WARNING: The best thing about this movie is something of a surprise (or was to me, anyhow) and I can’t get very far without discussing it. So abandon ship right now if plot spoilers will ruin your new Star Wars for you.
The new Star Wars is out! Barring a severe restructuring of our entertainment-industrial complex, “the new Star Wars is out” is something you’ll hear exclaimed at least once per year until death takes you. Here, at the dawn of our new tradition, the phrase may yet yield a comforting tinge of excitement. It’s out! Did you go see it yet?!
I did! It has a lot going for it, and a few maddening strikes against. It is everything we might have hoped and much of what we deeply feared about Disney folding the Star Wars universe into its pantheon of intellectual property. The story is, from one perspective, a beautiful fantasy about reversing that corporate transaction, tainted by the tragedy and sacrifice that marks every struggle against great might. From a different perspective, it’s just another faithful romp about roughing up the Space Nazis. In either case, the subtext seems startlingly political in this particular moment. (Woe is us.)
Four billion dollars. That’s what George Lucas reportedly pocketed in exchange for his universe, after he retooled the original stories in a way that we didn’t like, and then told new stories about those stories in a way that we really didn’t like, and after we all told him how much we didn’t like everything, loudly. “Fuck you guys, then,” we can imagine him muttering, cash and Disney stock bulging from his trousers as he slumps away from the last signed document. “Fuck you guys. We’ll see how you fucking like the creative direction Disney takes with this shit, if it’s so precious to you.” We don’t know if George Lucas swears that much when muttering to himself. But we imagine it just so.
And by the time J.J. Abrams had taken a swing at it, George was perhaps regretting that final signature. He was certainly talking trash in public. In Episode VII’s feverish audience embrace, he saw proof positive that none of us loved what we were supposed to love about his abandoned creation. We wanted scrappy loners scaling the space ship interiors. We wanted swashbucklers swooping in when the dogfight looked grim, saving the day, picking up a prop from 1977 and mugging at the camera before tossing it aside (a ruse, a feint – the true appeal of Episode VII lay in its sentimental bliss and fetishistic adherence to the design ideas of the earliest films). We wanted to feel young and to munch popcorn. We wanted cantinas and death stars and light sabers, as many light sabers with as many light-sabery protuberances as possible. We did not want trade embargo negotiations or senate subcommittee hearings. The dark side could represent teen angst as easily as it had represented a lifetime of lost love and betrayal. Han could plummet into nothingness without sixty seconds’ buildup and we, the audience, didn’t seem to give a dang. Ten thumbs up. Did George’s heart break then?
Does that same heart soar now? Through a sometimes confusing haze of head-office reshoots and a rumored 70% rewrite after the rough cut, Rogue One still manages to present a genuine reverence for and understanding of the source material, exactly what J.J. simulated so slickly without proving he’d earned. It is a story not of teens suddenly noticing they have superpowers, but of revolutionaries struggling for moral clarity and then dying for the sake of their hope. Oh, that was the spoiler. Everybody dies. Everybody. And it doesn’t matter that they died, only why they died, only that they chose to fight that hard. This is a war movie, at long last. A Star Wars movie about war.
Disney’s great value in the world is its massive size and deep institutional competence. It knows exactly how hostile to be toward auteur sensibilities while leveraging to maximum effect any gem those sensibilities produce. It reliably hires the right experts to make the right decisions so that expensive movies will turn out massively popular. It cannot love Star Wars because it has no heart of its own, but it can determine what the audience most wants to love about Star Wars this season, and it can assemble the best crew for the job. It will do that in each of the task’s echoing variations. It is an excellent and trustworthy steward for Star Wars, in the same sense that it has been a potent parent to an image of a mouse, warping and subverting the international legal landscape to keep Mickey on-model and out of porn for almost a century.
Disney is also a monster for this reason, and we still imagine the four billion dollars’ worth of abject surrender, fluttering in defeat, landing gently in George’s bank account. We see the monster towering on the IMAX, the remains of Gareth Edwards’s (rumored) rough cut, that somber and affecting story of wartime, torn to its bones and reconstituted with a flurry of wisecracks and an entire third act about trying to find some flipswitch. The wisecracks often make themselves quite welcome. The flipswitch empowers the rebellion to destroy the Death Star in Episode IV. Il Mouse has made the trains run on time. But it has failed to excise all those purely earned hero deaths. It has failed to notice that the entire plot is about freeing a piece of intellectual property from an empire and delivering it back to its rightful place, to its beginning in 1977. That data is literally handed over in Rogue One’s final moments. Leia knows just which droid she’s going to hide it in.
Something in it will surely annoy you. The animated presences of young Leia and living Tarkin do not work amongst real actors, not even a little bit. There are probably even more winking callbacks to modern and antique canon than in the overladen previous outing. A smirky gag line delivered by Vader halfway through will genuinely anger purists and is sure to be first on the chopping block when fan edits emerge. In the protracted third-act action mélange, most characters stop making coherent decisions and just do things that will be noisy onscreen, particularly if there’s a spaceship handy. And still everyone’s allowed to die. It’s amazing.
The new Star Wars is amazing. That’s my review. Others at SB4MC may have additional opinions.