I’ve had all sorts of thoughts rattling around in my head since I first saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I gave it an A in my review, and I stand by that, especially as a reflection of how I feel about the film having now seen it twice. On the other hand, I don’t think Rogue One is necessarily that great of a movie either. It has some major character development issues that are for me its biggest shortcoming, particularly when held up to The Force Awakens whose greatest assets was its characters. So I wanted a chance to talk about the things I love about Rogue One, the things that frustrate me about it, and any other observations I might have. (I did something similar for The Force Awakens.) Needless to say there will be Spoilers Below for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Here, in no particular order, are some Rogue One thoughts and opinions that continue to clog up my brain. And of course, keep in mind that all of this is coming from someone who unashamedly loves the prequels.
For starters, if you haven’t watched this video from one of my favorite YouTube personalities about Rogue One, I highly recommend you watch it:
She makes many excellent points (and is always entertaining), none of which I particularly disagree with. I had planned on writing this post since I first saw Rogue One, but the fact that I’m actually sitting down to do it is probably thanks to this video, which forced me to articulate the reasons why I genuinely enjoyed the film in spite of its flaws. I have no intention of directly responding to the video like I’ve occasionally done with other articles, particularly since I agree with her on basically every point, but the video definitely helped motivate me to write more about the film.
Let me start with creepy CGI Tarkin. I’ve seen a lot written about this from both sides. I think it’s an impressive technological achievement, and is much more convincing than some other CGI recreations of actors we’ve seen recently. I can’t help but remember the horrible young Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, and Tarkin was much better than that. I’m also not opposed to occasionally bringing an actor back from the dead because a character is needed to fill a specific role in a film, and I feel like Tarkin’s place in Rogue One qualifies. On the other hand, many people found this version of Tarkin unnecessarily creepy. There are so many things they could have done to make his appearance in the film work better. Personally, I would have filmed him almost exclusively from behind or in silhouette or darkness, and I would have cut 50-75% of his dialogue and given it to another character, an intermediary between Tarkin and Krennic. Give us only a line or two where we can fully see Tarkin’s face, and have him quietly give orders to an intermediate who does the actual dressing down of Krennic. Tarkin’s role in the film was large enough that it required a “performance” rather than just an appearance, and that’s where I draw the line. If you’re going to use the likeness of a dead actor like Peter Cushing, do it because it wouldn’t make sense for that character to be absent, but don’t let an impersonator fill a recreation of that actor’s face and body with a performance that didn’t belong to them. To me, the young Leia cameo at the end of the film was perfect (even if it looked a little creepy too). It was short, it was important to the story, and it was delicately handled. Tarkin’s was the opposite of that. They pushed it to the point where they would have been better off recasting the role rather than doing what they did. In all honesty, I did get used to it while watching the film, at least so it was no longer distracting to me. But I would have kept him in shadow for all except the character’s final scene when he orders the destruction of the Scarif base, allowing him to come out of the light to say “you may fire when ready” using the original audio from A New Hope.
In addition to Leia’s cameo, I liked the inclusion of Red Leader and Gold Leader in the space battle over Scarif. It was a great nod to the A New Hope, it really helped tie together the idea of the short amount of time separating the two films (of course the leaders of Red Squadron and Gold Squadron would take part in both battles). I liked that they were obvious cameos but quick, and that the filmmakers used outtakes from A New Hope to pull off their inclusion. If they’d given Red Leader an inspirational speech to give to the X-wing pilots, on the other hand, it would have bothered me in the same way that Tarkin did.
Of course, there were plenty of other cameos and references to the other films that didn’t involve bringing dead actors back to life. Some of them work extremely well, some of them are pretty pointless or distracting, and I have opinions on all of them (though I won’t torture you with that). I understand fan service, but movies should only be filled with fan service that feels natural. Among those that worked for me: C-3PO and R2-D2 and the references to Rebels including a page for General Syndulla, an appearance by Chopper, and the Ghost taking part in the final battle. But I disliked Ponda Baba and Dr. “I have the death sentence on 12 systems” Evazan popping up on Jedha for no apparent reason. The shot of them made no sense from a storytelling standpoint, it was merely there to say to fans in the audience, “Hey, look! Remember these guys?” The same goes for the dramatic death of the pilot identified as Red 5 during the battle over Scarif. We all know that Luke was Red 5 in the Battle of Yavin that destroyed the Death Star, but there’s nothing to be gained by an out-of-place sequence showing the previous Red 5 being killed. It’s not a question that needed answering, and the answer as to why Luke became Red 5 doesn’t enrich the story or the universe in any way. I’m neutral on the blue milk in the Erso’s home.
But enough about cameos for the moment, let’s move on to bigger and better things. I’ve been trying to figure out why the shallowness of the characters, or perhaps more fairly the lack of compelling character arcs for the leads, didn’t bother me the way it normally would. I think the reason I wasn’t frustrated by Jyn and Cassian’s lack of growth, or the lack of any depth at all to the supporting cast, was that the film never felt like the story of these characters. I know that’s ridiculous, because by any measure a film is supposed to have compelling characters who you watch grow and learn and deal with conflict throughout the story. But on reflection, the story that most captivated me during Rogue One was not Jyn’s, Cassian’s, Chirrut’s, Galen’s, Bodhi’s, Saw’s, or even K-2SO’s, it was the Rebellion’s. To me, Rogue One is not the story of a scrappy bunch of heroes embarking on a suicide mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, it’s the story of the growth of a covert, subversive, loosely-connected coalition of objectors and freedom fighters into the Rebellion, an armed resistance ready to fight back against the Empire. Now of course Jyn and the rest are integral to that story, but they’re just pieces supporting the larger tale of the birth of the Rebeillion.
I know the Rebellion is not a character, but hang with me on this. If you consider that the Star Wars saga, as defined by Episodes I-VI (The Force Awakens is kind of its own new thing, so until we see how it’s going to go I’m not including it at the moment) as “The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker” as George Lucas explains it, then you could say that going alongside the rise and fall (and rise) of Anakin is the rise and fall of the Empire. And as a third piece of the puzzle we’ve got the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Rebellion. To me, those three pieces are what makes the prequels so compelling, even while other people rightly criticize them for poor dialogue, wooden acting, etc. I think Anakin’s story is incredibly compelling, even while admitting that the way it’s told in the prequels has major flaws, but equally compelling is the story of how a peaceful republic allowed itself to become the Empire, and of the forces that remained to resist it and overthrow it. The Rebellion’s story starts with the observation, “So this is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause,” and ends with the victory over the Death Star II.From the perspective of the Rebellion as a character, Rogue One is perhaps its defining story, giving us the defining moment when an Alliance became a Rebellion. At the beginning of the film, the Rebellion is a hodgepodge of disparate groups with different motivations and methods. You’ve got Senators still working within the Imperial system to protect those most in danger from it, you have intelligence officers working for a secret organization to uncover as many of the Empire’s secrets as possible, and you have rogue factions openly fighting the Empire guerilla-style in the streets. The three groups by necessity have to maintain distance from each other so as to not endanger their individual fights or those of the other groups. The Senators can’t support insurrectionists or use whatever secrets are uncovered without risking retribution and the Rebel army can’t go into open combat for risk of revealing themselves and bringing the full might of the Empire down on them.
And so, when the Alliance Council is finally faced with the reality of the Death Star, they’re in conflict. The Rebel generals dared to attack an Imperial outpost on Eadu, and the Council has to make a decision on whether to risk the mission to Scarif to retrieve the plans or to try to stay in hiding. It’s here that Jyn and her band come most strongly into play in the story of the Rebellion. As with all movements, they’re often started by individuals, and it’s Jyn’s band of heroes who force the Rebellion’s hand. Ultimately the Rebel fleet decides to back them up, revealing the full strength of the Rebel Alliance to the Empire, striking the first blows of the Galactic Civil War. It’s the moment when everything changes. While the rise of the Empire was gradual, involving much maneuvering and calculating by Palpatine, the Rebellion’s rise begins with one act of bravery and sacrifice by a group of bold heroes armed only with hope. After all, as we’re reminded repeatedly (and not subtly) throughout the film, Rebellions are built on hope.
This is the story that gets to me when that those of the main characters in the film let me down. We’re seeing a defining moment in a movement we’ve only seen parts of before. It answers the key question of how the Rebellion came to be, how it went from quiet dissenters to full-on war, much the same as the Empire grew out of trade disputes and political maneuvering, but in this case it’s done in one film in a moment of glory rather than over three films through manipulation. From that perspective Rogue One is the Rebellion’s prequel, but it’s far more exciting, visceral, and heroic than the Empire’s prequel trilogy. And, to answer one specific point from Jenny’s excellent video up above, it also explains why the film ends with Vader’s attempt to retrieve the plans (and Leia’s moment of Hope). If we’re not watching Jyn’s story, but are instead watching the Rebellion’s, then it makes sense that it would end with a sense of just how big a threat Vader is to the Alliance, but also with the fact that the Rebel’s story isn’t over. It’s a cliffhanger for the rest of the Rebellion’s story, to be concluded in Return of the Jedi. It’s not about glorifying Vader (although it’s certainly shot in a way that allows that, and many people are prone to obsession with a villain being violent and badass), it’s instead about reminding audiences of the challenges that still lie ahead.
When watching the film as the story of the Rebellion, the protagonists take on a very different meaning and become symbolic in a way, or at least it brings out aspects of their story that were otherwise glossed over or unimportant to the film’s plot. Many of our heroes represent the various struggles and factions of the Rebellion, who must come together in the end in order to strike at the Empire. Cassian, along with the team of soldiers he assembles for the Scarif mission, have spent years doing all manner of covert and morally ambiguous things in the name of the Rebellion, things they now have to bear in silence. Early in the film, we watch Cassian kill a sympathetic informant simply because he couldn’t risk his capture by the Empire which might reveal what information the Rebellion has been able to acquire. But as the film goes on we get to see the toll that this brutality has taken on Cassian as he refuses to follow the orders to kill Galen Erso. We’ve also got Bodhi, the defector, whose regrets over being a part, even a small part, of the Empire’s operation to build the Death Star have led him to join the Rebellion.
And then there’s Jyn, whose character seemingly differs greatly from the way it was presented in the trailers. The most intriguing aspect of Jyn to me is one that is just barely touched upon, but which ties into the idea that Rogue One is the story of the Rebellion. The key line comes when Saw asks Jyn how she would feel about the flag of the Empire flying over the entire galaxy, to which she replies that it’s not a problem if you don’t look up. From that we learn so much about Jyn and her relationship with the world around her. Jyn is presented as this tough woman with no love for the Empire, who has been captured at the beginning of the film. Yet her resistance to the Empire has nothing to do with ideals but merely self interest. She doesn’t care if the Empire rules all so long as it doesn’t interfere with her life. She joins up not for the cause but out of self-preservation, but her experiences and the sacrifice of her father teach her that there are more noble reasons to fight with the Alliance.In the end, these characters are all seeking atonement. Cassian wants to finally be able to put his skills to a more heroic mission, something that will undoubtedly save lives and weaken the Empire. Bhodi wants to rebalance the scales and make up for his role with he Empire. And Jyn finally has an opportunity to care about something larger than herself, to take a larger look at the universe and realize that there are important things going on, things worth fighting for and believing in. I fully believe that not only did everyone who went on the Scarif mission know they were going to die, but many of them welcomed that death because it would tip the scales of their lives by enabling a noble sacrifice.
The only characters who don’t really fit into this are Chirrut and his companion Baze. But Chirrut is interesting in other ways. I love the light he sheds on the nature of the Force in the Star Wars universe. Until now, we’ve only ever seen the Force through its interactions with the Jedi, but Chirrut gives us a glimpse of the way some in the galaxy have come to view this mysterious power. Chirrut is not a Force adept, he has no powers like those of the Jedi, and presumably his midichlorian count is too low to allow him to know the Force personally. Yet he has faith in it, and devoted his life to service in the Jedi temple protecting the kyber crystals. It’s easy for people to have faith when they have firsthand evidence of the Force, but it’s another thing entirely to have faith without that personal connection. I’m intrigued by Chirrut and his relationship with the Force, particularly with the way the Force protected him as he made his way to the switch on Scarif. Clearly the Force is more than just Jedi magic, but actually does have a will of its own (as Qui-Gon mentioned in The Phantom Menace). It makes the Force feel much more equitable in my eyes, chosing to look after more han just the chosen few Jedi.
I’m also intrigued by Galen Erso. I know much has been made over the revelation that he intentionally created the exhaust port flaw that allowed the destruction of the Death Star, though like Jenny in the video above I’ve never considered that flaw a plot hole. But what is really interesting to me is the length he was willing to go to in order to save his family. This man was willing to help the most evil people in the galaxy build a weapon that would allow them to indiscriminately slaughter billions, just so he could keep his family safe. When people talk about how dark Rogue One is, it’s not the suicide mission or the grim combat that I think of, it’s Galen’s choices. Of course, in the end he also is responsible for the Death Star’s destruction, and he makes it clear that the Empire would have made the Death Star without him, but he had no guarantees that he would be able to create the fatal flaw. His choice was entirely about saving his family, and he was willing to sacrifice countless lives to do it. That’s pretty heady stuff.
But my favorite aspect of the film might have been the inclusion of Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma and Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa. It’s such a smart filmmaking decision, because it helps anchor the film as more than just a tie-in to A New Hope. Organa is one of the founding members of the Alliance, picking up what Amidala started, while Mon Mothma was also there at the beginning and will be there at the end, leading the Rebellion and planning the battle of Endor. I really appreciate that despite public opinion, Disney is not willing to pretend the prequels don’t exist. They’re a cruical piece of the Star Wars puzzle, whether people like them or not, and to cut them out would be to cheapen Star Wars significantly and reduce it to a fun action fantasy film without commentary or context. Organa’s appearance in particular is key in this respect, because he was a part of the “boring” Senate sequences in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, which are a frequent cause for complaint among prequel haters.
As a final thought to wrap up this rambling mess of a blog post that will convince anyone who reads it that I’m completely crazy, let me say this. Rogue One really hammered home to me that the Rebellion is a women’s movement. Throughout the prequels, the original trilogy, and Rogue One, it’s women who are leading the fight against the Empire and their desire to impose their values on the rest of the galaxy. It starts with Padme, who puts an end to the Trade Federation’s blockade and occupation, fights for the ideals of the Republic, and then when it becomes clear that the Republic no longer functions helps to lay the foundation of the Rebellion. The cause is picked up by Mon Mothma who sees it through to completion. Along the way Leia becomes a key leader, following in her mother’s footsteps, who strikes the decisive blows against the Empire (eventually earning her a promotion to General in The Force Awakens). And now we have Jyn, whose sacrifice helps bring the Rebellion together in its defining moment, forcing it to commit to the cause fully but making that very decision herself, eschewing self-interest and self-preservation in the name of hope and of doing what needs to be done. The story of the Rebellion is the story of the women who created it, crafted it, guided it, helped it grow, and led it to victory.