We saw Rogue One last night, and enjoyed it very much. It’s fast paced, exciting, and exceptionally well acted. I found parts of it very moving. I found it a morally serious, thoughtful movie about war and revolution and the cost of standing up against fascism. I really, basically, liked everything about it. I just didn’t think it was a Star Wars movie. It’s not the right kind of good movie for that.
Let me clarify. I love Star Wars (which I will not now, or ever, call A New Hope). 1977, I came home from my mission, and on the plane read a magazine article about the Star Wars phenomenon. I decided that it would be the first movie I saw post-mission, and it was. I saw it nine times before I saw anything else. I kept thinking ‘where has this movie been all my life?’ It filled a void for me, reminded me how absolutely blasted much fun it could be, going into a movie theater and seeing something that audacious. I still think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
What it wasn’t was good. Great, yes. Groundbreaking, addicting, yes. It is, in fact, a well nigh perfect movie. It accomplishes what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s flawlessly entertaining. But it’s not a good movie, and it’s not trying to be one. No new insights into the human condition, no rounded, human characters, no depth, no philosophy. It’s just a hoot, a riot. It’s a pastiche, an intentionally artificial joyride through bad movie history. It’s the greatest B-movie ever made, until Lucas and Spielberg managed to make an even better one with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s high camp, massively, insanely entertaining. That’s all it’s trying to be, and it succeeds marvelously on those terms.
But movies are also imaginative explorations of the human condition. And on that level, Star Wars pretty much fails. There’s one scene in Star Wars that I illustrates this, I think. It’s just after Luke and Han and Chewie rescue Princess Leia. The four of them are trotting along in the interior of the Death Star, and as they come around a corner, a bunch of Imperial Stormtroopers show up. And Han goes berserk, shouting like a madman and running right at the Stormtroopers, and they’re spooked, and run off, and Chewie follows Han, and there they are, Han yelling and the Troopers retreating (for no earthly reason), and Luke and Leia are left alone. I suppose that Lucas wanted them alone, and had to figure out how to separate the four of them, and that’s what he came up with. But it’s still a genuine head scratcher. We don’t ordinarily notice it, though, and just how silly it is, because dumb stuff like that happens all the time. It’s Star Wars; it’s supposed to be campy and fun.
But Rogue One isn’t really like that, not at all. From time to time, the movie threw in Star Wars-y stuff to remind us where we were; a brief glimpse of R2D2 and C3PO, or a quick shot of the obstreperous customer from the bar scene. Those scenes were more jarring than reassuring, though. They brought back Peter Cushing for this movie, twenty years after the man was laid in his grave, and his face was the one special effect that really looked CGI-ed, and kind of creepy.
No, Rogue One is a serious movie. Its protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a semi-orphaned child; her mother shot in front of her, her father a traitor, her protector, a terrorist. She becomes a revolutionary more or less by accident, scratching and clawing for a place of autonomy and purpose in a universe where several factions want to claim her because of the legacy of her last name. You could argue that she’s not a very volitional protagonist (her choices don’t really drive the action of the film), but I found her tremendously compelling. She’s fighting to define her own purpose, her own destiny. And in the process, is both ground down by history, while also remaking it.
That’s kind of the theme of the entire movie. It’s a movie about pawns who queen themselves. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is a pilot and a spy, tasked with finding and killing Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). But the discoveries he makes along the way force him to expand his purpose, to look for a way to destroy the Empire’s fearsome new superweapon, the Death Star. Along the way, Jyn and Cassian meet more stateless vagabonds, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind Jedi ninja monk, who became, for me, the most magnetic and fascinating character in the movie, and his friend, Baze Malbus. And they just kind of tag along, before finding their own sense of mission and purpose.
And then we meet the Rebel Alliance, and discover them to be a much less formidable opposing force than we might have supposed from Star Wars. The Alliance isn’t all that unified. It seems to be mostly a loose collection of movements, from different places and planets and ideologies, who have come together in opposition to the increasingly brutal and fascistic Empire. They don’t seem to be able to agree on any strategy or tactics, and they are pretty much paralyzed until they do agree. Cassian and Jyn finally force their hand, and seem astonished at how easy it was.
In short, it feels like the way real politics actually works. It feels like what an actual Alliance opposing a fascistic state might look like, and how it might function. It’s grubby and dark. A lot of Storm Troopers’ white plastic uniforms are badly stained and filthy. And characters we’ve come to care about a lot end up dying, sometimes pretty pointlessly. It’s about war, and death is central to war-waging. There’s a bleakness to this movie that I loved, and wish there were more of. Because the ending struck me as sort of grotesquely chirpy. Not to give it away, but this movie doesn’t so much arrive at Star Wars as collide with it. It left a bad taste, sadly, because so much else in Rogue One works.
I think it’s the second best movie in the Star Wars canon, after Star Wars. I grade them as follows: Movie 4 (Star Wars) A plus. Movie 3.5 (Rogue One) A. Movie 5 (Empire Strikes Back) A minus. Movie 6 (Return of the Jedi) B minus. Movie 7 (The Force Awakens) C minus. Movie 3 (Revenge of the Sith) D minus. Movies 1 and 2 (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones) F.
Rogue One‘s not really a Star Wars movie. (No opening scroll! Different musical themes!). But whatever it is, it’s very good. I’m encouraged by this direction for the franchise, and will look forward to Episode 8 with great anticipation.