Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first big-screen Star Wars movie without an opening crawl or an episode number, because Episode III.IX would look rather strange, don’t you think? It doesn’t pick up where Episode III leaves off, or anywhere very familiar, but the destination is very well known indeed, which is an interesting dramatic challenge for the filmmakers.
There’s a Death Star, of course — the original — and a lot of familiar hardware, locations and faces, some more surprising than others. The last act resembles the finales of the least-loved entries of each of the two finished trilogies to date, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Episode I: The Phantom Menace, intercutting between coordinated space and surface battles; but this, at least, feels like Star Wars.
What doesn’t feel like Star Wars? Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie with no Jedi, the Jedi order having been destroyed in Revenge of the Sith and Yoda and Obi-Wan now AWOL (while Luke is presumably bullseyeing wamp rats in his T-16 and wasting time with his friends at Tosche station on Tatooine).
There are no lightsaber duels; indeed, no lightsabers at all, until a brief flash of red at a critical moment. Like Disney’s first Star Wars outing, The Force Awakens, the protagonist of Rogue One is a tough, capable young woman — but where Rey was unusually strong in the Force, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is not Force adept at all.
Whether an art or a science, Disney seems to have it down: this process of crafting competent franchise films that are good enough. Much like a typical Marvel movie, Rogue One is diverting enough while it’s unfolding, with a canny blend of action, humor and fan service, to send crowds away with smiles, perhaps debating the implications for canonical continuity, but neither greatly disappointed nor much changed.
There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess. Much of the humor comes from Alan Tudyk as a deadpan robot named K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid who’s so tough and effective in battle that it’s unclear why the Empire doesn’t replace their incompetent battle droids and stormtroopers with K-2s. Also funny, and pretty cool, is Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey) as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior-monk who is basically a Star Wars version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman.
Chirrut Îmwe is an odd presence because he embodies the Asian mystical warrior-monk archetype that inspired the Jedi in the first place, but he’s not a Jedi and uses a cane instead of a lightsaber. The effect is a bit like if you were watching Seven Samurai and suddenly John Wayne strolled in. Except, of course, that this is a Star Wars movie with no Jedi, so it’s really like if The Magnificent Seven featured Toshiro Mifune and no Western gunslingers.
Chirrut goes into action rattling off the mantra “The Force is with me. I am one with the Force.” Is there room in Star Wars for mystical warrior-monks who are devoted to the Force but aren’t Jedi? What are they then? Some sources claim that Chirrut isn’t actually a “Force sensitive.” This seems absurd. Watch how he dodges blaster fire before anyone pulls a trigger; clearly he has the “Jedi trait” of “seeing” things before they happen, even if he can’t see with his eyes.
All this raises a question: When is a Star Wars movie not a Star Wars movie?
While there’s no one right answer, here’s what it comes down to for this child of the Star Wars generation: In all previous Star Wars movies, one side wore black hats and the other white; it was always clear, not only which were the bad guys, but also which were the good guys. In Rogue One, that’s not the case. For some, this is a selling point. For me, it’s close to a deal-breaker.
The main Rebel Alliance character, Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), murders his own informant in his very first scene. Later, he leads a mission ostensibly to rescue Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), a scientist being forced by the Empire to work on the Death Star project — though Cassian’s real mission, about which he deceives Jyn and other allies, is to assassinate Galen.
The first major action sequence is an urban terrorism-style attack on Imperial forces, with innocents, including children, put at risk by the anti-Imperial insurgency. It may not be the filmmakers’ fault that this comes as children are tweeting out of Aleppo that they are about to be killed as regime forces crush the rebels, but you know, it’s not not their fault either.
Yes, Han shot first in the original original Star Wars. But Han was a loner mercenary and a smuggler who wasn’t part of the Rebellion until he was, and when he joined up he put on the proverbial white hat, even if he wore it at a rakish angle. Conversely, in the prequel trilogy, Anakin went from a Jedi to a Sith, but it was always clear that the Jedi, even if they were less wise and virtuous than Ben Kenobi led us to believe, were good guys.
“Good guys and bad guys” is a somewhat suspect concept these days, not without reason. The original Star Wars films have been criticized for promoting a morally simplistic view of war and whitewashing its horrors. A whole planet is destroyed, but a minute later, it’s like nothing happened. And before long Alderaan girl Leia is bantering with Luke and Han as if it had been a bad dream.
More ambiguously, hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives were snuffed out when Luke blew up the Death Star, and while most of them were enemy combatants, even enemy combatants deserve some acknowledgement, not to mention prisoners and others who may have been aboard.
Star Wars was naive, unreflective, simplistic, corny and earnest — and I love all that about it. Not that I’m dismissing the criticisms, but Rogue One is not the correction (if any) I was looking for.
Not only are the Rebels morally ambiguous guerrilla fighters, there’s a lone wolf, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whose methods are too extreme even for this morally compromised Rebellion. There’s also a freelance assassin, Baze Malbus (Chinese filmmaker Jiang Wen), who is Chirrut Îmwe’s devoted partner and bodyguard and winds up fighting with the Rebels alongside him.
Some people felt that Rey in The Force Awakens was thinly written. Jyn barely has a personality. I get that her father was forcibly taken from her when she was a young girl, and she was raised by the likes of Saw Gerrera — probably not the most nurturing soul, but it doesn’t make her more compelling.
Then there’s the main villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who resembles past Star Wars villains only in wearing a cape — and since it’s a white cape, and good characters in Star Wars wear capes too, it’s not surprising that, unlike past villains, he doesn’t seem to know he’s a villain.
Maybe the moral ambiguity was baked into earlier inter-trilogy mythology — the animated Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels series, among other things — that Disney tells us are official Star Wars canon. To that I can only say: They’re not my canon. I can’t tell anyone what Star Wars ought to be. I’m sure people will enjoy Rogue One, and I can’t say it’s bad, exactly, but this version of a galaxy far, far away isn’t one I care to frequent.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense stylized sci-fi combat violence. Teens and up.