Billed as a standalone serving of the behemoth franchise, Rogue One is the first in a presumably interminable line of spin-offs—promoted under the more dignified label of the “Star Wars Anthology Series”—that will seek to enhance and expand both the Star Wars universe and Disney’s coffers. Wedged in before A New Hope (the episode formerly known simply as Star Wars) in the franchise chronology, Rogue One‘s plot is borrowed from the opening crawl of the original: it tells of how an unlikely group of Rebels came to obtain the plans for the Death Star, thus enabling the ensuing adventures of Luke Skywalker and co. The gang is headed by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the wilful daughter of the Death Star’s (reluctant) architect (Mads Mikkelsen), and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an enterprising member of the Rebel Alliance. Even though there’s a bevy of new faces onscreen here, it’s less a film unto itself than a prequel; another attempt to plug any and all gaps in an epic storyline that seems to be threatening descent into infinite regression.
As much as everyone was going to go and see this movie regardless of critical opinion, it was nonetheless always going to be subjected to a ludicrous amount of scrutiny. With Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) exhibits a deftly diplomatic touch, coupling the obligatory slavish adherence to the Star Wars brand with innovative elements. Yes, there is a protagonist with some serious daddy issues. Yes, there is a sassy robot sidekick. And don’t worry, there are also the traditional cameos by characters you know and love (including some for Fans Only, or so I’m told). But there’s a new moodiness to the film: the icy cool colour palette of whites and slate greys stands in stark contrast to the warmer tones that usually predominate. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher) brings handheld camerawork into the mix, lending an intimate, gritty feel to the battle scenes that is relatively foreign to the aesthetic lexicon of Star Wars. Also somewhat unusual: guns take the place of light-sabres in the largely Force-free combat zones.
That the movie is mostly predictable plot-wise is a side effect of the franchise’s longevity (and the fortune at stake), and should not come as a surprise to anyone. If you’ve seen the other Star Wars films (and really, if you haven’t, why watch this one?), you know that the ragtag Rebels will overcome the odds and succeed in obtaining the secret Death Star plans, because the opening shot of the original, 1977 film told you so. Not to mention that one of the primary pleasures of watching genre films is having your narrative expectations met whilst your spectacle quota is filled in exciting and interesting ways—and I think Rogue One succeeds on this count, given that throughout the film I remained almost as engaged as all the 10-year-olds attending the same session as me. (I probably just felt a little more used than they did afterwards.)
That’s not to say that the film’s lack of spontaneity is not a problem. It definitely does make it seem more like a paint-by-numbers affair than a daring new vision. It’s just that, given the increasingly complex set of boxes regarding narrative, aesthetic, and tone each new Star Wars film must tick, I’m not sure what more can be expected. Rogue One is clever, but it’s profoundly calculated, and it shows. Even the film’s final, seemingly subversive twist is a knee-jerk response to being hemmed in by the demands of the 40-year-old franchise. [More on this twist in the next paragraph, so skip it if you want to preserve your blissful ignorance.]
Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy attempt to add a jolt of the unexpected to the necessarily predictable plot by electing to wipe out the Rebel heroes during the film’s tense climax on the planet Scarif. Each one is killed as they accomplish their part of the mission, thus bringing the collective one step closer to its goal, but at the cost of one member of the collective. Viewers know in advance that the Rebels will be successful in their quest, and the writers play on the assumption that their inevitable triumph is synonymous with their inevitable survival. It’s a cruel trick, particularly given the way they are picked off, one by one. But it’s far from spontaneous: this flurry of protagonist deaths seems like the only way to generate that crucial element of surprise (and poignancy), given the over-determined storyline. Plus, these characters aren’t in the next part of the grand narrative, so they never really had a future anyway. They were destined to be casualties of prequelization.
The famously austere Grand Moff Tarkin was another casualty of prequelization, though in a different way. His prominent position in A New Hope as commander of the Death Star made his appearance in Rogue One seem only logical. However, Peter Cushing, the actor who originally portrayed him, died in 1994. But that didn’t stop Disney from hiring him again: Cushing was resurrected via CGI in order to deliver a performance straight outta uncanny valley, as rival to new villain Orson Krennic, played by (real) Ben Mendehlson. A distracting presence onscreen, Tarkin-computer also sparked ethical debates about the postmortem use of an actor’s image. Whether recreating Cushing’s face in this way is a loving homage or a creepy stunt, it’s definitely an example of the weird contortions that the reverse-engineering of this ancient but oh so lucrative property demands, and maybe a sign that it’s getting too old for this shit.
Star Wars is by now such a defined cultural entity, and the integrity of its universe so fiercely protected by its huge and multi-generational fanbase, that it has become lumbered with the weight of its own mythology. Rogue One slots satisfyingly into the canon, pushing the franchise in a slightly more edgy, contemporary direction without causing a disturbance in the Force. But if you’re after less coolly manipulative and/or lighter Star Wars fare this holiday season, there’s always the 1978 Holiday Special—perhaps the perfect antidote to the forced nostalgia and newfound seriousness of Rogue One.1
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