For years my early review of The Phantom Menace haunted me on the internets. I had written it a week before the film opened in theaters and it was published on a movie review site I worked for at the time and it was the first review I wrote that appeared in Rotten Tomatoes. The movie review site went away eventually, but that darn review stayed trapped in limbo for years. It finally disappeared a few years ago and saved me from even further shame. You see, I gave Menace a slight pass. I wasn't a gushing fanboy about it, but I did let a lot of things slide. The reason was simple and I made this clear in my review, the prequels weren't for us adults that grew up on Star Wars. The prequels were made for children. Like my own Son, who was six at the time, who dressed up as Darth Vader and hit people in line with his Lightsaber.
I believe its important to remember that Star Wars was always a children's movie. Not always literally made for children, but for the child that lives in all of us. I was 12 when I saw Star Wars in 1977 and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. For a lot of children, young and old, Star Wars has become a defining cultural signpost in our lives. It is virtually impossible to remove it from our lives and view it dispassionately. There is a statue of Darth Vader above my head right now looking down from a shelf on me as I write this. For many of us the Skywalker family is a part of our own family to one degree or another. Good or bad. Original trilogy or Prequel trilogy. Much of which depends on when and where and how you became hooked.
And now along comes the first Star Wars story that isn't a Skywalker family drama. Rogue One is a prequel to that very first Star Wars 1977 film, the one that eventually became Episode Four A New Hope. Its story is taken from the first lines of that famous opening title crawl, "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." (I wrote that from memory by the way.)
It would be easy to say that this is the first Star Wars movie that isn't specifically a children's movie, but that would be wrong. And it is a mistake that a lot of adults that write reviews on the internet are making this weekend. Rogue One remains a children's film at heart. It is the reason many people are complaining about the way in which death is handled in the movie. Or that the film, as a war movie, isn't dark enough. What they are forgetting is the children. But what they are really forgetting is the lesson of another film in the Star Wars line-up, one that is often referred to as "the dark one" - The Empire Strikes Back.
I love Empire. It is one of the greatest movies ever made in its genre. With one of the best reveals in cinema history. But we all tend to remember it differently than it really is. Yes the Rebels are on the run a bit in the movie, and yes Han ends up frozen in Carbonite, but otherwise no one gets hurt. No one important dies. A few Empire officers get choked to death by Vader, but otherwise everyone makes it thru in pretty good shape. Luke loses a hand, but he gets a really cool robot hand! And who among us wouldn't make that trade?
In Rogue One everyone important dies. I really can't stress this enough, in Rogue One everyone important dies. Those deaths are all tempered a bit because this is a Star Wars film and not a Tarantino film. Remember the children. But, as we all know by now, Disney does not shy away from killing off adults in their movies and they don't here either. Everyone dies. This is entirely new ground for a Star Wars film. And, I must admit, a totally unexpected outcome. I thought for sure that someone would make it. But nope.
Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie ever made. And yet, you cannot compare it to A New Hope or Empire, or even Return of the Jedi (despite the Ewoks). The reason is simple really and it goes right back into those darn Skywalkers. Rogue One is amazing in all the right ways but it cannot escape the fact that it is without Skywalkers or characters that we've grown up with, gotten to know, played with their action figures, read their background stories, and otherwise grown up with. These characters, unlike Luke, Leia and Han, are not part of our family. This is not Rogue One's fault, but it is a fact that cannot be ignored.
And I think it is the basis of a problem for a lot of people. I know it was a worry for Lucasfilm and Disney, because it has always been a worry for them historically. Can a Star Wars Universe movie be made without the Skywalkers? We are all participants in a strange psychological exercise on a massive scale. Will we be able to accept a non-Skywalker focused story or not? It is an interesting time frankly and from what I've been reading online this weekend, the results are rather mixed. Some people seem unable to deal with the concept. While others, like myself, welcome the opportunity to explore other corners of this vibrant and rich universe. Something we all used to do with our Star Wars toys back when we were younger.
So how does one review Rogue One? All of that context above is important, but does it really matter when it comes down to an individual film? It shouldn't, but in the case of Star Wars it is difficult if not impossible to ignore. In either case Rogue One can stand on its own merits in ways that the Skywalker films cannot. It is, for once, a self-contained story that also serves as the first good prequel we've ever been given. Whatever problems it had over this past Summer are not visible on screen. It works extremely well for what it is and it even manages to rise above its individuality and become often epic and grand.
I've seen it twice now. Once alone on the first day and then with my family on the second day. And when I think of the movie now I think of the iconic moments that will stick with me forever. The Death Trooper holding the Stormtrooper doll. The Death Star dish being slid into place. The Death Star eclipsing the sun on Jedha. The Aleppo style street fight in the streets of Jedha. The Dirty Dozen style standoff in the sands of Scarif. The Hammerhead Cruiser pushing the Star Destroyer into the shield station. Darth Vader's castle on Mustafar. Grand Moff Tarkin appearing 22 years after Peter Cushing's death, to various levels of success. And the swelling feeling in my heart when I realized just how close to A New Hope they were going to take us at the end. And more. The movie is chock full of great moments and dragged down a bit by some not so great ones.
Personally I could have done without the R2-D2/C-3PO cameo. That felt like fan service. And I've heard people say that the droids have now appeared in every Star Wars movie, and while that is true, does that mean they have to appear in the young Han Solo movie as well? What about the Boba Fett film? It seems like a silly precedent to establish.
I hate to say this, but I also think Jyn and Cassian should have lived. Was it too much to ask for them to find a ship and barely escape death at the end? I know they don't appear in any of the following movies, but the Star Wars universe is (or should be) a big one. There is a part of me that thinks a somewhat happy ending might have served the movie better than the one we got. I hate to mention it, because I appreciate the fact that no one lives so much. It is so true to the spirit of the type of war movie that Rogue One is based on. But still.
Rogue One is not perfect. But it is still the best Star Wars movie ever made. But it is not the best Star Wars movie. I don't believe in ranking things, so I'll just leave it at that. What Rogue One does do is establish the fact that non-Skywalker stories can work. Hopefully the next ones will feel more empowered to go their own way and leave the cameos and forced appearances out. It would be good to think that the Han Solo movie doesn't have to have Darth Vader in it. Or C-3PO.
The true test of Rogue One is this, it has made every other Star Wars movie better. The story told here has made every Star Wars movie that came before (after) a better story. Now we understand the stakes, the sacrifice, the meaning more than we did before Rogue One. That is an important testament and one that makes Rogue One integral to the entire saga. We can only hope (see what I did there?) that the success of this film allows future Anthology stories to venture into even further territory and tell stories that are less connected to the saga films.
The Star Wars universe should be big enough to tell more stories that aren't Skywalker stories. Rogue One is an excellent beginning to a new tradition.
The Force is with me and I am with the Force.