December 10 is the two-year anniversary of ROGUE ONE’s premiere in Los Angeles/the world. There’s no new STAR WARS film coming out this Christmas, so, two years after the release of the first non-episode-numbered STAR WARS feature, let’s revisit the scorecard:
EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS – Dec 18, 2015
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – December 10, 2016
EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI – December 15, 2017
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY – whenever that happened, 2018
SOLO, the second “fill in the backstory” feature, was not very good. Upon (multiple, inebriated) rewatchings, I conclude that ROGUE ONE wins, and over time, its lead has grown over its sister films. Why, you may ask? Here’s a seven-layered listicle of why:
1. Continuity With The First One
I’m sorry, old and old-ish Star Wars fans, I am one of you, but we have to accept that the very first STAR WARS film (EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, 1977) looks super-dated these days. You HAVE to watch EPISODE IV like an old movie. A great old movie, like STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but undeniably, old.
ROGUE ONE does a neat trick which I didn’t appreciate at the time: it syncs up the old-schoolness of the Original Trilogy with the current day, mainly through visual effects (and a little bit through music). It provides a bridge between the photorealistic computer animation we’re all totally used to now, and the famous opening shot of A NEW HOPE. How many kids of this generation must endure their parents going on about how great the opening of STAR WARS is, and see (without the blinders of nostalgia) two spaceship toys chasing each other with the laser-adding filter from your phone’s photo app?
But it IS a great shot, that opening shot is, in context of its time and available technology. ROGUE ONE enhances that by establishing to the 2010’s-era viewer that yes, these are the spaceship toys you’re interested in. And once you’re invested in why that Star Destroyer is chasing that Blockade Runner, you’re less likely to care that you’re watching a really old movie that your parents think is so awesome.
With all due respect to Rose and Paige Tico, Chirrut and Baze are a classic cinematic team, and Bodhi is an intriguing if under-served character. ROGUE ONE’s larger Unlocked Achievement is creating the first truly diverse Star Wars ensemble cast, refreshingly free of tokenism, Orientalism, or the black/white binary which Americans often mis-label as “diversity.”
It’s hard to overstate the pop-cultural goodwill generated by the People of Color who all squish together in that little one-way shuttle to Scarif. The natural accents of Cassian, Chirrut, Baze. The inclusion of a Chinese-style martial arts homage. The self-sacrificial conviction displayed by Bodhi, the conscientious defector, under-explained though it may be. I confess a personal soft spot for Diego Luna (whose name already sounds like a Star Wars name) and here I thought he was perfectly cast as the Star Wars male lead who is and isn’t quite like the Star Wars male leads we’ve had before.
Chirrut, of course, gives us one of those great Star Wars lines that invokes the Daoist origins of the Force, and is at once totally corny and vitally true: “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.” Because not EVERY hero’s journey has to be about father issues, royalist bloodlines, and Judeo-Christian monotheist worldview, ya know? For more on the Asian subtextual influence on the whole Star Wars universe, I refer you to this episode of the Elevating The Genre podcast, co-hosted by myself and Christopher Morrison:
3. Operatic Space Opera Battle
The last battle sequence of R1 is better than:
a) A smattering of X-Wings attacking a maddeningly trench-less Starkiller Pokeball
b) A fascinating but ultimately un-exciting standoff between aged Luke Skywalker and an onslaught of First Order mecha
c) A completely unnecessary revisiting of the Kessel Run conundrum
d) All of the above
The answer is D. ROGUE ONE’s Big Fight is just composed better; the stakes are understood, and amplified by the music; there’s the U-Wing fighter (new flair) and admittedly fanservicey bits involving AT-ATs and Gold Squadron. But underneath all that audacity is a cinematic puzzle elegantly solved: how do we give our heroes just a little more time? By exploding more things, in a paced symphony of increasingly endorphin-looping explosions, that’s how.
ROGUE ONE’s main cinematic reference point apart from A NEW HOPE is surely SEVEN SAMURAI (with a healthy glob of S7’s pure Western remake, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). This fits nicely with George Lucas lifting every indelible theme/beat/idea in A NEW HOPE from that other Kurosawa film, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. We have Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO, Bodhi, Chirrut, Baze, Saw, and by the end, we have none of them, and we know why. To quote my nerd colleague MC Frontalot from his essay on R1:
Through a sometimes confusing haze of head-office reshoots and a rumored 70% rewrite after the rough cut, Rogue One still manages to present a genuine reverence for and understanding of the source material, exactly what J.J. simulated so slickly without proving he’d earned. It is a story not of teens suddenly noticing they have superpowers, but of revolutionaries struggling for moral clarity and then dying for the sake of their hope. Oh, that was the spoiler. Everybody dies. Everybody. And it doesn’t matter that they died, only why they died, only that they chose to fight that hard. This is a war movie, at long last. A Star Wars movie about war.
ROGUE ONE offers partial answer to the rather mucky question cheerfully ignored by the Original Trilogy and snarkily deconstructed by THE LAST JEDI, to wit, “Whyyyy are we rooting for this Rebellion again?” ROGUE ONE tells us that the good folks are rootworthy because they are literally ride-and-die friends, and subversively may seed young minds with the notion that the Rebellion is the one with the panoply of brown and Asian faces alongside the requisite brown-haired woman hero, as opposed to the side that is made up entirely of screaming British gentlemen (and the pilots of Pakistani descent who defect from their service).
This one only jumps out at you by comparison: the music editing in most of the recent Star Wars is ham-handed, stupefying, and oh yeah, AWFUL. Although they retain all the ingredients from John Williams’ original themes, they are mushed together in a cross-faded barrage of Brassy Battle Cues and Tender Force Arias which, due to both abbreviation and overplaying, result in little narrative effect. The great (and yes, utterly familiar) cue at the end of FORCE AWAKENS is the exception: when the lightsaber leaps into Rey’s hand and we hear, in isolation, the Rebel Alliance theme, we know something extra has happened.
ROGUE ONE (the first Star Wars feature to not solely credit John Williams with the music) does a very decent job with the score…but after listening hard to THE LAST JEDI and SOLO, it seems more like they did a GREAT job. It’s like comparing a Prince dubstep tribute megamix to the first guitar strum of “Purple Rain”….more is not better, or else musicians would simply play all the notes at once. LAST JEDI and SOLO do, in fact, just throw all the old themes at you at once, sometimes in double-time. Contrast with the end of R1: the lovely quietness as the Scarif base vaporizes, into the scary choral build as Vader’s Destroyer arrives, into the final main theme as we go to credits. It sounds like it should sound.
In the category of “over-delivering” (that is, when a movie gives more than is needed to fit its genre expectations and elevates to a new place, e.g. BLACK PANTHER, JESSICA JONES, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) the Darth-Vader-annihilating-Rebel-scum-in-a-corridor part was the scene we didn’t know we needed, but are glad to have received, like the perfect Christmas gift. Never mind Vader’s corny “choke” joke or his weirdly bouncy body language in the earlier scene at his temple. Never mind that it causes a continuity mishap with A NEW HOPE, in the sense that Vader sees the blockade runner leaving with the Death Star plans, so Leia’s protest of “we’re on a diplomatic mission!” is now clearly hooey (although, on the scale of politicians telling obvious lies, Leia’s is at least well-intended). It’s a movie, these are sacrifices we make so that we might feel a new feel: in this case, the fear and awe at Vader unleashing his Berserker mode.
7. It doesn’t make any sense, but in just the right way.
At the time of its release, I believe the STAR WARS fan community felt, justifiably, suspicious of ROGUE ONE. It was the first “regressive” feature, looked a lot like a cash grab to fill a hole in an ambitious release schedule, and had tons of reshoots. There was a feeling that we would prefer to proceed with Rey, Finn and Poe, rather than re-establish the past. Then LAST JEDI and SOLO came out. One of LAST JEDI’s interesting sins is, again, trying to tell us what the Big Star War between the Jedi/Rebels/Resistance and the Sith/Empire/First Order is actually about. Is Luke good? Is Rey funny? Is Kylo a victim or a victimizer? All interesting questions, but….
ROGUE ONE replies, retroactively, necessarily: “Hold my Bantha milk. WE DON’T KNOW AND DON’T CARE. WE DON’T EVEN HAVE FUNCTIONING EMAIL IN THIS UNIVERSE.”
Fans have complained that director Gareth Edwards was a hired gun who has never worked again (although, given the reshooting process, we may never know whose cut the final ROGUE ONE actually represented), but let’s remember, George Lucas didn’t work again as a the “Directed By” guy for a looooong time after the original one. Time, and some over-indulgences by Rian Johnson (a filmmaker I am a huge fan of, btw), has a way of telling us what really happened.
Happy birthday, ROGUE ONE! You’re two now. May you be surpassed, hopefully, by EPISODE IX, next Christmas. Seriously though, give ROGUE ONE a rewatch. It might become your new favorite, or the first favorite of someone close to you.