Yesterday I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of what I understand will be a series of standalone spinoffs from the Main Saga. And the first thing I have to say is this: After I saw The Force Awakens, I suspected this, though I knew it could just be a fluke. But now that I’ve seen Rogue One, I’m solidly convinced: the best thing to happen to Star Wars was to rescue it from the hands of George Lucas. When Disney bought LucasFilms and the Star Wars franchise, I was apprehensive at first, my head full of visions of Jar-Jar Binks. I was very concerned that Disney would only continue Lucas’s trend in the prequel series of gearing the material more towards an audience of children and the merchandise manufacturers who sell to children. So far, however, I have been happily surprised.
I liked Rogue One–I really liked it. A dark and poignant tale extracted from a single line in Episode IV’s iconic opening word crawl: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base…managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.” Okay, it was two lines which I have merged a bit here, but you get the idea: it was a throwaway detail to ready us for the main event. Rogue One takes that sliver of prologue, expands it, and raises it to something of consequence, a consequence worthy of the epic it presages.
The first thing that struck me about the film was the look. Of course I expected the production design to be impressive–it was Star Wars, after all. But Rogue One turns the volume up to eleven. The sense of scale we get here is well beyond what we have seen up to this point. Imperial destroyers hovering over cities; the Death Star shown in its true immensity, its destructive power seen from the ground–this is the Star Wars I always sensed was there, just outside the earlier films’ peripheral visions. The gritty, lived-in universe that made the first Star Wars feel so authentic and palpable is even grittier and more lived-in than ever–possibly in response to the prequel trilogy’s more polished, whiz-bang aesthetic. Here we get mud, rain (lots of rain), battered, half-functioning machinery, and an emotional/visual tone that exposes a dark underbelly of the Star Wars universe only hinted at in the Main Saga.
This is a world on the margins–and populated with marginalized, doomed characters. (Even the main Imperial heavy is on the outs with the powers that be, including an impatient Darth Vader.) As the story draws us into the shadows of the Empire, we also begin to see a welcome diversity in terms of gender and skin tone. It’s good to see a Star Wars cast that is not either alien or white, male, and mostly British. It’s long overdue. And Jyn Erso? Don’t get me started. I need to write a whole ‘nother post about my new favorite heroine.
Much has already been written about the many, many easter eggs and references to Episode IV. I will not catalogue them here. Suffice to say, since Star Wars is pretty much written into my DNA, I recognized a great many, and appreciated every single one. I’m sure that I missed many more, and I look forward to catching them on repeated viewings.
Regarding the new “canon.” With Rogue One, we now have two Star Wars films since Disney decided to discard almost every work within the Expanded Universe, including a galaxy of spin-off novels and a long, officially sanctioned post-Jedi narrative involving Han/Leia offspring and romance for Luke. We now know that Han and Liea’s children were left behind to clear the way for Kylo Ren. Now, I did not read a lot of the EU works, nor have I watched any of the animated works. Of what I have read, the works that made the biggest impressions on me were Alan Dean Foster’s non-canonical Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off), and Timothy Zahn’s pivotal Heir to the Empire trilogy. Splinter has been out of the canon for decades, for reasons that should be clear to anyone who’s read it. (Although it does give us the Kaiburr Crystal, likely the inspiration for the canonical kyber crystals that power Jedi lightsabers–and now, ironically, the Death Star planet-killer beam.) The Zahn trilogy, on the other hand, helped initiate the old canon, and I was very disappointed to see these books rendered obsolete. One of the main reasons for my disappointment was the elimination of Mara Jade, one of the most ass-kicking females in the Star Wars universe. And in her absence the franchise is sorely in need of prominent kick-ass females. Fortunately, the new films boldly deliver on this front. As long as we keep getting compelling and intrepid characters like Jyn and Rey, I will be happy. I’ll take in the remaining works in the new canon before commenting much further on this.
On the other side of the spectrum from new characters, Rogue One also gives us some at-times-unsettling appearances of well-known characters. Of course, Lord Vader is on hand, wielding the power of the dark side with a viciousness that reminds us why he was so formidable and frightening to begin with. More surprising is the digital resurrection of a number of minor rebellion characters, and most notably of Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, commander of the first Death Star, and holder of Vader’s leash. The CGI recreation is impressive (most impressive); I found myself, at first, wondering if they had found some ringer for Cushing in a piece of stunt-casting genius, like the recasting of the rebel senator Mon Mothma. For the most part it was only Tarkin’s slightly too rigid movements and delivery that knocked me out of the moment. (Variety published a good article on the implications for the entertainment industry of digital recreations of deceased performers.)
The most jarring moment in the CGI character-revival department, the recreation of a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher for the final shot, left me just a little shaken. To pull the timing of Fisher’s tragic demise into this critique would be inappropriate. But it served to accentuate an issue I would have had with the film anyway. If the filmmakers were going to make this bold move for the final second and a half of screen time before the credits swept in, it had to be a visual home run. Sadly it wasn’t. And coming like it did, right at the end, it colored my impression of the film as a whole for all the wrong reasons.
I have other issues with the film. Both Rogue One and The Force Awakens are far from perfect. (TFA suffers from a flawed premise and the terrible decision on J.J. Abrams’ part to mirror the structure of Episode IV.) But each does Herculean work at salvaging the franchise from the silliness that was Episodes I-III. Problems I have with Rogue One are of a nit-picky nature. As hellaciously cool as it is, I question the physics of the epic star destroyer collision–shouldn’t both vessels need to have rebel ships ramming them, providing enough thrust for them to collide so spectacularly? Perhaps someone who passed high school physics can set me straight on that one. Still, it’s not nearly as much of a violation of physics as we had in TFA, when the folks on the ground were able to watch the destruction of lightyears-distant worlds by the Starkiller Base–in real time. But in a series that asks me to take hyperspace, lightsabers, and the Force with heavy grains of salt–not to mention ignore the economics of two Death Stars and the business models of the Jawas, I’m fighting a losing battle here. I feel more justified railing about Darth Vader’s lack of stature. I know Ben Mendelson is tall, but come on! Vader should tower over even him–not look like he’s just another guy on the loading dock. Couldn’t they CGI David Prowse??
In the final tally of plus vs. minus, Rogue One comes out overwhelmingly on the plus side. This is very good news for Star Wars geeks everywhere. If this is what we get by trading Lucas for Disney, sign me up and ship me out.
Buy it now on Amazon!