for Return of the Jedi. And here is where I think the distinction between Rogue One and The Force Awakens becomes apparent: one of these films is a play-by-play update of the original film, and contorts its plot to make these arrangements, most notably for me personally that apparently the Resistance could not call on the New Republic’s starfleet in the aftermath of Starkiller Base’s first attack. The other pays homage to the original, some elements more than others, but charts its own course in doing so. If we set aside for a moment that Rogue One only really copies the end of Return of the Jedi, stealing an Imperial shuttle to penetrate a shield that must later be brought down for the sake of the Rebel fleet, I think it’s worth noting that Rogue One takes a far different tone with the material that Episode VI, and does so with dexterity and grace.
At its core, Episode VI, like basically every other Star Wars film, is an adventure story. Each individual episodic film dabbled in its own sub-genre, such as that Episode II is Star Wars’ pass at romance, Episode V a thriller, but all are adventure stories, and VI is no exception. As the conclusion of an epic saga, its final battle is suitably grandiose, but the Battle of Endor takes a back seat to the story of the Skywalkers and their allies, notably Captain Solo, C-3PO and R2-D2, and the Ewok natives of Endor. The destruction of Executor, the superdreadnought flagship of the Imperial fleet trapping the Rebel fleet before the superlaser of the fully operational Death Star is not the climax of the battle, the defeat of Darth Vader at the hands of his son is, and his subsequent redemption when he kills the Emperor.
Say what you will, Rogue One is not an adventure story. It is a war story, specifically one about an insurgency. It is the first full war story in the Star Wars cinematic franchise, with Episode III its only companion on that category, and even it still only uses that as a sub-genre to place its adventure in. Rogue One shows us how the war is fought, and pulls absolutely no punches doing so. In our first introduction to Captain Cassian Andor, he murders an informant he was sent to meet and escapes with no apparent remorse for his deeds. This man is no Obi-Wan Kenobi or Bail Organa, nor is he the Rebel version of James Bond. As the actor Diego Luna perfectly noted in an interview with IGN, he is in fact Bond’s polar opposite, not a carefree spy without an attachment in the world, either for others or himself, but in fact the inverse, a man who deeply cares about the cause of the Rebel Alliance, and is willing to do anything to advance that cause.
The central heroine of Jyn Erso is not too terribly different. From the first meeting with Mon Mothma, Jyn makes it clear she has no interest in aiding the Rebels, and is only interested so far as her father is involved. During the time she is with Cassian, Chirrut, and Baze in the hideout of Saw Gerrara, an extremist Rebel shunned by the Alliance at large, she notes that she has gotten Cassian the introduction to Saw and that as far as she is concerned, her task is complete. Only once viewing the recording sent by her father Galen, then later witnessing his death at the Imperial research station on Eadu does she fully commit to the destruction of the Death Star.
Throughout the film, we are treated to another version of the Rebel Alliance, one worlds away from the kinder, gentler Rebels we are treated to in the company of Luke, Han, and Leia. When sent with Jyn to locate Galen, Cassian is given the order to assassinate rather than extract him, and lies to every member of the crew to make sure he will be able to accomplish his task. This Rebel Alliance, upon learning of a secret Imperial research station that its agents are infiltrating, orders a strike by a squadron of fighter-bombers, killing the only person capable of truly aiding their efforts against the battlestation. This Alliance bickers when confronted with the evidence of the Death Star, some insisting that they are better off capitulating to the Empire rather than fighting an entity capable of wielding such destructive powers. In short, Rogue One makes the Rebel Alliance become human, with all the flaws and foibles thereof, in a way the Original Trilogy never did, nor needed to.
This realism is what I found lacking in The Force Awakens, and what made the Expanded Universe the juggernaut of stories it became before its untimely demise. Strange though this may sound, I knew Rogue One was different in the opening scenes where Director Krennic captures Galen and orphans Jyn. I knew it when I watched the elite Death Troopers move. I know this sounds stupid, but watching the Death Troopers move, they were alive and real in a way the swarms of stormtroopers in the Original Trilogy and the hordes of computer-generated clone soldiers in Episode II and III never were. Throughout the entire film, I never once found myself wondering if that was what a character would do, whether it was a member of the main cast, a faceless stormtrooper, a Rebel pilot or agent, or anyone else I encountered.
If there was any part of the film I think Rogue One handled with perfection, the final battle has to be it. We have seen the scale of destruction the Empire is willing to unleash after the Death Star annihilates Jedha City and every rebel partisan in the area for good measure. We have seen the vagaries of the notorious “fog of war” in the mistimed strike on Eadu. We have seen the political paralysis that grips democratic organizations faced with overwhelming odds and with individual agendas perhaps not completely in line with the group as a whole. And then we get the glorious Battle of Scarif.
And glorious it is. This is where Rogue One comes into its own as a war film on par with classics like Saving Private Ryan. This is where the film becomes a beautifully choreographed hurricane of action, destruction, and death. We watch the gumption of the Rebel infiltration team attacking and diverting the base on Scarif on their own. We watch the Rebel fleet blitz in as part of a rescue attempt for the ground team, as starfighters and assault ships desperately attempt to race through the planetary shields as the Rebel capital fleet engages not one but two Imperial-class Star Destroyers. And we watch as slowly, one move at a time, Rebel gains are ground down to nothing by the might of the Imperial war machine. X-wing and U-wing starfighters take down AT-ACT walkers, even as legions of stormtroopers continue to surge out of the base and bring down Rebels, one blaster bolt or grenade at a time. We watch the Rebel fleet valiantly attack the two looming Imperal warships, turning their mass and power against each other, only to have it all undone as Devastator, personal Star Destroyer of Darth Vader, appears, with the Death Star looming in the background.
It is in these final moments Rogue One reveals its true colors, and this is something I personally have found missing in the commentary about the film: it isn’t a film about people. Rogue One, unlike every other Star Wars film, is not a story about people, about individual characters and their stories. Rogue One is not the story of Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Orson Krennic, Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook, K-2SO, or anyone else. Rogue One is a story about the cause, the cause of the Rebel Alliance, and the cause of beings who believe in freedom, democracy, and opposition to oppression in all forms, anywhere, anytime. Because Rogue One is a war film and not an adventure story, it doesn’t need to spend as much energy on the character than it does on the cause they are a part of, and it can kill them off in order to further the cause because that’s what the cause requires.
When we see the tender moments between Cassian and Jyn at the film’s conclusion, they serve the same purpose as the scene of Darth Vader personally boarding the Rebel flagship Profundity and slaughtering the Rebels he encounters. These scenes are emblematic of characters, Jyn, Cassian, and the nameless Rebel technicians and crewmembers, embracing their shared belief of a cause beyond themselves. For Jyn and Cassian, they find themselves in a place they never expected, with someone who understands their trauma, and they embrace that even as they face their ultimate demise. Even Jyn, a reluctant part of the Alliance at this time in her life, has been swayed to the destruction of the Death Star and the Empire by the only man in the galaxy that could, her father. It gives her the unassailable faith required to confront the suicide mission on Scarif, even as she and Cassian watch the Death Star destroy the base. It is this same unwavering courage that marks the Rebel soldiers who find themselves face to face with the terrifying Dark Lord of the Sith, and still hold the line to make the sacrifice of everyone else that day worth the while. From a meta-canon standpoint, it makes sense none of the Rogue One protagonists survive the Battle of Scarif, they never appear again, but from the perspective that the movie is a war story, it makes it all the more compelling that they don’t survive but still advance their cause in a powerful way.
Rogue One is a film about a movement, and about the costs of fighting for what you believe in. In this way, when the primary cast finds themselves trapped on Scarif, and are all killed fighting for their belief in a life for the galaxy beyond the Empire, Rogue One makes its ultimate point about the Rebellion, that it exists beyond the heroes that survive and are remembered, but is just as much the work of the unsung saviors of the galaxy who gave everything because they believed in what they were doing. With Gareth Edwards at the helm, Rogue One captures that ethos in a way no film I have ever seen has, including the rest of the Star Wars franchise. It may be a flawed film, but given its willingness to challenge the status quo, both of Star Wars films and of cinema at large, and its beautiful, glorious, touching handling of every theme in its grasp makes it a cinematic achievement and an absolutely stellar work of art. If Disney and Lucasfilm learn the right lessons from this movie, the future of Star Wars is bright indeed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch it again, because dear God, that’s a fantastic movie. Go see it.
As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to comment and share. – GP