Editors Note: This article contains spoilers!
I am not the biggest Star Wars fan on the planet. That honor probably belongs to a sixty-five year-old Norwegian woman who spent the last thirteen years getting plastic surgery to look exactly like Wedge Antilles in time for her grandson’s Hoth-themed bar mitzvah. I can only guess. I do however still have a scar on my abdomen from using a breadknife as a lightsaber, while watching Return of the Jedi for the twentieth time, when I was around ten. So I have a little bit of galactic cred. I use phrases like, “What Star Wars means to me” in common conversation with no hint of irony. What follows are my first impressions of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In full disclosure I watched it with many friends in an amazing setting not to critique the film, but to enjoy it. That is probably how films are meant to be viewed. I am sure I will get a chance to pick it apart and ruin my sense of enjoyment at a later date, but for now I have to say that this was the best Star Wars experience of my adult life. I’ll tell you why, along with some others things that popped into my head while watching.
My praise begins in the most neglected of places: the colon. Nope, not that one, the one that divides the title between Rogue One and A Star Wars Story. I love the Star Wars universe, but with every new episode the creative team bears a quite unbearable burden to represent the entire franchise and please all of the fans. I used to read books about the expanded universe to the point where I would pretend my biology class was set on a Star Destroyer under the command of Admiral Thrawn. You may be wondering who Admiral Thrawn was. He was a new guy! Totally not in the movies! I wanted to find out about all of the exciting things going on in the “Galaxy Far Far Away” that I hadn’t already seen a billion times on a worn out VHS.
Making this film a one-shot story was exactly what I needed as a fan. Yes, it relates to major events in the universe, but it is not bogged down with constant tie-ins and relations to the other stories. The Galaxy is filled with different planets and species and droids. Why would all of the important ones be blood relatives? I finally get to watch characters who have never, and presumably will never, copulate with a Skywalker. That gave me an ability to actually invest myself in their story. I have a relationship with characters on screen, some more than others. I was adopted by the Skywalker family decades ago and for the last few years I don’t look forward to our Thanksgiving dinners. Uncle Luke is always too busy to show, Uncle Han refuses to admit he isn’t as cool as when he was my age, and every time Grandpa Vader says something racist we all try and pretend that he used to be a likable guy. Too much baggage, too many memories. I would prefer to ditch out on the family gatherings and chill with my new buddies from Rogue One for a little bit, take a break from the baggage. I am focusing mainly on the characters and story here, and someone with a better knowledge of score and cinematography can probably explain it better, but Rogue One does many things to distinguish itself as an individual aesthetically as well. The differences manifest in a number of ways, but one of my favorites is a direct answer to my biggest problem with The Force Awakens.
The Death Star matters. It is scary and intimidating and will exterminate every person you have ever cared about and your favorite pizza joint at the same time. In A New Hope, we get a sense of its scale when we see it destroy Alderaan. Ben Kenobi throws out a line about voices being silenced and we now know that the Force really does bind everyone together and we know that this makes Obi Wan a bit sad. Also, this is Princess Leia’s planet, so it is probably going to be a strong motivator for her. She doesn’t talk about it much though. Maybe it wasn’t her favorite home planet. She probably had dual citizenship for diplomatic reasons but spent most of her time in the Space-Hamptons. So no real emotional effect there. Then we get a new Death Star. Recently we got an even bigger Death Star, but we don’t call it the Death Star. This one blows up whole star systems of people we have never met and don’t care about. The Death Star is not a plot device as much as it is a video game end boss. Every time you destroy it it will come back bigger and all you know is that the story isn’t over till that thing blows up another time.
Rogue One fixes this problem in a couple ways. The first groundbreaking idea is that it shows us the victims. Not only are we worried about the main characters’ survival (it’s a standalone story, anyone could die), but we also understand that there are countless others who will be affected. During a mid-city battle scene we see Jyn Erso run through blaster crossfire to rescue a little girl and return her to her mother. If the Death Star destroys that city, those lives are ended. The Death Star does not just destroy planets, it ends the lives of people with thoughts and struggles and emotions just as valid as our protagonists. It is a weapon of mass destruction, and that is what weapons of mass destruction do. This thing takes away your family, takes away your home, and in this film it does it slowly. In an obvious parallel to nuclear war, there is an initial strike followed by a shockwave. Not everyone dies right away. You have time to say your last words to those around you, but will more than likely just hold each other in abject fear and hopelessness. The Death Star is absolute power being guided by the absolutely corrupt. Rogue One made a stupid laser-moon scary because it made it personal. The next time I watch A New Hope I am going to be imagining those poor people on Alderaan and just be grateful that they did not suffer as long as those who were massacred before them. They are part of the Force now, which is a great segue for anything Star Wars related, but especially my next point.
You don’t have to be a Jedi to be guided by the force. I spent quite a bit of my youth wishing I was a Jedi. You are a space-wizard, and a space-knight! Dungeons and Dragons wouldn’t let me be a wizard/knight, and that wasn’t even in space. I have designed and drawn countless lightsabers; I put the “on” switch in the inside of the handle so you have to use the force to turn it on (my mission to make the Jedi Academy OSHA approved). The more specific the movies got about Jedi the mystery was removed and replaced by arbitrary rules and genetic profiling. The Jedi Council was boring and self-righteous. I no longer wanted in, and what was the point of the Force if you weren’t a Jedi? Enter Chirrut Imwe. From the moment I heard of the character I was worried. Would he be an exiled Jedi? Would I be forced to listen to the same tired and overused Jedi clichés? Would his pivotal moment involve a lightsaber? Thank the Force no! He still represents an archetype, the blind samurai. I read somewhere (the bottom of a Snapple-cap?) that George Lucas was influenced by samurai movies when making the original trilogy. Our blind samurai is preternaturally efficient with a walking stick, and even uses a bow-caster as a visual callout to his Buddhist warrior influences. Instead of being the traditional wise yet stoic warrior/philosopher, he is just incredibly fun to watch. He smiles and jokes in the manner of someone who truly believes that things will work out the way they are meant to, and he has but a small part to play.
In the other films the Force is a source of power; something to be manipulated for the purpose of the “user” whether for good or for evil. Imwe’s Force comes from faith, not manipulation. In the belief that all things are tied together and so his life is just a part of something much greater than anyone around him perceives. His faith, and the peace and courage it brings with it, are infectious. Those around him gain strength from the knowledge of the Force. The Force exists not as a tool to be used by the powerful, but as a light to bolster the courage of the meek. A New Hope gave us the Force as a religion, this is the first time that religion has been shown in a positive light. Faith and Belief (and wicked fighting skills) are not just for the Jedi, they are for us all.
Those are a few of the main thematic changes I appreciated, now here are a few random thoughts that struck me during the movie:
- The pens. Did I not know that everyone in Star Wars carries a lot of pens? Is that a thing? If it’s a thing I feel like I should know it. They show Cassian talking into something that looked like a pen so I thought maybe they were communicators, but he doesn’t put it in one of his special pen-pockets.
- Saw Gerrera’s conclusion did not seem to fit what they said about the character. He is too extreme even for the rebels, and survives only on hate for the Empire. Then he just sort of gives up. It’s not that long a walk, Saw. I bet Saw Gerrera drives around the Walmart parking lot for like fifteen minutes just to save himself a twenty second walk.
- Darth Vader’s pun. It was a love it or hate it moment and I have settled on love. I like to think later that day Krennic was in a Star Destroyer break-room talking to one of his co-workers and they were like, “I know, last time I asked for a raise Lord Vader choked me too, then he said some stupid line about me choking on my aspiration” and Krennic says “He said the same thing to me, like he had totally just thought of it organically. I bet he does that to everyone!”
- I wanted the final scene where the plans are being handed from one person to another to go on much longer. Twenty straight minutes of Vader chopping through door after door with people just passing off the plans. To the point where he starts to get winded and then has to psych himself up and get back to it, but the frustration is obviously getting to him. I would watch that every day for the rest of my life.
- Lastly, as is the case with every new major film to come out, there are a few disgruntled fans not representing the whole that have found an arbitrary reason to be personally offended. This time, the criticism is centered on the fact that the Star Wars franchise has chosen a female lead for their most recent two movies. Now I am not saying that overcasting of female leads in Hollywood is not a problem (yes I am, I so much am), but these movies are not the examples you are seeking. Character gender is not of major relevance in either film. If there was a scene in which one of the Rebel Alliance leaders said, “Sorry Miss Erso, but you can’t fight a war with us. You are just a woman.” and Jyn Erso wins their respect by proving that ladies can, in fact, do space stuff too, only then would gender be an issue. So would bad writing. That does not happen. It is almost as if these movies are less focused on our personal demographic preferences and more focused telling a story about space-wizards and aliens and sassy robots. You know, the way it should be.
It would be impossible to claim that this was my favorite Star Wars movie. So much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that the story is set in a world I already love. Imagine you are home for the Holidays and as you walk around all you can see are the things that led you to move away in the first place. Then you stumble on something new; a park, a bar, a bowling alley, it doesn’t matter. You spend a few minutes in this place and realize that it could only exist in this town, with these people. It accentuates all of the feelings of nostalgia that unexpectedly creep up when people ask you about where you are from. It reminds you that no matter how much you may bad mouth the place you came from it will always be part of you, and so will the people. I got a bit of that from this film. I may get frustrated with the franchise, I may get tired of the oversaturation, but I can still be reminded that the galaxy is a big place and there is plenty I still haven’t seen. I look forward to seeing more, even if it means having to make conversation with Han and Leia’s angsty kid at the family reunion once a year.
Photo Credit: Disney