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Reader Request Week 2022 #4: Rogue One

David asks:

Ranked from worst to best, the Star Wars movies, and why is Rogue One the best?

Rogue One isn’t the best — that’s still, and is likely to remain, The Empire Strikes Back — but at this point I would rank it a solid #3.

Before I get into why, here’s that ranking of the Star Wars movies (best to worst):

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. The Last Jedi
  6. Solo
  7. Return of the Jedi
  8. Revenge of the Sith
  9. The Rise of Skywalker
  10. Attack of the Clones
  11. The Phantom Menace

Not ranked here: The various live-action and animated Star Wars properties, because I was asked about the movies, not the series, and anyway I haven’t watched all the animated stuff. I will say if I were ranking the two live-action series (so far), The Mandalorian would slot in after The Last Jedi and The Book of Boba Fett after Sith. I’ll also say that Sith and Skywalker swap around in the ranking depending on my mood for the day; I think Skywalker is more competent overall (notwithstanding the absolute loss of nerve by Disney in its story construction), but Sith has more operatic scope. Both are flawed and it’s a matter of which flaws annoy me the most at any particular moment.

Additionally, I’ll note that while I rank Star Wars/New Hope at #2, it’s not actually all that well-scripted or directed or acted, it’s “merely” epochal and a sea change in how films were made, released, distributed and marketed, and can’t be ranked any lower than #2 thereby. As a film, Star Wars is far more important than it is good, and George Lucas is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker as long as he’s not writing words for humans to speak, or directing them in how to speak them. Yes, there is irony in the fact that his Oscar nominations are for screen writing and directing. I said what I said. I have spoken.

Coming back round to Rogue One, I wrote a review of it when it came out, and by and large I stand by what I wrote there, with the acknowledgment that my opinion regarding the Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe has changed a bit since I wrote the review. Indeed, in the further consideration of time, Rogue One stands out as the true outlier in the entire canon of Star Wars films — the one fully adult Star Wars film, which is to say, the one that engages with the idea that not everything is “light side” and “dark side,” and that even the good guys do not great things, and that sometimes your heroes do not get a happy ending. There is irony in the idea that of all Star Wars films, this is the one that best lives up to the morally ambiguous storytelling ethos of the class of 70s auteurs that George Lucas was himself spawned out of; Rogue One is closer to The Conversation or The French Connection (or, shit, THX 1138) than any Star Wars film Lucas himself ever made.

(Not that much closer, let’s not overegg the pudding. But still.)

What Rogue One has over any other Star Wars film is that is it almost certainly the best acted film in that canon, thanks to a very fine cast which has a script that gives them more than merely declamatory things to say about a story with at least moderate complexity, and direction that allows them a full(er) range of human emotions on screen. If I were ranking Star Wars films in terms of proficiency of acting, it would be Rogue, then Empire and then Force, with each offering some interesting things to discuss (with Empire, it would be how the workmanlike competence of Irwin Kershner got so much better performances out of the cast than Lucas’ disinterested auteurism; with Force, it would be how JJ Abrams’ facility with pastiche made the Star Wars franchise feel fresh again… but only once). But Rogue has consistently better acting than either of those two films.

The one disadvantage that Rogue One has over the other top-rankers (Empire, Star Wars, Force) is that it is both interstitial and dependent; it’s an aside to the main thrust of the film canon, and it’s so contingent on the viewers’ knowledge of films that came 40 years before it that really can’t be understood on its own terms. The conflict of the film falls flat if you don’t come in with an innate understanding of what’s at stake with the Death Star plans, and the moment that Darth Vader shows up to try to grab those plans from the rebels doesn’t have the same sort of visceral chill if you haven’t already gotten the scope of his evil. To be fair to Rogue, the number of people on the planet who have no clue regarding the Death Star or Darth Vader is miniscule at this point, and the number of people who went to Rogue One without that information is even smaller. But that doesn’t change the fact.

A final thing I will say in praise of Rogue One is that is the one Star Wars film that makes almost no missteps in telling its story; there is almost nothing that is put on the mantlepiece in act one that is not used in act three, there is very little unnecessary faffing about in the name of fan service, there is nothing to my memory presented in the story that becomes another director’s or screenwriter’s problem in a future film. Rogue One understood its assignment, as the kids say, and executed it nearly flawlessly. Nearly — hello, dodgy CGI and a pointless brain-scrambling slime monster in a dungeon — but in Star Wars, like in horseshoes and hand grenades, “nearly” counts.

If you like Rogue One, I would suggest enjoying it for what it is and as a true one-off, because it seems unlikely to me the film segment of the Star Wars universe will come ’round to its more adult-leaning pleasures any time soon. Solo’s box office made Disney rethink some of its film plans, and Disney+ has convinced the company that television is the way to backfill the Star Wars universe mythos; as far as I can see all the Star Wars series take place before the sequel trilogy, with nothing after it. This is what it is, but it also means that Rogue One seems likely to remain its own thing (and before you say it, yes, I know about the scheduled “Andor” series, and it proves my point: it’s on TV, and in the “past” of the Star Wars universe; it’s even in the past of Rogue One, come to think of it).

But cry not that there will (probably) be no more Star Wars films like Rogue One, smile that it happened. It’s a really good Star Wars film. Let’s hope there are more that are almost as good. It could happen, if Disney ever finds its nerve again with the films. We’ll see.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #3: Travel in the New Age

Transiting through ORD. Note the mask on the dinosaur.

James asks:

I’m curious about your experience with travel. How has your experience of travel changed now that you are able to travel again after a year or two of break? Are there things you do to maintain normalcy during heavy book tour travel? Do you try to get other things done while traveling, or is your attention mostly just focused on touring?

Having just come back from touring, and having several more trips to book festivals to go before the end of May, I have to say that the dynamic of touring this time was pretty much the same as it was before: I showed up, did my schtick, signed books and chatted with people as I did so, went back to the hotel to sleep, went to the airport, wash, rinse and repeat. When I tour I’m focused on touring, and not on doing other stuff, and that didn’t change this tour; aside from the occasional business email which couldn’t be ignored, I was in a tour bubble, and happily so.

What was different this time, and will continue to be different with the festivals I’m attending, is that a lot of my things were “back at it again” events. At several of the bookstores I went to on the tour, my event was the first live event that they had hosted in two years or more. When I go to the LA Times Festival of Books in a couple of weeks, that will be the first time they have done that festival — the largest book festival in the US — in a live setting since 2020. And so on.

None of it is new, but all of it is happening again after long enough of a pause that in a sense there was an uncertainty about it all. As in: Will people show up at all, or are they still staying at home? Alternately, if people show up, will they throw a fit if they are asked to wear a mask (as many if not most of the bookstores on my tours asked people to do)? Will people remember how to be people in front of other people, or will we revert to grasping savagery? And so on. And as it turns out, the answers have been: They will show up, albeit maybe not at completely full capacity yet — my events were running at about 80% of the attendance of my last live tour — the people who show up will have no problems wearing a mask (one assumes if they had a problem with it, they just didn’t show up, which may explain the 80% thing), and the people who showed up seemed to be able to people just fine, or at least, as well as they ever did.

In a larger sense, my feelings about travel now are roughly what they were before; with the exception of currently still having to wear a mask at the airport and on planes (to which I have no objection, and fortunately haven’t had to share airport or plane space with anyone who does), it feels about the same. Bear in mind that I didn’t take a plane trip for 18 months, during the time when air traffic was severely curtailed, so by the time I did get back to it, in September of ’21, most of the rough edges of COVID-era travel had been smoothed down, and most major airports were no longer ghost towns (smaller airports are a different story, still — my local airport in Dayton lost a huge amount of its activity, both in terms of its shops, and where planes go. Now, if you’re not going to Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte or Dallas/Ft. Worth, you’re taking a connecting flight).

But certainly there was a moment of adjustment. The first trip Krissy and I took together after more than a year of lockdown at home was last July, when we took a (belated) anniversary trip to the far and exotic city of… Indianapolis, to which we drove. It was at the point where friends of ours who lived there had all had their second shots, so it felt safe(r) to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. It was a modest trip, in terms of travel, but it was also the proof of concept: It could be done. Our next trip was to Dragon Con in Atlanta, and that was a bit of a cannonball into the deep end, since it was 40K+ people. It was an enjoyable time! And not a super spreader event! And another proof of concept: As long as people weren’t complete dicks, and followed some basic hygienic guidelines, travel could be a thing.

At this point I have done several conventions, a Caribbean cruise, and, of course, a book tour. I have not caught COVID, and thanks to two shots and two boosters (and other factors), I’m am not too worried that if I do, that I will end up in a hospital (I would of course still quarantine if I caught it; I’m not going to give to others if I can avoid it). It’s fine. Everything is mostly fine.

Which is to say, again, with the exception of masking still being a thing, travel no longer feels strange or odd or a new wrinkle into the life routine. It’s just… part of what we do again. Which is nice. I hope it lasts.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Wil Wheaton

For most of the readers here, the name Wil Wheaton is a familiar and even beloved one: Actor, television host, famous nerd, and award-winning, best-selling audiobook narrator. And also, in case you didn’t know, an accomplished writer and essayist. In Wil’s new book, Still Just a Geek, he revisits an earlier work, revises and expands it, and in doing so, opens himself of to the truths within it, good and bad. And, as he explains in this Big Idea, finds a way through all of it, using his own voice.

WIL WHEATON:

When I narrated the audiobook of Redshirts, and got to the codas, I emotionally faced what it would feel like to lose my wife, and live the rest of my life without her. The story called for a very different set of emotions than I was feeling, and after a bunch of runs at the scene, the director and I decided that I needed to take a break, process all that emotion, and then come back to the booth.

About an hour later, we recorded what’s in the book.

Until I narrated the audiobook for Still Just A Geek, that was the only time I’d had that experience. It turns out that writing about and then narrating the single most traumatic event of my life was even more emotionally challenging, because it wasn’t a story. It was my life.

I never talk about how much I was abused when I worked on this movie called The Curse, after Stand By Me. It was such a traumatic experience, I’ve done everything I can to forget it. But it’s a big part of who I am, and when I did Still Just A Geek, it was part of my story that I needed to tell.

It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was afraid that the emotion was too raw, too intense, just too much for the listener. I didn’t want to do it again, but I asked Gabrielle, who directed me (and who I’ve known forever) if it any of those things I feared were true.

She assured me that it was all honest, and all the emotions I experienced as I read it were entirely appropriate. I’ve known her long enough and done enough books with her to trust her judgment.

This is where I reveal that the director for Redshirts and the director for Still Just A Geek are the same person. She’s been there on the other side of the glass for both of these intense, emotional experiences.

That scene, from Redshirts, was tough, but absolutely worth it. I believe the performance is solid, and I’m proud of it. When I was done, though, I completely left it all in the booth. I told Anne about it when I got home, hugged her until she was like “okay that’s really enough” and we went on with our lives.

Put a pin in that for a second.

In Still Just A Geek, I write a lot about the child abuse, neglect, and exploitation I survived and still struggle with. It was incredibly challenging to revisit (and in the case of The Curse, relive) all of it. In the afterword, I wrote that I expected that doing that work would lead to a catharsis, but all it did was retraumatize me.

That was true, until I narrated the audiobook. Over the course of six or seven days, I said everything I wrote in the book out loud. I gave a voice to the child who was put to work against his wishes at seven years old. I gave a voice to the teenager who was abused by his father. I gave a voice to the young father and husband who was struggling to provide for his family while he also struggled to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

And in so doing, in speaking these words out loud, feeling the emotion that went with them, and defiantly saying, “This is my story. This is my truth. This is what happened to me, and here’s how I survived it,” I found the catharsis that the writing didn’t provide.

In the infamous William Fucking Shatner story that’s part of Just A Geek and now Still Just A Geek, I remember that, when my costumer asked me how my meeting with him went, I didn’t want to say out loud that he was a dick to me, because that would make it real. But saying it out loud set in motion the most incredible series of events, as the adults in my life on the set of Next Generation all stood up for me, protected me, defended me, and made sure I knew that I was loved. That’s something I never got at home, or ever, from either of my parents.

When I did the narration for Still Just A Geek, saying what I wrote out loud made it all real. I’d been hoping my whole life that I’d hear from my parents that my experiences were real, were valid, and that I was enough. I have had to accept that I’m never going to hear that from them, but I have heard it from myself.

It turns out that the voice I always needed to listen to was my own, and doing that audiobook narration allowed me to hear it for the first time in my life. I didn’t leave it in the booth. I have it now, in my memory, and I’ll keep listening to it as long as I need to, until my healing is complete.


Still Just a Geek: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

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