This weekend marked the opening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the latest entry in the nearly 40-year-old film series, and the first “standalone” release to take place outside of the episodic Star Wars installments–that is, of course, if you don’t count those WTF (Way Too Fuzzy) Ewoks movies. Rogue One, as you likely know by now, tracks a group of Rebels (played by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, among others) as they attempt to steal information vital to the Empire’s brand-new Death Star. Along the way, they witness daring dogfights and catty robots, and occasionally find themselves face-to-face with beloved galaxy-questers from previous Star Wars films.
But as Rogue One chugs along to certain box-office domination, we can’t help but wonder: Is this latest Star Wars story really necessary? Or is it merely a temporary diversion–an escape pod–from the dauntingly gargantuan ongoing narrative that is the traditional saga? WIRED’s Brian Raftery and Angela Watercutter discuss the movie below–and, lest we be accused of Dianoga-like stealth and sneakiness, we should be upfront about the fact that spoilers are everywhere.
Brian Raftery: First off, Angela, it’s worth noting that this month marks the one-year anniversary of the release of The Force Awakens, a movie that inspired months (years?) of pre-emptive plot-forensics and nervous-nelly hand-wringing. A lot of fans, including myself, had hoped that Awakens would serve as both a reminder of the sprightly, gee-whiz greatness of George Lucas’ original trilogy, as a well as rebuke of his stilted, Sandcrawler-slow prequels. And, to that end, it mostly worked: The Force Awakens may have been a slicker, bigger-budgeted cover version of 1977’s A New Hope, but it retained a lot of the clumsy warmth of the original films, and it introduced several dynamic new characters–something these movies desperately needed in order to make the jump into the future.
One year later, Rogue One lands in theaters with far less onerous expectations: It doesn’t need to redeem the Star Wars saga; it merely needs to feed it, ideally by giving some us deeper intel and understanding of what exactly went down a long time ago and far, far away. Which is something it tries to do from the very first shot–and with mixed results. To be sure, there’s lots of stuff in Rogue One to stoke the fan-fumes, whether it’s the deep-cut droid cameos (I see Threebee, yo!) to the faithfully restored Imperial architecture (though, until Rogue One came along, I never realized how much the Death Star–with its muted lighting scheme and brushed steel-like surfaces–resembled a high-end industrial test kitchen). And, like most viewers, I was left agog by the film’s third act, which makes for the most satisfying Star Wars climax since The Empire Strikes Back; I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to discover the joys of beach-blazing AT-ATs, and watching a Mon Calamari commander smash two deep-space Star Destroyers together was Monderful. As soon as Rogue ended, I was ready to go online and pick up a ticket for a second viewing…
…but now, a few days after seeing the movie, I wonder if I’d be better off just sneaking in halfway through. For while the last 40 minutes or so of Rogue One were a blast, the build-up was remarkably blah, full of garbled gobbledygook dialogue–Mads Mikkelsen’s hologrammed plea was a full-on drone attack–and never-quite-realized character aspirations: Was Luna’s Cassian Andor supposed to be experiencing some sort of loyalty-testing crisis-of-faith? Was Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) set up to be some sort of Rebel-empowering saber-rattler? If so, those motivations appeared to have been obscured with a cloaking device, or at least by all the speechifying. There were moments in Rogue One‘s first half that truly delighted me, from K-2SO’s bitchy asides to Director Krennic’s conniption fits to the intra-Empire squabbling. But am I wrong for thinking that its opening sections were more than a little…
[Pulls down blast shield-sized shades, consults The Big Book of Overdone Star Wars Puns]
Angela Watercutter: You’re not wrong there, Brian. And, just to go back to your earlier point about A New Hope and The Force Awakens, I think most of the Star Wars films are cover versions of the original movie–Rogue One included. It would be an oversimplification, and another terrible pun, to say these movies are all just clones of each other, but in the way that most sci-fi/adventure movies are some version of the Hero’s Journey, they do all follow a pretty similar formula. And that’s OK! We know what we want when we walk into a Star Wars movie, and the franchise gives it to us.
However, like you, I’m still struggling with the “Was this necessary?” question. The quick answer is “no,” but I’d venture to say 82 percent of the movies I love weren’t really necessary. They’re not, you know, films. When you make a movie where the outcome is known (it’s not a spoiler to say they secure the plans to the Death Star, right?), there’s something very non-vital baked right into the concept. I really like that this movie is out there; I’m a fan of a side-hustle–and an even bigger fan of rag-tag groups that come together for a common cause–but I think in five years when I’m sitting down for a Star Wars marathon, this movie sits somewhere just slightly above the prequels on my priority list.
Yet I will watch it for that closing battle. That looked amazing. As I mentioned on the Monitor podcast last week, this story has been kicking around in VFX master John Knoll’s head for years, and I have this feeling that everyone working on it at Industrial Light & Magic was just like “Guys, let’s do this one for John” and really put in a lot of their best work. ILM gets better with every movie, but damn: Rogue One looks sick. But that reminds me, Rogue is also–as many have noted–bleak. Again, we all kind of knew going in that a lot of bad things were going to happen to a lot of brave people, but were you expecting Rogue One: Everyone Fucking Dies?
Raftery: Given the movie’s combat-heavy trailers, and the fact that this was always going to be a desperate-measures mission, I actually was counting on this movie having a huge body count–in fact, I was kind of hoping for it. The earliest Star Wars movies racked up untold numbers of casualties, but death was mostly treated as a trauma-free abstraction: The weapons-free citizens of Alderaan and the decidedly less peaceful staffers on Death Stars I & II were annihilated en masse, and while Obi-Wan may have felt some of their pain, I’m guessing most moviegoers did not. Lucas loved the idea of long-running, decentralized, ultimately interconnected space-battles, but when it came to actually showing the consequences of war, he often seemed content merely to wave his hand dismissively to audiences and mutter, “Move along.” It’s a ploy that way too many over-destructive comic book and sci-fi movies emulate today, leveling entire cities in the name of perpetual stake-raising.
Rogue One, though, can’t afford to be quite as dismissive when it comes to the costs of conflict; in order to understand why the Rebellion was so necessary, and why everyone from Biggs to those Bothans died to keep it alive, we need to see how brutal life was under the rule of the Empire. And while the wartime violence in Rogue is hardly visceral–the exterminated stormtroopers, Rebels, and Death Star engineers die quickly and bloodlessly, like G.I. Joe cartoons–the constantly upticking body count, including the deaths of pretty much every major character, is an attempt to acknowledge the very real sacrifices of war–something you don’t often see in a PG-13 Disney movie.
But I’d argue that the most surprising element in Rogue One wasn’t the deaths; it was the resurrections. Early in the film, a CGI-revived Peter Cushing shows up to play Death Star majordomo Grand Moff Tarkin (still the grandest moff in the galaxy!), and the movie concludes with a digitized cameo by Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, seen with her New Hope hairdo lovingly restored. I was embarrassingly over-giddy when Cushing made his initial posthumous appearance–Tarkin was a delicious baddie, a guy who always seemed to on the brink of an exhausted eye-roll–but as the movie went on, his character grew more shrill and dull, and the initial magic of the special effects wore off; by the end, he looked like he was going to hijack the Death Star’s weaponry and point it toward the Polar Express.
The Leia effect was a little wonky, though brief enough that you barely enough. But even if the CGI hadn’t been uncanny AF, I’m not thrilled by the prospect of Star Wars constantly exhuming its beloved characters over and over again–a real possibility, given the sheer amount of sequels, prequels, and (maybe) Threebeequals that Disney and Lucasfilm have planned over the next many moons. This is a series that’s always wrestled, both on- and off-screen, with questions of technological over-reach; just because you can construct some new technological terror doesn’t mean you should. And as someone who genuinely loves these characters–not to mention the performers who inhabited them–I’m worried that reducing them to a rubble of ones and zeroes defeats the message of A New Hope: Namely, that machinery is no match for humanity. Or am I taking this all too seriously?
Watercutter: No. You’re right. I was just as happy to see Leia and Tarkin, and also felt that joy diminish rapidly. I don’t know that I was quite as disappointed as you, though. I still have a retinal scar from the first time I saw that Hayden Christiansen hologram in Return of the Jedi and it reminds me daily to always prepare for let-downs in life. More than anything I was just fascinated, especially when I watched the credits and saw that Princess Leia was someone by the name of Ingvild Deila and Tarkin was Guy Henry. I guess they acted out everything and then had Fisher and Cushing’s faces painted on them? Weird job. I hope they find the kind of success with this that Keira Knightley found after playing Queen Padme’s decoy in the prequels.
Also, speaking of those battle-heavy trailers, there was a lot of stuff in those that didn’t make it into the final film. Not so much the battles, but there were definitely lines of dialogue that were big moments in the trailers and never made it to the film. Same thing happened, if memory serves, with Force Awakens, but the trailers for Rogue One definitely had a tone that didn’t entirely make it to the final movie.
But I digress. Look, I’ve been thinking about this movie a lot over the last few days, and not just because we’ve been talking about it ad infinitum in the WIRED office. Ultimately, I think it’s good. I had fun. I’ll probably hit the theaters to see it again sometime over the holidays. Rogue One is, as I (somewhat accidentally alarmingly) told the office after I saw it for the first time, a perfectly fine Star Wars movie. It gave me what I wanted. Like you, I think I’ll revisit that final shoot-out many times. I’m glad there’s a Star Wars movie with a female hero and a really diverse cast, and I have a new beloved droid in Kaytoo. But this one also feels like it’s sliding by on my desire to return to this universe as often as possible. I’m worried that might not work forever, and even more sad that now Episode VIII feels so far, far away.