I left my second screening of Rogue One yesterday. I’m still overwhelmed by feelings today. Of course I’ve no clear thoughts or insightful analysis to offer yet. But I wanted to write about why the film impressed me so much (obviously without spoilers). Like many, Star Wars is something very near and dear to my heart. But I went in with my expectations as reasonably low as I could manage. The Disney Canon has disappointed me before. However, I can feel the Force freely flowing around me now as a result of seeing Rogue One! THIS is exactly what I’d been hoping the Disney Canon could give me.
Should you somehow have avoided the media blitz and are actually unaware, Rogue One is set on the eve of the events in A New Hope. It follows a small ragtag band of rebels – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the sass-tastic droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – as they attempt to steal the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the dreaded Death Star. The rebels are relentlessly pursued by the head of the Death Star construction project, Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) with the haunting shadows of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader not far behind. Butting your story up to the primal narrative of all of Star Wars is a bold move and not an easy thing to do. But the risks were handled with care and it more than paid off. I never thought I’d see a Star Wars film like this again!
As I’ve written before, the two main criteria I use for judging a Star Wars story ((no pun intended) be it a novel, comic book, cartoon show, new movie, etc.) are importance/necessity and respect/honoring of Lucas’ work. If a story doesn’t deliver there, even if it’s fun, it’s just fan fiction to me. Given the decades of exceptional stories in the Expanded Universe (EU) that kept Star Wars alive after Return Of The Jedi, a Star Wars story can’t be necessary simply by existing anymore. For me, it has to add something of real value – big or small – to the Star Wars Saga for it to be important/necessary. And it absolutely cannot contradict or ignore anything Lucas gave us in his six films, whether a direct part of the narrative or something clearly implied by the narrative’s tone. As far as I’m concerned, Lucas’ work is sacrosanct.
The Disney Canon hasn’t been great at doing either of those things so far, more focused on making new, exciting stories than stories that authentically fit within and honor all facets of Lucas’ work. Rogue One however brilliantly delivers this in the best possible way! For the first time since George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, I have faith that I’ll see more exciting films that honor what Lucas created while building on his stories in important ways. My faith flows easily because that’s exactly what Rogue One is! After The Force Awakens, I was worried I’d never feel anything close to what I felt watching Star Wars ever again. The Force Awakens, while fun, wasn’t on par with Lucas’ films to me. Rogue One honors that legacy and deserves its spot beside it. Now, having seen Rogue One, I am excited about a Star Wars film in a way I haven’t felt since George Lucas himself was still giving us new content!
Does that sound hyperbolic? Maybe. Maybe it is. Maybe I’ll re-read this piece in a few months time and cringe at this immediate reaction. But I don’t think so. Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have given us a new chapter in Star Wars that feels unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before…while simultaneously feeling like it fits within what George Lucas made. I can’t get it out of my mind. The emotional moments in the story continue to resonate and I can’t stop reflecting on the narrative’s pacing and it’s spot on awareness of where/how it fits in the Saga. Rogue One knows what it is. The film left me stunned.
First, the excitement and energy of the film had me actually sitting on the edge of my seat as well as actively pumping my fist in the air at moments too. I couldn’t help it! I was so excited!! Second, the characters we met naturally crawled into my heart. I can easily imagine this cast – especially Kaytoo! – becoming some of my all-time favorites with repeated viewings. Third, it brings alive the history of the rebellion against the Empire in a very real way. It was what I’d always imagined as a kid! We see the rebellion as a growing yet struggling organization – unsure of how to truly do battle with the Empire. They don’t know how to win but they know they can’t give up. We met rebels who are conflicted and compromised. They aren’t proud of everything they’ve done but they do it all regardless because they know the evil of the Empire must be defeated. They’ve given their all in service. It feels like a very real picture of the group Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca will find themselves among once they take Princess Leia back to Yavin 4 in A New Hope. Even better, the Rebel Alliance is consistently portrayed in such a way as to make the hope Luke brings all the more important.
It’s subtly brilliant in all those ties, orchestrating those moments so masterfully. Everything about Rogue One adds rich layers to what we experience in the Original Trilogy. It’s not derivative in those connections but expansive – it expands on and deepens the feelings we get when we watch the Original Trilogy. There are fun little nods to the original films as well. But again, it’s not exciting simply for connecting. Rather the connections make sense and they matter. I hope Disney and the Lucasfilm Story Group are paying attention (to more than box office returns). Gareth Edwards, Chris Weitz, and Tony Gilroy have shown how to make a Star Wars film that fans deserve to see.
The Disney Canon (as I’ve discussed more extensively before) has certainly given me some exciting moments and some great additions to the Star Wars Saga before this. But it has also disappointed me often too. I still struggle with my relationship to The Force Awakens. As we stood outside the theatre after our first viewing last year, no one spoke for a long time. Eventually my friend Hannah said, “I kinda hated it.” I was with her! My immediate reaction to The Force Awakens was that it was a fun sci-fi story but it certainly wasn’t Star Wars. How could it be? It just didn’t feel like Star Wars. At all. At least it didn’t feel authentically Star Wars. I pushed myself (in part because I had already purchased tickets to see it five times opening weekend – yikes!) to appreciate the film for what it was. I did get there. Yes, it’s derivative. Yes it’s filled with moments that contradict what we’d seen before in Lucas’ films. But it also had some truly intriguing new characters. It had some chill-inducing moments. And I found some excitement about it too. It laid a story I’m interested to see develop. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it more than once since buying the DVD. Rogue One set this right. Far from being Disney’s second strike, I see it as a sure sign of hope that I may not be done with new Star Wars content as quickly as I feared.
Granted, The Force Awakens had a far more difficult road to travel being the first new Star Wars film in ten years and the first to feature the original cast in over thirty. But the script they ran with trivializes what the characters learned and how they developed through the Original Trilogy. Han Solo’s whole character arc (as Jeff discusses brilliantly here) in A New Hope specifically and the Original Trilogy in general was to transform from being a selfish smuggler to a man who’s ready to commit to a cause, to friends, and – most importantly – to Leia. In The Force Awakens, Han’s run away from everything he became (and we can’t say it was because of pain over losing Ben…the Disney Canon clearly establishes him as a absent husband and negligent father before that). Luke too has apparently neglected his duties. The literal final instruction Yoda gives him is to pass on what he’s learned. Instead Luke finally becomes a Jedi…and does nothing for thirty years (and we can’t argue we just don’t know what he did yet because of the little the Disney Canon’s told us about Luke, Bloodline makes it clear he has yet to rebuild the Jedi Order six years before The Force Awakens). Again, they undo everything powerful about his character’s journey.
Rogue One didn’t have the pressure of being the first Star Wars film in a decade nor did it have the pressure of having to handle the legacy of Han, Chewie, Leia, Threepio…and Luke and Artoo for the 45 seconds they were relevant. BUT it did have the very difficult task of giving us a Star Wars film focused exclusively on new characters. Unless you’d read James Luceno’s exceptional novel Catalyst (here’s Andrew’s review on why you should read it!), you went into the films never having seen Jyn Erso or her father Galen before. You’d never seen Commander Krennic, his lust for power, or the tension between he and Tarkin. But Gareth Edwards made us care about all of these people. He made us revel in their success and fear for their setbacks. It wasn’t just an exciting film but an emotionally complex and engaging one as well.
Gareth Edwards also needs to be given great credit for making such a tense, exciting story when we all already knew the Rebel Alliance gets the Death Star plans. Take a second to appreciate that. He didn’t have decades of untold tales and/or characters to explore like we get in the Prequels and The Clone Wars. No, he had days of untold story before A New Hope. And it works!!
Lastly, I appreciate how Rogue One also had the courage to give us a Star Wars story free of lightsabers and Force users. There seems to be a pervasive fear, especially in the Disney Canon thus far, of having Jedi-less tales. In Jason Aaron’s Star Wars comic Luke is spending almost all of this free time seeking Jedi artifacts to learn about the Jedi and very little time being the Rebel pilot he seems to be in The Empire Strikes Back when Obi-Wan tells him to seek Yoda to complete his training. Star Wars: Rebels is a perfectly entertaining show in its own right. I do enjoy it. But how do Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka running around with everyone in the Empire and Rebellion seeing their lightsabers blazing and Force powers being used a few years before A New Hope make sense? It is SO CLEAR in every facet of A New Hope – from Empire to Rebellion to the casual people we meet along the way – that the Jedi have all but faded from the galaxy. Rogue One has the courage to embrace and expand on that idea. In so doing, the story becomes far more powerful than anything in Rebels three (or two and a half technically) seasons.
Yes, the Jedi will always be a major part of Star Wars. But when I first watched A New Hope as a kid (let alone The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) I saw a bunch of “ordinary” people fighting bravely against the seemingly unstoppable force (no pun intended) of the Empire. Yes, they had Luke (and Luke had Obi-Wan and Yoda) but there were two main conflicts going on. Luke Skywalker was walking his Hero’s Journey to face the Sith and redeem his father. He was the mystical redeemer. But we also saw Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, and countless other Rebel soldiers and fighter pilots standing up to fight for justice. Star Wars, as a modern myth that teaches spiritual lessons, makes us think of the Divine and the Hero but it also shows us that the “average” person has the responsibility to fight against tyranny and, when united, we have the potential to win.
That inspiration is one of the things that so moved me about Rogue One. With all of this in mind, Rogue One has become the new Disney Canon standard bearer for me. I’m not one for rank lists (as Jeff, again, discusses wonderfully here) but I do know I can never say Rogue One is “better” than any of Lucas films, especially A New Hope. How could it be? Much of Rogue One‘s excitement comes specifically from how it connects to Lucas’ work. If that works wasn’t as good as it was, the film would be less exciting. But, comparing it to Lucas’ work isn’t really the right move in my mind. The Lucas Age, the time when the myth-maker was presiding over his creations personally, has sadly come to an end. Instead, we’re in the age of the Disney Canon. Rogue One carries the torch passed from Lucas with honor and care. From the quality of its characters and the richness of its story, to the level of connection (to Lucas’ work most importantly as well as the Disney Canon itself), Rogue One shows how the future of Star Wars can work. I hope to see much more of this quality of storytelling from now on. May the Force be with us!