(Spoilers from Rogue One.)
Rogue One is much better after a second viewing. Much better. I may end up liking this more than Return of the Jedi when all is said and done.
It’s funny how that works. Rogue One is clearly an Original Trilogy film despite not being a stand-alone. There are no prophesies or major revelations, and the featured rag-tag Rebels are all exterminated by film’s end. Gareth Edwards, etc. are showing us a different side of something we already like, adding very little that’s “new” to the saga — and I suspect that for many, that’s OK.
Of course, it’s easier to swallow more of the same because this pill is a comfortingly familiar one. Rogue One‘s world looks like it exists. Destroyers hover above Jedha City, streets bustle with hooded sleaze bags and bubble with alien languages and whatever that squid tentacle dish was. It’s the absence of arrival shots that plagued the Prequels. It’s the return to Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork. It’s Rogue One‘s production designers focusing on how things feel rather than how they function. (On this last point: I couldn’t name half the characters in Saw Gerrera’s band of extremists, but they all seemed more alive than those five minutes with Dexter Jetster ever got us.)
More Imperial culture too, please. The glimpse we get of Vader (despite the cringeworthy pun that seals Krennic’s fate as a middle-man) tells us more about how the Dark Lord exists alongside Imperial hierarchies rather than within it, something that A New Hope never had the time to tackle in its broad strokes. Tarkin is also fascinating here and his three-steps-ahead-of-you scheming is a blast to watch. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is an afterthought to the Emperor’s top dogs, and his sandwiching between higher powers is a hilarious motivation for his groveling. He’s a bureaucratic afterthought, and that’s perfectly okay. If nothing else, Rogue One should be all about exploring the interstitial spaces between the stuff we’ve already seen. Extrapolate Krennic’s plight across each and every no-name lieutenant onboard the half-dozen bridges we see and then multiply that figure by some undetermined magnitude. It’s comedy, really.
(Yes, yes, yes, Peter Cushing’s mouth doesn’t always move right; at least ILM commits to their resurrection. It would have been far more offensive to recast the role for 30 seconds of fan service. Again.)
With the far more obvious CGI in the final shot as the glaring exception, Lucasfilm and Disney have done a marvelous job streamlining the new into the old, and Saw Gerrera is our unexpected paragon for this balancing act. Contrary to his status as a compelling secondary figure out of Star Wars Rebels, Gerrera need not come with any backstory to understand how he encapsulates the far reaches of Rebellion measures. Still more man than machine, Gerrera is a wheezing vestige that clonks across his Jedha hideout with metallic feet. He’s a holdover from the post-Clone War period, like a certain Jedi yet to come in A New Hope. This galaxy has changed too much, and it’s time put down the aspirator. (Just imagine the metaphors the Prequels could have turned out, if they’d wanted to, with Darth Vader.)
Under both the Death Star’s literal and metaphorical shadows, Rogue One is all about our response to change. We’re all familiar with the Empire’s superweapon by now, but it’s essential to acknowledge just how irrevocably changed the galactic status quo became in the wake of Alderaan’s destruction. What may be jarring to audiences today — and what separates Rogue One from The Force Awakens — is how it treats story canon. The hallowed grail of Disney’s newest cinematic universe, Rogue One is beside itself in elevating the previous films as Gospel. Repeat viewings will surely sweeten the sourness of blue milk references and soften the head-scratching appearance of Dr. Evazan. Harder to reconcile is the exact reason Lucasfilm would go out of its way for a C-3PO one-liner. Why does it matter that Gold Squadron was indeed at the Battle of Scarif? These are the small-fried details that plagued George Lucas’s later contributions, confusing familiarity with feeling, and repetition with “poetry.” A Star Wars cinematic universe should add dots to the existing mosaic, not just connect ones that are already there.
Only time will tell, but I suspect Disney’s plans for future anthology stories will generate two cultures of fandom: 1) Those that cling to every new Skywalker chapter about the balancing of the Force and 2) those who prefer more of the same, likely with much less hand-wringing and hair-pulling. That’s both flawed and fine. Like this grubby war film has shown us, these things can be complicated.