Rogue One: A Star Wars Story happened to be on TV last night. I had spent the afternoon putting up bookshelves, only to be interrupted by a neighbour dropping by, when I was just about finished, so I was too tired to do more than watch TV. And I hadn’t seen Rogue One since it was in theatres three and a half years ago, I decided to give it another watch.
Do we need a spoiler warning for a three and a half years old film? In that case, consider yourselves warned.
Rogue One was always a bit of an oddity among the Star Wars movies. It was the second new Star Wars movie made after Disney took over Lucasfilm and the first (unless you count the two Ewok movies of the 1980s, which most people don’t consider official Star Wars films) that only tangentially touched on the core storyline of the saga of the Skywalker family, even though two members of that family appear in the movie.
The original idea behind the movies marketed as “A Star Wars Story” was to fill in gaps and holes in the ongoing saga of the Skywalker family and focus on side characters from the main saga. It’s not a bad idea at all – one of the things that makes the Star Wars universe so rich as that every character, including the person (in the loosest sense of the word) who just walked into the frame in the top right corner, has their own name and backstory and that story will likely be a compelling one. Fanfiction and the various tie-in novels quite often filled that gap – after all, even the guy seen running through Cloud City carrying what looks like an ice cream machine (The Mandalorian revealed that it was really some kind of secure storage box) for about five seconds in The Empire Strikes Back got to have his own story.
Nonetheless, Rogue One‘s choice of narrative gap to plug is a weird one, because “Just how exactly did the rebels come by those Death Star plans?” was not exactly high on the list of burning questions about the original trilogy that Star Wars fans had. Never mind that the underwhelming prequels showed that the answer to such questions is often better left to the imagination.
As a result, I initially wasn’t particularly excited about Rogue One and neither – as far as I recall – was anybody else. The Force Awakens had come out barely a year before and had revigorated the franchise better than anybody could have hoped. Rogue One, by comparison, felt like a step backwards, yet another prequel that no one had asked for. I did become more interested once the trailers came out and looked pretty good. I also went to the see film in the theatre, because hey, it was Star Wars. I also recall that I liked Rogue One quite a bit at the time.
However, when I rewatched it last night, I realised that I remember comparatively little about the movie apart from the basic plot and the end. Particularly a lot of the scenes on Jedha and Eadu had completely escaped my memory. And considering that I can quote much of the dialogue of the original trilogy by heart, me having only vague memories of a Star Wars film is certainly unusual, even if I’ve only seen it once.
Rogue One was darker than I remembered, both literally (it’s dark in little’s Jyn’s hiding place, dark in Saw Gerrera’s hideout on Jedha, dark and rainy on Eadu, dark in the Rebel HQ on Yavin IV, dark in Darth Vader’s citadel, dark in the Imperial installation of Scarif) and figuratively. Of course, I remembered that Rogue One was not exactly a happy Star Wars film. After all, every single character in the film who’s not someone we have seen elsewhere in the Star Wars saga dies. Even Bail Organa, whom we have seen in the prequels, also portrayed by Jimmy Smits, will only go back to Alderaan to die.
Nonetheless, I remembered more banter and more jokes between the various characters than there actually were in the movie. Hell, even the trailer had more banter than the actual movie. But then, many of the scenes shown in the trailer don’t actually appear in the movie. Jyn Erso’s first meeting with the council of the Rebellion is quite different (and IMO better) in the trailer. I recall that Rogue One was extensively reshot, which may be the reason for the disparity between the trailers and the actual movie.
The main characters – Jyn, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook and K-2SO – are all compelling, which makes it even more of a pity that they all die, before we can get to know them better. Jyn, being the protagonist, is the most developed. Cassian and K-2SO clearly have an interesting backstory. And since Disney is working on a Cassian Andor TV series, we may well get to see more of his life and his missions pre-Rogue One. Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus make a delightful couple (and come on, we know they are a couple, since it’s bleeding obvious) and I really wish we would have seen more of them. As for Bodhi Rook, I mainly remembered him as a plot catalyst, but I had forgotten how good Riz Ahmed is in the role, perfectly conveying the fact that Bodhi is likely shitting his pants throughout the entire movie and does what needs to be done anyway. Forest Whitaker is always good, though he doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Saw Gerrera. Also, it’s notable that the main crew the movie is named after consists of four men of colour, a white woman and a droid, making Rogue One the second Star Wars movie in a row after The Force Awakens featuring not a single white man among the main heroes. The Last Jedi would make that three movies in a row the following year, causing the usual suspects to completely lose their shit.
On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn is brilliant as Director Krennic. Yes, Krennic may be the villain, but he’s also a lot of fun to watch as he barks orders and struts around the Death Star or the Imperial bases on Eadu and Scarif, cape swooshing. Mads Mikkelsen only briefly appears as Galen Erso, Death Star chief engineer and father of Jyn, but he’s always worth watching. Peter Cushing returns from the grave (literally) as Grand Moff Tarkin and is his usual cadavrous self. Darth Vader shows up as well – including a scene sans armour where he’s in the bath, which is not something I needed to see. Vader’s scenes are only brief, but he does get to force-choke Krennic and single-handedly take out an entire battalion of rebel soldiers. And yes, I know that I shouldn’t consider a scene where Darth Vader kills approximately fifty of the good guys cool, but damn it, that scene is cool.
The production design of Rogue One has been much praised, because it takes great pains to mimic the look of the original trilogy, particularly the movie now known as A New Hope. And indeed, Rogue One looks like a lost 1970s Star Wars movie – more than the prequels or the sequels or Solo ever did. The actors who plays the various Rebel leaders uncannily resemble their counterparts in the original trilogy, though the addition of a black woman Rebel leader is a welcome update. The technology is deliberately dated as well, whether it’s Cassian Andor’s headphones, the primitive computer graphics of the Death Star plans that match the then revolutionary graphics in the 1977 orignal, the fact that the plans are stored on what looks like a hard drive and are retrieved via a Waldo or the fact that a tense scene which gets three main characters killed involves physically plugging a cable (stored on a cable drum, no less) into a socket. It’s obvious by now that the Star Wars films take place in an alternate universe where technology progressed very differently. Rogue One embraces this fully and I for one love how retro it looks and feels.
Rogue One has also been described as a war movie set in the Star Wars universe. It’s not a description I would use – and indeed Rogue One is not that much more military than many other Star Wars movies, though it does focus on regular Rebel fighters rather than Jedi knights and the Rebel leadership. And war films have always been part of the genre mix that makes up Star Wars. The aerial dogfights in Star Wars were famously inspired by the 1955 war movie The Dam Busters. And indeed Rogue One delivers plenty of the space battle action that we have not only come to expect from the Star Wars saga, but that Star Wars apparently made a lot more popular in the space opera genre than it used to be. For more about the connection between Star Wars and war films, let’s not forget that the movie George Lucas initially wanted to make after he finished A New Hope was Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam war movie. But with the mega success of A New Hope, then only known as Star Wars, Lucas focussed on The Empire Strikes Back instead and handed Apocalypse Now over to his good friend Francis Ford Coppola. And indeed, there are some parallels between Apocalypse Now and Rogue One. Both focus on a desperate mission behind enemy lines and both involve the (illegal) order to take out someone who has become a problem. Furthermore, the original trilogy was strongly influenced by the war in Vietnam, so it’s only fitting that the same influence shows up in Rogue One. Though I still wouldn’t call it a war movie. Maybe we can settle on military science fiction.
In my massive Star Wars post-mortem post following the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I noted that even though there are so many romantic sparks flying between various characters in the sequel trilogy, every single one of the main characters is alone at the end, even if they are at least alive – unlike the protagonists of Rogue One. Just as the sequel trilogy pretty much proves that there are no happy romantic relationships anywhere in the Star Wars universe, unless we count two elderly lesbians briefly hugging at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Rogue One cements this trend, for even though Cassian and Jyn are clearly attracted to each other – and it’s pretty obvious that the reason that Cassian does not shoot Jyn’s father is because he likes Jyn a lot, not because he suddenly had an attack of conscience (but why, oh why doesn’t he shoot Krennic?) – they never get beyond smouldering looks, holding hands and hugging. Yes, I know that they die in the end, but would one kiss have been too much to ask? For that matter, a kiss between Chirrut and Baze would have been lovely as well, though I know there was no chance of seeing that, considering that the characters were specifically supposed to appeal to the Chinese market, where a same sex kiss would likely have been cut anyway. And talking of LGBTQ characters in the Star Wars universe, two of the rebel soldiers who join the fight in the end are implied to be a couple as well, though we only see it when one of them is killed and the other holds his body.
In fact, one thing that really irritates me about the Disney era of Star Wars is the complete lack of any kind of romance, especially since Star Wars never was like that during the George Lucas era. The relationship between Han and Leia is one of the best parts of the original trilogy and the romance between Anakin and Padme, though handled badly, lies at the heart of the prequel trilogy. Romance has always been a part of space opera in general and Star Wars in particular, so its complete absence in the Disney Star Wars movies is baffling. What makes it even more baffling is that there would have been plenty of possibilities to inject a bit of romance. Was Disney worried about the fanboys who want no romance in their science fiction? But then, those fanboys don’t really exist. I have never seen anybody object to the Han/Leia romance and the romance between Padme and Anakin was widely decried, because it was badly handled, not because the fans didn’t want romance in their Star Wars.
Another thing that has drastically changed between the Lucas and the Disney era of Star Wars is the portrayal of the Rebellion. In the Lucas era, the rebels were generally good and heroic people, even if we didn’t see a whole lot of rebels not named Luke, Leia or Han. In Rogue One, on the other hand, the Rebellion is not just far from heroic – Cassian Andor is basically a hired killer for the Rebellion – but also bloody incompetent. They not only manage to bomb their own team and almost kill them on Eadu – no, when faced with news about the Death Star, half of the rebel council doesn’t believe Jyn and the other half wants to surrender at once. Jyn, Cassian and the rest of the Rogue One team only make the eventual victory over the Empire possible, because they explicitly ignore orders and go off to Scarif on their own. The Rebel fleet eventually comes to their aid, but it’s too late and every single member of the Rogue One team dies. And they don’t even get a posthumous medal, all they get is a “May the Force Be With You” from Admiral Raddus (the Mon Calamari commander who’s not Admiral Ackbar), before Raddus dies as well. How exactly did this bunch of incompetents triumph over the Empire again?
That said, the different portrayal of the Rebellion in the original trilogy and Rogue One isn’t as irreconcilable as it seems at first glance. For in the original trilogy, we mainly see the Rebellion through the eyes of Luke and Leia, both of whom are young, idealistic and true believers. Luke was a naive farmboy anyway and Leia was likely sheltered from the nastier aspects of the Rebellion such as the fact that the Rebellion sanctions assassinations of people who are not enemies such as Galen Erso and the guy Cassian kills in the beginning. Han Solo likely had a more cynical or more realistic view of the Rebellion – after all, he only joined out of friendship for Luke and love for Leia and not for any political reasons – but the original trilogy does not choose to show us his point of view. It’s also interesting that Rogue One reverses the Han/Leia dynamic. In Rogue One, Cassian Andor is the one who has been a supporter of the Rebellion since childhood – though his life is far less sheltered than Leia’s – whereas Jyn is the cynical opportunist and petty criminal who is initially only out for herself, before she sees the light.
Rogue One was the first Star Wars movie which gave us a less than glorious image of the Rebellion and did set the tone for later stories in the Star Wars universe. I suspect we might never have had the delightful Cara Dune, former Rebel shocktrooper turned mercenary in The Mandalorian, if we hadn’t had Cassian Andor first. In fact, here is an idea for the Cassian Andor TV show: Have Cassian and Cara team up for a mission.
Rogue One also reinforces the portrayal of the Star Wars universe as a truly horrible place that permeates all of the Disney Star Wars movies. Not that the Star Wars universe was exactly a happy place in the original trilogy, but then it was a galaxy suffering under a brutal dictatorship (which actually seems more brutal in Rogue One and the sequel trilogy, because instead of blowing up Alderaan from a distance and a blink and you’ll miss it look at the charred corpses of Owen and Beru Lars, we get plenty of scenes of people getting killed and tortured on screen). However, the original trilogy allowed us the illusion that the Star Wars universe was a better place once and would be a better place once again. Even the prequels did not destroy that illusion, because they were clearly set during the decline of the Old Republic rather than at its height. The sequel trilogy, on the other hand, showed that everything Han, Luke and Leia fought for in the original trilogy was for naught in the end. The Empire was never fully beaten after all, but reared its ugly head again as the First Order. And our heroes were not allowed to find personal happiness either. Even Palpatine did not have the decency to stay dead. With the sequel trilogy, the Star Wars saga changed from the story of the fall and rise of the Republic and the extermination and rebirth of the Jedi Order into an endless cycle of misery. As I wrote in my massive Star Wars post-mortem last December:
The Star Wars universe is a crappy place, always was and always will be.
Furthermore, Rogue One demonstrates once again the biggest problem of the Star Wars universe, namely the huge number of orphaned and abandoned kids created by the endless wars and the complete lack of any kind of social services infrastructure to take care of those kids. Luke and Leia were the lucky ones, since they found loving and stable homes homes with Owen and Beru Lars or Bail Organa and his unnamed wife respectively (and though Bail Organa appears to have been a good father, he did drag Leia into the Rebellion and almost got her killed), whereas Han Solo grew up as a nameless street kid. Baby Yoda got lucky, too, since he found himself a good Mandalorian Dad. And Mando himself didn’t fare too badly either, because the Mandalorians do seem to genuinely care for the orphaned kids they take in, even if they turn them into soldiers following their warrior religion, because “this is the way”. The Jedi, meanwhile, don’t even have the decency to take only orphans – instead they take kids away from their families to turn them into warrior monks. And while the Jedi didn’t fail every kid they took in, they certainly failed Anakin and they also failed those Force sensitives they mysteriously missed like Chirrut Imwe. And honestly, how did the Jedi miss Chirrut Imwe, considering he must have been about thirty when the Republic fell and thus would have been of Jedi training age when the Old Republic was still doing well? And because snatching kids from their families worked so well for the Jedi, the First Order decided to do the same and snatched kids like Finn and Janna from The Rise of Skywalker to turn them into Stormtroopers. Jyn Erso, meanwhile, loses both her parents in the opening scenes of Rogue One and is an orphan for all intents and purposes, even though her father is still alive. She does get relatively lucky, because she is taken in by Saw Gerrera. Alas, Gerrera trains her to be a soldier in his radical rebel splinter cell and later abandons her as well (supposedly for her own good), when Jyn was only sixteen. I remembered this bit of the movie, but I did not remember that Cassian Andor was an orphan, too, inducted into the Rebellion at the tender age of six! Jynn and Cassian are basically former child soldiers, as are Finn, Anakin, Mando, Janna and basically every Mandalorian or Jedi we see. And frankly, the proliferation of child soldiers in the Star Wars saga is disturbing, especially since the narrative never comments on this, because “this is the way”. The Star Wars universe is basically one huge failed state, which first creates countless orphans due to its endless wars and then proceeds to turn said orphans into cannon fodder for those same wars.
But whereas the sequel trilogy – even though I like the individual movies – changed the whole dynamic of the Star Wars saga to a cycle of endless misery, Rogue One being a dark and depressing movie – probably the most depressing of all Star Wars movies – is actually appropriate. Because Rogue One is not just set at the height of the Empire’s power, it literally represents the darkest hour that comes just before the dawn, that dawn being A New Hope. And indeed, Rogue One ends just before A New Hope begins, with Princess Leia being given the Death Star plans.
Even though the above may sound a little harsh, I still like Rogue One. Visually, it comes as close to the late 1970s aesthetics of the original trilogy as no other Star Wars film has ever come. The story is solid and the characters are likeable and compelling, even they die before we can really get to know them. Rogue One was also the first attempt of the live action part of the Star Wars franchise to move away from the Skywalker family, the Jedi and stories focussed on them, paving the way for the delight that is The Mandalorian. Of course, Rogue One also shares many of the issues I have with the Disney Star Wars movies. Nonetheless, in retrospect it’s amazing that a movie like Rogue One that tells a story no one was particularly interested in was made at all, especially since other planned Star Wars anthology movies like one focussed on popular characters like Obi-Wan or Boba Fett have long been scrapped or relegated to TV. In the end, Rogue One may have done more to move the Star Wars saga forward than the entire sequel trilogy.