Retrospective | ‘Rogue One’ Was Star Wars’ Most Egalitarian Chapter
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
From the beginning, Star Wars has been framed by hero’s journeys. No matter how vast the backdrop against which its tale was set, filled as it is with countless strange characters and settings waiting to have their histories revealed, the narrative was always bound to one person’s coming of age. First it was Luke Skywalker, then the prequels reframed it all to become the story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise, fall, and redemption. With the sequel trilogy, we met Rey, an outsider whose life became mixed up in the consequences of the Skywalker bloodline. All the while, Star Wars’ massive universe continued to have its dimensions fleshed out in the ancillary media surrounding its tentpole feature films.
With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, big-screen Star Wars finally got to play in a space apart from the Skywalkers, although the Saga’s dramatis personae still get a few notable cameos. It was the first spin-off anthology film, arriving two years before Solo, which I covered here last week in our chronological recap. Unlike Solo, Rogue One is a picture that’s not centered around any one person. Rather, it covers a chapter in galactic history in which an entire assortment of players come together, their heretofore unsung actions revealed to be an important series of bricks laid one at a time. A New Hope, which picks up just moments after this movie ends, will be all about Luke Skywalker’s triumphant coming-of-age sexual metaphor, in which he impregnates the Death Star with spermatazoidal proton torpedoes and blows the motherfucker to Kingdom Come. Rogue One shows that were it not for the sacrifice of unsung compatriots before him, that farmboy would’ve never gotten his rocks off.
Rogue One, then, is a quietly subversive text, one which seeks to undo a historical narrative of great men shaping history while fighting each other with their glowy phallic symbols. It adds a footnote which makes clear the extent to which it took a village of ordinary people, not wizards, to turn the tide against the Empire in a decisive act of rebellion.
Around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy, screenwriting scholar Syd Field published Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and changed how Hollywood thought about movie stories, much to the bane of many actual writers. In breaking down the dark art of spinning a good yarn into a purportedly replicable, templatized methodology, Fields and similar theorists who followed unwittingly gave every philistine producer and armchair movie critic an entire taxonomy of terms to throw around in nitpicking and diagnosing screenplays. One of the most overused and annoying terms of art of this sort is “character arc.”
The classis Star Wars trilogy follows a very Fieldian conception of character arc. Luke starts the beginning of A New Hope with a clearly-articulated outer goal — to get off Tatooine and live a life of adventure — and an inner need: to spiritually self-actualize by mastering the Force. By the end of the movie, both of these have been satisfyingly resolved and cinched together by the aformentioned orgiastic torpedo release. Now, analyzing a story by breaking down its constituent parts and divining some formula is an imperfect and unscientific task, but I’ll admit it’s a good rubric for new writers to start to learn some reliable tools of the trade. My problem with our obsession over this kind of story analysis is that it’s inherently limiting, mistaking one convenient form of narrative shorthand for some a priori evidence of what shape a script “must” take or risk audience penalty. Arguably, it’s resulted in an entire generation of extremely boilerplate blockbuster storytelling. It’s also very culture-bound, lending undue weight to Western notions of the pulls-himself-up-from-the-bootstraps protagonist while dismissing other, more collectivist narratives of group-centered action as somehow inferior storytelling.
I was reminded of this when Rogue One was released and many of the reviews I read criticized the movie’s “messy plotting,” in particular the “thin characterization” of protagonist Jyn Erso, who begins the film as an apolitical convict roped into a Rebel scheme because of who her father is, and ends it as someone willing to go to her grave for the cause because she understands what’s really at stake. That’s a perfectly cogent through-line, but the reviews which took issue with her characterization seemed intent on comparing her to other Star Wars protagonists, like Luke. Fieldian metrics like her outer goal and inner need are present here, but relatively underplayed, because this is an ensemble picture — Jyn doesn’t need to be the coach, the linebacker, and the star quarterback of her own movie. Rogue One is the story of an entire crew that comes together and finds a purpose bigger than any one of them, and who are willing to die for that purpose even if they’re never going to be remembered as the heroes who blew up the Death Star.
This type of plotting isn’t totally alien to American audiences, it’s worth pointing out. Classic World War II movies which had a clear influence on Rogue One, from The Dirty Dozen to the more recent Inglourious Basterds, all comfortably adopt a collective protagonist structure. And there are plenty of red-blooded Americans who thrill to the entire genre of team sport movies, where the struggles of a typical protagonist are extrapolated across a group that has to learn to find itself and come together.
Stepping away from this point for a moment, it’s worth returning to our little mental experiment of what it’s like to watch these movies in chronological order. We saw the visage of Darth Vader descend upon Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, and we travelled to an entirely different part of the galaxy in Solo to see how the other half lived under the reign of the Empire. Now we jump forward another decade. The Empire still rules, although the pockets of resistance we learned about in Solo through the activities of Enphys Nest’s pirate cell have given way to a much more orderly and sizable hidden militia in the form of the Rebel Alliance.
Notably, we are reunited with Bail Organa, Jimmy Smit’s Alderaanian senator who we know has secretly adopted Anakin’s daughter Leia and is raising her as his own. Rebel leader Mon Mothma (portrayed by Genevieve O’Reilly, who first played Mothma in deleted scenes in Revenge of the Sith) hatches a plot with Bail to reach out to his “Jedi friend” still laying low in the deserts of Tatooine. Old routines are coming back online, the balance of power in the galaxy suddenly tilting from a sustained status quo to something…else. And at last we are reunited with our once-promising Chosen One, who we learn had made his bed by the banks of the lava river which marked the site of his greatest defeat. Anakin is now a hardened enforcer of the Emperor’s will, less a man than an icon of terror and your boss’s shitty favored pet.
Rogue One manages to avoid a common pitfall of the prequel/mid-quel genre of story, in that it opens up its world rather than suturing it too tightly. Of particular interest to me is how for the first time, we really get a sense of what the Force means to those who cannot wield it like a superpower. In the opening scenes, Jyn’s mother Lyra gives her a kyber crystal to wear around her neck, not as the power source of a lightsaber but as a totem to remember her by. The Guardians of the Whills believe in the Force, and hold on to their faith in it as a source of divine inspiration. In some ways the Force feels bigger in this movie because its characters can’t be said to have a transactional relationship with it, like the Jedi and Sith who manipulate it with ease.
The rebel movement is shown to have some seedier sides to its own inner workings, in that there are real questions about how far is too far between being an enlightened force for the restoration of democracy versus acting as a terrorist cell. Cassian Andor shoots an unarmed man in his first scene to preserve the mission, going a fair bit farther than Han Solo ever did in frying poor Greedo.
Likewise, our understanding of the bureaucratic infighting and disorder within the Empire is expanded with the invention of the Imperial Security Bureau and its peacockish Director Krennic. Krennic, played with a working-class accent by Ben Mendelsohn, clashes with the stuffy and superior Grand Moff Tarkin (whose appearance here is a bit of digital necromancy using a scanned life mask of Peter Cushing and actor Guy Henry). It comes down to the unranked Vader, who exists outside the military’s self-impressed silliness, to clean up Krennic’s mess. It all makes sense and provides some dramatic wrinkles to a story we knew only the broadest outlines of before.
That brings us to the final minutes of the movie, a highlight in what’s already a fabulous Act 3 with one of the most exciting climactic battles in the franchise. Spoiler alert: the Rogue One gang doesn’t make it out alive, Vader shows up and shuts everything down, and it’s only by a hair’s breadth that the Death Star plans revealing its Achilles’ heel make it into the hands of Bail’s adoptive daughter, a certain Rebel-aligned princess who’s about to make life for her biological father a whole lot more complicated.
For anyone who found the prequels lacking in the “it all comes together” department, there’s no remedy quite like seeing the Corellian blockade runner Tantive IV eject from the belly of a disabled maitinence vessel and leap into hyperspace for what’s destined to be a short trip before Vader catches up with them over Tatooine on a run to bring Obi-Wan back to Bail. And everything about the production design serves to back-walk into A New Hope, from some very Seventies-looking computer displays to a vertitable flotilla of impressive facial hair among the ranks of the Rebellion.
The theme of unsung collective action is paralleled by Rogue One’s own journey to the screen. In what would prove to be only the first in an ongoing string of controversial behind-the-scenes shakeups at Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucasfilm, veteran director Tony Gilroy was brought in to oversee lengthy reshoots on the picture after credited director Gareth Edwards apparently didn’t perform to Kennedy’s expectations. This wasn’t the typical case of an acrimonious editing room lockout, though; Edwards seemed to wisely make his peace with it (or even welcome the assist rather than face a high-profile stumble), politely passing the baton to the veteran producer/director and remaining the complementary public face of the project despite whatever was going on behind closed doors.
I’m a bit amused by how the whole incident seems an appropriate metaphor of the movie’s own leanings, the “it takes a village” ethos of Rogue One extending even to its own making. By all accounts, the various creative perspectives at play muddled together until the right balance was struck, and rather than the whole thing feeling like a case of corporate cold-feet turning a movie into a Suicide Squad-style hot mess of discordant tones and half-baked plots, Rogue One came out a pleasing soupçon of PoMo recontextualization, fan service, sharp sci-fi action-adventure, and corporate-overlord-placating brand extension. Against all odds, the team at Lucasfilm threaded the needle and delivered a hit.
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: