Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It’s not over.

Of course it’s not over – Rogue One is a prequel and maybe the most prequeliest of prequels I’ve ever seen. The newest Star Wars movie tells the story of the band of Rebel fighters that stole the plans for the Death Star that Princess Leia hides in R2-D2 as the original Star Wars movie opens. So after a couple of hours of terrain touring, droid joke delivery, blaster battles, and call sign calling—Rogue One is “A Star Wars Story,” after all, and those things are what Star Wars is, at least on the surface—Rogue One doesn’t end as much as it segues into A New Hope. It’s not over even when it’s over.

Our heroes this time are a motley crew of Rebellion devotees, renegades looking out for themselves, would-be Jedis, and one droid. Our main protagonist is a woman named Jyn Erso whose father is the key scientist responsible for building the Death Star. I use “protagonist” and not “character” in the preceding sentence, because as characters go, Jyn’s rather thin.

We know she’s abandoned as a child, and then we see her in prison. We don’t know what she did to get there, and she’s shortly escaped and forced into working with the Rebellion to find her father. We never really get to know her though. We don’t know why she behaves as she does. She becomes more committed to the cause two-thirds of the way through the film without real motivation. She merely reacts. So when she does a Big Thing by the movie’s end, we don’t feel any emotional weight tied to her actions. (It would hardly be a spoiler to say what she does, since this entire film is based on a single, foreboding line of dialogue in A New Hope, but I’ll let it lie. I’ll let it lie.)

Director Gareth Edwards is making a nice career of making spectacular science-fiction films with shallow characters. It worked better in Godzilla, because that’s a movie concerned with humanity’s insignificance next to a “god.” Rogue One is partially about how a few hopeful people can accomplish something meaningful in the face of overwhelming odds. That message would hit harder if there was some thickness to the characters doggedly saying “It’s not over, not yet.”

Complex characters do more than simply carry the narrative’s emotional energy. They also give filmmakers and audiences an opportunity to explore the various ways different kinds of people respond to challenging circumstance. Rogue One’s characters aren’t complicated enough to respond to their circumstances as complex human beings. They just act as one mass to accomplish a mission, and we know their fate. The greater story may not be over, because we know how it connects to later events, but Rogue One treats its heroes as if they don’t matter beyond their mission. It’s over for them before it begins. So Rogue One a macabre kind of voyeurism. By not shading in its characters, Rogue One doesn’t treat them with dignity.

I’m making too much of this, aren’t I? It’s just a movie, after all, and it’s just Star Wars. But if there was ever a movie that was more than a movie—if ever any movie mattered—it’s Star Wars. It’s DNA might be b-movie serials, but it has become more than that. It has become the most important contemporary narrative of all, so I think it’s important to hold it to a high standard.

And it’s not over. Disney’s plan is to give us a new Star Wars film every year for the rest of our lives. And if Rogue One is any indication of Disney’s greater plans, even the actors who portray Star Wars characters aren’t ever going to leave the series either. (Star Wars has always had an affinity for resurrection, but usually the Force is involved.)  This is all going to go on and on and on, like a ritual performed to remind us who we are, why we’re here, and what really matters. Star Wars has that potential, if it moves beyond merely entertaining us and hosts us instead. It’s never going to be over as long as it keeps adding to our world instead of distracting us from it.

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