Rogue One review: War is hell

Last year, in anticipation of seeing Star Wars return to theaters with The Force Awakens, I reviewed all the Star Wars films. (You can click here to find them.) And I was quite pleased with The Force Awakens; a year later, I can report I’m still pleased as punch whenever I see it again.

So naturally, I was excited about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And the good folks at the Disney-owned Lucasfilm did not disappoint. However, this needs to be said right up front: This is not your typical Star Wars movie.

Last week, I saw more than a few folks on Twitter laughing at reviewers who said Rogue One was the first Star Wars movie to deal with war. “War” is in the title of all seven movies! How could they not be about war?

But I get it now. Rogue One is very much about war. This movie is about suffering, sacrifice, moral gray areas, fighting for a cause, losing and winning and the costs of both. Moreso than any other Star Wars film, Rogue One is a meditation on war and its effects. And when viewed through that lens, it does a pretty damn good job of it.

Spoilers ahead! I don’t feel like parsing my language or writing around certain topics, so I’m gonna just roll with it. It’s not horribly spoileriffic, but if you don’t want Rogue One spoiled, don’t read on. 

Star Wars is largely based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey archetype. Hero starts on a quest, descends into some really rough times, and fights his way back to save the day — that’s the gist of it. It focuses more on the journey of the individual and the awakening of the hero rather than the setting at large, trade disputes and clone wars not withstanding.

It’s the story of the Skywalker family — Anakin’s fall and Luke’s rise to redeem him. No doubt we’ll get more of that as the new trilogy progresses next year, as Rey comes into her own and follows the call of the Force. I’m sure she’ll be tested, flirt with the Dark Side, and come out the other side of it empowered.

Rogue One is a very different story, and a distinct departure from the Skywalker saga, and that’s a great thing. The Star Wars universe is vast, the backstory huge. There’s so much good stuff to leverage, so many different kinds of stories to tell. Rogue One tells that different story — a war story.

One of the things the Star Wars “episode” movies have done is to kind of gloss over the “war” parts of Star Wars. Yes, we see plenty of people shot, plenty of ships and space stations blown up — but the people who end up dying are largely secondary or tertiary characters, and when a main character dies, it’s a profound event. The costs of war are minimized while the high-destiny journeys take center stage. And that’s fine — plenty of old-school adventure stories do this. Those stories are myth, after all, and focused on mythical people.

Rogue One is for all those characters who died in the assaults on those Death Stars, or in the myriad battles of the Clone Wars. This film focuses on the tragically flawed, compromised and war-weary people who actually do the fighting. They’re not touched by the Force, they’re not Jedi. They’re there because there’s a fight to be had against tyranny, and they’re the everyday folks who take up that fight.

To me, that’s far more heroic than someone who can move stuff with his or her mind.

And Rogue One makes the Rebels pay dearly for that heroism. This film explores the immense sacrifice involved in war — the ultimate sacrifice, really. Every character is faced with that choice, and their choices hit you hard. Rogue One depicts the Rebel Alliance as the insurgency it should be, and the Empire as powerful as it should be. It doesn’t fudge the odds against our heroes or hand-wave the difficulties away with the Force or a deux ex machina.

People die. People you care about. People you want to see live, but you respect the choices they make for the greater good. Yes, Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie repeatedly lay their lives on the line for the galaxy — but the bill doesn’t always come due. When it does, it’s high drama and part of that hero’s journey.

Rogue One believes war is hell, and makes the price steep. For Star Wars, that’s a very brave, incredibly compelling choice. And again, it broadens the canvas for future films, because the intricate and intense Star Wars universe can handle any number of stories, in any number of genres or subgenres.

Yet this is still Star Wars, and as a prequel for A New Hope, it’s indispensable. It answers some nagging questions from that first film, and does so with the greatest respect for the characters and the setting. I do think some of the early exposition was choppy at best, and could’ve been handled better. But once things are clear and the main mission is underway, Rogue One soars.

Couple other random points:

  • Darth Vader! Holy crap, Vader was terrifying and awesome. This is why he’s feared throughout the galaxy.
  • The CGI used to bring back/age back a couple characters was top-notch — but still not 100%.
  • While the main character is a woman, I felt the Rogue One squad in particular could’ve used one or two more. And no, crybabies, there wasn’t a feminist agenda going on here. Sheesh.
  • The inclusion of a few tertiary characters from A New Hope was a nice touch, as were the callbacks to John Williams’ original score.

Overall, Rogue One was very good indeed. It probably ranks right after Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope in terms of my favorites, just edging past The Force Awakens. I look forward to seeing what other Star Wars stories the folks at Disney come up with, because so far, they’re doing a great job.



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