Editorial: Some Random Thoughts on Rogue One

Rogue One is the second-best movie in the Star Wars franchise after The Empire Strikes Back.  Not coincidentally, Rogue One and Empire are the two darkest Star Wars movies—the most […]

Rogue One is the second-best movie in the Star Wars franchise after The Empire Strikes Back.  Not coincidentally, Rogue One and Empire are the two darkest Star Wars movies—the most challenging, the ones that make the harshest demands on the audience.  And Rogue One is considerably darker than Empire.

In Return of the Jedi, as she’s showing to the troops the stolen plans of the new, more powerful Death Star then under construction, Mon Mothma says, “Many Bothans died to give us this information.”  The look of regret on her face and the hesitation in her voice suggest a real tragedy, the kind of blood sacrifice that might call even the noblest cause into question.  There are no Bothans in this film.  Different Death Star. (Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope and ends almost exactly where A New Hope begins.)  But the spirit of Mon Mothma’s remark is what animates Rogue One.  This is a movie about sacrifice and about the faith that makes sacrifice possible.  Necessarily, then, it’s the most violent of the Star Wars films.  Parents take note.

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The Death Star exists to be destroyed.  That’s the lesson of previous Star Wars films.  If there’s a Death Star involved, then victory is achieved when the Rebels destroy it.  In Rogue One, the Death Star isn’t destroyed. The victory that our heroes achieve here isn’t total.  We know how things work out, of course.  But it’s a brave decision, all the same, to make the triumph at the end of so much graphic struggle effectively provisional.  Who wants to leave the theater feeling like the issue’s still in doubt?  If the moviegoer comes away from Rogue One feeling like things worked out as they were meant to, this is because the film stays true to the principle of sacrifice.  Rogue One isn’t about victory.  It’s about the cost of victory.

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Part of Rogue One takes place on Jedha, a chilly desert moon and a holy site to disciples of the Force.  Jedha City, the capital, is where kyber is mined.  Kyber is what the Jedi use to power their light sabers and what the Empire will use to power its Death Star, which is why imperial troops have occupied the city and a star destroyer hovers overhead.  The image of imperial troops patrolling the narrow, crowded streets of an ancient city in the desert, under constant threat of ambush, is a striking visual echo of U.S. troops in the Middle East.  Kyber’s verbal echo of the Khyber Pass, the legendary stretch of the Silk Road between Afghanistan and Pakistan, confirms this visual echo.

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When the characters mentioned kyber as the mineral that powers lightsabers, etc., my heart sank a little.  I still have a facial tick from the whole midichlorians thing.  Fortunately, the filmmakers don’t make more of kyber than to mention it in passing, perhaps only for the purpose of suggesting a parallel to contemporary geopolitics.  The script doesn’t dwell on this material, and that’s what keeps the reference from feeling forced and the concept from sounding goofy.

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Tony Gilroy was originally an uncredited writer on this project, brought in to fix the script.  He became so heavily involved in a months worth of reshoots that he now appears in the opening credits as co-writer.  Gilroy is maybe the best writer in Hollywood at the moment.  He takes great care to establish and maintain the logic of his stories.  And he’s the only Hollywood writer I can think of who pays his viewers the supreme compliment of not explaining everything to them.

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Gran Moff Tarkin makes several prolonged appearances in Rogue One.  Rather than recast the role and maybe find an actor who bears some resemblance to Peter Cushing, director Gareth Edwards used the English actor Guy Henry (who maybe bears a resemblance to Cushing in silhouette) as an onscreen placeholder, and then ILM created a digital effigy of Cushing. The effect is unsettling.  Was it simply my knowledge that Cushing is dead that made me uncomfortable?  Or is there something subtly unconvincing about the digital mask? In the future, Hollywood may be able to create digital beings that we can’t tell from the real thing.  But right now, even the best CGI effects can’t span the uncanny valley.  This is why, to my eye, anyway, the Yoda from Empire, the one with Frank Oz’s hand up his ass, is far more convincingly alive than the digital ninja from Attack of the Clones.  The resurrection of Peter Cushing is a ghoulish operation.  Here’s hoping this doesn’t become a trend.

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Princess Leia also makes an appearance, and Edwards & Company use CGI basically as a sophisticated airbrush on the sixtyish Carrie Fisher.  This effect is less troubling than the reanimation of Peter Cushing probably because the scene with Leia lasts only a few seconds.

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Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.  Thanks for everything.

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Red Leader and Gold Leader show up, too, but the footage of them is taken from A New Hope, and the middle-aged Star Wars fan comes away from the encounter feeling like he or she just bumped into a couple of old friends.

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K-2SO, a reprogrammed imperial droid voiced by Alan Tudyk, is funnier and more charming than C-3PO.  The humor he brings to Rogue One leavens what might otherwise be overly heavy material. I might even argue that the film could use a little more K-2SO, but I wouldn’t argue the point strenuously.

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Darth Vader is scary again.  In fact, the Darth Vader of Rogue One is the scariest Darth Vader yet.  He’s not onscreen a lot.  But he’s onscreen enough.  After the felonious assault that George Lucas and Hayden Christiansen committed against this iconic figure, it’s a tremendous relief to tremble in Vader’s presence again.

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The Force Awakens is a morphological copy of A New Hope.  J.J. Abrams apparently decided to remake the first movie in the series, to recreate that old magic, in order to enchant a new generation of moviegoers.  Rogue One is for those of us old enough to have seen A New Hope back in 1977, which is a way of saying that it’s the first Star Wars movie made for grownups instead of kids. I assume Abrams has already seen Rogue One.  And I’ll bet he enjoyed it more than his own entry in the series because it spoke to him, rather than to the boy he used to be.

About Harold Davis