I have had Star Wars in my blood since before my first memories. It’s a part of my life, and a shared childhood of this half-generation born too young to have ever seen it originally in the theaters, but just old enough to watch it a million times in rickety VCRs. We who dreamed of X-wings and blasters while staring up at the stars in the eighties, those last few years living our entertainments solitary before the Internet let us know we weren’t alone. I watched Return of the Jedi until the VHS tape wore out, turning all to fuzz and jitter. I dashed around the backyard with a battered old flight helmet my uncle brought home from the Navy and a broken curling iron I imagined as a light saber, making the humming noises by rote.
I devoured the expanded universe, the endless novels that piled up depth and detail in hundreds of paperbacks. There were worlds within worlds and on down the chain. Always another planet, always another hero, a villain, an adventure. I don’t think that fans necessarily go down the rabbit hole of genre fiction just because they can’t get enough, or because they seek cheap highs to tide them over through the years or decades between films. I think it’s because the stories that really resonate with us, they do so because the subtext gives us glimpses of truth, of a perfection. And we read more and more in order to catch more fleeting glimpses of that underlying truth, of that hidden gem that we can only see a facet of at a time. The stories that linger with us, we keep trying to peer at from different angles, to see the platonic ideal below the trappings.
And very occasionally, we are rewarded with a film made by someone who understands, someone like Garth Edwards, someone who was haunted by peeling back the layers to glimpse that same perfection again that the rest of us were.
Rogue One is the epiphany of what Star Wars can be. It is dark and inhabits every area of moral grey to tell its story. It’s a tragic story and one well told of a universe that feels huge and rich, recapturing on a larger scale that feeling from the Mos Eisley Cantina that we were only glimpsing a fraction of a real and vibrant universe. One of the disappointments I had with The Force Awakens despite so much that felt right about it, was how small it made the universe feel at times. Just a couple planets, everything a few minutes away. Not here. The universe of this film positively sprawls and bulges everywhere with detail.
There are callouts to the original trilogy, but I hesitate to even call them that. They’re things that make the devoted fan smile, but it’s wrong to call them fan service exactly. It’s more that they’re the details that dovetail, which should be inevitable when integrating a story that fits tightly with others told before.
Familiar faces arrive too, built with CGI because forty years is too long to even pretend that make-up or resurrection can do the trick. Because this story requires Grand Moff Tarkin, and Peter Cushing isn’t replaceable or duplicable. So we’re given an uncanny valley replacement for him, and a couple of others, but rather than being evidence of hubris of animation, it more reads as faith in the audience. Faith that they will see Tarkin the way the audience of Shakespeare sees flashing steel where there is only cardboard. Faith that the audience can accept the good faith of a storyteller saying “this character needs to be here to tell this story, and so we’ll do our honest best because the story is worth trusting the audience to fill in the blanks where needed.”
A common summary of what most went wrong with the prequels was that they lacked that spark that Han Solo brought to the screen. The irreverence, the pirate wit, yes, but also the darkness and violence of his character. To stretch the metaphor, Rogue One is a feature-length presentation of Han shooting first.
It’s a showcase of the damaged and wounded ones who make a rebellion possible. Of the insane people who work in the darkness when any rational person would see that a cause is hopeless. Who will never get a medal ceremony as the symphony soars. It’s a story of the damned who do the work that the angels can’t.
I’ve stayed intentionally vague in this review, not because of a desire to avoid plot spoilers — it’s not a twisty film, per se — but because it’s a movie that should simply be experienced by those who love Star Wars.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.