So… Rogue One. I hesitate to make bold statements like this so soon after leaving the theater, but I think I may have a new favorite Star Wars movie.
This is high praise, I know, and not the sort of thing I say lightly. But, hot damn, this is a good flick. A damn sight better than The Force Awakens and, I would argue, maybe the first real spiritual sequel to Star Wars. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of the Walt Disney Corporation’s stand-alone Star Wars films, and the second volley in their attempt to turn Star Wars into an annual movie franchise. Which, yes, is a pretty cynical way to describe a film I liked so much. But it’s also a good way to accentuate the dichotomy between the soulless corporate product I feared it would be, and the damn good adventure movie I actually got. Because I’ll be honest… I enjoyed Force Awakens well enough, but ultimately found it to be a pretty lackluster film. I don’t think it’s the worst Star Wars movie (*cough*Phantom Menace*cough*), but it’s still pretty low on the list. So Rogue One was a very welcome surprise.
It tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the Death Star plans, and it tells that story as a war film, with multiple battles fought on multiple fronts by multiple characters using widely varying methods. It’s also the story of Jyn Erso…
…a disillusioned rebel fighter whose father is the reluctant scientist behind the design of the Death Star. Played by Felicity Jones, Jyn is a hardened cynic, a failed idealist whose struggle with hopelessness defines the film’s thematic core. That struggle between hope and necessity is also personified in Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, a rebel officer who’s done some terrible things in the name of galactic freedom.
[SPOILER] Early on, we see Cassian murder a rebel informant rather than see him captured by the Empire. It’s an act so cold-blooded that I wasn’t sure I had understood the scene correctly at first. I mean, it’s a tough situation. They’re trapped in a blind alley with Stormtroopers on the way. The only way out is to climb, and the informant’s crippled arm means he ain’t gonna make it. He’ll die either way, but if those Trooper get their hands on him, it’ll be after torture that ends with him giving the Empire vital intelligence. So Cassian shoots the guy in the back and hauls ass. I completely understand why he does it. But that’s still some cold business. [/SPOILER]
The path Cassian’s walking down leads to one of my favorite Rogue One characters: Forrest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera.
A veteran of the Clone Wars who’s been fighting the Empire ever since, Gerrera leads an extremist band of rebels who’ve been ousted from the main Rebel Alliance for their harsh methods. Gerrera’s rebels come off like a Middle Eastern terror cell, right down to the bags they put over Our Hero’s heads when they capture them early in the film.
[SPOILER] But Gerrera’s real line-crossing moment comes even earlier than that, when his cell captures defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook. It’s Rook who brings the news of the Death Star, but Gerrera doesn’t trust him. So, in one of the film’s more harrowing moments, he puts Bodhi in a room with a mind-reading monster that will determine if he’s telling the truth. And as the creature is wrapping its slimy tentacles around Bodhi’s head, Gerrera informs him that the process… tends to drive the victim insane. As he actually is telling the truth, Bodhi’s mind isn’t destroyed. But when next we see him, something’s also clearly not right. [/SPOILER]
Gerrera’s decades of struggle have made him a monster. His is a cautionary tale about where Cassian and, by extension, the entire Rebel Alliance, will find themselves if they’re not careful.
This whole early sequence is impressive stuff, introducing character and theme with dizzying efficiency, and featuring some tightly-constructed fight scenes that go a long way toward establishing Rogue One‘s war movie cred. You could build an entire movie around just this set-piece, Our Heroes trying to rescue the defecting pilot against the backdrop of an exotic alien culture as local conflicts between multiple warring factions set off a powder keg.
With its setting on the desert moon of Jedhu, it plays less like a World War II film, and more like one set in the modern Gulf War era. That’s a feel they’re most definitely shooting for, too. I mean, just look at this shot of a Stormtrooper tank rolling down the street just before all hell breaks loose:
If you’re not thinking Baghdad, I don’t know why not.
An aside: I love how the Stormtroopers play in the Jedhu scenes, by the way. Beyond being more efficient ground troops than nearly 40 years of fan jokes have made them out to be, they also have more personality than they’re often given. We’re made privy to some radio chatter and even incidental banter between some of the Troopers, and that’s a refreshing touch. It’s good to be reminded that these guys are mostly just soldiers doing a job. Something about it puts me in mind of the old Troops fan film, which I can’t believe was made almost 20 years ago now. Maybe Rogue One director Gareth Edwards is a fan. I know I certainly am.
But I digress.
The Jedhu sequence also introduces my two favorite new Star Wars characters: the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe and his partner Baze Malbus, a bulky infantryman partial to the heavy blaster.
Their debates over Chirrut’s worship of the Force speak to another aspect Rogue One‘s core themes: faith. Not just religious faith, but faith in family, in friends, in allies. Faith in heroism, and fighting the good fight. The leap of faith it takes to hold out hope in the face of impossible odds, and not give in to despair. These are the things Luke Skywalker and his faith in the Force bring back to the galaxy in Star Wars, but the seeds are planted here. And they’re planted with Chirrut and Baze.
[SPOILER] One thing I had a lot fun with in Rogue One was in trying to decide exactly how Force-sensitive Chirrut really is. His blind fighting is impressive, but the film keeps his connection to the Force mysterious. Much of what he does is Zatoichi-style blind fighting, attributable to simply paying attention to his remaining senses. But a few of his actions seem beyond that, like an incredibly bad-ass scene in which he shoots a passing TIE Fighter, sending it spinning out of control into the head of a pursuing Imperial Walker, taking out two threats with a single shot. To do that, Chirrut would almost certainly have to be calling on the Force. Not to move things around, but to know exactly when to shoot so that two enemies could best be used to destroy each other.
That’s about as overt as his Force-use gets, though. Chirrut is neither Jedi nor Sith, and never engages in the kind of gross Force-manipulation the two major warring Force factions use. He’s described in his introduction as one of the Guardians of the Whills, dismissed by Cassian as a cult of mystics. And Chirrut is certainly a mystic, a believer in the “Living Force” who considers it a trusted ally and guide. To do more than that, he seems to think, would be impolite. This is a different view of the Force than we’ve seen before, and one that perhaps casts doubt on whether even the Jedi way is something to be emulated. [/SPOILER]
After the Jedhu sequence, Rogue One opens up more, taking the story to the highest levels of both Rebel and Imperial command. The fights get bigger and more grand. The Death Star comes into play.
In the final act, a commando raid turns into a pitched battle, with full-blown Star Wars dogfights breaking out over the action on the ground. It’s rollicking good fun, but it does come at a cost: this climactic battle isn’t as tightly-constructed as the earlier fight scenes. The action is less clear, and the throughline of the fighting is simply lost. That gives several key moments less impact late in the film, and that’s a bit disappointing. But it’s still, as I said, tremendous fun to watch. What the final battle lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in spectacle and pathos.
Some critics have also complained about the large number of settings and characters, claiming that it’s too much to follow, and that it doesn’t allow for proper development of the primary characters and relationships. And there is a lot going on in this movie. I’ve only scratched the surface, and I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground. I didn’t have trouble following any of it, though, and I thought the various relationships were quite effectively sketched out. I mean, it’s not deep psycholo-drama or anything. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s a pulp adventure story. It’s driven by plot and theme as much as anything else, and that’s okay. I felt for the characters, and liked them. Take K2SO, for instance.
Cassian’s droid partner, K2 is a drily funny character with a sort of resigned attitude toward his life as a second-class citizen. Cassian won’t even give him a blaster, a sore point for a guy so often forced into dangerous situations. There’s not much more to him than that, but it’s enough to develop a relationship between him and Jyn over the course of a handful of deftly-written scenes. They go from distrustful adversaries to reluctant allies, and finally to people willing to make sacrifices for each other. When Jyn hands K2 a gun in the final act, it’s genuinely touching. And that’s enough.
I could go on. There’s Jyn’s poisoned relationship with her father, and her even more poisoned relationship with Saw Gerrera. There’s the machinations of Orson Crennic, the self-serving director of the Death Star project, whose setbacks in the world of Imperial politics make you feel for him even as you hate him. And there’s the ever-looming threat that hope itself will die. Even though you know it won’t, because you’ve presumably seen Star Wars before, and it starts with the words “A New Hope.” But you feel the struggle anyway, and that is a big part of what makes this story work.
So that’s Rogue One: a film about compromised people fighting overwhelming evil, and trying desperately to hold onto hope in the face of impossible odds. That’s why I say it’s the first real thematic sequel to Star Wars. In that original film, the Empire feels genuinely dangerous and scary. It’s a fascist regime that’s created a morally-compromised world where even the good guys are willing to shoot somebody under a table to survive. The later films in the series have lacked that edge (some of them on purpose), and while I still love most of those movies… I have come to think of them as sanitized. White-washed. Shrewdly-made commercial entertainment that sells out the darker vision presented in the original.
But Rogue One is very much a film set in the world George Lucas established in 1977. Here, the Empire feels dangerous and scary again, its totalitarian evil impacting lives on a personal level. People are miserable and without hope, and do things they know are wrong in the name of the greater good. The real heroes pull back from actual atrocity, of course. I’m not arguing for some kind of Game of Thrones style moral quagmire in these films. But I like the flaws Star Wars and Rogue One give their heroes. They feel more real to me, and that makes their triumphs that much more meaningful. And that is something I very much want in my Star Wars.
(Oh, and yes. We’ll get back to the Fantastic Four next time. I just had to pause and gush for a while. It’s not every day you get a new favorite Star Wars movie, after all…)