Good evening- I don’t often get to be at the front of new media. This time I had the opportunity to see Rogue One the day of its release.
First of all, a disclaimer: I love the Star Wars franchise and if such a label is slapped on a product I will probably endorse it with my money. This is true even when the product is sub-par (i.e. Episodes I-III). But in this case I’m very happy that a committed studio (Disney) has taken over the name and put not only the obligatory finances toward the production and special effects, but also tracked down writers who would do the job well while maintaining integrity to the universe that fans have come to love.
Rogue One is not a continuation of the other movies. This fills in part of the story between Episodes III and IV. I understood how confusing this must be as I attempted to explain it to my wife. She came to Star Wars for the first time last year when we watched all six movies in preparation for Episode VII. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe Rogue One adds something to the Star Wars Universe as a whole unlike the constellation of off-shoots by which viewers suspect the production team of the MCU is exclusively driven by profit. (This model works, by the way. I’m probably going to see everything from the MCU.) Rogue One helps to create the Galactic Empire as a real entity (for those who don’t know this is the side of Darth Vader and the other hooded black figures).
This was a necessary stage of character development. The previous Star Wars movies have painted pretty obvious Manichean portrayals of good and evil through the Galactic Empire versus the Alliance, but it is never clear why one should dislike the Empire, except that the uniforms are scary looking and that one should resist totalitarianism just because. The point of Star Wars was never to be political but to provide an advanced set piece for the hero’s journey. We as viewers can tolerate that for a while, but if these movies really do start coming out once a year then it’s time we clarified who the enemy is and why we should want the good guys to win. Rogue One fills out the sequence by showing the depth of the Galactic Empire. Viewers are shown an Empire labor camp, a defense outpost, and a refinery. This opens up the possibility that the Empire is a real functioning economy rather than just an ‘other’ to cheer against.
The Star Wars franchise was in need of this sort of depth. The hook to a franchise such as X-Men is the idea that if the viewer were a mutant he or she would have reason to fight alongside Magneto and the traditional baddies. X-Men provides a narrative in which good and evil are not as clear-cut and a fitting parable to the divisive state of American politics. You might hate their ideas but that is still a neighbor you are castigating.
I always thought the metaphysics of the “force” were hard to swallow, and fortunately there is very little of that in Rogue One. Blessing someone with the force, as the rebels do, is the perfunctory benediction of the Star Wars Universe. There is only one scene in which a purely supernatural event takes place (Darth Vader squeezes a man’s throat without touching him), but the other instances leave the force in the status of any other religion; we invoke it and hold it responsible when things work out the way we want them to.
Beyond development of the Galactic Empire, Rogue One is a solid movie, and it has resonance for a modern era of insurgent warfare. The battle on the streets of Jedha (which is also in a desert- a close copy of the Jeddah in Saudi Arabia) could come from a war movie about Afghanistan or Iraq. One has to wonder, watching the alliance members debate about whether their cause is lost, if this is what the insurgents are asking themselves as well, and if the sliver of hope they receive from… wherever, is the faint hope of the obscure Zen-like Jedi’s insistence upon justice at any cost. However, there are plenty of times in which viewers are begged to suspend their disbelief. The old movie trope that all the bad guys are horrible shots with a weapon holds true here (and seriously, what kind of tactical unit would ask their soldiers to wear bright white uniforms? It’s like the French circa WWI (“Le Pantalon Rouge, C’est la France!”)). I also thought that the dialogue was clever most of the time. When Jyn is told “rebellions are built on hope” the line works as an emotive motive. (However, when Jyn repeats this at a council where the audience silences itself to hear her speak, the line falls flat.) Another instance, when Jyn is asked if she can stand to see the flag of the Empire popping up all over the galaxy, this rebel without a cause says “It’s fine if you never look up.” It accurately reflects the populist global takeover and the idea that political concerns are the exclusive province of the elite.
Lastly, the film fits in well with the other movies and this will convince old fans to keep returning. The closing scene has the viewer ready to fire up Episode IV with a scene that perfectly alludes to a 1977 era Carrie Fisher. Episode IV refers to the fact that many people gave their lives to provide the plans to the Death Star which revealed its vulnerability, and now we have that story. But it’s a fair question to ask if this is now a throwaway piece of the puzzle. I thought that Felicity Jones plays a great Jyn, but now, as she has perished in a firing from the Death Star, her story comes to an end. She is just a martyr for the rebellion. Attempting to make another movie about her origins would be too much. For one thing, we have most of it here already as a father-daughter story, and we really don’t need another bildungsroman about someone growing into a rebel. That said, I’m ready to see the Han Solo back story.
Ultimately, it’s a good piece of escapism. The traditional opening remains that this happened a long long time ago in a galaxy far away, (for the first time viewers do not see the prologue text scrolling off to infinity propelled by the classic musical score) but this leaves modern smart phone users to wonder why so many jobs are not automated (like the man who points his toy at the spacecraft taking off) and why all of the Empire officers have so many elaborate pens embedded in their uniforms. Most viewers and longtime fans like myself are likely to let these questions fall by the wayside and accept the fact that the new droid personality, K-2SO, is convincingly capable of deception, boredom and sarcasm. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and over the holidays I will work hard to cajole my brothers into seeing it again.