(NOTE: This review of Rogue One is spoiler-free but I will be allowing the conversation in the comment thread to contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip the comments for now.)
As I walked out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last night, the male half of a couple behind me turned to his partner and said “Disney, not fucking it up again.”
This tells you a few things:
One, that even in the wilds of Piqua, Ohio, people are aware that Star Wars is a Disney property now. Perhaps this is not as inside pool as it might have been, given how much and how enthusiastically Disney has been plastering Star Wars all over its branding and theme parks, but it’s still notable that it was basically the first thing to come out of the mouth of some midwestern dude and not, say, a wannabe screenwriter in Burbank;
Two, that there is an awareness that at least on the movie front, the Star Wars brand was in deep trouble after the prequel trilogy and needed substantial revitalization;
Three, there’s an awareness that Disney did in fact manage that revitalization, not just once, but twice now — and thus “Disney, not fucking it up again” (emphasis mine).
And this random dude in Piqua, Ohio was absolutely correct: Disney yet again did not fuck up Star Wars. In fact, for two films running the folks at Disney have produced two really top-notch Star Wars films, a feat that has not been managed in thirty-five years — or possibly ever, depending on whether you believe the original Star Wars, as epochal as it undeniably was, is actually good, which given its pastiche-heavy, merely-serviceable plot and script, and leaden acting and direction, is debatable. The Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe is now complete, and this is a good thing. As I’ve noted before, Disney, for all its sins, consistently drives to entertain, and drives to entertain intelligently, meaning that it doesn’t see its audience as a mark but as a partner. Disney gives us thrills and fun, and we give them money, and wait for the cycle to repeat, as it does, consistently.
Yes, fine, Scalzi, but how is the film itself? Well, Rogue One is different from the other Star Wars films, consistently darker and more adult than any since Empire and really the first where I, at least, didn’t feel like the potential additions to the merchandising lines were a key driver of story (hello, BB-8, adorable as you are). This might seem ironic, given that this is Disney, and that Disney is unashamed of maximizing ancillary profit centers. But two things here. One, it’s not like there aren’t tons of toys coming out of this anyway (the film’s time setting also allows a canny refreshing of lots of old school Star Wars merchandise, including everything Darth Vader and Death Star), and two, Disney’s playing a longer game here. This is the first Star Wars film off the main “Skywalker” thread, and Disney wants to establish a slightly different tone and feel. After 40 years of Star Wars, it’s okay to recognize that grown-ups are part of the Star Wars audience and they might want to have a film catering to them first, or at least nodding in their direction.
As it happens, the way I would explain Rogue One is to compare it to another series of Disney films, from another franchise engine that the corporation absorbed: Rogue One feels a bit like a Captain America movie. The Captain America films (specifically the last two, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) are part of the Marvel universe, which is bright and shiny and quippy and has people in ridiculous costumes doing fundamentally goofy things with superpowers, and within that setting the Captain America films also manage to address actual, relevant issues like whether or not there should be limits to power, and whether countries are owed allegiance if they abandon their principles. And (thanks in large part to the Russo brothers) they’re paced like superior political thrillers. Now, we can talk about what it means that here in the second decade of the 21st century that in order to get a successful political thriller in the film format we have to stuff it into a story about supermen in spandex, but let’s do that later. For now, my point is: Within the pretty, colorful and essentially adolescent universe of Marvel, here’s a branch playing a little more grown up.
Likewise, Rogue One. It’s not about young people growing up, like essentially all the Skywalker films are, with Luke and Anakin and Padme and Rey and Finn all either coming into their own power or falling out of it. All the primary characters in Rogue One are all already grown up and morally compromised in one way or another. The rebellion is not the simple and clean moral engine for good it was portrayed as before; there’s lots of gray around its edges and in its practices, and its sole moral advantage is that the Empire truly is just plain fascistic evil.
Also, interestingly and I think importantly, this is the first Star Wars film where the Force does not play a key role in the action — until Vader shows up and starts Force-choking people because he’s an asshole, it’s mostly there as historical background; when people say “May the Force be with you” here, 95% of the time it’s like saying “good luck” (There are two other characters with some history of the Force, and one of them at least may benefit from it directly — or he may just have really excellent senses other than sight. It’s ambiguous). It’s the first Star Wars film, basically, that really is more science fiction than space fantasy, and that’s interesting in of itself.
Rather than the characters growing up, these characters are more engaged in questions of redemption — that is to say, whether the choices that they’ve made in the service to the rebellion (or the choices they made to avoid it) mean something or can be made to mean something. There would be spoilers to answer those questions here so I won’t, but I can say that another reason Rogue One works is that by and large it follows those questions to their logical ends, not the ones that might make the characters (or us) happiest.
It’s still a Star Wars film, mind you (which is not a bad thing): There are lots of aliens and lasers and explosions and X-Wings and droids and silly bits of pseudo-science that it’s best not to think about too long. There’s also a great deal of fan service, from blue milk to cameos by characters who in the Star Wars universe are long gone, and in at least a couple of cases, from actors long dead (the latter of these, actually, represents my only real technical criticism of the film — the film CGIs up a character from the original film which falls dead square into the shadows of the uncanny valley. Sorry, ILM, you still haven’t nailed skin lighting and textures perfectly). It also — finally and logically, but again don’t look too closely — addresses a womp rat-sized plot hole in the Star Wars universe I was glad to have dealt with. I don’t think this is the best film to introduce a kid to Star Wars with — the PG-13 rating is well advised — but you’ll get your Star Wars out of this Star Wars film, with all the many positive and few negatives that come with that territory.
The script (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy from a story by John Knoll and my Twitter pal Gary Whitta) is good and mostly efficient; it’s not funny and light in the way the script in The Force Awakens was (most of the funny lines go to the droid K-2SO, performed by Alan Tudyk, who plays him as a spiritual cousin to Marvin the Robot), but then this is not a light and funny story, so that’s fine. The actors are excellent playing compromised people in an imperfect galaxy, and Gareth Edwards’ direction — largely dispassionate and at a bit of a remove — works generally very well (although not perfectly in some emotionally intimate moments). I had recently assumed that once John Williams was done scoring Star Wars films that Michael Giacchino would take his place, so him doing the music here is not a surprise and is largely credible, if not hugely memorable (I would emphasize yet here; to be fair he’s stepping into huge musical shoes here (and thankfully Williams is not yet done with the scoring of the mainline films)). With the exception of that one CGI blip noted above, everything visually looks fantastic and lived in: This is a galaxy that is not neat and clean and utopically shiny.
Rogue One is the smartest Star Wars film, I would say — not only in itself, but in how it functions within the Star Wars universe, and (to come back around to the top paragraphs) in how Disney is administering the Star Wars universe for its fans. After The Force Awakens, it was still possible to say that film, machine-tooled as it was to hit the Star Wars geeks soft spots, might have been a fluke, a one-off bright spot with everything firing on all cylinders because everyone wanted it to work. Rogue One, different in tone and execution but still undeniably a Star Wars film, shows it’s not a fluke. Disney is on its game when it comes to Star Wars. They didn’t fuck it up, twice in a row now. It’s reasonable at this point to work on the theory they’ll continue to not fuck it up. Rogue One earns them that credit, and trust.