#1 – What Rogue One attempts to do is almost certainly more interesting if you’re a Star Wars fan and there’s no denying that there is a huge amount of fan service going on in this movie.
Having said that…
#2 – I am a massive Star Wars fan so whatever.
#3 – There are a lot of people I’ve spoken to now who are marginal Star Wars fans who loved Rogue One.
#4- I wanted to keep this spoiler-free but I figure enough people have seen the movie now but, either way, here is your warning of SPOILERS.
Rogue One is both non-essential viewing and a necessary corrective to the Star Wars movie canon. How is that possible? Well, it speaks a little to what I discussed in an earlier blog about alternate narratives. The Star Wars story universe is so large that everyone’s understanding of what it is can be totally different. If you’re just here for the Skywalker & Co monomyth, which is after all what most people understand Star Wars to be, Rogue One won’t do anything for you and that’s A-OK.
But if you want to explore a little deeper, if you want to have a new lens to examine not just these films but the nature of history-making and heroic narratives, especially in times of war, look no further.
To begin, here’s a hot take for you:
The protagonist of Rogue One isn’t Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Jyn is the hydroscopic nuclei around which the misfits of Rogue One form and tumble down, down, down into the core of a nascent war, a mission trajectory that’s shared and unstoppable. It couldn’t happen without her. But the mission isn’t really about her.
The real protagonist is the most consistently underserved ‘character’ in the Star Wars universe.
The real protagonist is the Rebellion itself.
There are a few reviews and indeed comments from friends whose opinions I rate that suggest that the characterisation of the Rogue One team is thin. I agree with that.
It also didn’t bother me at all. Not only that, but I think it’s fine. Not only that but I think that this works in a positive way towards what this spin-off film is trying to achieve that the main movies often suggest but never quite land: Being a Rebel fucking sucks.
I realise this might read a lot like a rabid fan’s lengthy defense of undercooked characters but go with me on this because if nothing else I think Rogue One pulls off one hell of a trick in expanding the Star Wars universe in every direction whilst telling a very contained story.
On a practical level for Disney/Lucasarts, Rogue One had to work within a narrow, well defined channel: Tell a satisfying tale in the same story universe without overwhelming the narratives of the Saga movies (as I have learned the Episodes 1-7 are called). This film is built to be entirely subservient to the grander ones around it. Subsequently Rogue One, whizzbangs aside, exists on a smaller level than the main films. The heroes are minor characters in the world, they’re not Jedi and even the main villain – Director Krennick – saunters around with the fury/frustration mix of an insecure middle manager.
Even the emotional space of Rogue One is smaller. The Saga films operate under the sweeping emotional logic of a grand space opera. The music is more soaring, the language heightened, the jokes broader, the characters more vivid, the colours brighter, the contrast between sides sharper. Black. White. The Dark Side and the Light.
Rogue One, on the other hand, operates in the emotional logic of a war movie. It’s still got jokes, its characters are still occasionally fun and whilst some of the morals veer into the grey, the visuals do so less than you’d think – it’s beautiful film to watch. But there’s little romance to all this. There’s no time for it.
That’s because whilst our characters here are a lot less equipped to deal with them, the stakes are still huge, the enemy just as daunting as in the Saga movies. It’s this disparity that gives Rogue One its weight. It’s why a Death Star targeting a city here feels more daunting and terrifying than Starkiller Base wiping out the entire New Republic in The Force Awakens. This movie is all about the scale of the challenge that director Gareth Edwards twins well with his eye for the awesome (in the original sense of the word). In the Saga movies, the main characters observe people getting fucked by super weapons. In Rogue One, the main characters are the ones that get fucked by super weapons. The Death Star here is an absolute titan, in a way that it’s never felt before, and dealing with it feels like the most urgent thing in the whole damn universe, ahead of absolutely anything else. It’s this imperative that makes Rogue One move at the speed of plot, not the speed of character, something which is anti-thetical to wisdom on good writing. The film, without question, suffers a little for this.
Yet, for me, the aforementioned weight-through-scale is why I still found Rogue One satisfying and why I didn’t miss any greater characterisation. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to my love of Apocalypse Now (a movie, trivia fans, in which Han Solo’s got a cameo and none other than George Lucas was once slated to direct.) Willard not having much about him as a protagonist didn’t bother me and still doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He was a man on a crazy mission with crazy events happening all around him that were out of his control, all in service of taking down a Big Bad. Now of course Apocalypse Now is a totally different style of movie and has a whole different take on warfare. But both movies are about the mission above all else (well, at least, the non-Redux version of Apocalypse Now is and if you’re not a monster that’s what we’re talking about). The relentless drive. It’s in opposition to, say, a Saving Private Ryan, which desperately wants you to care about its characters. The movie isn’t about Private Ryan at all really, it’s an excuse to showcase the valour and humanity of these incredible people. You can tell how important it is to Spielberg. Apocalypse Now and Rogue One have a completely different approach and rarely reach that same level of characterisation.
Having said that, Rogue One’s characters were still clear enough to me to get me through the story. I was never at a loss as to what everyone’s ‘deal’ was. Yes, none of them were particularly special, none of them got a huge amount of space to get to know the others. But each of them had an anchoring point, each of them had a part to play. Rogue One needs more characters to create similar potency to a few in the Saga films. Its wholeness comes from greater numbers, wider skills and greater diversity in a world you already know at least a little about.
This last point matters.
Some have commentated that Rogue One wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if you removed it from its Star Wars context. I believe that’s likely true, but this is to miss the point. The whole raison d’etre of this movie is to reframe that context, and this moves me on to how Rogue One isn’t just fan service but genuinely makes the Star Wars universe richer both in tone and in complexity in a way that the Saga movies cannot without derailing themselves.
There are certainly nods to those in the know. Some made to amuse (too many of these), some made to be a nostalgia nurse, but most fill in tiny gaps of story and lore in a way that is immensely rewarding. There’s the Death Star’s weakness now being a deliberate choice, not a simple flaw. There’s the Jedi being seen in the context of being part of a larger religion. There’s young Jyn having a Stormtrooper doll. I loved this! It’s a little of what I’d hoped for from The Force Awakens. There’s a moment in that movie when Rey talks about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi as a myth. No longer there, but indelible in cultural memory. Yet there’s nothing really in that film that hints at this powerful myth’s place in that world. I remarked at the time “wouldn’t it have been great to have seen something like kids playing as Jedi and getting told off or something so we know what the deal with the wider world is?”. With that one half a second shot of a Stormtrooper doll, you get how deeply rooted the Empire is. It’s not some vague menacing military presence. You feel the Empire’s supposed pervasiveness through this better than almost anything else I’ve seen in the Star Wars movies. It’s beyond great ol’ fleets of Star Destroyers, it’s down to the very toys children play with in that world. As someone who was more delighted than one should be to see a brown human Star Wars figure in a shop (thanks, Riz) there was something in that which seemed to highlight the grip of a dominant force, not just militarily but culturally too.
My favourite nod was a very subtle one, subtle enough to have passed by my co-watcher who is also big on Star Wars. In a section of the fight above Scarif, a hapless Red Squadron X-wing pilot gets it in the neck. They spent a little longer focusing on his demise than others. Why? Because he’s Red Five, the callsign Luke gets given during the Death Star assault in A New Hope.
That’s a funny moment to look back on after watching Rogue One. When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, the beat is ultimately less about saving the Rebels (with whom he really doesn’t have any real investment), and more about him trusting in the Force and thus preparing him for his journey to become a Jedi in the films to follow. His sigh of relief when the torpedo enters the exhaust port feels like it’s saying “oh thank fuck the Force worked after all and I don’t look like a total dickhead for turning off my targetting computer.” He even gets a medal for this demonstration of Boy-Wonder-greatness.
In contrast, you suspect that the history within the Star Wars universe may not remember Jyn and co so well – indeed, it’s impossible for the future films to do so without some sort of unwelcome Late-Stage Lucas Special Edition kind of insertion. To paraphrase the Hamilton mixtape, the Rogue One crew are Luke Skywalker’s ghost writers. Which is a necessary and sobering thing to see, really. Nearly everyone who dies on Scarif won’t get remembered individually. Such is the fate of most people who do important things for the sake of any war, cause or movement. And you don’t actually have to be that interesting a person to do your part, either, even if movies demand it, entertainment demands it, dramatic writing demands it. Reality doesn’t. Not one bit.
Do I think that’s all by design? No, I’m not quite that generous, and there are plenty of bumpy moments and choices in Rogue One, but perhaps it’s because of the moment we’re living in that I feel more able to give a pass to a film that flags how our mythologies, societies and ideology are ultimately collective even if Great Individuals seem to dominate our narratives. There’s such hope in that if you’re in deep despair at what feels like a lack of agency. Thus the events of Rogue One are the sort of mythical moment that can power the relentless emotion behind a whole resistance. You can imagine soldiers on Hoth with tattoos saying “Remember Scarif”.
I’m finishing this post not long after hearing of Carrie Fisher’s death at sixty, which is no age. It’s a stark reminder that all our heroes must die, most of them earlier than we or they would wish. That’s the message of Rogue One – life is routinely devastating, our ends will likely be unsatisfying to us and unresolved to others but on we plough in the hope that through our actions it will be a little less so for those who come after that. The movie literally continues after you’ve gone because you yourself don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Rogue One’s final dream-haunting Vader sequence demonstrates this. Having slammed Luke a little earlier, let me give him his due – it’s this horrifying sequence that drills home the need for young Skywalker to appear into this universe. Vader is unstoppable, a merciless, murderous machine gun in an a field of quivering, tightly-gripped bayonets. Yet, perhaps because of what we’ve seen up to this point, those soldiers who get ripped apart by Vader don’t feel like grunts anymore like they do at the start of A New Hope. Their deaths sting. They feel like the most important aspect of the resistance, ones who will die without people knowing much about them but knowing themselves that someone else will carry on the fight once they go. There’s no doubt the comrade behind the blast door will take the crucial message on and on and on. There’s no doubt another fighter will take up a downed pilot’s callsign. There’s no doubt the narrative of the cause is greater than the narrative of the individual.
Of course it is. That’s how it should be.
They’re all Rebels aren’t they?