Film * Gareth Edwards * Oh No, More Space Nazis * 2016
This is the first of the new wave of Star Wars movies that I’ve seen, and it’s come two years after its release. That alone probably sums up where my feelings about Star Wars are at this point in my life. I turned on them so hard that I barely even care about the old movies at this point. Hell, I tried to start writing about them for this site, fell asleep during the climactic scenes of The Empire Strikes Back – which we can all agree is the best one – and haven’t really thought about them since. I wish I could pinpoint where it all went wrong. Perhaps when I realized that the things I loved about this universe were all the ancillary things. That the characters I grew up thinking were super rad were, in fact, flat archetypes. That the story I knew by heart was basically a fairy tale dressed up as a potboiler sci-fi adventure. The prequels, which I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, did a lot of damage because they laid bare these flaws with the franchise as a whole. And then, of course, there is the term “franchise.” The story was told, finished, and wrapped up in 1983. Yet because it made all the money in the world here we are, with new Star Wars movies each and every year, forever and ever, in perpetuity unto the universe, amen.
Yet if they’re all going to be like Rogue One, I might be okay with that. For a while. That’s because I like this movie quite a lot, more than I thought I would, and it’s now got me curious about the mainline entries that have come out. I’m still apprehensive about episodes seven and eight, though, because what I liked most about Rogue One was that it cut out most of the legacy Star Wars stuff I’m tired of while retaining that which remains cool about Star Wars. This has always been a well-realized, fantastically deep, lived-in universe where like two-thirds of the inhabitants have stupid names. Yet at least insofar as the canonical films have been concerned, there are only a few people that matter. Sure, there’s lots of background and ancillary characters running around, but they mostly exist to sell action figures and are incredibly shallow as actual people. Mostly we’re concerned with the major players, but even they’re a little flat. As for the beloved, iconic side characters, how much do we really know about them? Well, we know a lot, but not from the movies. Most of that depth comes from endless side-content, much of which I’ve never consumed but have kind of absorbed over the years.
Rogue One is the first time one of the films has tried to explore the larger universe around the main story. I was actually disappointed when familiar characters showed up because I was busy enjoying the universe that I still love, deep down, and the various cameos were just distracting. Look, I know the studio feels that they’re necessary to anchor the audience in familiar territory. That’s why the story itself is directly attached to A New Hope. The actual idea here is pretty easy to pitch. There’s a point in the first film when Leia is presenting the plans for the Death Star to the Rebellion and she offhandedly mentions that the plans were obtained at great loss. Well, Rogue One is about obtaining those plans. That’s it! And yet the movie itself introduces a whole new roster of characters, including the best droid Star Wars has ever seen, excepting maybe HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. It digs deeper into the actual politics of the Empire and their dominion over the galaxy than the original films. But mostly Rogue One is an engaging story about a ragtag group of rebels who go on a daring mission to save the day. Not the most screamingly original idea, but it’s well done.
There’s a few reasons that I feel like this film works as well as it does, but probably the most important element to get right is the protagonist, and Rogue One nails it. A New Hope fucks this up initially because Luke is insufferable in that movie. I know, I know, he’s supposed to be insufferable, but still. Meanwhile, approximately ten thousand years later, we get Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, and she is awesome. I cannot tell you how refreshing this character is, and all credit to Star Wars for offering at least some strong female characters over the years. Yet Jyn is a notch above (keeping in mind I’ve not seen the other new films, so the woman in those might be even better, I wouldn’t know [I’ve seen them now, and while Rey is dope as hell, I still like Jyn better]), and that’s because there’s no real effort to mention her gender, one way or the other. Previously, we’ve had Princess Leia and Queen Amidala, both of which were strong woman leaders. And yet they were still, you know, ladies. Leia was, of course, embarrassingly over-sexualized in Return of the Jedi, which the prequels at least avoided. Meanwhile here’s Jyn, and yo, she’s a rouge. A scoundrel. She gets up to some shit. Yeah, she’s attractive, but I’m honestly at a loss whether to chalk that up to her appearance or the fact that I’m into women who could kick my ass.
So, Rogue One has a solid protagonist with a clear backstory and motivation to do what she does and act how she acts. I know it sounds simple when I just write it out like that, but Jesus Christ, go back and watch those prequels again and see how spectacularly they fuck up Anakin Skywalker’s entire arc. It’s honestly breathtaking how bad it is, and they had three long-ass movies to get it right! Anyway, Jyn’s entire world was destroyed by the Empire, like you do, and yet her experience with the rebels soured her on their ability to fight back. The plot of the Rogue One basically gives her the opportunity to make her life and her mistakes mean something. Again, there’s nothing terribly complicated or groundbreaking here, but goddammit it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be competent. Meanwhile, we’ve got dope-ass TIE fighters whipping around making that cool noise they make and blasters actually hitting their targets and all that other ancillary stuff that helps cement this as Star Wars.
All right, we’re getting somewhere. We’ve got Jyn, who is rad. We’ve got a solid story that doesn’t spin off into some mystical nonsense for no reason. We’ve got a sturdy foundation of Star Wars assets, you know, X-Wings and shit. Now, since this is essentially a war movie, we’ve got to have a varied and interesting ensemble cast to round out our crew. Again, Rogue One pretty much succeeds. There’s Cassian and his surly and awesome droid. He’s ostensibly the leader of the expedition, and while he’s something of a dreamboat, the film almost goes out of its way to avoid a romantic subplot. Which is a relief, honestly. As my wife put it, “I’m so glad they didn’t start making out at the end, because they’ve got like no chemistry.” I guess, but mostly I’m just happy that the woman protagonist has loftier goals than getting herself a man, you know? This is absolutely her story, and the male characters are there in service of that story. For once. Anyway, Cassian is there to provide an example of pure idealism. In addition, there are several other characters whose names I do not remember. The most memorable of these is probably the blind ninja guy with his Force-based catchphrase and his buddy. Again, they’re not there to upstage anyone and they don’t really have an arc, but they do quality support work throughout.
Of course, knowing the origin of Rogue One, we know how this has to end. We know the plans were obtained at great cost, and by the time the outstanding final space battle starts popping off, we know exactly what that means. Everyone is going to bite the big one, and it’s going to be super sad. Once again, good on the studio for allowing this kind of thing to actually happen in a Star Wars movie. There’s no last second, against-all-odds, deus-ex-machina-as-hell rescue of our heroes. In a way that’s kind of a bummer, considering that Jyn is one of the most well developed characters to appear in a Star Wars movie and all. Alas, Darth Vader shows up and wreck everybody’s shit all up, and I know I said before that I could have done without the cameos, but goddamn peak Vader is the fucking best. While I still think it would have been cool to go through an entire Star Wars movie without popping a light saber, I’m not going to lie, that noise is always going to elicit a response out of me. That said, the CP30 and R2 showing up only highlighted how lame they compared to K-2SO and CG Leia was just creepy. All that said, the quality of Rogue One has now ensured that I’m going to watch the new mainline entries, and if you had told me that beforehand, I wouldn’t have believed it.