Warning: Know, you should, that SPOILERS for movies there will be (Rogue One and The Force Awakens specifically).
Confession: I have never really considered myself a Star Wars “fan.”
Sure, I’ve seen the movies. I know who Luke’s father is, I can tell a Wampa from a Tauntaun, I might even debate who shot first. I can recognize the characters, discuss the plot, hum along to the Imperial March. However, I’ve never been someone who adores the Star Wars universe, has seen the movies dozens of times, or quotes them extensively. I’ve never hated Jar Jar Binks or gotten nerd rage at Bobba Fett’s untimely demise in the Sarlaac Pit. If I’ve ever been a fan, it’s been more as a casual one.
Recently, however, things have started to change. There has been a disturbance in the Force.
My history with Star Wars, now that I think on it, has been in flux. Save for a recent viewing of the Phantom Menace, I have not seen any of the earlier movies—in both the Prequel and Original Trilogies—for a long time, so my greatest connection to the franchise has been through other forms of media, typically toys and games. I loved the LEGO Star Wars games growing up, and I think those kept me connected to the universe more than anything. I’m a huge fan of LEGO, and I think I mainly liked how they were able to render such a classic series in brick and minifigure format, rather than enjoying the games for their inherent Star Wars basis itself. I’ve got LEGO sets and some action figures as well, but the enjoyment of playing with those came from how I was able to craft my own stories and adventures within the Star Wars universe. In other words, I liked the concept of Star Wars rather than the actual films themselves. While I liked watching the Prequel Trilogy when it was initially released, the years were not kind to Lucas’ second stab at his galaxy far, far away, and so my faint recollections of those films are further tainted by fan and internet backlash, coupled with the recent viewing of the Phantom Menace, which is pretty doggone bad in the acting and special effects departments. Interesting story, but little else. Good ideas, poor execution.
Over the years, I have become much more thoughtful—and, perhaps in the process, more cynical—when it comes to film. Unlike my younger self, I can no longer be purely entertained by the clash of lightsabers, the whoosh of hyperdrives, or the unveiling of a Death Star. I tend to nitpick films, my English major brain lashing at the little things that make no sense or could have been made, in my mind, better. Hence, I have come across two issues that have slowly let Star Wars fade in my mind: First, I’ve always found the Original Trilogy…simple. I suppose that’s a good a word as any. I’ve never been a huge sci-fi guy in general, so in a world where I pour over fantasy and superheroes, science fiction gets bumped to the side. Also, knowing that George Lucas lifted the most basic story elements and rejiggered them for his epic film series, I’ve always felt that the films are like oatmeal with a bit of cinnamon on top: mostly bland, with a hint of flavoring to make you feel like it’s something new. And by no means is Star Wars new—no story is really—with its use of the tried-and-true clichés of “chosen one” heroes, snappy sidekicks, menacing villains, and damsels in distress. Set in its space opera setting, I suppose it takes those elements and readjusts the scenery some. But, for a long time, seeing Star Wars as simple highly shaped how I viewed the series.
Secondly, I’ve also never really liked jumping on pop culture bandwagons. I’ve seen the Harry Potter movies, but I’ve never read the books. And I only read Hunger Games because my friends did, and I wanted to understand what they were talking about. So long-lasting pop culture phenomena like Star Wars or Doctor Who are things I never really got into because I felt like I’d have to do so much or see so much in order to catch up. For Star Wars, this is mainly due to the massive Expanded Universe that once consisted of novels, games, and comics that Disney has since axed. Given that, I have now found Star Wars much simpler to ease into.
Having viewed the Original and Prequel Trilogies, I saw the opportunity to go see last year’s The Force Awakens as more of an obligation than a treat. Sure, I enjoyed it, but the same old criticisms of the other Star Wars films cropped up, especially in a film that carries over A New Hope’s basic plot of an orphan stranded on a desert planet teaming up with a droid carrying vital information, joining a resistance alongside Han Solo and Chewie, and fighting Stormtroopers, a villainous Force user, and a weapon capable of shattering planets. That’s the dumbed-down version, of course, but I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t anything new or fresh. Okay, they did kill Han Solo. That was great. My second viewing was more enjoyable, but as usual, that blandness crept in. If nothing else, I did see a spark of appreciation flare up within me for the Star Wars Universe, specifically tethered to the fact that I love how this massive story can last and grow for decades.
Thus, like before, my expectations for Rogue One were not especially high. However, stunningly, I was completely, totally, absolutely wrong. I’ve seen Rogue One twice, and not only is it up there as one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, not only is it cemented as my favorite Star Wars movie, but I think I am 100% certain that it might be one of my favorite movies of all time. Certainly, it’s made my Top Ten list.
Coming from a guy who has never really gotten into Star Wars, all you megafans out there should consider this huge praise. Huge.
The Force Awakens may have carried over many elements fans love about the Star Wars saga—the lightsabers, the good vs. evil dichotomy, the father/son element with Han and Kylo Ren—but a lot of it, to me, can be reflected in my brusque summary above. Admittedly, there’s has to be a balance between fan service and originality, I get that, but I felt like Episode Seven was too much lip service. Also, I read this fantastic article a few years back about how Hollywood is “ruining” our happy endings by demanding additional films and spin-offs. While I don’t agree with this assessment wholly, I do agree that it is a little disappointing for Episode Seven to thrust us into a universe where Han and Leia are separated, R2D2 languishes in a coma, and Ben Solo becomes an evil jerk like his grandfather before him. The happy ending isn’t “ruined,” per say, because of course life changes, but Revenge of the Jedi’s ending is…tainted with this new knowledge of the universe thirty years down the road. When the movie was first announced, my somewhat critical brain asked if this was necessary. Star Wars already had a good ending, why change it? It seemed like a cash cow, and the somewhat disappointing story seemed to reinforce that feeling.
There are no such issues with Rogue One. First, there is no happiness to upend here, as the film takes place between Episodes Three and Four, with the Empire at the height of its powers and the terror of the Death Star looming on the horizon. Second, in my mind, the story and the characters were all very strong, the dialogue was enjoyable, and the action scenes were probably the best I’d seen in a Star Wars film. Yes, this film was made because of the enormous popularity of the franchise, but it did not end up in any pitfalls because of that popularity. Sure, it had to bring in elements to tether it to the other films—which I think was done very well for the most part, save for a few forced elements, especially considering it referenced both trilogies—but it did so while keeping its uniqueness. No lightsaber duels here, just a straight-up massacre by Darth Vader, thus reminding everyone why we love and hate him in the same moment. No heroic Jedi to save the day, just rebels not totally sure of the cause they’re following but willing to sacrifice anyway. No Alderaans being torn apart or Starkiller Bases ripping whole planets asunder, just a Death Star that, yes, has been seen multiple times, but is used in a more focused sense.
Speaking of the Death Star, this is probably the best version of it I’ve seen. The Empire uses it to destroy cities, not whole planets. Characters are on the ground to witness the destruction, characters get vaporized, characters see the potential up close that Leia only gets to see from far away. Yeah, Imperial guys blab about the “potential” of their new superweapon—meaning its ability to destroy entire planets—but this more focused use of its destructive capabilities is one I never thought possible and is much more personal, much more realistic, and much, much more terrifying. The effects render its abilities as awesome, and not just as in cool, but as in creating awe. It’s the same weapon that debuted almost forty years ago, but never has it had a more terrifying presence than in Rogue One.
Finally, let’s talk about that ending, as in that ending that carries an ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, turn back, cause I’m about to spoil the whole film. Why? Cause EVERYBODY DIES. Yeah, the entire Rogue One team gets killed in spectacular fashion, mostly by getting shot or blown up by Stormtroopers whose aim have incredibly increased since the Original Trilogy (or would that be decreased, since this movie takes place before the Original Trilogy chronologically?). A couple characters die at the hands of the Death Star itself as it atomizes a beach. The whole. Team. Dies. Granted, there’s no mention of these characters in the Original Trilogy, so having them all die seems like a reasonable move on the filmmakers’ part. But, to me, it’s also an incredibly gutsy storytelling move that I’ve seen happen in few films. And, while the deaths are jarring and emotional, they aren’t done just for the purpose of shocking the audience. I entered the film knowing that these characters were on what was essentially a suicide mission, but since I knew the Rebels received the plans, I assumed only a few characters would die (it is a war movie after all, and what would a war movie be without a couple of heroic deaths?) and had no idea that everyone was going to get wiped out. However, it works. This is a story of sacrifice, and the movie clearly shows that each character is willing to give up their lives for the Rebellion, even the totally awesome, fan-favorite ones who you would never want to die. It’s even harder to watch the second time, because you know it’s going to happen, and you know that all these characters you’ve come to love are going to be gone by the end of the film. It doesn’t feel cheap, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. There’s a point for these characters to die, and the filmmakers make most of their deaths poignant, most of them memorable, and all of them for the purpose of furthering the story.
This is something not witnessed in the other Star Wars films or many other movies for that matter. DC and Marvel have killed characters, but no one terribly important remains dead. Definitely, certain characters within Star Wars films in the past have mainly been killed for story purposes—Obi Wan and Qui Gon were mentors who died and passed the torch to younger heroes, Darth Vader and the Emperor were the primary antagonists and thus their deaths were a form of justice—but having every single member of Rogue One’s team killed seems beyond the traditional bounds of storytelling. Killing off one’s main protagonist seems ridiculous, and so offing a whole team seems beyond bonkers, but the filmmakers do it impressively and in a way that not only gives significant weight to the characters’ actions, but stirs up emotion in the audience (well, me, at least). It’s an incredibly risky move that, yes, was done for story purposes and because it aligns well with the history of the Star Wars Universe—the fact that we never see or hear of these characters ever again—but also sucks the viewer in with its theme of heroic sacrifice. In short, these characters died for a really good reason, and I thought this bold gamble paid off incredibly well.
It’s this ending that does it for me. Dark, but not bleak. Sad, but not without a tinge of happiness. Death does not equate failure here. The rest of the movie, in my mind, is heightened once you know this ending, it changes your perspective. It’s a type of irony that you now know what the characters don’t, and it’s with a hint of sadness that you watch the film build up to its climax because you know what is going to happen.
Oh, and Darth Vader? He’s awesome. Nuff said.
That’s all a very long-winded way of saying that Rogue One has sparked a renewed interest in the Star Wars Universe. Instead of being a series of films that rehash similar ideas or copy stories that have been retold for centuries, Star Wars has the ability to be fresh, new. Instead of focusing solely on the Skywalker family or Jedi or lightsabers, Star Wars can search other corners of the galaxy. Rogue One finally brings the weight, the shadow, the heroics, the originality, the depth I feel like the other films oftentimes lack. Not that any of them aren’t enjoyable. They’ve just never made me think like Rogue One has. If Lucasfilm and Disney can continue producing stories of this caliber, I think I might just become a Star Wars fan after all.