This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But you’ve probably all seen it by now, right?
With the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens upon us, and another geeky crop of summer movies (X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Trek: Beyond) peeking around the corner, it’s become weirdly easy to forget that the end of 2016 will also give us another new Star Wars film. And yet, while new footage from Star Wars: Rogue One recently leaked online, it didn’t so much as cause a tremor in the Force; more of a blink. Because Rogue One isn’t a sequel to The Force Awakens, does anyone actually care? More specifically, does Rogue One have an identity crisis?
No matter your personal opinions of The Force Awakens (I loved it, and have crazily argued it should have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars), there’s no denying it was a fandom game-changer and largely well-received by the general public. Overwhelmingly, this long-awaited sequel to Return of the Jedi coddled Star Wars fans of old, helped heal bad memories of the prequels, and maybe most importantly, brought this historically white male-dominated universe into a whole new realm of representation on both gender and race lines.
Triumphantly, instead of smacking of tokenism or pandering to political trends, The Force Awakens—in my estimation—is legit progressive because of the natural way the characters are written and portrayed. It’s true that Rey is a woman, Finn is a black man, and Poe is Latino, but none of these traits exclusively define who they are at the expense of having real personalities. Instead, like Luke, Leia, and Han before them, they are heroes because they are heroic. When Rey ignites her lightsaber in the final showdown with Kylo Ren, it’s not just a cool Star Wars moment, it’s a great moment for feminism and geeky adventure fiction at the same time.
With that in mind, if you’re firmly on Team Rey like me, then Felicity Jones starring in Star Wars: Rogue One should be fairly exciting. Look! It’s another Star Wars movie with a female lead! That’s good, right? Well, superficially, I’d say it is good. But, it’s not like I think the movie Sucker Punch is inherently positive just because it features a heroic “badass” female protagonist (I think Sucker Punch sucks, in fact). Obviously, I doubt very much that Rogue One will have the objectification problems of Sucker Punch, but I’m not sure the simple existence of a female lead in a Star Wars movie is quite enough to get me excited.
Felicity Jones is an awesome actress and I love Star Wars, so I’m pretty sure I’ll like, or at least appreciate, the attempt in terms of whatever way her character shakes out. To be clear: as far as I’m concerned, the next 500 giant geek movies for the next 500 years could (and maybe should) all have female leads. But, that won’t mean some of those movies aren’t way better than others. To put it another way, the feminism angle on Rogue One, is for me, a zero-sum game in forecasting it’s relevancy or “goodness,” since I firmly believe we should expect and demand positive, progressive feminism from all future Star Wars movies, anyway.
So, why else would someone be excited about Rogue One? The dominant positive angle here is that it will offer something different that a true Star Wars movie has never been able to do: tell a story about people other than the Skywalkers and their constellation of friends, connected families, and direct allies. In short: take advantage of the rich and interesting fictional landscape inherent to the Star Wars universe and truly go where no Star Wars movie has gone before.
Last October, I was on a panel at New York Comic Con (called “The Future of Star Wars”) with the excellent writer and Star Wars expert Amy Ratcliffe where she exposed this exact viewpoint: “I think it’s exciting. I mean I love the Skywalkers, I love Jedi, the Force; but the world is so much bigger than that. With Rogue One, we get to go with soldiers on the ground. The fact we have the opportunity to get that sort of variety now; I think that’s tremendously exciting.”
In theory, I think I agree with Amy: Star Wars is a diverse fictional sandbox, so the kinds of cinematic stories told in those worlds could become even more diverse, not only in scope but in tone. After all, for decades now, Star Wars novels, comic books, and games have been accomplishing just that: telling stories of bounty hunters, Rebel pilots, and characters who reside in environments and contexts only glimpsed in the films. I’m a huge fan of the Rogue Squadron comics and X-Wing novels and was among those who erroneously believed Rogue One would be an adaptation of those character-rich narratives; narratives that fulfilled the promise of doing something “different” with Star Wars, other than just retelling the tragic story of the Skywalker family.
Which is why I’m not convinced—at least not right now—that Rogue One is actually going to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. I don’t think it will actually be as risky and experimental as we’re led to believe. To put it another way: if this Star Wars movie was going to be so different and interesting, then why is Darth Vader in it? Yes, it’s been revealed that Darth Vader will indeed be the antagonist of Rogue One, and he will decapitate Rebels and generally deliver what sounds like violent video game action in what we’re told is going to be a super-gritty war movie and all about stealing the Death Star plans. Or something.
Personally, I’m not the least bit interested in a ground battle Star Wars movie, like at all, although I recognize that it could be good and not inherently a bad idea. But, if you’re really going to do something new with a Star Wars movie, aren’t we jumping the shark a little here by incorporating not only Darth Vader, but the Death Star, too? The most glaringly dull aspect of both Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is the shoehorning in of a second Death Star and a faux Death Star in the form of Starkiller Base. Aren’t these elements the most played-out aspects of Star Wars to begin with? If we’re talking about originality, or playing with plot structures, then suddenly all the prequels become way more artsy because they don’t rely on the existence of the Death Star to ramp up the tension.
Experimentation or “newness” within an established fictional universe frequently leads creators down the prequel route. Even after the critical failure of The Phantom Menace, Star Trek tried to get in on the prequel game with the ill-fated show, Enterprise. And while Enterprise suffered from the same continuity problems with regular Star Trek as The Phantom Menace did in relation to Star Wars, it was braver, at least from a marketing/branding perspective. For its first three seasons, the show wasn’t Star Trek: Enteprise, but just “Enterprise.” The old Ewok movies are like this, too! No Star Wars logos in sight!
You can’t imagine this kind of thing happening now. In this era of SEO, hashtags, and an almost sad devotion to brand-identity, Lucasfilm/Disney would never dream of releasing a Star Wars movie without the words “Star Wars” attached to the title. In this way, Vader and the Death Star cropping up in Rogue One is the “literal” manifestation of hashtags and brand identity influencing the writing and conception of the art itself. Which is why, to me, Rogue One feels more like a Star Wars product, a hashtag becoming a movie rather than “a Star Wars story.” I’m not sure there are focus groups yet for Star Wars fans, but the overall feeling of Rogue One smacks of a hodgepodge of what a think tank believes people would want out of a “stand-alone” Star Wars movie, i.e. violence, killing, faux-grittiness, and “Darth Vader.”
While I’m at it: who actually wants to see a young Han Solo movie? This to me seems like another Star Wars product, something that can be easily understood by the masses, and not challenging or experimental at all. There are those who have criticized The Force Awakens, saying it “rips-off” the structure of A New Hope, and while I find those arguments a little boring, I would say, if you sympathize with those points of view, then both Rogue One and the Han Solo movie mean that in the department of unoriginality, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
I am all about The Force Awakens and cannot wait for Episode VIII, and eventually, Episode IX. And that’s because, with these films, Star Wars is finally looking forward, not backward. When we talk about the prequels, we can complain all we want about shitty acting, Jar-Jar Binks, and those weird maternity droids in Revenge of the Sith, but the real problem with the prequels was a lack of narrative tension. We knew what was going to happen to everyone and it turns out finding out how badly Anakin and Obi-Wan screwed up their lives wasn’t that interesting. If I couldn’t get excited about Anakin becoming Darth Vader, why would I be excited about people stealing the plans to the Death Star? Felicity Jones is out to find some plans that will reveal a very ridiculous design flaw in an absurdly impractical battle station. As a MacGuffin in A New Hope, the Death Star plans work, but only barely. If we focus on them again, their inherent silliness only becomes more manifest.
In this way, with its obsession on forming a movie around a space station’s design flaw, Rogue One is a weirdly appropriate synecdoche for what is troubling about the new Star Wars entertainment empire as a whole. Star Wars is back, and The Force Awakens has proved that. But now, there’s design flaw in this entertainment juggernaut. Because the more Star Wars tries to tighten its grip, the more quality storytelling and originality will slip through its fingers…
Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths ( Plume/Penguin Random House). His work has appeared in The New York Times, VICE, The Morning News, Electric Literature, Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and extensively, for Tor.com. He lives in New York City.
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