I’ll start off by saying that somewhere in here is a review of Rogue One. That was the point when I began writing anyway, but it somehow grew into something more. I hope you enjoy this rambling on all things Star Wars as much as I enjoyed writing it.
I’ve written in the past about the influence of Star Wars on my film-viewing life. Those movies are very special and mean a lot to me. In many ways, Star Wars is one of many large forces (no pun intended) that pushed me toward my aspirations of being a filmmaker. Over the years my taste and preferences in cinema have grown far and wide, and have developed into areas beyond the huge blockbusters that typically come out of Hollywood. Heck, if you look around this blog very long at all you’ll find out where my taste in movies are. Generally speaking, I’m going to watch something heavy, foreign, or old before anything else. When I do watch something more extravagant, it’s usually because of a nostalgia factor or because everyone enjoys a little escapism. But, somehow, Star Wars is different. Yes, the movies tend to be huge and most will argue that it is the mere existence of Star Wars that plunged Hollywood into its almost unhealthy fascination with franchises and series, but somehow Star Wars manages to be special. Whenever a new movie in the saga comes into theaters I find myself getting very excited. Also, note that it is the Star Wars Saga. Somehow, just this simple word — saga — adds a weight of importance to these movies and elevates them beyond being a simple franchise. But Star Wars movies have been so rare and far spread that whenever one came out it felt like an event. These movies need no press or advertisement. The name Star Wars speaks for itself.
Unfortunately the history of the saga is a bit sordid. The original three films (released in 1977, 1980, and 1983) were concerned with the coming-of-age of Luke Skywalker and, ultimately, the redemption of his father (spoilers for those of you who have been in a cave the last 37 years): Darth Vader. The story told in those films are heartwarming, exciting, recognizable, iconic, and mythic on a grand level. The stories took a mixture of Flash Gordon, the cowboy movie, some eastern mysticism, the American “can-do” spirit, and the imagination of a young boy from Modesto, California, and turned it into an easily digestible and exciting space adventure. What the original Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas) lacked in some of its dialogue and acting it made up for in its grandeur and wondering. The universe and war that Luke Skywalker and his friends were thrust into felt like a place you might want to explore, despite the grave danger in which you would find yourself while there. The situations were not within the realm of possibility, yet somehow Luke, Old Ben, Han, and Leia all felt like people that could exist somewhere. But even if that is not true, the danger and evil in Star Wars was tangible. In a world which had seen the Nazi regime attempt to conquer Europe, the idea of a huge Galactic Empire did not seem that far fetched. Couple this with some Nazi inspired imagery and naming the bad guys “Stormtroopers,” and watching the Empire get defeated is an incredibly satisfying event.
But then came the prequel trilogy. If ever a “franchise” has been derided as abandoning what made it work, its Episodes I, II, and III.
“I don’t really have any respect for anyone who thinks those films are good. They’re not. (They’re) a monumental misunderstanding of what the (original) three films are about. It’s an exercise in utter infanticide … (like) George Lucas killing his kid.” – Simon Pegg
Calling those films “divisive” would not exactly be correct, as the general opinion is that they just aren’t very good. Personally, I hold no ill will against George Lucas for telling his story the way he wanted, but at the same time I recognize that (as far as Star Wars movies are concerned) the prequels just aren’t very much fun. On paper the story of the prequel trilogy should have worked. It is a tragic look at the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader). The original trilogy was Greek Mythology through and through, but the prequel trilogy was meant to be Shakespearian in scope and emotion. Yet these should be great tragic stories are undercut by things like Jar-Jar Binks and the horrendous overuse of CGI. Terrible dialogue, uneven acting, and strange narrative choices (like bringing up characters who seem like they will be important, only to never mention/explain them again (Sifo-Dyas? WHO THE CRAP IS SIFO DYAS?)) make the prequels incredibly frustrating to watch and try to enjoy. When I say frustrating, by the way, I mean incredibly frustrating. They are movies that I desperately want to like but yet I cannot make myself get there. I want to feel the wonder and imagination, but the problems glare back and me and ruin the experience. It’s easy to join the mob mentality and get on the prequel hate-train (and I’m not on there exactly) but it’s also really easy to see why these movies are so despised. Really, from my little corner of the internet, the prequels don’t make me mad they just make me sad.
So in 2012 when Disney bought LucasFilm (and, by extension, Star Wars), it seemed like little ray of sunshine and hope in the galaxy. Disney was essentially going to turn the future of the franchise over to the fans. People like J.J. Abrams were going to be taking the steering wheel and would redirect the franchise back to its more fun and archetypal roots. The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams) was a very fun movie and restored my hope in the saga. Suddenly Star Wars was fun again. That movie has some serious pacing issues and by no means is it perfect, but it overall captures the spirit and tone of the original films. But I’ll also say this: I’ve not seen The Force Awakens all the way through since it was in theaters, and the one time I tried to watch it I found myself unimpressed with the pacing and plotting. I love the characters, but the many plot contrivances stood out like an incredibly sore thumb (Han Solo’s sudden appearance bothers me, for instance). Also, why did we need a third Death Star? Little things like that just pester me. It’s hardly keeping me awake at night (they’re only movies), but it still bugs the fire out of me.
But all along my greatest fear was that Star Wars would somehow stop feeling special. The news that Disney had plans to release six Star Wars films in six years was deeply troubling to me. Suddenly I feared that Star Wars would become the new Marvel Cinematic Universe and would be little more than one more cog in the Disney money-making machine. Soon I will be able to buy a doll of Piglet dressed up as Darth Sidious and I don’t like it. I just don’t like it. I’m sure that some of my initial reaction to The Force Awakens was that it ramped up the nostalgia factor to 11, but, even beyond that, it’s compelling characters and recognizable structure really help make it feel like Star Wars. That structure, by the way, is so recognizable because it’s basically A New Hope 2.0. This is good and bad. It’s bad for long-time fans of the saga as it sometimes feels too familiar, but is very good for new fans as it very effectively reestablishes long-term themes and goals of the saga without much effort or exposition. But still my fear that Star Wars would stop feeling special sat there on the horizon and glared at me. Sometime screamed, “I am becoming a product and not an event.”
Now, before you crucify me, I realize that all most all movies are products, but some manage to dress themselves up as more. Some manage to achieve an artistic quality which makes them greater than their hopes of financial success. When George Lucas made his little space opera no one thought it would blow up like it did (20th Century Fox just wanted it to break even). He made it because he wanted to and for little else. His little idea became what might be the biggest name in the world both in cinema and in the general popular culture.
But back to that thing which was staring at me.
Its name was Rogue One, and it was everything I feared it would be.
Rogue One (2016, dir. Garreth Edwards) is the first ever standalone, non-numbered Star Wars film (well… the second one). Its premise is to tell a story set in the Star Wars universe which is independent of the Skywalker family. Rogue One tells the story of those incredible rebels who put together a team and stole the Death Star plans which led to its demise in the original film. Unfortunately it manages to hit the highs and lows of both half of the saga. At times its characters are fun to watch, but at other times they are a bore. The narrative is at times compelling, but at other times contrived and overly complicated. Rogue One manages to be the same frustrating experience as the prequel trilogy: I want to love it, but there are many, many things to dislike. The film begins with a very strong scene set on what appears to be a moisture farm (like the Owen farm in A New Hope). This was, in my opinion, the best scene in the film and could have gone on much longer than it did.
The individual character introductions are all effective, but sadly the characterizations never progress beyond their introductions. The plot, which should be a really fun story filled with intrigue and excitement, spends most of its running time focusing on other things which aren’t incredibly clear from a narrative standpoint and just feels messy. The first half of the film cuts back and forth across the galaxy, all the while dropping names we’ve never heard before, and continues to pile on new information. There is the simple act of worldbuilding, but there comes a point where you overload your audience with new information to a point that they cannot keep up. This means that the first half of the film largely features characters running around doing things that we aren’t sure what they mean, what the motivation is, or why any of it matters. Then, just about the time we figure out what the heck is going on, the movie erupts into a giant space battle. This space battle, by the way, is the single best space battle in the whole saga. I just wish the first half took less time trying to make the movie feel super important and spent more time developing the characters.
The second half of the film, which is actually fun!, is made up of a great battle and shows the rebel forces coming against the empire in a huge way. Never mind how this seems to contradict the state of the rebellion in A New Hope, but because we finally have a clear objective (find the Death Star plans) this half of the film rings more true to what we expect. I suppose the problem is that, long before Rogue One was even a thing, I always imagined the rebels who stole the plans were more like spies than they were soldiers. But make no mistake: Rogue One is a war movie and in its second half it’s a very good one. Unfortunately it’s just not a very fun Star Wars movie. We know from the word go that this will end in disaster, and this looming shadow of doom might be a large part of why the film fails when it does try to be fun. This movie, no matter how its characters attempt to succeed at their mission, will ultimately fail in terms of fun because of how it has to end.
Rogue One seems to confirm two things that I feared would be true: (1) Star Wars is going to be milked dry by Disney, and (2) when Star Wars isn’t fun it isn’t good. Heaviness and Star Wars don’t seem to mix. It’s like oil and water. I get that Rogue One is not a part of the Skywalker Saga, but it’s still supposed to be Star Wars. I hate writing negative reviews and so I had a lot of hesitancy writing this piece. Thankfully this ended up being less of a review of Rogue One and more of just a general thought piece on Star Wars as a whole.
Rogue One isn’t a bad movie. In fact I liked it quite a bit more than the prequels or even, gasp!, Return of the Jedi (1983, dir. Richard Marquand). Unfortunately I just didn’t like it very much. It’s weird that I’m such a huge fan of the Star Wars movies when you consider that out of eight (nine?) Star Wars movies that I only really like three of them. Yet here I am, writing another article on Star Wars.
If I were in a relationship with Star Wars on Facebook, I would mark said relationship as: It’s complicated.