It’s official, everyone – we’ll be getting a new Star Wars movie every year from now on whether that’s a good idea or not. It’s not like the two-year wait time between films, or the sixteen year wait between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, contributed to everyone’s love of the original trilogy….oh wait. Actually, it’s a lot like that. But Big, Dumb Summer Movies are now massive cultural signifiers, on top of being the basket movie studios put all their eggs in for the year, so we nerds are henceforth required to show up and be counted until we all drown in the rising, toxic seas. Or get wiped out by a Category 10 hurricane.
Evil Me: Considering where we are, you’re much more likely to die in a massive earthquake. Or the tsunami such an earthquake might inspire. Fukushima style.
Gee, thanks. I needed that pick-me-up.
Evil Me: Happy to oblige.
It’s clear to me now that (unlike its predecessors) this New Trilogy actually is being conceived and executed according to a grand six-year-plus plan. And the plan is “Make Star Wars fans endlessly speculate about what’ll happen in the next film in order to maintain ambient hype levels, ensuring each will make at least a billion dollars.” But since Disney’s not paying me to carry their water, I’d much rather wait to review the New Trilogy when it’s finally done.
Evil Me: Ye-es…by then, everyone will be sick of hearing about them, ensuring that no one will care what you think. I approve this plan.
Thanks, bro. Great to have you on-board.
Since it takes at least two years to make a numbered Star Wars movie, the committee that runs Lucasfilm has seen fit to release stand-alone films in the interim. Little side stories from around the universe that probably won’t stray very far from the time-frame everyone knows. The first of these, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, might as well have been a big, red cape, waving in my face. For one thing, it’s directed by Warwickshire’s own Gareth Edwards – the director of 2014’s Godzilla…a.k.a., “the American Godzilla movie people didn’t reflexively hate…for the most part” – and we internet movie critics have been watching Edwards’ rise since 2010, when he made his first feature, Monsters.
At the time, his was supposed to be a feel-good, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps story about the possibilities of indie filmmaking in this Brave New World of ours. “Dude shot a whole movie in three weeks with a seven-person crew for ‘way under,’ half a million dollars and then cut it all together on his laptop! Think of what you can accomplish, slacker!” Yeah, with enough pluck and grit you, too, can get snapped up by one of the Big Five (soon to be Four) studios and tasked with cranking out franchise filler films until you look like Donovan at the end of Last Crusade. Assuming they don’t kick you to the curb over the slightest “creative differences” halfway through pre-production. Sign me the fuck up for that. Sounds like living the dream…only it’s that dream where your naked and have to tap-dance across a minefield for the amusement of no-talent assholes who’ll go on to dismiss all your hard work as “franchise filler films.” Like me.
At least Rogue One starts off on the right foot, with what passes for a bold defiance of expectations nowadays. We get the usual “A long time ago…” card, but not the traditional John Williams theme. Nor do we get an opening crawl, and I very much appreciate its absence. It’s almost like this is some sort of artistic presentation or something, and not just a blatant cash-grab from The Studio That Brought You Lion King 1 ½…which is a thing that totally exists. Disney wasted the 2000s making things like that, and even invented a term for them – the “mid-quel.” Like a sequel, except it takes place midway between two already-extant movies. Meaning this is technically “Star Wars: Episode 3.5” Though all the action takes place much closer to Episode 4’s opening, so…
So Star Wars: Episode 3.9975 – Rogue One is the story of Jyn-with-a-”Y”-cuz-we’re-in-a-galaxy-far-far-away Erso – a common criminal, sprung from jail by the Rebel Alliance because her dad is the chief engineer of the Death Star. And hey, Mads! Nice to see you again so soon. And playing a character who doesn’t have something fucked-up about their eyes and whose name isn’t Hannibal. Good on ya, buddy.
The Erso family tried their had at moisture farming on some volcanic rock somewhere…but then the Empire came a-callin’, shot Jyns mom, and press-ganged her former-super-scientist dad into building the Emperor a doomsday weapon. Now Erso-the-Elder’s managed to smuggle a message out of captivity, via some poor cargo pilot. Unfortunately, said pilot wound up in the not-so-tender hands of Clone Wars cartoon show one-off character Saw Gerrera – all grown-up, by this point, into Forest Whitaker. Saw basically raised Jyn after her dad got kidnapped, but he and the rest of the Rebels are…not on the best of terms.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the era people actually wanted to see when we all went to see the Prequels – what Ol’ Ben Kenobi called “the Dark Times” – the heart of the Imperial Age – the Rebellion’s infancy. After all, whom – apart from those of us who made the mistake of reading novels and comics in the 1990s – really wanted to visit Coruscant? No – we to go back to the pyramids of Yavin 4 and see them stuffed with X-wing fighters and futurist-analog technology that’s become retro-futurist by now. With that one poor bastard up in the crow’s nest, tracking ships with his binocs as the music swells…We wanted all the familiar brand signifiers, and they’re here! Aren’t you relieved? Saw even gets to drop an “It’s a trap” on us and Jyn eventually runs into that odd couple Luke and Obi Wan met/are going to meet at the Mos Eisley Cantina…
And, of course, we wanted to see Darth Vader, in his prime, intimidating the hell out of subordinates, slaughtering corridors full of dudes without even trying, and played once again (at least in voice) by James Earl Jones. It’s especially nice to hear him back behind the mask after years of bad sound-alikes in all those video games. But predictably, his appearance dominated fan discourse in the weeks after this premiered, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Fanservice is a vile narcotic, people. An unspeakable scourge. The real public enemy number one. And I say that as a life-long addict, whose fix must now be of the highest quality…
Speaking of – holy shit, the day has finally arrived when Senator Mon Mothma, canonical leader of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, gets more than three lines in a Star Wars film? Here, she uses her lines to tell us…everything I just told you…and set up the dichotomy between herself and the “extremist” Saw, giving Jyn (our main character and audience-stand-in) something to pivot between for the duration.
And you may ask yourself “just how extremist can some really be in the fight against a galaxy-spanning, fascist omni-state, ruled over by an evil wizard?” Letting your pet psychic squid fondle a defector’s brain only looks “extreme” to people who don’t know how fond of infiltration and subversion tyrannical, fascist omni-states can be…even when they aren’t led by Sith Lords. This dichotomy is very stupid, very pointless, and very much manufactured specifically to create drama for this film (and a few episodes of the Rebels TV show)…but it’s also…dare I say it…?
Evil Me: Dare! Dare!
…downright realist. If you squint, it can almost pass for “realistic.” Every rebellion against every evil empire in this or any other galaxy has faced exactly these kinds of paranoia-driven schisms. Especially rebellions with powerful yuppie elements at their hearts – current or former government officials, say. Like Senators. Or princesses raised by Senators. They may hate the tyrannical, fascist omni-state they’re fighting, but they’ll hate the people who’re fighting it “the wrong way” even more. Shrinks call this “the narcissism of small differences,” and it’s why I can’t mention a YouTuber’s union without getting laughed off Twitter.
So, along with pilot Cassian Andor and reprogrammed tactical droid K-2SO, it’s off to see the Ghost Dog. And pick up a few stragglers along the way. Here at last we get the real reason for this film’s existence – over and above making Disney another billion dollars. Turns out Erso the Elder’s been playing the Long Game all this time, and he built an Achilles Heel into the Emperor’s new planet-killer. Now all Jyn has to do is convince the the rebels that, “No, really, you guys, my dad wasn’t just some collaborating piece of shit and we can totally take this motherfucker down if we just steal its blueprints.” A process somewhat complicated by (a) the Death Star’s destruction of Saw’s base (b) the Rebel’s retaliatory strike against the Imperial research facility where they’re holding Jyn’s dad, and (c) the Rebellion’s own inherent fatalism in the face of certain doom.
So all you pedants out there, who spend decades arguing how unbelievable it was that one farm boy could kill a Death Star with just one well-placed torpedo, rejoice! You’ve won. In fact, Chief Creative Officer of ILM John Knoll is one of you – this was his pitch, and he gets the story credit on top of being an Executive Producer. Thankfully, other screenwriters came along to turn his fan pedantry into a story…and, in a pleasant surprise, it’s a story about how the early rebellion was so shit-scared that one small band of criminals, losers, drifters, and refugees managed to drag it, kicking and screaming, into actually saving its own existence. There was some questioning of this among the faithful. “How could the Rebellion be this factious and back-biting and foot-dragging and just generally awful?” To which I would reply, “Y’all do remember how, within just a few short years, a couple of teenagers and a couple of smugglers are going to take this whole shit-show over…right?” There have been more blatant examples of Star Wars fans selective amnesia since this, but that one still makes me laugh.
The presence of Peter Cushing – or a creepy, digital simulacrum of 1978 Peter Cushing, played by Guy Henry with a bunch of lightbulbs on his face – was the other big point of fan contention. Far as I’m concerned, Not Peter Cushing’s voice is much more distracting than his face, and if we’re talking faces, that Creepy Digital Simulacrum of 1986 Ah-nold from Terminator (No) Salvation and Genysis still wins my Uncanny Valley Award. It hardly matters, since Ben Mendelsohn’s our real villain here, and he does “evil bureaucrat” very well. Hopefully he won’t get type-cast, since he’s been toiling Down Under since I was born, and being a Star Wars movie should open up at least a few doors for you in modern Holly…oh, wait – nevermind. There he is playing an evil bureaucrat in a Spielberg movie. Shit, type-casting happens fast.
Naturally, Rogue One resolves itself with a giant climactic battle, and this is also what the people come to Star Wars for – sci-fi combined arms operations. As a director, Edwards has always been a great landscape painter, to the point where, thirty years ago, he would’ve given Thomas Kinkade a run for his money, and that’s on full display here. But compared to the rest of his oeuvre, this movie might as well be wearing a Flash costume, it moves so fast. Either Edward is getting better, or Disney paired him with a better editor than the WB. Part of me can’t help but wonder what Josh Trank might’ve made of all this, but…well, we all know what happened to him…
And, in a first for Gareth Edwards films, just as the boring, one note characters start to wear thin on you, they all die. Mostly in decorous explosions, but that’s the PG-13 for ya. Meaning this is the most self-contained Star Wars film since the first one…and that’s the best boxquote I can offer. Apart from: “The dude at my local gas station said this is his new favorite Star Wars movie.” And “It managed to justify its own existence. Barely. Mostly thanks to Donnie Yen.” Hey, Donnie – don’t ever change. The Force resides in all life forms, but it resides in some more than others. My runner up for favorite character is K, because the droids in this movies have always been more human than the humans, and that tradition continues here. Here’s another good thing about ensemble pieces: if watching the mains trudge along to the foregone conclusions of their character arcs gets boring, you can at least stay awake by latching onto one of the cool supporting characters…who will probably get their own damn comic book series that certainly won’t be wiped out of continuity in 20 years, oh no, we promise…
Too bad the accelerated Hype Schedule means that every fan on the internet exhausts everything they have to say about a film before it even comes out, the better to clear the decks for the next one. It’s like purposefully-induced amnesia. Does anyone even remember Rogue One anymore? Does anyone still care? Apart from me? If I’m the last one, that’s a real bad sign, because I barely cared about Star Wars in the first place.
Evil Me: Oh, that’s perfect. That’ll get them…ye-ess….End it there…unless you’d like to talk about Star Trek?
Fuck no. It’s Ragnarok time.