Rogue One/Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) ***½
The Star Wars franchise has always taken a peculiar approach to continuing the story, starting with the screwball conceit that the original film was episode IV in a series whose first three installments didn’t actually exist. Prequels as well as sequels were thus promised practically from the outset, but weirder still was the practice of semi-official para-sequels, made by Lucasfilm and featuring canonical characters in major roles, yet nevertheless sitting a bit off to the side from the main continuity. Those too were part of the franchise almost from the beginning; after all, The Star Wars Holiday Special aired two years before The Empire Strikes Back had its premiere. The Ewoks got a pair of made-for-TV movies after the initial theatrical trilogy ran its course, and more recently there was The Clone Wars— a theatrically released capstone film for a TV show that somehow slotted six seasons’ worth of action (to say nothing of three seasons of an earlier “Clone Wars” series) into the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. And that’s without even considering the “Droids” and “Ewoks” cartoons, or the vast Expanded Universe of print media, video games, and whatnot! Well, now Lucasfilm is under new management, and the regime change has brought with it yet another permutation of continuation. Rogue One bills itself not as Episode VIII (that’s coming later), but as “A Star Wars Story.” Evidently that means it’s the first of an indefinite sequence of fully canonical sidebar pictures meant to fill in a blank somewhere— in this case, the blanks between the letters of “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first battle against the evil Galactic Empire.” It’s something we don’t even have a word for yet, and since we’re obviously going to need one from now on, I propose “interquel.” Tell your friends, and let’s see if we can’t make it stick.
Whatever you call its genus, though, Rogue One’s positioning itself before the events of a story we already know opens it up to what I’ve come to think of as the Prequel Problem: if we know going in what comes next, doesn’t that basically mean that we know going in how the story ends? And if we already know that, is there any reason to care how we get there from some arbitrary prior point? The solution arrived at by Rogue One’s several writers is to exploit the unique possibilities offered by an expansive fictional universe. Although familiar faces like Princess Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 put in cameo appearances, while others like Darth Vader and Governor Tarken have small but important roles, Rogue One doesn’t focus on any of them. Instead, it gives its attention to a cast of entirely new characters, whose fates and significance are unknown to us beyond that their struggles will result somehow or other in Leia coming into possession of the plans for the first Death Star. It is a tale the existence of which has been mentioned, but which has not been told in any meaningful sense.
In a remote, desolate wilderness on a remote, licheny planet lies the farm where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson, from Clash of the Titans and King Arthur) lives with his wife, Lyra (Victor Frankenstein’s Valerie Kane), and their little daughter, Jyn (Beau Gadsdon). An Imperial shuttle is coming in for a landing on the margin of their property, which is never good news for anyone. Sure enough, the Ersos have been fearfully awaiting just this turn of events, and Galen sends Lyra and Jyn off to meet someone called Saw Gerrera while he deals with whatever the shuttle’s arrival portends. Unfortunately, the womenfolk are not very good at following directions, and they’re both still on hand to become hostages when the foremost of Galen’s visitors—an Imperial officer by the name of Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, of Needle)— demands that Galen go to work for him on some project or other. Erso, it turns out, is an engineer of rare ability, while Krennic is the Director of Construction for the Death Star. Krennic’s bodyguards kill Lyra when she foolishly tries to rescue her husband, but Jyn escapes to the prepared hidey-hole where she and her mother were supposed to go in the first place. Erso allows himself to be led away, and Jyn is collected by that Gerrera fellow her father mentioned before (Forrest Whitaker, of Arrival and Repo Men). I’m forced to conclude that Gerrera’s surrogate parenthood leaves something to be desired, however, because the next time we see Jyn— ten years or so later, by which point she’s grown up into Felicity Jones— she’s sitting in a jail cell next to a guy with a cuttlefish for a head.
Meanwhile, at a lawless trading post favored by smugglers and other riffraff, Imperial storm troopers are on the hunt for Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, from Elysium and Vampires: Los Muertos), an agent of the Rebel Alliance. Andor, for his part, is meeting an informant to ascertain the truth behind rumors that the Empire is building some kind of super-weapon. His contact tells him that a defector— a shuttle pilot based at the weapon’s construction site— has gone to the planet Jedah in search of the Rebel cell led by Saw Gerrera, carrying certain documents prepared by Galen Erso pertaining to the project. That’s when the two men are found by some of those storm troopers. Andor kills his would-be captors... and then kills the informant, too, after plausibly assessing him as both too feeble to escape and too soft to resist interrogation.
But to return to Jyn, she’s being transported to prison proper when the convoy carrying her is set upon by Rebel forces. Indeed, she’s the object of the attack. “Congratulations— you are being rescued,” says K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, from Serenity and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials), the droid who apprehends Jyn as she tries to slip away amid the fighting, “Please do not resist.” The next thing Jyn knows, she’s been taken to Yavin IV, where Senators Mon Mothma (The Matrix: Reloaded’s Genevieve O’Reilly, whom we just barely saw in the same role in Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, who was rather more conspicuous than O’Reilly in both Revenge of the Sith and Attack of the Clones) have established the central headquarters of the Rebel Alliance. The senators leave it to Cassian to explain what’s going on, however. Turns out it’s all about that renegade shuttle pilot going to see Saw Gerrera. Gerrera represents the impatient extremist faction of the Rebellion, the marketplace ambush and roadside IED crowd. Whatever he learns from the defector would most likely be squandered on a plan for some pinprick terrorist attack somewhere. But Mothma and Organa hope that by exposing the super-weapon program before the Senate, they can precipitate the overthrow of the Emperor by legal means. Gerrera wouldn’t listen to them, of course, but maybe he would listen to Jyn, given his role in raising her. And if Galen is really behind the shuttle pilot’s defection, maybe Jyn can also convince him to come forward as a witness before the Senate. Either way, if Jyn cooperates, the Alliance has the resources to make sure she goes free after the mission is concluded. Jyn likes the sound of that last part, although she has no idea what kind of pull she realistically has with either her true father or her surrogate one after all these years out of contact. Perhaps she’d be less agreeable, however, if she could hear one of the Rebel generals giving Cassian some last-minute orders before liftoff. General Draven (Alistair Petrie, from Devil’s Playground and Cloud Atlas) believes that it’s more important to deprive the Empire of the elder Erso’s services than to secure them for the Rebellion. If Jyn does indeed lead Andor and K-2SO to her father, Cassian is to shoot the engineer on sight.
Now let’s talk about that shuttle pilot. Bhodi Rook (Centurion’s Riz Ahmed) doesn’t get quite the reception he expected from Gerrera and his terrorists. Rather than give the defector even a moment’s direct attention, Saw hands him over to some kind of psychic tentacle monster with the power to extract any truth, however well hidden, from anyone. Side effects include amnesia, catatonia, and general insanity. Even then, Saw doesn’t entirely believe what he’s told, or what he sees on the recorded message from Erso. Instead, he suspects that he’s being set up by the less radical faction of the Alliance. Rook goes into a dungeon cell at Gerrera’s secret headquarters, and Saw himself returns to his regular business of disrupting the Empire’s efforts to strip the old Jedi Temple in Jedah City of its treasure trove of kyber crystals. Cassian, Jyn, and K-2SO end up caught in the crossfire of Saw’s next attack, along with two Guardians of the Whills named Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen, of Drunken Tai Chi and Blade II) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). (Evidently the Guardians of the Whills took over the temple after the Jedi Order was destroyed. Less militant or powerful than the Jedi Knights, they can nevertheless handle themselves in a fight pretty well, and their faith in the Force seems to make them both preternaturally perceptive and preternaturally lucky.) All concerned are rounded up by the terrorists and brought before their leader. Jyn convinces Saw that she’s on the up-and-up just as Governor Tarken (a ghastly CGI homunculus of Peter Cushing, incongruously voiced by Guy Henry, from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, who doesn’t sound a thing like the deceased actor) takes delivery of the completed Death Star from Krennic, and orders it sent to Jedah for a low-power test of its main armament. Now that the Jedi Temple is cleaned out of kyber crystals— the fuel for the Death Star’s anti-planet ray— there’s no reason for the Empire to go on tolerating the existence of an old relic with such dangerous associations. Cassian, Jyn, K-2SO, Bhodi, Chirrut, and Baze are the only ones to escape the annihilation of Jedah City.
Alas, Jyn didn’t have the presence of mind to bring her father’s recorded message along with her when she fled. And although Andor never gets a chance to kill Galen even after Bhodi leads him to the installation where Erso and the other Death Star scientists are being held for safe keeping, the engineer dies anyway when General Draven calls in an airstrike on their position. (Mind you, Krennic was coming to kill all the eggheads anyway, having learned that one of them was in communication with a defector while the Death Star was undergoing its final working up.) Consequently, there’s no corroborating evidence for anything when Jyn tells the rebel leadership first the wild story that the Empire’s new weapon is a planet-killing space station, and then the even wilder story that her father sabotaged it by hiding a fatal flaw in its design— something too small for a non-engineer to notice, but serious enough to leave the Death Star vulnerable to destruction by a single well-placed shot. And even assuming the Council of the Alliance accepts Jyn’s testimony, the only means of finding and exploiting the Death Star’s supposed weakness with Galen dead and the message lost would be to steal the builder’s plans for the space station itself from the Imperial military archive on Scariff. That’s a hell of a mission to attempt on the basis of such flimsy evidence that there’s anything to be gained, and the council votes against doing anything of the kind. Jyn, for her part, thinks that’s bullshit. Sure, she might have started off on this path only semi-willingly, with no motive nobler than her own narrow self-interest, but what she’s been through since getting busted out of prison has made her a true believer in the Rebel cause— and it’s not like she ever had that much to lose anyway. On the other hand, it’s also not like she can do anything about the Empire or the Death Star on her own. That’s where Cassian, Bhodi, the Guardians of the Whills, and a motley band of Rebel black-ops hardcases come in. If Jyn thinks she’s got nothing left to live for save the downfall of the Empire, she should see the blasted spots these guys have on their souls from the things they’ve already done in the name of that objective. If they give up now, all those sacrifices were nothing, yet they’ll still have to look at themselves in the mirror every day. Of course, we’ve all known since 1977 that Jyn and her Dirty Space Dozen will succeed in their unauthorized commando raid, but it’s something else again to see how and at what cost they pull it off.
The main sequence of Star Wars movies tells a story about heroes. Its central characters are exceptional people— Jedi Knights, leaders of political movements, rulers of and heirs to entire planets. And it’s perfectly reasonable that they should be. Heroes have something like universal appeal, after all, and tales of their exploits have been the default mode in grand fantasy since before there consciously was such a thing. But consider for a moment what the Star Wars heroes specifically are up against. This is the government of a galaxy we’re talking about, with a military apparatus to match. To fight an enemy on that scale, even the mightiest heroes need backup. To fight something like the Empire surely does require heroes, but it also requires wreckers and martyrs and maybe even terrorists. Most of all, it requires grunts— foot-soldiers whose deeds will never be known except to the handful of people whose lives they touched most directly. And it is with that backup— the wreckers, the martyrs, the terrorists, the grunts— that Rogue One concerns itself. As such, this is a very different sort of film from its predecessors. It’s sadder, for one thing, being explicitly about the darkness before the dawn. For all Jyn Erso’s increasingly puzzling speeches about hope, the dominant mood of the picture is desperation, as people who are conspicuously not the best of this or the wisest of that or the last great some other thing reckon the odds against them, conclude that they’re basically impossible, and then set out to do the shit anyway. Nor does Rogue One flinch from the implications of those odds. For those who aren’t heroes blessed by Destiny, an undertaking like the raid on Scariff is plainly a suicide mission, and the filmmakers commendably allow it to be just that for practically everyone involved. Three years or so ago, I might have looked at all this casual slaughter and thought, “Oh, for fuck’s sake… even Star Wars is going Grimdark,” but now? Now I’m completely onboard for a fantasy of rebellion against tyranny that stays clear-eyed about the chances of those who fight for a better world ever living to see it.
That bracing willingness to position itself as a melancholy war movie in a fantastical setting, and to focus on the contributions of people whose names won’t go down in history, covers a lot of sins (plus a lot of things that only look like sins at first glance). An awfully large share of the action relevant to Rogue One’s plot isn’t actually depicted in the movie, which can make it difficult to get a fix on why things are happening. We never really learn how Saw Gerrera transformed from a kindly warrior who takes orphans under his wing to a grizzled, half-crazed fanatic who plants bombs in crowded streets and gives exactly as many fucks for innocent bystanders as Griselda Blanco. We’re never granted much information on the past that Galen Erso and Director Krennic so clearly share. A single incident is allowed to stand for all the soul-sullying experiences that drive Cassian Andor and his fellows into the nigh-hopeless raid on Scariff. The relationship between Chirrut and Baze is little examined, and Bhodi Rook is a complete cipher. Most seriously, Jyn Erso is barely coherent as a character unless the viewers are willing to fill in a lot of blanks on their own. We can infer the contours of her troubled relationship with Saw from hints in their scenes together when he plays her father’s message for her, and from the bare fact that she starts the main body of the film as a convict who professes disillusionment with the Rebellion. But what about her father? What did she think he’d been doing all these years? How did she interpret his lack of communication with her throughout that time? Did she know that he was keeping silent to keep her safe? Was she raised to think her father was collaborating with the Emperor’s regime, or had she held out all this time secure in her belief that he would never take part in such evil? There’s really no telling, and because there’s no telling, there’s also no sorting out which of the many potential implicit motives available to Jyn are actually in play. For instance, we might take Jyn’s actions during the marketplace battle on Jedah— in which she charges out into harm’s way to rescue a baby who is also caught between the Imperial troops and Saw’s terrorists— to imply that she was never half as cynical as she claimed to be in the first place. Or she might have had her faith in all kinds of things— the Rebellion, human nature, whatever— restored by the revelation that her father was not a willing collaborator after all. Or maybe she always believed in her dad, despite what everybody around her said, and losing him so soon after having her quiet, stubborn faith in him affirmed gave her new impetus to rejoin the fight. For that matter, I can even imagine that just learning what the Empire was really up to was enough to make a militant of Jyn. But the fact is, we’re left in the end with a protagonist whose goals and convictions are ambiguous, when they’re not apparently meant to be.
Now all that sounds pretty damning, I concede. We’re encouraged by English teachers and media critics alike (especially amateurs like me) to believe that clear character arcs are the most important thing in fiction, and that if nobody is growing or changing in your story, then you’re obviously doing it wrong. That premise doesn’t really hold up, though, does it? Character arcs are a tool, not a rule. It’s equally valid to construct a narrative in which the characters drive inexorably toward fulfilling their prior commitments— and such a scenario can produce all the drama, suspense, and excitement it needs if the cost of doing so keeps rising beyond what the protagonists went in imagining they’d be willing to pay. That’s the kind of story Rogue One is. It tells of an instance when the road to victory runs straight through the heart of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and once you accept that, it’s only Jyn whose lack of a readily intelligible arc remains a genuine defect. For everyone else, it’s a matter of seeing things through to the bitter end so that others may enjoy a sweeter one.