Fandango: On “Rogue One,” Zen and the Art of Franchise Maintenance

Written by Film

There will always be Star Wars. When I lay upon my death bed in 2066, my kids will wish I could hang on just a few days longer, so that I could see Episode XXVII before I depart.

Already, Star Wars has lasted long enough to span a few generations, which is nice; it’s finally possible to relax and enjoy it without feeling as though every twitch of Chewbacca’s whiskers has some deeper nostalgic significance. I still enjoy bitching about the minutiae of it, but I’ve also reached a point where I can enjoy Star Wars with some small measure of…what do they call it…”perspective,” I think?

I’ve got “my” movies, and prequel kids have their movies, and my kids have the sequels and “Star Wars stories” of today. Everything turned out just fine! A happy ending for Lucas, the Skywalker family, and Bob Iger.

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Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie that isn’t part of the “saga,” which is the ongoing story of the Skywalker clan as told through laserswords, spaceships, and computer-generated racist caricatures. This means that for Disney, Rogue One was a gamble of sorts; and yet, to call it a “gamble” is to completely underestimate the goodwill of Star Wars fans, both casual and otherwise. At this point, just about anyone will see a Star Wars movie, even an awful one. The good ones will get repeat business, sell a few more toys, maybe inspire more cosplayers; but quality isn’t even a factor.

Faced with the most significant Star Wars-related risk they’ve encountered yet (and bearing in mind that the concept of “risk” in this case is somewhat relative), Disney hedged their bets, and that means Rogue One is a bit of a mess. It seems to have started life as a caper movie that happened to take place in the Star Wars universe. At some point, Disney must have gotten cold feet, and perhaps it was the reshoots from this past summer that tried to make Rogue One a Star Wars movie that just happens to be about a caper. In trying to do two things at once, it doesn’t do either one very well.

So Rogue One is an okay heist flick, an okay Star Wars movie, and overall decent. If only it came along five years from now, when hopefully the Lucasfilm execs will have built up the same swagger that allows Marvel Studios to churn out such massive hits that also exhibit a wide range of tones. A true full-blooded heist movie set in the Star Wars universe would have been amazing. For now, with a multi-billion dollar investment breathing down Iger’s silk-shirted neck, it’s about as good as one could expect.

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I still love Star Wars; I’m not invested in Rogue One. Part of that is the movie’s fault; because they had to cram in a few extra helpings of Star Wars stuff, a large cast of characters is given short shrift. There’s no room for the time-honored tradition of caper flicks to introduce us to a series of eccentric specialists, each with their own motivation for participating in the heist at hand. Rogue One is also missing that cornerstone of a great caper movie, the sequence where the ringleader walks through the steps it will take to infiltrate the vault, or sneak out of the prison camp, or what have you.

Director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriters cover as much ground as they can with the time they are given, but it’s not enough. They’re aided and abetted by a mix of character actors and fresh faces, all of whom tear into the material with everything they’ve got. If you care at all about Forrest Whitaker’s Saw Guerrara, or Donnie Yen’s Chirrut, it’s the actors that are pulling those nuances out of the bare bones of the script. In the film’s leading role, Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones takes what could have been obnoxious–a plucky selfish quasi-orphan with a daddy complex who learns to care about others and the galaxy around her–and clobbers it out of the park through sheer gumption.

But other than a core group of leading characters, we don’t really know why anyone is doing what they’re doing in Rogue One, aside from the blanket desire to help/harm the galaxy, depending on what uniform you’re wearing. What’s worse, Edwards seems interested in exploring the idea of a Rebellion willing to make scary sacrifices in the name of opposing oppression…but that’s a new wrinkle, and a big leap to make over the course of a couple scenes in a single movie, so it’s hard to really buy it. Rogue One tries to create many of the same iconic, pure characters as the saga films, but then draws in shades of grey that never quite stick.

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We need to talk about this fanservice business in Rogue One before I return to my day job at Doofenshmirtz Evil, Incorporated.

Listen, most of us like Star Wars. Some of us love it, and a percentage of those that love it also happen to REALLY REALLY LOVE IT.

So sure, when there was that long, loving shot of blue milk in Rogue One’s first moments, I smiled. Then when Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba (the crazy doctor and Walrus Man from the original Star Wars) just happened to be strolling down the streets of Jedha, I groaned. By the time Threepio and Artoo appeared creeping on the flight deck at Yavin IV, I was done.

We get it, folks; you saw A New Hope, you like that movie. I like it too. I didn’t need reminders every five minutes that said movie exists, and was awesome, and hey, it just happens to be set a few moments after the end of THIS movie, Rogue One! Remember? Star Wars? Right??!?!?!?!??!?

These moments were hamfisted attempts to force this movie into the Star Wars universe, when no such effort was necessary. I enjoyed seeing the Vader estate on Mustafar, sure, and I recalled with geeky glee the Ralph McQuarrie concept art from Return of the Jedi that was clearly the inspiration for it. Spending time there was pointless. It took me out of the narrative, not further in.

Star Wars is immersive when it’s good, and when it’s not, it feels like a collection of toys from my childhood set up on a shelf–destined to be admired, but never to be loved. Disney has all the toys now, and Lucasfilm has new license to arrange those toys in never-before imagined configurations. That’s great, but it’s not what matters.

Just give me a good movie. That’s what makes it Star Wars.