When Diana, Asher, and I saw The Force Awakens, we had been waiting for it all year. We had at least watched episodes 4-6 to prepare for it, and I had also started watching The Clone Wars sometime earlier in 2015, although most Star Wars fans I know don’t follow The Clone Wars or even acknowledge episodes 1-3 as canon, put out as they are with George Lucas’s perceived desecration of his own vision. I’m a purist, however. I recognize the problems with the prequels, both the obvious (Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians) as well as the more subtle (the impenetrably murky politics). Even still, I value the mythology preceding Star Wars proper. It lends weight, credence, and even a buoyancy and vitality to episodes 4-6. Having witnessed the emperor’s string-pulling and the collapse of the republic under its own weight, we’re now even readier to see the rebels raise Cain and burn the house down.
That being said, Rogue One couldn’t have arrived at a better time, all the more so in that, unlike The Force Awakens, I had forgotten to get excited about it until it was already upon us. 2016 has been a difficult year. Yes, we lost a billion celebrities from our childhood (the royal “we” being, in this case, children of the 80s). Trump not only became the Republican nominee for president but actually became president, indicating that we have entered some Bizarro universe adjacent to our own. In the spirit of fairness, our Democratic nominee was equally bizarre. All that aside and more pertinent to my own experience was the psychological hell that my personal and professional life had become. I’ll spare the details, but I have been fighting some of the hardest battles of my life, career-wise, facing down fears I’ve run from all my life.
I forgot to be excited about Star Wars, and I’m glad I did. We had to strategize. One perk of my current employment is that I get a week of paid holiday time every year between Christmas and New Year’s. Judah recently managed to sit all the way through his first movie (Moana), but we knew he couldn’t handle this one. We arranged to meet my folks at Target in Branson, send Judah back to their home in Blue Eye with them, and take our boys on to Branson Meadows Cinema to catch the movie. Before the film began, Asher and I talked about Clone Wars. He accused me of always watching it without him, but I told him I’ve tried to show it to him many times, and neither he nor Levi were interested. I couldn’t blame them. While the show features some slapstick humor and impressive lightsaber duels/combat scenes, it’s still afflicted with the same political maneuvering and skullduggery that characterized much of the prequels. It’s hard to work up a fuss about it.
From what we understood, Rogue One enters into the territory we really care about. A New Hope plunged fans right into the middle of a fascist, oppressive regime, well-established and all-powerful. It boldly asserted these were dark and perilous times and moved right into the action without waiting for us to catch up. As the story progressed, we became familiar with what preceded it. The prequels, for many viewers, ruined the romance of the mythology we’d built in our minds. It didn’t match what we’d visualized and even cheated a bit. For instance, Anakin never said, “I want my son to have my lightsaber when he’s old enough.” By the time his son was born, Anakin was Vader incarnate, and for all he knew, Padme died before Luke was even born. And let’s not even mention how Luke’s revelatory conversation with twin sister Leia in Return of the Jedi led us to assume for most of our lives that Leia actually knew her birth mother.
Instead of ignoring or overlooking the truths of the mythology we’d grown up believing, Rogue One honors them and respects them, even in ways we weren’t expecting, which is merely one of the ways this movie works so well. I think the movie’s many strengths are owing to its director, Gareth Edwards, a cinema artiste who knows his way around a blockbuster. He did 2014’s Godzilla, which took some bold chances, not the least of which was teasing the ultimate appearance of its star for perhaps a bit too long. He takes ownership of his material, though, and confidently tells the story that needs to be told, and he does no less than that here. Rogue One is intense. It occupies the battle-weary galaxy as we knew it originally. Not the shiny, polished republic, but the galaxy of imperial domination. The machinery, the ships, the weapons, and the wardrobe are all battered, bruised, dented, and frazzled. We’re familiar with this immediately. It’s comforting in a way, an excellent backdrop to tell the Star Wars story as we know it. Additionally, thank God, we have real sets and not the CGIed blurriness of, say, Attack of the Clones. Yes, these strengths were present in The Force Awakens as well, but we’re not here to talk about that movie. And besides, we knew TFA would be solid gold, with Abrams directing in the spirit of an early, independent Lucas and John Williams conducting. And Abrams was creating a new story by, let’s face it, recycling what worked about the old. Edwards is telling a story we know and trying to satisfy our expectations as well as surprise us. It’s much more difficult and, as we know from experience, not a guaranteed success.
The film opens with Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn), a commander in the galactic empire, visiting Galen Erso (the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen, one of my favorite actors), an engineer who has worked on the death star, and trying to coerce him to return and put the finishing touches on the death star’s ultimate weapon. Erso is a man of conscience. He refuses. Mendelssohn and company murder his wife and take him anyway, leaving his daughter, Jyn, an orphan in the custody of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Years later, the adult Jyn is played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), a moody vagabond with a huge chip on her shoulder. Circumstances eventually bring her back to Gerrera, battle-weary and scarred. He breathes through a crude apparatus, his voice almost gone, and walks on legs made mostly of metal. Whitaker’s performance here is oddly within his wheelhouse. He often plays the soft-spoken type. This type is just softer than usual. His squinty eye suits the character well here. Gerrera represents the more militant side of the rebellion, whereas most of the rebels seem content either to hide or resign themselves to the empire’s domination. The rebellion is far from a unified movement at this point. After the empire turns the death star’s weapon onto Gerrera’s planet (Jeddha, a name that should suitably geek us all out) in a terrifying demonstration of power, Jyn escapes in the company of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a rebel captain; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who channels his dedication to the force into his impressive martial arts skills; Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Chirrut’s right-hand man who fancies heavy weaponry rather than the esoteric; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a former imperial pilot who went AWOL when he discovered what the empire was up to; and K2S0 (acted and voiced by the endlessly talented Alan Tudyk), a repurposed former imperial droid who both cracks wise and kicks butt, often at the same time.
Much of Jyn’s angst, of course, is against her father for abandoning her and for his loyalty to the empire. She is ashamed of him and who he has become. Of course, things are not what they seem, and watching this play out provides some deep emotional father-daughter resonance that reminds us of the themes between Luke and his father in episodes 4-6. We also get a profoundly logical explanation for the death star’s Achilles’ heel—the exhaust port leading to the central reactor that is targeted and destroyed by Luke in A New Hope. Edwards reveals this not as a means of placating fanboys’ nagging complaint but rather as a natural and meaningful outgrowth of the characterizations here. (Trying my best not to spoil it.) It’s a moment very worthy of a “bravo.” Not only that, but the revelation sets up the film’s final act, where the brunt of the action takes place and where the film earns its title. Unlike most of the rebellion, Jyn believes the empire can be taken down, that the death star can be destroyed. I’ll leave the plot discussion at that. The action in the movie’s last act is impressive, not only in the choreography (battle combat and Chirrut’s staff-fighting are both impressively staged) but in the dramatic impact. The suspense and emotional intensity never let up, and Darth Vader, present in a couple scenes throughout, makes a terrifying final appearance that caught me by surprise. It should be mentioned that Edwards uses CGI and motion capture to reconstruct the appearance of a couple of the stars from A New Hope. It’s probably more noticeable on the big screen than the small, but the presentation of Governor Tarkin is creepy. The uncanny valley contributes to a menacing performance that suits the character well. It ceases to be distracting mainly because Edwards directs the performance with such sincerity, and this motion capture is but a taste of a final motion capture appearance that will bring tears to your eye and joy to your heart.
Rogue One is a dark movie with a dark story to tell. It’s not yet the gleeful escapist space-opera abandon of A New Hope, but it’s getting there. It’s the dark night just before the dawn. It’s a very important entry in the Star Wars universe. While it operates as a “stand-alone” story, A New Hope can no longer stand alone without it. I watched episode 4 on New Year’s Eve, close to a week after Rogue One, and my experience of that film’s opening has completely changed. I used to consider it rather campy, but knowing what happened mere moments before the opening action, I now found it very intense and even scary. The chances of the rebellion’s success hang by a thread, but there is a new hope in the person of a tiny young princess who takes crap off of nobody, who holds the keys to the rebels’ success, who was played by an actress we lost right as she was picking up this character where she left off. Rogue One is a love letter to fans telling us, “Yes, this story is just as important as you always thought it was. You were right to believe in it.” Indeed, may the force be with us all.