The posters for Rogue One append “A Star Wars Story” to its title. But that subtitle is absent from the film itself, which bears only the title of Rogue One. It’s a fitting ambiguity for a film suffering from an identity crisis, a film that resists the mythic fairytale storytelling of its forebears while needing that same myth to justify its existence.
What makes “a Star Wars story” is more than X-Wings and lightsabers, but the epic showdown of capital-G Good and capital-E Evil. The Light Side, and the Dark. The Star Wars films we have acknowledge the temptation of the Dark Side, but they exist in a moral universe with a distinct line drawn between good and evil.
Rogue One’s introduction eschews the opening crawl associated with Star Wars movies, but it also goes out of its way to erode the simplicity of the dichotomy found in those films. Granted, the introductory scene is a straightforward Western-style showdown between good and evil (represented by Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn respectively). But shortly after Rogue One appears on screen – sans subtitle – we see a Rebel spy (Diego Luna) kill an informant in cold blood, purely to enable an easy escape. As the film continues, we see a Rebel Alliance divided: torn by internal politics, uneasy deals with militants (like Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera) and ethical questions like whether or not to assassinate a good man doing a bad thing.
George Lucas, who famously re-edited Star Wars to have Han ‘shoot first’, would presumably disapprove. That’s the point, of course; where The Force Awakens hewed as closely as possible to its predecessors, Rogue One is about exploring the storytelling spaces on the margins of the universe – specifically, between Episodes III and IV – where, it seems, good guys can be bad guys too.
The thrust of this film – “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon” – is fertile ground for storytelling, but after the dust scattered by a spectacular finale has settled, what remains is disappointing, if far from terrible. The primary problem is that the moral and political complexity introduced here requires characters that go beyond archetypes, but Chris Weltz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay prioritises plotting over personality.
Said screenplay does a bang-up job of answering lingering questions about the events prior to A New Hope and offering the obligatory fanservice every quarter hour. That fanservice is sometimes cute (“I’ve got a bad feeling about–”), sometimes silly (the appearance of Ponda Baba and Cornelius Evazan, the pair who Obi-Wan sabered up in Episode IV) and sometimes rewarding: Darth Vader’s inclusion is contrived as all hell, but his climactic showcase is giddily terrifying. (Let’s just not talk about the unconscionable decision to resurrect Peter Cushing, which is as awful as it sounds.)
All this fanservice isn’t incidental, because this is simply not a film that would exist – or work – outside of the pre-existing Star Wars universe. If Rogue One’s your first exposure to Star Wars, why would you be invested in the political challenges facing the Rebel Alliance? As a lifelong fan of the franchise, I found it incredibly interesting to see a Rebel General order an underling to assassinate an innocent man for the good of the cause, but without prior investment there’s not much to it. Disney can reliably assume that their audience is familiar with the preceding films, of course, but dramatically it can feel a little disappointing.
So too the politics. Rogue One is one of many blockbusters this year to centre on the logistics of alliances, another film with an obvious interest in harnessing the zeitgeist and inspiring a flood of thinkpieces. And, sure, if you want to you can draw a link between the challenges of opposing the rising tide of fascism with the ethical questions facing the Rebel Alliance, or Iron Man and Captain America, or Batman and Superman. To be honest, though, it all feels a little vague to me: allusions to terrorism and conflicting ideologies and suppressions of freedom that can easily reshaped into a political agenda to suit the audience’s needs. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a Trump-voting Star Wars fan – of which there are surely many – putting themselves in the shoes of the Rebels. These films aren’t allegories; they’re exploitation.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking that I disliked the film. But I didn’t! It’s a good time, especially when it brushes away all the moral conflict in the final act, attaining an uplifting ideological purity as the Good Guys fight the Bad Guys in a no-holds-barred suicide mission. There are lightsabers and X-Wings and AT-ATs and it’s enthralling and exciting and reminds you of why you pay to see these movies on opening day.
I wished there was more though. I wish director Gareth Edwards could have made the screenplay’s attempts at witty repartee shine on screen, rather than sink like a stone. I wish the characters had more definition, that Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso character arc had a real character underneath it, that when Luna’s character makes a critical moral decision you understood the reasoning behind it. I wish that I’d fallen for these characters the way I fell for Finn, and Rey, and Poe. I wish this felt like a Star Wars story, rather than a story set in the Star Wars universe.