Don’t @ Me: Rogue One Is the Best Star Wars Film Since the Original Trilogy
I realize the seriousness of these words even as I write them, but having recently gone through the entire series again, it is a fact I can no longer disregard: Rogue One is the best Star Wars film since the Original trilogy.
Hear me out.
A New Hope (1977) started a decades-long cultural phenomenon, centered on the notions of predestination vs. self-actualization, which all the ensuing films explored in one way or another: can we become more than what our heritage has fated us to believe? is evil innate, or is it chosen? can everyone change? are some people allowed second, third, fourth chances? is forgiveness synonymous with closure?
In short, the Star Wars films, even when they strayed from addressing this directly, even when they veered toward the political, even when they made a commentary on social injustice, always attempted to further the answers to these age-old questions; and more so than a stellar story, it’s their timelessness that, I believe, continues to fascinate us.
The Original trilogy nailed this best, perhaps because it concentrated on Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, who were the direct receptacles of the nature/nurture moral dilemma, which in turn fueled their actions and struggles at large, affecting the rest of the characters.
The late 90’s and early aughts gave us the Prequel trilogy, and with it, another glimpse into similar issues, through the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker; and while I personally believe that the story of Darth Vader is much more compelling than that of his children, a less steady handle on his story made it less exciting than that of the protagonists of the previous trilogy — the absence of a young Han Solo certainly didn’t help. As such this film trio has long been a subject of vitriolic, polarizing debate: it is, at best, moderately tolerated, and at worse downright hated (Jar Jar Binks remains an abomination).
Thus, the new Sequel Trilogy promised to tie all these loose strings together in a cohesive way, all the while passing the torch, so to speak, to a new generation of characters who would also struggle through the same issues at the nucleus of Star Wars’ ideology.
And in many ways, it has certainly done just that: despite the myopic arguments regarding the films being more open to representation and diversity, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have ben widely praised for honoring the Original trilogy while still pushing the mythology in exciting directions.
So having said all that, I was surprised one day, as I was ranking the films in order of favorites (The Empire Strikes Back, forever the first), to find that Rogue One kept appearing at the top for me.
I had watched the film, the most singular entry into the canon, then quickly set it aside, for many reasons: it was heartbreaking, it felt compact, it was not particularly exhilarating, not like A New Hope or The Force Awakens, for example. This didn’t mean I didn’t like it: in fact, even then, I knew I liked it too much. But I didn’t know if, on a purely objective standpoint, it stood in the same league as the others — I didn’t dare ask the question, actually.
Now, having pored more deeply into it, I can not only say that it does: I can affirm that perhaps, it does it best.
Rogue One, in many ways, is an anomaly — it wears its name well. From the score (not John Williams’ but Michael Giacchino’s) to its opening (no yellow scrolling text detailing the preceding plot points), the film instantly stands out. There are no obvious connections to the characters we know and love (the Solos, the Skywalkers, the Organas): in fact, only eagle-eyed fans would have been able to quickly discern when the story was set. Only the very end confirms that Rogue One is in fact the first film in all the canon, its events happening directly before A New Hope.
And while it is vaguely daunting to be left in completely new waters, with completely different characters from the ones we are used to, the film boldly steps up to the task, untethered by the monumental shoes it has to fill, and tells its own story.
Rogue One follows Jyn Erso, whose father Galen Erso is a research scientist and architect of the infamous Death Star and who has been re-apprehended by the Imperial forces in order to complete construction on it. Thirteen years before, Galen, once a devout supporter of the Imperial doctrine, became disillusioned with his participation in a dictatorial system and fled with his family (his wife Lyra and a young Jyn). Although he now works, on the surface, back at his old job, he has secretly designed a flaw in the Death Star — the very same one Luke Skywalker will later take advantage of to blow it up.
Having finished work on the Death Star, Galen has now communicated the plans, along with the aforementioned flaw, to the Rebels, so that it can be destroyed before it is used to annihilate enemies of the Empire. With her band of ragtag rebels, Jyn attempts the impossible: namely infiltrate Imperial territory on a stolen Imperial ship to steal the Death Star plans and pass them along to the Rebels (led by none other than Princess Leia).
If the rest of the Star Wars films are imbued with a heady blend of excitement and apprehension, it’s because they leaned into the formula wherein “good” people sometimes triumphed over “bad” ones, with either luck, fate, or judicious strategy on their side. Even though at times it gets muddied (is Darth Vader a tragic figure or the root of all evil? are Luke and Leia capable of harm because their father was?), we know who we are supposed to root for in the end.
Rogue One, on the other hand, operates on the logic that there are no winners in pointless wars, and nothing is black and white: there are just casualties and losses, and unfair twists of fate. This film has no time or interest in moments of rousing, solid hope and thrilling optimism: if anything, the best instances come from the realization that there are still people willing to be brave, even when they know the odds will never, ever be in their favor.
This, because Rogue One, after all, is a true war film, in the vein of “suicide mission”-themed movies like The Raid (incidentally, like Rogue One, also directed by Gareth Edwards), 13 Assassins, 47 Ronin, Apocalypse Now, and The Dirty Dozens.
Every single character dies in the film, some more heroically than others, even though they succeed in their mission: the Rebel Alliance, as indicated by the ending, successfully receives the plans which will be the catalyst for the events to come in A New Hope and so forth.
Jyn and co., then, have not died for nothing, but this doesn’t make their story any less tragic. Theirs is a sober and thankless tale of small people doing big, important things that help shift the balance of power, but who probably won’t be remembered beyond that.
All of the above, ultimately, is why Rogue One works in the grand scope of Star Wars’ universe.
The war films Rogue One emulates are themselves emulations of what has happened in wars across time and space: there are no fanfares for every single person who has died pointlessly, which only makes their loss ring crueler. Considering that History has been told subjectively over time, I always wonder how many people have been consciously or unconsciously erased from the recognition they rightfully deserve.
Similarly, Jyn, Cassian and the rest of her acolytes each have their own personal stories, their motivations, their strengths, each of them important in very profound ways. If the history depicted in Star Wars had been real, we’d only be remembering the Lukes and Leias of the world, even the Landos: not the Jyns who were equally substantial. “Rogue Two” is mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back during the Battle of Hoth, perhaps the only overt indication that there might have been a Rogue One before it, but little else concretely remains of Jyn and her band of misfits throughout the rest of the Star Wars mythos.
It is sad, it is poignant, yes: but it is realistic.
While Star Wars has tried to make a case for complex, ambiguous characters, it has always drawn a fairly explicit line between what is considered the “Light” and “Dark” sides.
Rogue One, through its characters, fully tosses those notions away. True, they are all rebels against the Empire, and work emphatically to support the efforts of those who would see it torn down from the inside. But the road to that goal is not as straightforward as it has been for the other major characters of the canon.
Jyn, for example, does not start out as an unofficial leader. At the beginning of the film, she is a petty criminal with a looming, tainted legacy. She is the daughter of a man both sides consider a criminal and traitor, and loving him while coming to terms with what he has done is one of the many things she struggles with, as well as what it means for her own sense of morality and allegiance. She is practically kidnapped and forced to help the Rebels, and even then, she must find it in herself to be brave and to care about a cause bigger than her own. She is no Rey, no Obi-Wan Kenobi, no Luke Skywalker who feels the pulls of something greater.
Cassian, her reluctant partner — at first. They later grow to have deep mutual respect for each other —, is sometimes brutal and cold, and embraces the ruthlessness necessitated by war. Bodhi Rook, the Imperial pilot who brings the message about Galen Erso’s Death Star plans to the Rebels only defects after being touched by Galen’s integrity; he does not start out being a righteous person. All the characters, in this way, begin with fluctuating morals and loose allegiances that start to shift when in contact with others’ ethical compasses, and this makes them all the more believable: haven’t each of us, at one point, been encouraged to be better people by watching others, not by being innately so?
The same issues kindled by Star Wars, in short, are handled on a smaller scale here, which makes for more intimate drama. I have related more to Jyn, a random human being, than I ever did to Rey, who is a “Chosen One” in the likes of Harry Potter, or Princess Leia, even though she remains one of my idols. The main characters in Star Wars are either gifted with the Force, or else come from family circumstances that ensure that their significance could never be questioned.
The Rogue One characters are never afforded that luxury: like Luke, Leia and Kylo Ren, Jyn struggles with having family that was instrumental in perpetrating havoc and destruction. Unlike them, she is not chosen, special, or otherwise powerful: hers is the same fate as millions of others in her situation, who must deal with their neuroses, get over it and move on.
Rogue One succeeds as a standalone film because it is not trying to tell a sprawling, generational tale of internal dilemmas and reverberating actions and consequences; rather, it is only trying to tell a slice of that sprawling tale, and thus, is more self-contained. Less stakes, with less possibilities of failing. It is a mission-driven, rather than character-driven story (all the while doing justice to the characters at its heart, of course), which gets rid of the more convoluted plot points one can expect from a conventional Star Wars film.
In Rogue One, we must get from point A to point B, and nothing else matters, be it personal grudges, fantasies about self-actualization, desires to “find” oneself, powers that must be harnessed and tamed with the help of wise mentors, political schemes that must be hatched through deception and hush-hush intrigue.
That is not to say it is unambitious: it purports to be the slot between Episode III (Revenge of the Sith) and Episode IV (A New Hope), a daring feat because most of Star Wars’ most impactful events happen then: it is the beginning of Darth Vader’s reign, the clearer division between the Light and Dark sides, the defining moment for the formation of the Rebellion, which was, until then, just a loosely assembled chain of various fighters united by a same cause.
Rogue One manages to do so, because it is not trying to overstep into the more colossal, already established works in the canon. It is simply trying to smooth the transition and offer the answer to questions most fans have probably asked themselves: how did we get to this point? who are the spies that helped acquire the Death Star plans? how was Darth Vader able to hijack Leia’s ship? Simple questions. Not the most urgent ones, but interesting nonetheless, and it manages to come full circle in a way that does not feel cheap or unsatisfying.
Lastly, Rogue One succeeds for the fact that while placing itself in the orbit of Star Wars, it also manages to highlight what the films don’t always have the time to linger on, with all the exciting hubbub going on: namely how war affects everyone, big or small, important or unimportant. Jyn Erso’s story is that of the everyman, on the sidelines, watching the world slowly deteriorate, sometimes powerlessly so. And because it places itself more toward the beginning of the entire storyline, we know (having seen the following Original trilogy, as well as the Sequel one), that the war is far from over. The Rogue One characters sacrifice themselves, but we know that there’s going to be a lot more deaths and a lot more heartbreak, and that peace will probably not be soon coming. We must, as always, continue to die at the altar of the ideas and ideals we hold dear, not stopping to rest for even a moment if we hope to make it all count.
This realization almost scored my heart, where the other films left me galvanized and hopeful, even in the face of terrifying odds; and I finally realized that perhaps, this film most poignantly captured the essence of what George Lucas was maybe aiming for, all those decades ago starting in 1977.
Rogue One, is like its characters: unassuming, peculiar, rough around the edges. But it tells its story unflinchingly, uncompromisingly, illustrating how big things affect small ones, how anyone, regardless of powers or abilities, can change things, how people can forgive and embrace the past without emulating it, how some people can be (and have been) brave enough to accept being footnotes in other people’s stories.
For those reasons, I am proud to give it the credit that it is due, alongside the great Original trilogy it shaped itself around. Yes, Rogue One deserves that much.