Theodore McCombs: Return of the Prequel
Rogue One shows how the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I-III) could have worked, although they didn’t. There is a way, we see now, to fit an original, compelling new story into an old and beloved saga, whose continuity is policed by a nontrivial fraction of the global population. There is a way to create suspense even though we know the ultimate high-level outcome. And there’s a way that a good prequel can actually change one’s appreciation of Episodes IV-VI for the better. Watching A New Hope after Rogue One, there’s now a rich, tragic dimension to Threepio and Artoo bumbling through the desert with those Death Star plans that cost so much to steal. Luke’s one-in-a-million shot becomes not just his victory in his personal hero’s journey, but a vindication of every sacrifice the team makes in Rogue One. Darth Vader is fucking terrifying again, too! In one brief sequence, Rogue One single-handedly undoes the prequels’ woobifying of a great cinematic villain.
I didn’t totally love Rogue One; I thought the first two-thirds of it were a mixed bag, even a little dull sometimes. For every triumphantly fresh bit (Chirrut Imwe’s Daredevil impression) there was a flat howler of a callback (“He served me well during the Clone Wars”). Zombie-Peter-Cushing’s Tarkin and Michael Giachinno’s musical equivalent, the not-quite-an-homage title theme, never fully lifted out of the uncanny valley. But the Battle of Scarif is some of the best Star Wars ever filmed. As I wrote last year about The Force Awakens, Star Wars has become its own mythology, its own set of referents, symbols, and tropes; Rogue One is a sort of Iliad, then, a story of mortals battling under the gods, with an occasional, unlucky meeting with Zeus’s red lightning bolt.
Carrie, you are gone from us too soon. I wanted more books, more honesty and laughs. I wanted Postcards from the Edge II - Grandmother’s Edition. I wanted so much to see Leia’s journey through the next few Star Wars films growing into a wise old woman - the female Obi-wan to some future grandchild.
Disney bought the Star Wars franchise in 2012. I immediately declared Leia to be my favorite Disney Princess. Mind you the four Star Wars women do not fit the Cinderella mold. Despite this week’s petitions to crown Leia an official DP, she and the other Star Wars women don’t fit the Disney three-part criteria for princess.
The idea of princess is in flux at the moment. But are we finally to the point that the girls can play in the Star Wars ‘verse on equal footing with the boys? The Bechdel Test is the lowest bar. Do two named women characters speak to each other about something other than a man at any time in the film? Not in A New Hope. Leia seems to be the only women in that version of the Star Wars galaxy, except for all those slave girls she blew up. The combined non-Leia female dialogue dialogue amounts to less than two minutes of screen time.
Rey talks with Maz Kanata and interacts with Leia, that’s progress. There are other women in the world too. I’d see them in the background and fight the impulse to wave at them.
Jyn Erso has intense conversation with her mom about the force and with Mon Mothma and Senator Pamlo about the next move in the rebellion resistance. Debating across the round table in a public forum counts. Blue 3 and Gold 9 have a few lines in the dog fight. These are limited exchanges. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they exist at all. But in Rogue One most of the other women in the universe seemed to have gone back into hiding.
What about a hero's journey then? Rey has the most traditional hero’s path. She is the chosen one, for sure. Leia is still the princess the hero goes to rescue in Episode IV. Amidala, too is there to be rescued and protected. Jyn drives the action. She rebels and doesn’t do as she is told. She doesn’t hide when she is told to. She attacks her rescuers. She attacks and risks and dares and confronts. She takes revenge on the antagonist and doesn’t go in for the kiss on the way to certain death. She is a hero on a dark path. The men she leads fight their own demons too and seek to redeem their choices with hope. It is a well told tale that adds weight beneath the story of Luke, Han and Leia. But Jyn is a lone woman in this world of men and that feels hollow.
I very much agree with Ted’s assessment of how this film shows the other prequels how it could have been done. The movie is worth watching. It is fun. It’s imperfect but that’s okay. If it were perfect then there’d be no reason to ever see another Star Wars film maybe ever so flaws are good! The movie reminds me of the powerful storytelling that arises from fan fiction. Rogue One feels like a fan story given the money and weight of a studio film. I think that is a sound way to go with the franchise. There was one thing that really bothered me and that was having to piece together over the course of the film where it fit in the Star Wars timeline. For a better fan this might have been a fun sort of scavenger hunt but I don’t think the “surprise” was worth it. I missed the scrolling text at the front of the movie that typically announces the context for the story. I felt adrift without this important foundation of the Star Wars storytelling. Especially because the main plot of the original three and now the new forward story, The Force Awakens, all revolve around the destruction of a Death Star. I love the expanding world (gold star) but I always want to know when and where we are in the story. I’ll go anywhere in the Star Wars universe if the story plays fair.
Rogue One gives the Star Wars universe an element which it has always missed: an epic tragedy that plays as tragedy. The destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope, which eliminated millions of people and an entire biosphere, merits a distraught, quiet “No…” from Princess Leia and a moment of indigestion for Obi Wan. The many lives lost in Rogue One are personal, the moments of mass destruction are viewed from ground level, ripping through characters we’ve come to know. Their sacrifice is real and it is permanent. They will not be released from carbonite in next sequel. Their smiling ghosts will not get to watch the Ewoks dance. It shows the real cost of war. It shows the need for heroism when a violent opposition does not allow the option of pacifism. And it accomplishes this in a movie you can take your kids to.
That’s not to say Rogue One manages this journey cleanly. The movie’s opening is a mess. You can debate with your friends how long it takes to find its footing. And if you do take your kids to it, explain to them beforehand when in the Star Wars timeline Rogue One is taking place because the movie itself takes its time before cluing in even intelligent adults as to where the hell in history we are.
But Rogue One finishes so strongly you leave the theater feeling more like a fan than a critic. You have just spent two hours discovering new Star Wars heroes and then learned why they could not have appeared in the original trilogy. These are the soldiers of World War I who would never have called it that, because they did not survive to glimpse World War II. Their whole of the Great War was but a battle and this film honors them for those lost flares of courage.