First, a warning: here there be spoilers.
Let me start by admitting that Rogue One is an imperfect movie. Ian Dawe has done his usual excellent job talking about the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. I agree with him almost completely, and I don’t want to repeat him here. The first thirty minutes or so, in particular, jump around too much, from character to character that we don’t know or at least don’t care about. “Who are these people?” isn’t something you want your audience to ask too much, especially mid-scene.
The movie also suffers from the same sort of convenient plot devices that typify not only Star Wars movies but most blockbusters these days. It’s Star Wars, so you kind of accept tons of platforms recklessly suspended in the air for no good reason. But I still don’t understand how communications work through the planetary shield at the end. And Cassian, thought dead, suddenly appears at the climax to save the day. The movie does a fantastic job replicating the original movie’s ship controls and technological style, but the idea of a data vault that consists of hard drives recalled by a robotic arm feels laughable.
Also, the new characters in Rogue One can’t compare to the new characters in The Force Awakens, who so utterly stole that movie. The characters aren’t bad – Jyn (the lead), Chirrut (a blind Asian fighter who plays into stereotypes but still works, at least for me), and the droid K-2SO are the standouts here. But I frankly don’t think Jyn compares favorably to Rey or K-2SO to BB-8… even if I think I liked Rogue One as a whole more than The Force Awakens.
Before noting what I really admire, let me note a few random positive points. I’m usually bored by movie climaxes, but the space fight above the planet here is especially good. I suspect it contains my favorite space battle scenes in the entire franchise. The look of the original movie is remarkably exact, and I think my nostalgia bone is more tickled by the familiar shape of jail cell bars, or the look of computer monitors, than it was seeing members of the original cast, only older, in The Force Awakens. To this end, the restraint required to keep the Jedi out of the plot also does a better job of dramatizing a galaxy in which the Jedi might be thought a myth than any of the (now seven) “main” movies does.
And I should add that I was actually moved several times by Rogue One. To me, the ending of The Force Awakens was a total letdown, an anticlimax delivered with the pomp and circumstance of the Second Coming. The ending of Rogue One was exciting, moving, and felt nearly perfect. I didn’t love the characters as much as I might have, but I was moved by more than one moment involving them and their sacrifices.
But the first thing I really admire about the movie is how it actually improves on the originals. Admittedly, I’m on record pointing out that the original movies are plagued by some real dumbness. I don’t hate them, but I don’t worship them either. But we live in an era of sequels, prequels, sidequels, and reboots. Most seem to contradict the earlier material. The rebooted Star Trek is said to be an alternate timeline, but it’s utterly incompatible with that notion. Franchises like Terminator, Alien, and Predator are a mess. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has plenty of contradictions and dropped plotlines. Even in the Star Wars franchise, we all know how the prequels seemed to lessen the original trilogy, such as by rewriting the mysterious Force as something biological.
The most remarkable way in which Rogue One improves on the original is by hinging its entire plot around an explanation for one of the most absurd aspects of the first Star Wars movie: that there’s a giant shaft in the Death Star that will cause it to explode with a single well-placed shot. Here, that’s explained as a deliberate move, snuck into the plans by the Death Star’s designer, who has only served the Empire under duress. It’s the kind of thing one can just barely imagine sneaking past other engineers – dangerous to the Death Star, yet still requiring an excellent shot in order to justify why it’s not a likely vulnerability.
Another way the movie improves on the original is by explaining what the hell “A New Hope” means. In the original movie, now retitled A New Hope, this hope is kind of the Rebellion and kind of Luke Skywalker, but it’s vague. There’s a lot of talk about hope in Rogue One, including about how key it is to a rebellion, and at the end, Princess Leia says that the Death Star plans she has just been handed, at tremendous cost, represents “hope.” It’s the perfect hand-off to A New Hope, framing that entire movie as what the heroes of Rogue One made possible.
In fact, the movie brilliantly positions itself as a prequel or prelude to A New Hope. In that movie’s opening crawl, summarizing what has gone before, we’re told this:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….
None of this occurs in the “main” movies. We’re just told it in the crawl. In Rogue One, we’re shown this material. Rogue One isn’t simply (as it was so long billed) the story of how the Death Star plans got stolen. It’s also the story of the Rebellion deciding, despite real disagreement, to strike out against the Empire. We might not be watching the Rebellion coalesce, but we’re certainly watching its birth as a real force against the Empire.
A New Hope actually opens with Darth Vader pursuing Leia’s spaceship, from the end of Rogue One. It’s not clear how long he’s been doing so, but they’ve just come from that first Rebel victory. Rogue One leads directly into A New Hope. It’s basically Episode 3.9. (Now, if we can only get a movie featuring all those key events left out between A New Hope and Empire — the same stuff the revived Marvel series is covering!) Rogue One retroactively makes A New Hope a better movie, and it fits relatively seamlessly. (Yes, Leia and crew deny a bit strongly, when boarded, given that Vader has seen them fleeing, but that’s pretty minor.)
Heck, Jimmy Smits and the volcano planet from Episode III even help connect the movie to the prequels, helping to stitch the two trilogies together – something they very much need.
Okay, the second thing I really admire about Rogue One is its depiction of the Rebellion. I’m sure this is something that irritates some Star Wars fans, but one of the weaknesses of the franchise is its very clear good-versus-evil dynamic. In fact, the Rebellion makes an awful lot of dickish movies, but we’re supposed to ignore that because they’re the good guys. The Rebellion doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about civilian casualties, or about how Stormtroopers are people beneath the depersonalizing masks, or about how the Empire they’re out to destroy keeps food shipments running on time and keeps pirates from overrunning the galaxy. This kind of thing really irritates me, as a viewer. And I think it’s quite damaging, too. It’s fine to have good guys and bad guys, but when it’s so black-and-white that we’re encouraged to justify both general thoughtlessness and terrible crimes committed by the “good guys,” simply because they’re positioned as the good guys, we’re actually being trained to excuse this behavior by those we perceive as being on “our side.” As a viewer, this makes me feel manipulated, but as a thinking person and a citizen, I actually find this kind of storytelling horrifying. It’s also just poor writing, covering up facts of the plot with manipulative, distracting dialogue, camera shots, and emotionally manipulative music.
And it’s not just Star Wars. Almost all these blockbusters are filled with “heroes” who do terrible, terrible things, or at least are tremendously thoughtless, and we’re almost never given the space to question any of this. In fact, those spaces are deliberately closed off to us. Personally, this always makes me side with the villains, because I feel like the movie isn’t fair to them — and the “heroes” are pretty bad too, except that they think they’re the good guys and get all the praise.
Rogue One stands in stark contrast to all of this. There are passages of dialogue, in which the Rebellion is questioned, that simply amazed me as a product of a Hollywood movie, especially a Star Wars one. There’s a lot of moral grey here. In one shocking bit of dialogue, a Rebel mentions all of the terrible things he’s done in the name of the Rebellion – things he clearly has trouble living with.
By far the best example of this comes in the form of Saw Gerrera. One of the problems of Star Wars is how monolithic and simplistic its politics seems to be. There’s one Rebellion, and everyone in it pretty much follows its chain of command. Suddenly, in Rogue One, there’s not simply one Rebellion. Saw Gerrera broke with the Rebellion and is a more fringe element, within the larger resistance movement. If you’re thinking about the complexities of real-world rebellions, in places like Iraq, you’re not far off. And frankly, that simple breaking up of the Rebellion, from a silly monolithic thing, comes as an incredible breath of fresh air to me.
In undoubtedly one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Saw Gerrera’s men ambush some Imperial troops, walking next to an armored vehicle, in a crowded, multicultural city. Despite the sci-fi setting, the ambush comes straight out of our perpetual war in Afghanistan, with snipers, tossed explosives, and a coordinated ambush that kills soldiers. Here, we’re allowed to see the Rebellion as the terrorists – as the Empire surely sees them. They’re fighting an asymmetric war, using the tools available to them. Of course they are. Of course they’re terrorists. Or freedom fighters. Of course they’re ideological. I can’t imagine any American missing the parallels to the now-familiar scene of American soldiers under attack in places like Iraq. Except that it’s the “good guys” doing the attacking. And although Saw Gerrera isn’t technically a part of the Rebellion proper, there’s no doubt which side (if we’re playing binaries) he’s on, and he’s clearly positioned as a “good guy,” even if he’s gone a bit crazy (read “extremist”).
Now, I’m sure this aspect has been the subject of criticism – especially of the same reactionary American pro-fascist theocrats who think there’s a “war on Christmas.” To them, moral ambiguity is a Bad Thing, “A is A,” and depicting moral ambiguity in Star Wars (despite that you’d have to willfully close your eyes not to see it) is somehow “political,” whereas eliminating moral ambiguity isn’t political at all! But of course, it is always political, and an artificial lack of moral complexity about war is tantamount to xenophobic military propaganda. But then, these are the same kind of people who complained that there were female leads in The Force Awakens and Rogue One. (As a white guy, there’s just no one in popular culture to identify with!) Such complaints are unworthy of comment, except in the form of mocking ridicule. Still, such reactionary voices are shrill, and Disney is due a lot of credit for not axing this kind of content, in the hopes of producing the most processed, tasteless mental and psychological food imaginable.
For me, Rogue One was the first Star Wars movie where I sided with the Rebellion overall. It’s the first time I cared about the Rebellion. I simply can’t identify with idiots who refuse to admit moral remainders, or who refuse to question themselves or their tactics. And who (even worse) see themselves as morally superior. Such characters are monsters, deformed psyches at the best and the worst kind of villains at the worst. And because of this courageous choice by the movie, Rogue One lives for me, in a way no other Star Wars movie has.
The final thing I admire about Rogue One is (I warned you about spoilers, right?) that everyone dies. Literally, every “good guy” major or secondary character introduced in the movie gets killed.
I’m not sure anyone’s yet addressed quite how radical this is, in a blockbuster movie in 2016.
It’s a brave choice on a creative level, and it’s tremendously refreshing. How many times have we heard the heroes say they might not survive, or even certainly won’t survive, only to miraculously survive? Everyone can die around them, but they’ll live. Perhaps one sacrificial lamb will die, in order to convey the illusion of consequences or that the heroes aren’t immortal, but this has been done so much that it’s become a cliché. (I’m looking at you, Groot.)
Bucking this trend is even more amazing in a billion-dollar franchise like Star Wars. We’re taught to love these new characters, and we’re sold them as toys and on merchandise of all sorts. And then they’re killed. All of them.
Because this is a war, and not all heroes survive. The writers don’t step in, to bend the bullets around the absurdly handsome young protagonists. Between this and the moral ambiguity I mentioned earlier, never has “Star Wars” felt more like an actual war than in Rogue One.
But these deaths not just a creative choice. They make a profound statement about the nature of wars, and of history itself.
Because we’re not getting Luke Skywalker here. He’s the celebrity, the one who they tell legends about. Sure, he’s originally introduced as an everyman, but he has super-powers due to his noble blood. He’s Superman. So is Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Both are characters of privilege and also happen to be absurdly lucky.
Sure, we can identify with them, but they’re not like us. They’re not like anyone, actually, except the story the survivors tell of themselves.
But real heroes aren’t the ones with super-powers. They’re the ones who go into combat despite the lack of super-powers. And sometimes, the biggest heroes are the ones who died, whether their tales are told or not.
Forget the Great Man version of history. For every celebrity hero, there are dozens or hundreds of men and women who fought in anonymity, and who often gave their lives in a cause that didn’t remember them.
Bullets don’t measure the quality of the men they kill.
Of course, this kind of story wouldn’t be possible without the “main” story, of which Rogue One is an offshoot. But like the best “side stories,” Rogue One supplements the “main” story, and the two inform each other. There’s certainly merit to the generational Skywalker opera, but it doesn’t exist without the quieter, less lucky characters of Rogue One.
But like I said, I don’t worship the Star Wars franchise. Maybe Rogue One is the Star Wars movie for non-Star Wars fans. I think that’s probably going too far, but I certainly suspect it’s the one you want to show the Star Wars skeptic.
Disney deserves immense credit for having the conviction to bring Rogue One to theaters. The company rightly gets criticized for its over-polished, test-marketed content, but Rogue One feels like a quiet revolution.
A Rebellion, if you will.