A new Star Wars movie is still an event, but no more so than a new James Bond movie or a new Marvel movie. Star Wars is a brand now, not a cultural touchstone. And brands are about familiarity and dependability, not innovation. John Williams’s fanfare still makes our hearts skip a beat, but this stopped being fun years ago. My students now care more about Harry Potter than Luke Skywalker. And while response to The Force Awakens showed just how deep the longing for a great event can be, its lack of imagination made watching it a one-and-done affair. Who wants a repeat viewing of an inferior reboot when the original sits on your DVD shelf?
For about twenty minutes or so Rogue One, a parallel-history prequel, teases us with the possibility that it might finally be something new and different. Yet by the end, it drops into lock step with its predecessors, cutting between a space battle and a ground battle. Yes, there is a literal button that needs to be pushed, but no there is not a digital timer counting down. Let’s all be grateful for that, at least.
The story…well, you know the story. A lot of rebels died to obtain these plans. That’s the story. A throw away line from the original movie gets a full backstory that turns out to be a lot less interesting than what we all imagined it to be in our high-school fan fiction.
Jyn Erso is the daughter of a brilliant but conflicted scientist who the Empire needs to build the Death Star. He hides out as a farmer and has plans to put his family in hiding so that he can’t be leveraged to make this planet killer. So, of course, when the evil Orson Krennic tracks him down, he changes his mind and decides to pretend to be defeated and have nothing to live for. So that he can build the Death Star. Because someone else would build it anyway. (So he’s not indispensable?) He deliberately builds the Achilles heel that we are all familiar with into the Death Star in the hopes that someone will find out about it and destroy it.
The story is thin here, but so too was it in the original Star Wars. (I refused to call it A New Hope or Episode IV.) The difference is that in that movie, while the premise was simple, the story unfolded with Aristotelian unity from cause to effect. Characters were developed. World building took place. In Rogue One, we get a compilation of action set pieces stitched together with little continuity or care. As a result the story alternately stalls and lurches.
A pilot is introduced to get a message to a guerrilla fighter who can’t decide if he’d rather be in Dune or Blue Velvet. The pilot maybe loses his mind and then gains it back and fails to get his message believed, but it doesn’t matter because Jyn finds the guerrilla anyway. Before rescuing the plans, she has to try to rescue her father. (Why, then, was the message that there were plans necessary for the advancement of the story?) There’s a subplot involving another Rebel pilot who is given a secret mission within a mission. This plot ultimately goes nowhere either. Eventually everyone figures out that the imperial plans are someplace else entirely, and they stage the inevitable ground raid that’s ultimately dependent on the inevitable air fight.
One of the least puzzling and more disappointing aspects of the whole affair is the lack of any real emotion attached to any of this eye candy. If it’s possible to have an underexamined aspect of the Star Wars universe this late in the game, that aspect may be just how red in tooth and claw that universe is. The sheer number of people who die in Star Wars movies has always been obscured by clean explosions and emotionally distancing shoot-and-fall antics. At least in the first incarnation, the death of a beloved mentor was punctuated with a scream and a sob, and the death of an entire planet was something more than just an awesome display of special effects. Here, new characters are introduced and eliminated almost as quickly while cities are evaporated with nary a chance to stop for breath.
So it has come to this. The guy that got up at 3:00 a.m. to get in line for Return of the Jedi (playing on only one screen in the Northern Virginia area), is now the grumpy old man holding Rogue One accountable for everything that is wrong with the franchise film business. Rogue One isn’t as bad as all that; it may not even be bad at all, depending on how you parse that word. Still, it left me in a two day depression, not so much because I care about Star Wars but because I care about movies. Because I know that for the next few years, at least, I’ll see fewer and fewer interesting, engaging, stories, and more and more interchangeable shells surrounding interchangeable explosions.
Only 367 more days until Episode VIII. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure there will be a new Transformers movie or something in the meantime.