This article contains MAJOR Rogue One: A Star Wars Story spoilers. Be warned.
He stands there, furrowing his brow with the kind of villainy that only Peter Cushing can elicit, digital approximation or not. Scheming and excited, the exhumed horror icon gives the order to fire his Death Star not at the Rebel Alliance fleet, but at the Imperial base on which the Empire’s prized Archives facility is housed. In theory, he’s wiping out the Rogue One pests and protecting the schematics of the Death Star. But in actuality, he seems just as thrilled to be erasing Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic from the face of Scarif. In one fell swoop, he’s seemingly saved the Death Star and taken out his only competition in impressing the Emperor with it.
That’s all well and good for this galactic game of thrones, but like every other viewer, I had a different thought on my mind during that moment: “But Jyn’s on Scarif! If you get Krennic, how does she have time to escape… and survive… and do more sequels?”
The answer is that she does not. Felicity Jones’ time in the Star Wars universe was a brief one-and-done affair that ended with her and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor sitting on a beach, taking in a nice Bahamas-esque sunset, along with a nuclear-sized blast rapidly approaching in the distance. And, as if there was still any doubt, we now had our final confirmation that this isn’t George Lucas’ Star Wars anymore. Praise the Force.
To be clear, this is not a critique at all on Lucas, whose vast imagination (and merchandizing acumen) has more or less steered the direction of our pop culture for the last 40 years. It is, however, a relief and a sign of hope for the future of Star Wars as it rests in Disney’s hands. I can attest that I’ve long been skeptical ever since it was revealed that we’d be getting a Star Wars movie every year. Clearly, Disney and Lucasfilm were keen on replicating the success of Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios, which have turned superhero movies into a year-round business where the park’s always open, and there’s a new attraction right around the corner.
At the time, I feared that this would be akin to “Supersizing Star Wars,” taking a beloved cinematic landmark and turning it into something as junky and disposable as fast food. Also, as good as last year’s The Force Awakens is (and it’s very good), there was nothing in the film that indicated there’d be a touch of risk-taking or a sense of storytelling bravery. Thus, while it will be painful for many viewers, particularly younger ones, to see all their heroes lying dead in the sand—just before being vaporized into the tiny stuff that Vader hates so much—it also marks a telling step away from the Nostalgia-Make model of The Force Awakens. Even further, it’s a blessed departure from the wearing sameness that ultimately blurs the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one brightly costumed gray splotch.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first massively budgeted, PG-13 shared universe movie in the 21st century to actually take advantage of that interconnected idea and then run with it. This is something to be very hopeful about, indeed.
From the very beginning, Rogue One proudly subverts audiences’ expectations. For instance, likely aware that the franchise could never get out of the shadow of John Williams stepping away from these standalone Star Wars films, director Gareth Edwards and Lucasfilm elected to forego an opening crawl that’d be accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s new theme. Rather, the movie starts with a striking cold open on a simple and isolated planet, right as a family is about to be torn asunder by the Empire.
Until the sound of a laser’s blast, it’s a quiet scene, as well as the best moment Mendelsohn or Mads Mikkelsen have in the movie. Orson Krennic arrives on the planet to more or less kidnap Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso, planning to break his spirit as if he were one of Martin Scorsese’s apostate priests in Silence. The sequence is stark, menacing, and ends in sudden brutality.
Hence, it’s unlike anything we’ve seen in a Star Wars movie to date. By focusing on the character drama—as well as the fiercely violent oppression of the Empire being demonstrated sans musical score until the life of Jyn’s mother is stolen—we are thrown into a more adult and insidious version of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps even more so than the franchise’s greatest film, The Empire Strikes Back. For all the losses in that movie were salvageable, whether it be by the promised unfreezing of Han Solo or within reattaching Luke Skywalker’s hand. In contrast, Jyn’s childhood is ruined and Galen’s soul is seemingly stolen from his possession. And the consequences define the rest of their darkening lives.
(To put it another way, when it became clear Grand Moff Tarkin was about to blow up the last two protagonists, I saw a mother escort her young child from the theater before the Death Star fired.)
Not all of the film is this good, however. Rogue One caused some fan anxiety due to apparently extensive reshoots in 2016, and they’re quite apparent in the first act. I am still not entirely sure why Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is in this movie or what role he ultimately played in the very muddled opening 45-plus minutes. But luckily, once the movie finds its footing (around the time that Saw meets his end), the film Gareth Edwards set out to make becomes apparent.
Instead of being set in a galaxy of good vs. evil, it is one where the Rebels can be as mistaken and morally compromised as folks sometimes find their own well-intentioned Western governments these days. Assassination missions against political figures we do not have a clear picture about comprise the second act, and the third act is a straight up space battle version of The Wild Bunch. Personally, I do wish the supporting characters played by Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, and Riz Ahmed were better developed. As members of an ensemble piece, these folks should have been drawn as broadly and appealingly as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, or Edmund O’Brien were in that classic Western.
Still, the ultimate effect is the same. We have a scrappy band of heroes that authority figures dismiss, and then one by one they die in a strangely triumphant but emotionally draining crescendo of action. This is the kind of plot direction taken by Westerns at the genre’s height of popularity, because there were so many of them being made at the time. By being bold and bloody, you could also be refreshing and rewarding to moviegoers.
Due to the need for synergetic brands in the 21st century, which give built-in audiences an instant excitement and investment in mega-budgeted releases, popular genre films are increasingly being forced under massive franchise umbrellas. It’s not inconceivable that in 10 years, we might even be dividing non-animated summer fare between Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Fox’s X-Men, and the new Harry Potter movies. But the more franchises are forced to conform, the even more desperate the need is for variety and creative originality within those confines.
To date, Marvel Studios has not made a truly bad film, but I’ve often said they are content with swinging for singles, because then they’ll always land on first base. This video essay illuminates even the visual conformity that the shared universe has created, to now stifling results. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has also thus far struggled to change the tone of their valuable DCEU, which is even more imminently pressing because of how poorly the 2016 entries have been received.
Conversely, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in the same playground as The Force Awakens and everything that came before it. Yet, miraculously, it is nothing like J.J. Abrams’ reverent and fervently nostalgic film. Again, The Force Awakens is quite good, and I’m not entirely sure about recent claims that Rogue One is wholly better. I think Abrams did a better job, at the very least, of defining new and memorable characters for his audience to love.
But Rogue One did what more shared universe ventures need to do if they wish to avoid oversaturating their marketplaces: it created a completely different kind of moviegoing experience from Disney’s other Star Wars movie. Rogue One is also incredibly unique from the George Lucas films that Abrams worshipped in 2015. It’s truly a standalone film with a (messy) beginning, a strong middle, and an amazing finale. It tells its story and adds new wrinkles and idiosyncrasies to what we’d previously seen. Yes, Darth Vader returns, but we have now finally seen his long-rumored castle on Mustafar, and it looks like the Francis Ford Coppola version of Vlad’s fortress in Dracula has been relocated to the threshold of Hell! It’s gothic and every bit as different from what we’ve previously thought about Vader as the image of Rebel leaders willing to concede the war against the Empire before A New Hope has even begun.
Does this mean every standalone Star Wars movie will be a smashing success? Not at all. One of the other most satisfying elements of Rogue One is the knowledge there will be no sequel. Unlike almost every other blockbuster in the last five years, it tells a complete narrative with no eye about sprinkling in threads for the future. It’s not a mystery box; it’s a full story. However, that means Disney has to start again from scratch with the Han Solo movie, which by its very nature could risk trying to set up an unending franchise of Solo movies sans Harrison Ford. (Good luck with that…)
Still, Rogue One offers a glimmer of hope promised by Jyn when she stands up to the Rebel leaders. It’s unlike any Star Wars movie before it, and likely different from any after it too. If this is truly what Kathleen Kennedy will continue to strive for, she might just save this entire shared universe craze from multiplex exhaustion. In which case, this is a victory that makes Jyn Erso’s sacrifice all the more noble and heroic.