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Star Wars Are Hell

‘Rogue One’ is the best popcorn war movie since ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and the only great blockbuster of the year


Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).

There goes a TIE fighter gliding into space like popcorn on a string. There’s an orphaned child marooned into a rebellion. There walks a sage warrior calmly striking down enemy forces. There’s the black mask and the heaving, mechanical exhalation. There convenes a council huddled around a globular meeting table. There are the Stormtroopers and there is a desert planet. There is a peevish adversary. There is an unlikely hero. There is a charming robot. There is great conflict and there is waning hope. There is the Death Star.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story features all of the thematic, metaphysical, and practical aspects of the best versions of the franchise. It looks and often feels — eerily so — like a rediscovered reel, a lost piece of the puzzle buried under the couch cushions and returned to complete a picture. But these similarities are deceiving and these conveniences just a construct. Rogue One is brutal and different. Told in a time period between the Douglas Sirk–in-space melodrama of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the myth-forging thrill of the original film in the series, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One is like a Stormtrooper in disguise. These aren’t the spin-offs you’re looking for.

It all looks right, but it doesn’t speak the language in quite the same way that 2015’s The Force Awakens did. This is a good thing. J.J. Abrams’s movie was zippy, winning simulacra — a fun time that drummed up enthusiasm from aging Lucas-ites and engaged a new generation with high-fiving heroes blasting into hyperdrive and commanding lightsabers to their palms with the power of the Force. Released in a time that felt safer than ever, it became literally the biggest domestic hit of all time.

Rogue One, on the other hand, is about losing. It’s about the desecration of life, of community, of spirit, of religion, of trust. It’s a popcorn war film, drizzled in allegory, but it’s consequential and powerful, too. It’s timed perfectly. Director Gareth Edwards has made a movie that is both massive in scale and quietly motivated. It follows Jyn Erso, the abandoned daughter of Galen, who works as a scientist for the Empire and is tasked with building a colossal, world-obliterating space station that we will ultimately see destroyed in A New Hope. But Galen is a person of principle, and his daughter, from whom he is separated, learns to become one as well.

The Ersos are agents of retcon in this Star Wars story — they’re the figures who, with help from a “ragtag bunch” that both meet and redefine the phrase, can stave off the destruction of the galaxy and preserve a chance at intergalactic freedom just long enough to get us to chapter four in the saga. The entire proposition of Rogue One is Sure, you know what happens, but you don’t know what happened right before that. There’s the past, the future, and the less-distant past, which is where this movie lives. Somehow, it never matters that we know where we’re going. We board every hijacked spaceship with a mind open to the infinite possibilities of space.

Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, is a classically flinty heroine, and an upgrade on Force Awakens star Rey. After uniting with the Alliance, which reveals that her father is both alive and surreptitiously working to destabilize the Empire, Jyn makes a loner-turned-rebel transformation. Her father, played with uncommon tenderness by Mads Mikkelsen (who often plays characters with psychopathic bents), is a saboteur in disguise. Jyn’s pals, including Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), turncoat Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and Chirrut Îmwe (a mesmerizing Donnie Yen) are a fitting crew for a movie that derives joy from cliché while working to subvert it. They crack jokes, they pray, they deliver righteous speeches, and they save each other’s asses. And with the exception of the reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO (voiced by the great Alan Tudyk), there isn’t a white guy in the bunch. Some things change, even in a galaxy far, far away.

In opposition, the Empire has Director Orson Krennic, played by magnificent sniveler Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic is overseeing the completion and calibration of the Death Star. He is power-hungry, callow, and often seen in a white cape that hangs with the majesty of a mink on Marilyn Monroe. We have seen villains like him before, but rarely so fabulous. In the distance, Darth Vader lurks.

What happens between the Empire and the Alliance is the most violent and unrelenting Star Wars action ever. Its stakes are plain: War is hell. Edwards dots the movie with unsubtle references to the horrifying imagery seen in Vietnam, embeds tribal disputes among rebel units, characterizes figures as extremists, undermines the utility of a democratic republic, and renders a world full of characters who have suffered immeasurable loss. Blasters replace AK47s and the Force replaces punitive force, but the parallels are clear. Disney chairman Bob Iger recently said that “there are no political statements in it, at all.” It’s no surprise that a global entertainment company wants the world to see its movie free of political value or partisan charge. And maybe it’s better that way — for most viewers, the sentiments will be unmistakable. Fascism is terrifying and rebellion comes at a cost.

If some viewers want a great Star Wars Friday night at the movies, they can have that, too. Rogue One has lighthearted moments and Disney-ed verve. The jokes are good, the fights are thrilling, and there’s a big goosebump-rending moment in the final minutes. But it is first and foremost a film about sacrifice. It begins with the murder of an innocent woman, leads into a spy ruthlessly killing an informant ally, and ends with the kind of apocalyptic mayhem the likes of which George Lucas wouldn’t dreamweave. As I watched, I thought of Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Melancholia, and even Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. These are not exactly hallmarks of the series.

There are some strange choices here that seem to be made in an effort to soften the drive and seriousness of this story — as if producers wanted to calm viewers and make them feel safe at home inside the franchise they know and love. Michael Giacchino’s score is thrumming the spirit of John Williams at all times, all soaring and crashing orchestration. But Rogue One demands something smaller, more sinister, Pendereckian. There is also a digitally rendered version of Peter Cushing, the actor who portrayed Grand Moff Tarkin in the first film. Cushing died 22 years ago, but because of his stature in the time frame of this story, it’s logical that Tarkin appear here. His computer-generated image is the most lifelike in any movie ever made, but it is also an enormously distracting digital effect in a movie that easily sells talking droids, space battles, and alien lifeforms to its audience. Star Wars has always been about practical magic — Abrams obsessed over shooting on as many real-life sets with as many real-life objects as possible, to capture the tactile nature of the original trilogy. Edwards preserves that for the most part, but undermines it with a grand stroke like digital Tarkin’s inclusion.

These are quibbles. Edwards is the most visually gifted and ambitious filmmaker in Star Wars history — he was made to capture a battlefield, to crane across a collapsing bridge, to frame a Star Destroyer. Speculation about reshoots, punch-ups, and the addition of new voices to the filming process have diminished the reputation of the Godzilla director, but there are things in his movie that only he could have accomplished.

Rogue One, a movie so clearly delivering ideas about the costs of conflict, ultimately feels like a Trojan horse in reverse — its soldiers stream at you with fury, somehow hoping they can still trick you into believing they are a gift sent from an admiring nation. But Rogue One comes to kill. And it knows its targets.