With the welcome addition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story into the Star Wars galaxy, rebels and rebellions can never feel the same again.
Star Wars was, in essence, a jaunty film about some very real topics. Rebellion. Oppression. Weapons of mass destruction. The fight against institutionalized, but true evil. And, all of this was handled within the framework of a space opera, a classic bildungsroman wrapped in a Buck Rogers veneer. It worked, and the film is the core of all modern mythology for the 20th and 21st centuries and will shine down the centuries in the same breaths as those dead and hoary gods of Olympus.
Because, at the core of Star Wars was a hero’s journey for one boy taking his first steps into a large, dangerous and unforgiving world; however, that world was seen through the fresh eyes of a 19-year-old, and the original film certainly captured that special magic that is imbued with all experiences as one comes of age. It’s a primordial experience shared by humans 7,000 years ago as much as it is today, and will be 7,000 years from now.
So, a dive bar filled with degenerates captures the imagination. Blowing up the Death Star seems like a foregone conclusion, although it was a bloody massacre for the Rebel Alliance. And perhaps the most obvious crime of youth pervades the original Star Wars, even in its storytelling–Luke, and by proxy the audience, who know from the first frame that the story begins in media res, are convinced that his story is a beginning.
No, Luke jumps into a frying pan already scorching hot, and his entrance into that larger world is thrown open by the blood of heroes he’ll never know.
Welcome to Rogue One.
A Deep Cut
Gareth Edwards achieves a realism new and separate from the Star Wars Skywalker saga to create what some have dubbed a “deep cut” into the Star Wars lore; a reference going back to the halcyon days of record album rock that indicated a fantastic song that wasn’t necessarily the obvious hit or the “radio-friendly” structure. And in that sense, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is absolutely a deep cut; its perspective is close, intimate, and personal while opening up the galaxy’s true underbelly. Star Wars has never felt grimier, and the used universe isn’t the only thing that gets dirty.
Morals are certainly less black and white in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the heroes have murderous blood on their hands, too. Within minutes the film establishes Cassian Andor as a cold-blooded killer in the same vein as Connery’s James Bond–a spy who will kill for the greater good. And the point is made that it wasn’t the Empire that killed Galen Erso; no, it was X-Wing fighters that dropped the mortal bombs onto that platform, albeit through the communications fog of war. They dealt the killing blow nonetheless.
The Futility of Extremism
And then there is Saw Gerrera and his band of insurgents, waging a seemingly futile guerrilla war in the streets of Star Wars’ holiest city: Jedha. The focal point of Force pilgrimage, Jedha is an easy analog for our world’s own “holy land.” Its Kyber Temple, guarded by Protectors of the Whills is a metaphor for our own natural resource that draws the eyes of the powers that be: oil. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the Empire is stripping the temple for its war machine, thus driving the extremists to dig in; here, oil production in the Middle East has fuelled countless wars and has taken the lives of millions.
Labeled a violent extremist by even the Rebel Alliance, Saw and his group teeter on the precipice between terrorist and rebel; they wage street-level attacks with no hope of liberating their city, let alone defeat the Empire, yet they resist nonetheless. In their fears of betrayal and annihilation, they see enemies on all sides, both real and perceived. It’s no surprise that Saw Gererra refuses to flee; Jedha was his last stand from the start–a place to fight for something meaningful after years of open rebellion. It’s a bitter flavor of rebellion, predicated on carrying on in the face of hopelessness until resistance takes all of a person, piece by piece. It was no mistake in the script that Jyn’s abandonment by Saw also preserved her soul to fight another day, and to fight with hope.
The Reality of Rebellion
Indeed, Rebel Alliance itself is on its last legs. While only recently forming for the first time as a unified group, indecision and fear threaten to pull the Alliance apart before it truly comes together. Against the better judgment of the Alliance council, they are thrown into an all-or-nothing battle for the Death Star plans, even while some in the group sought to parley and beg for a clemency that wouldn’t come.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shines reality into the concept of rebellion: whether it’s an underground resistance or a full-scale civil war, the choices are unclear and the methods are brutal. The high-minded ideals of overthrowing tyrants are dreams to inspire, but it’s the boots on the ground that get the job done. Ill-equipped commandos who hold those dreams more important than their lives, who risk all to get their jobs done.
The Ground-Level Perspective
And that is the space that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story inhabits: the grunts, the no-names, the ones who came before, the heroes of the heroes. Virtually no one who fights survives Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: from the brazen Admiral Raddus to the freighter pilot Bodhi Rook, none died in vein.
Upon the shores of Scarif, an island paradise not unlike Bikini Atoll that was home to various nuclear tests, Rebel soldiers died to provide a diversion while the Death Star plans were beamed to the Rebellion. If the planetary shield wasn’t an indicator, all modes of escape were denied these martyrs for the cause. A targeted blast by the Death Star put all questions to rest about survival, and Lord Vader sent the Rebel Fleet into a panic. Above Scarif, each nameless Rebel soldier frantically passing a disk between door cracks with no knowledge of why was a hero to the cause, and without them, all hope would’ve been lost.
Despite their place in galactic history, the core characters in the film are anything but forgettable. Jones’ Erso is full of emotion, like a deep well ready to flow over at any time. Cassian Andor is a venerable rogue in the truest sense, replete with the danger of a spy and the heart of a hero.
The massive droid K2-SO is a treasure and a technical achievement; his emotions raw and his humor biting. Kaytoo is the first droid that has ever been portrayed as actually believing in the rebellion on a personal level, and much of that goes to the performance of Tudyk.
Bodhi Rook is brought to life by Ahmed, making a one-note character into a symphony of nuanced personal development. And of course, Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe lend soul to a team that barely know each other. Wen and Yen play off each other effortlessly, and their performances lend a charm to the group that rounds out their scenes to the very end.
It’s legitimately tragic that there’s no opportunity for more time with this team, but it’s that very reason that will drive viewers to rewatch Rogue One.
In Back of the Camera
Production-wise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a fast and frantic movie that begs to be rewatched like any other Star Wars movie. Each frame is packed with details and information waiting to be uncovered by the keen-eyed. It doesn’t let up for a second, and the action moves forward without regard for composure, in the same way a real-life crisis of this magnitude would unfold. Director Gareth Edwards’ style is close and intimate, bringing audiences into the action; a stark departure from Lucas’ natural, cinema verite style with traditional framing for untraditional subjects. Edward’s marketplaces look cramped and his battles feel chaotic. Yet for outer space, Edwards pulls back to sublime landscapes and awe-inspiring beauty. The contrast is effective and succeeds to differentiate the film from the Lucas saga.
More separates Rogue One: A Star Wars Story from the Lucas saga of the Skywalker films. The score is a drastic departure from John Williams. Written in a little over four weeks, Composer Michael Giacchino’s effort is a haunting, effective accompaniment to the film, but never rises to the same heights as previous Star Wars films. If it were scored to temp, it is not easily identifiable. The overtures harken back to the grand sci-fi epics of the 70s and 80s, yet never congeal into the leitmotifs so expected from a Star Wars film. Giacchino knows these expectations, so it begs the question, “why were they not included?” Of the two possible answers–the former being that he’s not talented enough to write compelling, character-based leitmotifs–the latter is more plausible.
Score and More
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, again, is a story of the grunts who made the Rebellion function–the ones who got the job done–the nameless heroes who got the Death Star plans to Leia. Grunts don’t get leitmotifs; icons do. In identifying the nature of the movie, Giacchino sought to imbue the film with the immediacy, defiance, and sorrow of the soldiers who fought for a dream they would never see realized. It’s an effective score, if not a legendary one.
Despite it being a singular story, the film offers tantalizing new questions that drove the Star Wars universe into new and unexpected places. The secrets of the Whills persist. What is the fate of the characters of Star Wars Rebels? Vader’s castle on Mustafar finally exists, after decades as a thrown-away Ralph McQuarrie concept. And, new aliens, characters, and planets broaden the scope and size of the galaxy.
When the Time is Right
Is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for everyone? Probably not. It is likely a poor entrance point for children, who need to latch on to hierarchal heroes like Luke or Leia to vicariously experience their journey. It may work as a starting point for adults, but the contrast in tone between this story and the main films may be too jarring.
In the end, it’s best left on its own, or at least after Star Wars has bored a hole into the heart of a viewer. Otherwise, the cracks of minor flaws (Vader’s first scene needs work) may appear as fractures, and a worthy entry into the Star Wars filmography would be passed over.
Augmentation Gone Rogue
Therefore, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an achievement like no other. Opinion aside, 1977’s Star Wars ranks as one of the top films ever made, and whether it’s first, third, or tenth, there has never been an attempt to create a setup story on this scale for a film of this scale. Pushing film forward has always been an implied mandate of a Star Wars film, and after the concept itself, the best example of this forward thrust is the use of photorealistic human characters to resurrect Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and bring Carrie Fisher back to the tender age of 19. Where will this technology take Star Wars in future films? Will Han, Luke, and Leia be reunited after all in a new film set during or after the original trilogy? The implications are unparalleled, and could potentially change the face of franchise filmmaking.
If rebellions are built on hope, then audiences are moved into seats by it as well. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fulfills the promise of that hope, by and large, and raises the stakes of what it means to rebel. Never again will the beginning of Star Wars look the same. It can never be jaunty again and injects the 1977 film with an urgency and necessity that it never had before, despite its infallibility as a perfect film. For that reason alone, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a complete success, and the story of Jyn Erso and her compatriots is worthy of recognition in the halls of the Jedi Order.
Joseph Tavano is the owner and editor in chief of RetroZap. Born just months before Luke found out who his father was, he has been fortunate to have had Star Wars in his life as long as he can remember. Growing up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, he can remember substituting sticks for lightsabers and BMX bikes for speeders. He loves comics, retro games, vintage sci-fi paperbacks, and maps. Though an accomplished drummer, he doesn’t crave adventure (as much) any more, and prefers his old haunts in Salem, Massachusetts, where he resides with his family. Buy him a glass of whiskey and he’ll return it in kind.