Given that George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie first flashed across theater screens nearly four decades ago, it’s a fair guess that many fans—especially those 40 and under—don’t realize that its inspiration lies buried twice as deep in the past.
“With both Star Wars and Raiders (of the Lost Ark),” Lucas told the New York Times in 1981, “I started out by asking myself, ‘Gee, when I was a kid, what did I really like?’”
What young George liked, in particular, were slam-bang action “serials” that played in short segments before feature films, especially those like the 1936 serial Flash Gordon—which he toyed with remaking before conjuring up Star Wars.
The black-and-white morality and non-technical approach of Star Wars and its two sequels (they don’t even attempt hand-waving explanations for instantaneous faster-than-light travel, for example) made for simple, and yes, juvenile, pleasures, just like those old movie serials, whether they took place in space or the Old West.
Lucas veered wildly from that trusty formula with the second trilogy, diluting serial excitement with unconvincing nerdsplanations of The Force, clumsy “rules” (“There first and only reality of the Sith … there can be only two”) and prosaic, implausible politics. A trade war? Now that’s some fun.
Between silly elements meant to produce giggles in children—farts, Jar Jar Binks—magic-killing infodumps and the melodramatic (atrociously acted) fall of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), the second trilogy was a muddling mess made somewhat less plodding by cool CGI effects.
J.J. Abrams’ 2015 reboot (or rather, thinly disguised remake), The Force Awakens, rebalanced the equation, returning to a simpler sensibility even as it slightly boosted the reality factor with better acting, more diversity and just a touch more grit. Made possible when Lucas sold the rights to the Star Wars universe to Disney, the film walked a tightrope between slavish fan service and just enough new elements to keep it entertaining; if Abrams’ second effort, due in 2017, isn’t more reboot and less remake, expect the mob to grow unruly.
And now comes the first Star Wars movie lying tangent to the previously linear plotline. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story turns on an unexplained element of the first installment, how the rebel forces obtained the plans to the Empire’s Death Star. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, 2014), this is the most adult movie of the series, and also one of the best.
Rogue One is dark in spirit, story and visuals. It is rife with complicated motivations and moral uncertainty, and refuses to sugarcoat the painful price of struggle, even in a good cause. The ending is more Saving Private Ryan than cheery Ewok rave (Return of the Jedi) or soap-opera melodrama (Revenge of the Sith). Despite all that, it’s largely blood-free—Imperial Stormtrooper “armor” is still more bulky than bulletproof—and suitable for most children.
Echoing the beginning of Star Wars, Rogue One begins with a child fleeing the forces of the evil Empire. Orson Krennic, played with subtle menace and doubt by Ben Mendelsohn (Netflix’s excellent Bloodline), has arrived on Lah’mu to capture Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) and force him to renew his work on the Death Star. His young daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon) flees according to a pre-arranged plan and is rescued by “extremist” rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).
Teenaged Jyn (Felicity Jones) learns her father is still alive when Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, of HBO’s excellent The Night Of) defects and delivers a holo-message from Galen to Gerrera: He has built a fatal vulnerability into the Death Star, which the rebel alliance must discover and exploit. Considering Galen an agent of Empire, and Jyn misguided (or worse), the rebel leadership declines to act on the information. So Jyn assembles a rag-tag band to find her father, including secretly loyal pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who has orders to assassinate Galen.
In the final act, the rebel-rebels must find a way to attack the Imperial stronghold on Scarif and get the schematics for the planet-killing Death Star into the hands of alliance leaders before it’s too late.
The visual style of the movie is dark—occasionally too dark to make out the action—and in what is surely conscious homage, some scenes wouldn’t be out of place in Blade Runner. There is grit here, dirt and shadows.
The movie is also politically gritty, featuring layers of intrigue and characters full of doubt, suspicion, and faith. Complex without being overcomplicated, there are even faint whiffs of the sort of byzantine intrigue found in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Watching rebel leaders, cautious to the point of paralysis, it’s hard not to think of the unraveling of Syria and the rise of ISIS in recent years. On the flipside, the guerrilla tactics of Jyn’s cohort walk right up to the edge of what many Americans would call terrorism in a different context. We also see characters wrestling with their consciences and tension in the ranks of both empire and alliance.
All this may reflect the influence of Tony Gilroy, best known for his work on HBO’s political drama, House of Cards, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass), based on a story by John Knoll (visual effects for Avatar and Revenge of the Sith) and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, featuring Denzel Washington as a blind warrior of the future who sees truth and kicks ass).
Rogue One’s believable racial diversity drove alt-right whiners—already enraged by a second-consecutive female protagonist in the series—into paroxysms of fury long before it hit theaters. Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is not a Jedi, but his monk-like devotion to the ancient faith allows him to see truth—and kick a good deal of ass—despite his blindness (sound familiar?). Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze’s well-armed mercenary partner (did I detect hints that they may be more than brothers in arms?), Cassian, Bodhi, and Whittaker’s too-radical rebel all feature prominently. Even the leading droid, the cynical K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), sports a dark exterior.
If there were any sour acting notes, they got by me. Krennic might have been just another cartoon villain, but Mendelsohn’s subtle portrayal reveals him as a man trapped in a web of his own ego, fear and doubt. Ahmed’s turncoat pilot repeatedly faces down the monster of his own vulnerability to do the right thing. And in place of brash, swashbuckling Han Solo, Luna plays Cassian with such quiet uncertainty that it’s not immediately apparent whether he will end up hero or villain. Jones’ Jyn, though more emotionally monochromatic, is grim, grungy and tough, rather than heroic; I’d put my money on her in a back-alley fight with Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Awakens. All in all, the excellent cast is working the gray margins of the human experience, making this the most realistic of the eight Star Wars movies.
Despite its different feel and approach, Rogue One provides plenty of touchstones for long-time fans. There are appearances by familiar characters, major and minor, good and bad, including the visages of two human actors—one living, the other 22 years dead—recreated entirely through CGI; still distinguishable from real actors, they are nonetheless remarkable facsimiles. And thus comes to pass the future predicted by writer Connie Willis in her 1995 science-fiction short novel, Remake….
It’s impossible to truly compare movies made three or four decades apart. Taken on its own terms, the single factor that puts Rogue One just below Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in the canon is the fact that it piggybacks on Lucas’ original inventiveness. This movie, more than any of the five films since those two, has rekindled my excitement in the Star Wars edifice—less now for the next level of the main story arc than the intriguing possibilities lurking within the gritty cracks and interstices of the mythos that lie below.