WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
I am not an easy Star Wars fan to please. Unlike some, I do not consider any of the prequels worthy of the franchise title, including Revenge of the Sith with its occasional worthwhile moments. Although I liked The Force Awakens overall, I was the only one of my friends to express more-than-minor reservations about its copious recycling of plot devices and, at times, heavy-handed fan service. The flaws still sit in my mind as a disqualifying blemish on what could have been the best Star Wars ever given the creative talents, fresh vision, and genuinely moving writing the project blended together. However, watching The Force Awakens and dealing with its imperfections taught me something about going to see new Star Wars movies in general. It taught me to lighten up. It turns out, when I stopped seeing newer Star Wars films in the shadow of my favorite in the franchise, The Empire Strikes Back, they are far more enjoyable. Crazy, right?
I went to Rogue One on opening night with this philosophy in mind. Predictably, I enjoyed it, but not in the same way I enjoyed The Force Awakens. With Episode VII, my enjoyment was one of dismissal, of seeing around problems in the film to get at its notable beauty. Expecting the same from Rogue One, I was surprised to discover there was very little dismissing necessary. The movie was surprisingly close to my model of the perfect Star Wars. It was a departure from the plot points of earlier installments, for one. It was also dark in subject and style. It featured new and compelling characters (Chirrut Imwe is one of my new favorite characters, a fitting balance the old school Yoda of Empire). It even provided new insight into the already established story of A New Hope and the overall Star Wars universe. To me, Rogue One emulated The Empire Strikes Back in multiple deep, important ways without resorting to blind imitation of the Empire‘s plot points. The resulting film gave me hope that Disney is, in fact, attuned to what matters not only to the casual, I-just-want-to-see-spaceships-go-boom fans, but the hardcores that love the story as well.
Rogue One even showed a kind of visual taste notably absent in the more egregious failures of the franchise. In one of my favorite moments of The Empire Strikes Back, Admiral Piette walks in on Darth Vader’s meditation session and catches a brief glimpse at the ugliness underneath the mask. For original audiences, the already dark material presented in the film’s opening act veers into the realm of horror here. The audience becomes privy to the idea that there is more to the story than what we see on the surface, foreshadowing later revelations about the Empire and the ugliness of Luke’s parentage.
Rogue One had a moment so similar, it may have been intended as a kind of homage. When an attendant comes to inform Vader of Director Krennic’s arrival, the audience gets a similar peek of Vader in a cloudy bacta tank:
Even though we’ve already seen Vader’s deformity explicitly in Revenge of the Sith, the return to mystery in this scene is welcome as it also represents a return to visual artistry. One of the overarching criticisms expressed by Star Wars purists about the prequels concerns the emphasis of visual vividness over story. Sure, the prequels have lightsabers and spaceships, but by and large, the movies just don’t look like Star Wars movies. Even worse, they seem to replace compelling story material with their overt use of computer effects. By showing us only Vader’s shadow in the vat, Disney rejects George Lucas’ later fixation on visual scintillation, recognizing once again what Lucas once discovered accidentally: sometimes the best way to engage your audience is to let their imaginations do some work, rather than serving up your saga on a crystal clear CGI platter. Of course, Rogue One involves a bit of less-than-tactful CGI (COUGH zombie Tarkin COUGH), but it doesn’t replace the story. If you find it unsettling, it is soon over, and you can get back to enjoying the film.
Rogue One certainly has its flaws. I wasn’t amused by the film’s occasional moments of fan service, for instance. Still, its flaws presented themselves only momentarily and then were flitted away, unlike the imperfections in The Force Awakens, which were ever present due to their structural nature. Rogue One easily trumps the prequels as well, thanks to its return to a more conservative artistic vision, competent script, and compelling characters. Given these considerations, Disney’s latest Star Wars offering starts to look like the best post-Jedi installment in the franchise, at least from a certain point of view.
I suspect this idea will be hard to swallow for many fans. After all, Star Wars is first and foremost a saga, the story of a family across generations. To rank a story that is technically not part of that saga fourth best in the series seems blasphemous. But as all true fans know, the universe can be as captivating as the main story. The idea that a film about events outside of the saga, a film which breaks away from Star Wars tradition in several ways, can compete with most installments in the overarching narrative perhaps suggests that there is something freeing about taking new risks with old material. It is a lesson that filmmakers may well heed as they continue on the saga with Episodes VIII and IX.