Rogue One is a beautiful disaster
Ivy vs. Star Wars, part 3.5
Posted 16 Apr 2021
I really like Rogue One. I'm not going to deny that it's a mess in a lot of ways. It has flaws. Big ones. But it also diverges from the rest of the Star Wars series in a number of significant and interesting ways, and in doing so becomes something unique. So I come before you today to argue that Rogue One is, despite everything, not only a decent film, but one of the best of its series.
First off, if you must write a prequel, I think this was a great choice of subject. "How did the rebels get the Death Star plans in the first place?" is a surprising premise, one that is instantly intriguing yet somehow had never crossed my mind previously. And since no part of that story had ever been fleshed out at all, this meant that new characters could be produced for the occasion rather than rewriting the histories of existing ones. It's rare to find a space for a prequel that is this pristine, a perfect blank canvas to start with.
So let's talk about the characters. I will grant that they are not particularly well-developed. Jyn transitions a little too smoothly from violent scofflaw to eloquent freedom fighter, and her exact motivations are unclear to the end. Cassian likewise remains something of a black box. And let's not even get into Saw Gerrara, who I think is meant to come across as insane but instead only manages to be confusing and inconsistent.
But I can't help but love these scrappy upstarts; Star Wars is undoubtedly at its best when it's about gangs of misfits trying to do their best. And I do like the characters, such as they are. K-2SO is the rare genuinely likable new droid character, a sort of sardonic version of C-3PO whose quips often sound like something out of Douglas Adams. The Jedi Temple guys are always fun to watch. Riz Ahmed's natural charisma makes his character shine despite the very little that we know about him. Jyn, the haphazard construction of her personality aside, has a balance of emotion and derring-do that's really quite excellent. And Cassian, vaguely defined though he may be, embodies an interesting aspect of the Rebellion that's rarely discussed in the other films.
To elaborate on that: One thing this series has never been particularly good at is elucidating a) what the Empire does that is bad in general, and b) what motivates someone to put their life on the line for the Rebellion. A variety of evil deeds of the Empire have been shown on screen before, of course, but when Luke Skywalker says he hates the Empire, what exactly is he thinking of? What impact does the Empire have on his life beyond the presence of a few too many Stormtroopers at Toshi Station? Rogue One's answer to this question may seem obvious but nevertheless hasn't really been covered extensively before: imperialism. The planet of Jedha is depicted as one with a rich and storied history, but the Empire, as empires often do, sees its rich history as a natural resource to be plundered, and its people as utterly disposable. It crushes the remnants of its local religion and loots the temple of its valuables in order to produce the very weapon that it will ultimately use to annihilate the entire city. An utterly familiar tale: they came from far away and then they took until there was nothing left. This is the atmosphere that breeds rebellion, and though we aren't privy to the specifics, it's clear that this same thing went down on whatever planet Cassian originally hailed from. These people became rebels because they're ruined, angry, and eager for revenge and restitution.
The way the film depicts its primary antagonist, Director Krennic, is also interesting. Where the likes of Palpatine and Vader are monstrous both in appearance and in deed, Krennic is a very average-looking paper-pushing bureaucrat. His primary motivation is to hold on to whatever trivial amount of clout he accrued for himself by his involvement in the Death Star project. Rather than the overt horror of lightning-hands, he embodies the "banality of evil", the mental state where unfathomable wrongdoing becomes just another day at the office, the moral implications of his actions neatly cordoned off so that they won't trouble him in his free time. This is not the kind of thing one expects from Star Wars.
The film also depicts the war itself somewhat differently than is usual for the series. Yes, they do eventually capture the plans and win the day, but at what cost? Literally every one of our protagonists dies, along with unfathomable numbers of their compatriots. And the ultimate outcome, we know from the other films, is that the rebels were able to destroy one Death Star, after which the Empire just constructed another one (presumably without the same vulnerability), and then created Starkiller Base, an even more powerful variation on the same thing. In the long run, all this bloodshed accomplishes virtually nothing. The depiction of Scarif, where the film's final battles take place, is clearly modeled after Vietnam War films, which American audiences implicitly understand as a symbol of needless and bloody conflict. Like most war movies, Rogue One still has its moments where war looks pretty cool and exciting, but overall it definitely has a more anti-war leaning than the series usually does.
Let's take a minute to talk about the film from a pure craft standpoint, too. Rogue One is a phenomenally well-made film. The visual direction is superb, and captured with impeccable and creative cinematography. There are a lot of utterly brilliant shots to be found here, both with and without characters, and the space sequences have never looked better. In possibly my favorite shot of the entire Star Wars oeuvre, a Star Destroyer slowly slides into view from complete shadow, and just as the entire thing becomes visible, light starts to creep in behind it to reveal that what appeared to be a starfield is in fact the side of the Death Star. There's also Michael Giacchino's excellent score, which manages to live up to the precedent set by John Williams without just mindlessly recapitulating it. And let's not ignore the daring, and I think very successful, decision to eschew the traditional opening crawl and instead cut straight to a space scene with a suitably dramatic chord.
But I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few of the film's faults specifically. Most grievous, to me, is the unfathomably stupid decision to resurrect Peter Cushing from the dead, which only succeeds in demonstrating that our technology hasn't yet attained the ability to do that successfully. It also strikes me as tasteless, an insult both to the memory of Cushing and to the still-alive actors who could have taken the role instead. Charles Dance? Jeremy Irons? Someone not famous who would have been very good? The options are infinite, and all of them better than I Can't Believe It's Not Peter Cushing. That they did this at all sets a precedent that worries me greatly. I much prefer to see iconic roles passed from actor to actor like precious heirlooms rather than live in a world where fifty years from now we'll still see new Indiana Jones flicks starring a CGI Harrison Ford.
Also, despite the obligatory internet whining about the female protagonist, few of those people seem to have noticed that Jyn is the only meaningful female character in the whole film. No room for another girl in the ragtag band of ruffians, we've already got one of those. We don't even see any women as nameless combatants until the film's final act, as if it had realized the problem only at the last minute.
And then there's the octopus thing. Ah, the octopus thing. Why?
Rogue One can be a bit frustrating to watch, honestly, because a few of its stumbles are so severe as to be cringeworthy. But to me, these faults are hugely outweighed by its successes, and the ways in which it sets itself apart from the rest of the series. It's not perfect, but none of the other Star Wars films are, either. Rogue One is ultimately interesting and fun to watch, and the same can't be said for some of the others.
It might have been interesting if the film had used a post-apocalyptic Naboo in place of Jedha as an illustration of the Empire reducing a storied civilization to destitution. This would have made the point even stronger, possibly, but Disney has thus far followed an implicit We Don't Talk About The Prequels rule, and I can't say I blame them.
That scene at the end with Darth Vader in the darkened corridor. Dang it's good.