Monday, January 16, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?

The release of Rogue One has caused a sharp rift through fans, certainly through the small community of Star Wars fans with whom I am most directly connected. For some, this is one of the best Star Wars films ever, in the ranks with the original trilogy (or at least very close to it), and for others it was sort of a boring mess. Thus, to an even greater extent than with The Force Awakens about a year ago, the disparity between the reactions of various fans has been stark and clashing.

I find this fascinating. Star Wars is such a cultural touchstone for my generation that it has become a sort of universal connection -- you can always count on meeting people who like Star Wars, who are even enthusiastic about it, and being able to bond over that shared love. It’s a passion that has linked me to countless other men and women, and helped me form friendships with strangers by providing common ground. For all these decades we fans were in such agreement that Star Wars is awesome that it faded in the cultural zeitgeist, unquestioned and unexamined. Many of us continued to be enthusiastic die-hards, even when we hadn’t even seen the original trilogy in many years. Even with the release of the prequels, fans were largely united in their opinion: they sucked. Thus it has been easy for me to think of Star Wars as something that brings fans together in agreement as a unified, cohesive body. It is a universal good. If you grew up with it and loved it like I did, then we are totally on the same page.

Or so I thought.

The Force Awakens rattled that unity. Rogue One has shattered it. What we have come to discover is that all these years we were all saying how much we loved Star Wars without realizing that what each of us loved about the films and franchise varied wildly from person to person. The new movies have each catered to different sets of expectations and tastes, and suddenly we have two fans, equal in their ardor for the franchise, disagreeing over not just if a film was good but whether it could properly even be considered Star Wars.

Which begs the question, then, what is Star Wars? Do we all have a different perceptions of it completely? What if anything did we ever agree on about it? And I guess most importantly, What is Star Wars to me? And what does that say about me?

Knowing that, I can pinpoint (in a general sense) what I want from future Star Wars films. And I can explain why Rogue One is exactly what I feared the new films would be, indeed the very embodiment of everything I do not want the franchise to become.

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SO WHAT IS STAR WARS, ANYWAY?

The original Star Wars film was an unexpected, surprising success. While it contained many familiar components, there had never really been anything like it. Much has been said about it -- it created the very idea of the summer blockbuster, it changed the movie industry, it redefined a genre, etc. etc. Much of the audience’s initial fascination with the movie was with its technical achievements, and it won a number of special effects Oscars the following year. However, the movies are still beloved today, when their special effects seem quaint and primitive. So is film-making innovation enough to explain the enduring success of the original Star Wars trilogy? I don’t think so -- there’s something special about it, something that sets it apart from the ranks of other action-adventure technologically innovative blockbusters that have come and gone on our screens since.

Given that it is the original trilogy of films that launched the franchise and defined its unique and endearing qualities, I will be using them for comparison extensively in my critique of Rogue One. By doing so I will already be on a different wavelength than many fans of the new film, for it has become clear in my discussions with my friends that, for some fans, there’s a feeling that Star Wars has come a long way since those original moves and needs to continue to progress in new and different directions. They feel that if we remain fixed on the past success of those original films we will never create anything new or innovative, but instead merely rehash the same old stuff over and over and the franchise will go stale.

It’s an interesting argument. I certainly share the desire to keep the franchise fresh and compelling. If we really have to make more Star Wars movies, then, yes, let’s make good ones. And thus Rogue One (especially as the first non-saga “side” film in the franchise) becomes a fascinating test case of some fundamental creative questions. How much can you change of the original formula and distinctive qualities of the fictional universe that the original trilogy created before we are no longer in the same franchise? Is it enough to simply retain some of the surface elements to make something a part of the Star Wars universe? To make a Star Wars movie, is it enough just to reference a bunch of other Star Wars movies? Or does the heart of what makes Star Wars special and distinct, what in fact makes it Star Wars, exist in something beyond just those surface details?

In my view, the essential qualities of Star Wars are, broadly speaking, heroic characters, allegorical plot, unique genre, and use of myth. By examining the original trilogy and Rogue One in these terms, I will make a case for what those first three movies did really well so that we can see by contrast where Rogue One faltered or was misguided. We will try to uncover the qualities that made Star Wars special and has made it endure, and thus understand what it is we lose when we abandon them.

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HEROIC CHARACTERS

The startling success of Star Wars as films served as the perfect delivery system for what lay at the story’s core -- the redecoration and reimagining of mythic archetypes and arcs that are as old as humanity itself. Myths are the allegorical stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our own existence, to wrestle with the experience of being alive. Myth appears in every culture that has ever existed on the planet, appearing in religion, in folklore, in stories passed down from generation to generation, serving as a kind of symbolic mirror through which we can understand our own life journeys. Myth contains the wisdom of countless generations that have lived and died before us. Renowned professor, writer, and thinker Joseph Campbell made it his life’s work to study the core of every culture’s mythology where there are common themes and messages universal to all mankind. In his writings and teachings, Campbell distilled those common threads down to their essence. George Lucas was intensely interested in the work of Joseph Campbell, who he at least once referred to as “my Yoda.” Campbell, in turn, is reported to have said that Lucas was his best student. And he adored the Star Wars trilogy, which he watched for the first time all in one day near the end of his life.

And for all of my many critiques of George Lucas, which could fill an essay of their own, I have to give him this credit: he understood (at one point in his career at least) the purpose and power of myth. And one of the first steps in crafting a new version of an old myth, one that suited his times, was creating characters who would stand out vividly in our imagination, who would take root deeply in our hearts, so that we would be emotionally invested in the allegorical journey that they undergo. All of the characters in the original films have a familiar-yet-new quality, because they are new twists on ancient archetypes. The film is constructed such that we understand them immediately. We know their strengths and weaknesses. They are roughly drawn characters, sure, like those in a myth or fairy tale, but they are understandable and instantly familiar. The sassy but idealistic princess. The skilled but selfish mercenary. The wise teacher haunted by failure. And, most recognizable of all, the naive young hero, trapped in childhood, setting out on his symbolic quest towards enlightenment and adulthood. The psychological nature of archetypes, which represent aspects of the subconscious, of human nature (i.e., our own nature), makes them relatable and believable. They feel like our friends.

The key to their likability? Well, for one thing, they are flawed. They are occasionally even ridiculous. They squabble. They make big, comic mistakes. They bumble their way through and succeed as often through luck as through skill. And, yes, they display great moments of strength and courage in difficult circumstances. And that makes it all the more thrilling and fun, because we know these people aren’t all-powerful and we are rooting for them to succeed against the more obviously powerful forces arrayed against them.

For another thing, they have genuine connection with each other. The movie takes time to develop their interactions so that we believe in their deepening bond. Luke, Leia, and Han actually share little screen time all together in A New Hope. And yet in those sparse moments we get a whole range of both positive and negative interactions, and we see them forced to work together to overcome adversity. And thus in the final sequence, the award ceremony, we totally believe that they have become a kind of family unit, a team, on this adventure. This is because the film manages to display action while also developing character bonds, and if it ever has to choose between the two it does the latter. The characters bicker and give their point of view during firefights(“This is some rescue!”). Luke and Han interact in character while attempting to shoot down the pursuing TIE Fighter (“Great, kid, don’t get cocky!”), etc. etc.

And they change. At the end of each movie the core characters have been forever altered in some way. By the end of the trilogy they have completed major symbolic arcs. The changes they go through have allegorical meaning that resonate beyond their fictional context, but they are still totally believable within that context. And we were with them every step of the way.

The Force Awakens, for all its flaws, presents us with characters who are at least in the right ballpark. The characters are likeable and form genuine bonds on their journey. They care about each other, and we understand why. They are flawed and occasionally ridiculous. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They are skilled but still display weakness. And by the end of the film they have changed profoundly. Whether they have interesting and believable overall arcs remains to be seen in the next two installments.

The characters in Rogue One serve narrative functions, but I can’t really tell you much about their personality. I didn’t even really catch their names; I had to look them up after. Jyn is the jaded, tight-lipped, and badass female lead. Cassian is the jaded, tight-lipped, and badass male lead. Chirrut (the Force monk guy) is less jaded, perhaps, but still mostly tight-lipped and badass. His husband Baze is definitely jaded, tight-lipped, and badass. And the droid is wise-cracking but -- seeing the theme yet? -- still jaded and badass. We know that they are all badass because they are very good at killing stormtroopers in a very dramatic way. They are killing machines, in fact, displaying incredible skill in combat. I mean, for most of the movie, defeating their enemies doesn’t even look that hard. They don’t need me to root for them, they are doing just fine. Their skill level is all uniformly high - which, to me, is boring. This does not make them great characters, just great warriors. And war, says Master Yoda, does not make one great. If that combat prowess and gritty gumption is stripped away, their personalities are so similar, so uniformly humorless and angsty, that I’d be hard pressed to describe to you the differences between most of the characters beyond describing their job. The prequels suffered from a similar problem.

The characters also never really connect because the movie never gives them time to form relationships in any kind of likeable or organic way. This is partly a pacing and genre problem, which I get to below, but it’s also a problem with the characters themselves. Because what would these characters really have to say to each other anyway, given the chance? They don’t really even seem to like each other. I’ve had to work in an office with a group of people I didn’t particularly care for, and our conversations were much like how the Rogue team talk to each other: Let’s just get the job done, but you aren’t my friend. That’s a fine place to start if the characters grow to like each other. The movie behaves as though they do, because they are sad when they have to part later on, but I certainly didn’t see that bond happen. I had to take the movie’s word for it that they became friends, as it feels like they cut out a couple key character bonding moments. The movie consistently chooses focusing on action over building character relationships. Jyn and Cassian fight their way through Jeddha without saying a word to each other or giving us any kind of emotional point of view on what’s going on. It’s a long, long action sequence in which we see plenty of demonstrations that everybody is badass but no time at all is spent on developing the characters or their connection. The closest thing to that is Cassian’s shocked and surprised face when Jyn takes out a bunch of stormtroopers using just some extendable antenna thing. He’s somewhat impressed. There’s your character interaction, now back to the fighting.

A kind of antagonism is artificially built up between Jyn and K2 in a few lines, and at least their relationship takes a small arc during the movie as K2 grudgingly comes to respect her. But absent any other genuine human interaction in the movie this felt, to me, highly insufficient for us to come to love any of the characters involved. Cassian and Jyn mostly just yell at each other, and it’s not even sexy yelling like between Han and Leia. I was jarred by the sudden suggestion of romantic feelings at the end. Like, wait, what? Han and Leia’s sexual tension was clearly built up over several scenes of flirtation and verbal sparring. Cassian and Jyn just fight over his mission to kill her father. Do we feel that because they are opposite gendered characters there is no other possible resolution to their story before they blow up but to fall in love? It has to be romantic all of the sudden? They’ve known each other for, like, a day. It’s unearned, and it feels cheap. Frankly, Finn and Poe have a better romantic arc than these two.

And none of these characters change in any fundamental way by the end of the movie. Jyn’s entire arc is “I don’t want to help the Rebellion, it has nothing to do with me,” to, suddenly, “I’m willing to give my life for this cause now!” There’s a change there, I guess, but very little fuss is made over it. It just sort of happens. Cassian’s arc starts with “I really want to help the Rebellion” and progresses to “I really, REALLY want to help the Rebellion!” And that’s a shame because Cassian is actually potentially interesting - he’s committed horrible crimes in the service of the greater good of this cause so if the Rebellion falls apart he is terrified he will just be a bad person. Too bad the movie doesn’t really want to spend any time dwelling on this struggle other than to give him one speech about it where he basically just spells it out for us, then we move on. But there’s something to him, at least. His unquestioned loyalty to the Rebellion is put to the test when he is given orders he can’t fully bring himself to follow, so he has an internal struggle. Wow, an internal struggle! Thank the Maker! Unfortunately, it’s a little thin as the movie never takes even a few minutes from the endless action scenes to actually develop it. All in all, Cassian, to me, is the closest thing to an interesting character here.

Even some of my friends who loved the movie admit that many of the characters are boring, Jyn Urso in particular. You would think, given that she’s supposedly the main character, that this would be a problem. Her relationship with Saw is key to the whole plot, but it’s a relationship that happens entirely off-screen so that we have to take everybody’s word for it that it’s very important. Her relationship with her father never goes beyond the surface level of what you would expect (more on this in the next section). Her romance with Cassian comes sort of out of nowhere. She’s given canned cliche speeches that are delivered flatly, clashing against the stirring underscoring music trying to convince us that something dramatic is happening. There’s just not a lot to her. But individual characters, I am told, aren’t really the point here. The Rebellion itself, and the Rogue team as a unit, are the main characters. So…why did we spend the first twenty minutes learning Jyn’s backstory then?

And then there's Director whats-his-face... Yeah, there's just not much to say about him. He's a bad guy. Okay, fine. 

But, look, there's some of the original characters! Grand Moff Tarkin is back. And Darth Vader! That's exciting right? I mean, yes, maybe it could be if the movie didn't self-consciously reach out and smack you and say: Hey look its Darth Vader, you love him don't you? Here he is! And here he is choking a guy! You love when he chokes a guy, don't you? And here he is punning about how he's choking the guy, and showing us his hand in the choking-the-guy gesture! Same with Bail Organa. I was thrilled to see Jimmy Smits appear, since he's a great actor woefully under-used in the prequels, which gave him flat, boring scenes with flat, boring lines. Unfortunately, so did Rogue One, only it added the dimension of wink wink inside reference wink wink. As a Star Wars fan, I appreciated seeing him and Mon Mothma and General Dodonna, since (unlike some of the other character cameos) it made narrative sense for them to be there.

But the strength of the cast has to rest on the new core characters with whom the movie spends most of its time, not on callbacks to the previous movies, and those characters disappoint for all the reasons I have discussed above. We may disagree on some of the following points because we will disagree on what kind of movie Rogue One can or should have been. But no matter what kind of movie it is, shouldn’t it have interesting, loveable characters with whom we relate because they show us genuine emotion and interesting flaws? I mean without that…what’s the point?

Just the plot, I guess. And about that... 

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ALLEGORICAL PLOT

As action adventure space operas, the Star Wars movies always have a lot of plot. We’re always desperate to get the thing to stop the thing and save the galaxy. But why do we care about the fate of this abstract, fictional galaxy? What energizes the urgency of these fictional circumstances so that we get invested in getting the thing to stop the thing? Hint: it’s not more explosions.

In the original trilogy, there is a mythic, allegorical understructure to these plot points that keeps us invested. We are constantly asked to divide our attention between the epic (the struggle between the Empire and the Rebellion) and the personal (the struggle for the soul of the Skywalkers). This works because, ultimately, they are one and the same conflict, each serving as a symbol of the other. Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, Lucas endowed the arc of the original trilogy with elements of the hero’s journey that have appeared in the action-adventures humanity has told for countless generations. Like many of those myths, the progression of the Rebellion and the journey of Luke Skywalker ultimately serve as a symbolic representation of something deeply personal and relatable for all of us - the trials and tribulations we all inevitably face, and the journey from childhood to adulthood.

Luke starts the trilogy as a child. That’s why he’s so annoying. He sees the world in black and white. Darth Vader is the personification of evil and that’s all he needs to know. A New Hope is a fairy tale, a story with simplistic morality because it’s told through a child’s eyes, in which the hero takes his first steps into the unknown and beyond his previously conceived limitations. In The Empire Strikes Back, he moves into adolescence. He is overly confident in his newfound strength and insists that he is ready to plumb the deeper mysteries. His confidence is shattered by a huge revelation, first hinted within the dark cave on Dagobah. When presented with a vision of his ultimate enemy, Luke does what feels right - he strikes it down. That’s what you do with evil, right? You vanquish it. However, within the mask is not a monster, but his own face. But he does not understand what Yoda is trying to teach him. The revelation doesn’t strike him in full force until later when Darth Vader reveals their connection. Now the evil is not some faceless other, it is his own flesh and blood. And this is the lesson that myths so often teach the hero (and thus us): that the evil you hate and want to destroy is not out there somewhere, it’s here, in you. Now his quest seems hopeless, for he is his own enemy. He flees from the revelation, he literally plummets downward and hits the low point of the journey. In the final chapter, he has through bitter experience come to accept that there is darkness inside of himself. He even appears in Return of the Jedi wearing all black, showing that over the course of the trilogy we have come to subvert the simplistic color symbolism set up in the first movie, just as Luke’s perception of good and evil has been subverted. His new, more nuanced understanding of morality has changed everything about his relationship to his enemy. He has learned that if the evil of Darth Vader is in Luke Skywalker, then the good of Luke Skywalker must exist somewhere in Darth Vader. He seeks out his father not to destroy him but to offer himself as the mirror in which his father might see his true self -- just as the father had been the mirror for his own revelation. He is tempted and pushed, but in the end he triumphs -- not by defeating Vader in combat or outsmarting him (as would happen, I think, in almost any other mainstream franchise), but by refusing to fight him, by throwing away his blade. And at that moment he is at peace with himself, he has become an adult. He has become a Jedi. The moral of the story, the myth’s core, is that it is only that surrender--never brute force--which can awaken Anakin Skywalker from within Darth Vader.

This is huge, epic stuff. This is the stuff of legend and myth -- and what I have sketched out above is only one possible way to interpret the richly symbolic action of the three films. The plot resonates with meaning beyond the fictional context of the story, and that’s why we care about getting the thing that stops the thing. We know instinctively that this is about more than just the fate of some fictional galaxy. The war, the conflict, means something; it is not just blindly championed as being awesome. The action is never just an end unto itself. Even if this is never consciously identified by much of its audience, this deeper meaning is instrumental to what has made the original Star Wars trilogy so unique among mainstream franchises and what has kept it relevant long after its technological achievements no longer impress.

Yes, there is lots of action, tons of it. Star Wars is characterized by those thrilling fast-paced action sequences. However, the story is also willing to slow down now and then to give us moments of wonder and introspection, iconic images of stillness and reflection that break up the action a little bit to add an epic, operatic texture to the fabric of the tale. Think of Luke staring with longing angst at the double sunset on Tatooine, the music swelling. Think of his awe and speechless wonder when Yoda lifts his X-Wing out of the bog. And think of his quiet grief as he watches his father’s body burn on the moon of Endor. Every now and then, in the midst of the lasers and explosions, the movies dare to be still, to reflect, and let a few simple images set to beautiful music communicate everything. These moments counter-balance the fast-paced action sequences and thereby enhance them.

Again, The Force Awakens at least tried to do all this. It wants to be myth, it wants to have allegorical moments. It does this, as we all know, by attempting parallelism with the plot of A New Hope, but because nothing obvious is communicated or illuminated by those parallels it lapses into rote plagiarism instead. But the movie has (sometimes forced) mystical, mythic moments. There’s an fairy tale quality to much of it, and that’s something I had given up hope for ever seeing in a Star Wars movie again. And there are iconic visuals and moments of quiet reflection and meditation, though not much--it’s too much to hope in modern adventure films that things can pause to take a breath for more than ten seconds here or there, I guess.

Kylo Ren is one of the only characters added to the franchise since Return of the Jedi who has the potential to have an arc that truly fits into the mythology of Star Wars. He’s a fantastic inversion of Luke, a young man trying desperately to be evil and to repress any other part of his soul. Like Luke, he must face his father, face who he really is -- only Ben Solo chooses to kill his father in the hope that this will free him from his father’s legacy and allow him to be the powerful evil lord that he so desperately wants to be. He is the anti-Luke, starting at the opposite place and making the opposite choice. He resonates with deep symbolic meaning for our time, a young man full of anger trying desperately to quench his more sensitive, sympathetic nature to fulfill the hard-edged expectation of what he feels he is supposed to be. He buries his insecurities with a false show of strength. We all have known Kylo Rens; hell, some of us have been him. It will be fascinating to see where they take this character. It’s difficult to know if interesting arcs are in store for Rey and Finn, but the potential is there. It’s hard to make a full assessment until we get at least one more movie. Episode VIII will go a long way towards revealing if, for example, Rey’s precociously fast command of the Force is part of her overall story arc or just lazy storytelling.

It’s difficult to see any place in Rogue One that aspires to the level of allegory or myth. But this may be an unfair critique. I don’t think it wanted to do so. It was trying to be a very different kind of movie. But I think something vital is lost without that element. The surface elements of the plot were all there (we need to get the thing to stop the thing) but… why should we care? Especially since, this being a prequel, we already know how it ends. There is no symbolic journey for the characters. There can be no allegorical revelation because nobody changes in any profound way, unless you count dying in the service of the cause. There is mythic ground to be covered regarding self-sacrifice that the movie flirts with but never quite manages. Its attention is too focused on the action.

There’s a surface-level nod to the themes of the saga. The pivotal relationship in the film (apparently) is again between a father and a child. Jyn has tried to forget her father after he’s taken/abandons her, then she gets a message from him that changes her opinion of him, and then, conveniently, also gets to see him in person right before he dies to tell him that. That confrontation, I guess, changes her in that now she’s committed to defeat the Empire to…honor his legacy? Revenge his death? Muddying the waters is her other parent/mentor, the other one that the plot also hinges on, Saw Gerrerra. They have a complicated past, I guess. It’s not clear. He basically raised her, but they don’t say much to each other when they finally meet that helps us believe there is real affection there. And then, because of that relationship which is barely established, we are evidently supposed to care (given the dramatic music and posturing during that scene) about his pointless sacrifice: “It’s okay, Jyn, leave me, I am just feeling like it’s time for me to die now. I’m not even gonna try to escape with you even though there is clearly time for me to get on the ship. There’s really no valid plot reason for me to die right now other than there’s nothing else, apparently, for my character to do.” The movie spent no time giving us an emotional connection to him, and his death does nothing to help the heroes on their journey or propel the plot. Why bother casting Forest Whitaker if you aren’t going even use him for anything?

It’s all balls-to-the-wall action. The film does not give itself a single moment of introspection or stillness to explore beyond the barest surface level the deeper themes that motivate the conflict or the human emotions that are caught up in it all. I know this is essentially a kids movie, it doesn’t have to be super deep all the time. But the original trilogy proves that you can be deep and really fun at the same time. Rogue One doesn’t have time to even try. It moves with breakneck speed from action set piece to action set piece, so many explosions in sequence that they begin to lose all meaning in a general wash of violence and urgency and action and go go go go go. GET THE THING TO STOP THE THING BECAUSE…. WELL JUST BECAUSE.
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UNIQUE GENRE

One of the major purposes of myth, Campbell writes, is to provide a roadmap for life, particularly for those huge moments of transition that all of us face eventually. One of these fundamental transitions is the passing from childhood to adulthood, a transition so profound and complicated that coming-of-age stories are still prevalent in every form of literature and art. So too do they symbolically dominate much of world mythology. A culture’s myths and coming-of-age rituals guide a child into adulthood. There is an aching need for this kind of myth today. Campbell believed that many problems in our society arise from the lack of any cohesive coming-of-age ritual or mythology in our modern culture. But we long for the guidance it would provide and feel the hollowness of the void its absence leaves in us.

For many of us, this void has been filled with genre fiction, particularly fantasy. This popular genre has long been widely misunderstood by the mainstream public. It has some cred now, what with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones becoming part of the mainstream, but it was not taken seriously for many, many years and still raises an eyebrow with some. Considered nothing but children’s stories, pure pulp and escapism, those who do not read it cannot fathom why anybody over the age of 12 would want to read about hobbits trying to destroy a ring. But escapism is the very least of fantasy’s attractions. The genre taps into folklore and myth, and by doing so tells the symbolic, allegorical stories that mankind has always told. The passion the genre evokes comes not just because the stories are “fun” but because they fulfill an aching, existential mythical need that we didn’t even know we had - the symbolic, artistic representation of growing up, of facing adult life and adult responsibilities, of confronting loss, sorrow, and death. It’s not an accident that so many fantasy fans become enamored of the genre around the beginning of adolescence, nor that so many fantasy novels are also coming of age stories that mirror the heroic arcs of ancient mythology. Their fantastical settings allow them to hint at a deeper truth. Fantasy has the potential to actually be more about real life than any novel set in the real world, by doing what all myths do: removing the trappings of our day-to-day life and, by putting humanity into a fictional/mythical imaginative context, revealing something fundamental about us that is separate from all that. That is, in fact, the whole point of the archetypal hero’s journey - leaving behind the day to day reality, traveling into darkness and mystery, and returning changed. By going on that journey, we change too. Such is the power from which fantasy draws its appeal.

I’m dwelling on fantasy here, and not science fiction, for a simple reason: Star Wars is not science fiction. I assumed for many years that we were all on the same page about this and that it went without saying. However, my discussions with many about Rogue One suggest otherwise. The movie itself is pretty solid proof that a great many people do not agree with me on this. Since this disagreement might be the most fundamental divide between those who loved Rogue One and those of us who didn’t, I’m going to write that again, and I’ll even put it in all caps in indicate how crucial of a point that I think it is:

STAR WARS IS NOT SCIENCE FICTION. It is fantasy, as much of a textbook fantasy as anything can be. Just a fantasy that happens to be set in space.

It is, admittedly, not your typical form of a fantasy, and this is a great part of its appeal. Though popular with many, the forms and trappings of fantasy are prone to clich├ęs and can easily go stale. They can be off-putting to anyone outside of its most ardent fans. So while fantasy has the potential to be a vehicle for the myths our society needs to hear, it was very much not in vogue back in 1977. It no longer seemed relevant in a more pessimistic, post-Vietnam world. Movies were dark and bleak and gritty in this era, and only the nerds were reading Tolkien. It was, however, a world fascinated with the increasingly rapid pace of technology and of space travel. Globalization was arriving on the scene, and there were few places on earth left unexplored or mysterious, few places of fascination for the imagination. Space was the new unknown. Space had the possibility to excite wonder and hope even in the cynical 70s. By setting his fantasy in space, Lucas managed to take something very old and make it fresh and new, and to take something exciting and new and make it familiar and ancient.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” each movie begins, evoking fairy tales and folklore. This is simply the same “once upon a time in a kingdom far away” from any those stories, with the exception that this has its own special contradiction: it’s all happening in space, you see, but it’s also deep in the past. And it gets away with all this mythic and operatic pomposity because, anchoring the seriousness of the myth of the saga is the fact that the trilogy does not take itself overly seriously. There’s a relaxed camp, a sense of play, and of wonder, that lifts the story out of the mundane into the realm of myth and fable.

Rogue One made a conscious decision not to be a space fantasy. Instead, it attempts to be a heist movie, or a war film, or some kind of hybrid of both, but definitely gritty, violent, ruthless and dirty. And perhaps the thing that most gets in the way of this movie being memorable or fun is the fact that it takes itself so very, very seriously. Yes, K2 had some good jokes. I actually smiled at them a few times. But the dry sarcasm of his humor only adds to rather than cuts against the general emotional flatness. And I even love dry sarcasm, as a rule. It's humorless, sardonic, pessimistic humor in a humorless, sardonic, pessimistic movie. With no sense of play, the film maintains all the pomposity of Star Wars with none of the heart, camp, or wonder. Never mind that this means we have a movie that is monotonous and generally soulless in the way so many action movies are, but does this even work as a Star Wars film? Is Star Wars still itself outside of its home genre? Personally, I don’t think so, particularly when the movie in question is a direct prequel to the original movie that established that genre.

Without the mythic sensibility at the core of the fantasy genre, what’s left to define it as Star Wars at all? Just the outward forms, the details. Without the heart, there is only the minutiae -- and the Star Wars universe now has a lot of minutiae: hundreds and hundreds of characters, planets, alien species, droids, backstories, spin-offs, you name it. I used to take a great amount of pride and enjoyment in soaking up all of this extended lore, so when I see a fan who lives for all those details, it feels familiar. I understand, I do. I remember when it felt like being a fan meant I needed not only more Star Wars, but better Star Wars, bigger, more spectacular, more epic, more sprawling, more detailed, more intricate. I wanted every single thing to be fleshed out and explained. Rogue One is popular with fans who feel this way because it rewards them with everything they want: more detail to absorb, and plenty of easter egg references to details they already know. It attempts to bring multiple strings of this sprawling Frankenstein that is the extended Star Wars universe lore into one movie and tie them all together. And if you love all those strings then this is a treat.

Some fictional universes improve with a tight network of ever-increasing self-referential details and lore. I’ll discuss Game of Thrones minutiae with you all day, and happily. One of my favorite modern fantasy series, the dark and epic Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, is satisfying and compelling because of its intensely detailed and self-referential nature.

After reading countless Extended Universe novels, comics, and spin-off materials in my time, I have come eventually to believe strongly that Star Wars is not like that. The more details you add, the more you explain, the more extra stuff you fold in, the further away you get from the realm of myth, the unique tone, the straightforward storytelling, and the fantasy genre at its core that gave the original films their distinctive character. You end up burying the originality of the trilogy under a mountain of junk that obscures its special quality. You end up with a lot of empty facts and data that are meaningless in and of themselves.

You end up with Rogue One, a movie that has all the Star Wars decorations but has as much to do in spirit with Star Wars as any Marvel or Star Trek movie does -- that is to say, not much. It has in fact more in common with basically any action movie made in the last 10 years in any other franchise than it does with the movie for which it ostensibly serves as the direct prequel. Watching the two films back to back would be an exercise in absurdity, a jarring, janky roller-coaster ride. Though there is a narrative through-line, they could not be more different.

It’s not as though, by messing with the core essence of Star Wars that gave the originals their character, the filmmakers decided to do something entirely different but equally unique and interesting. If the argument is that we cannot re-hash the original trilogy, that Star Wars must evolve beyond those movies, then at least try to do something original and surprise me. If we strip away even the essential characteristics of Star Wars that I have laid out above, the general spirit of the franchise can be boiled down to creative audacity. There’s nothing bold or audacious about Rogue One. This is the same kind of action movie we’ve seen a million times in various forms, the one that is so focused on giving you an general wash of epic intensity and special effects to earn that opening weekend buzz that it gives you no substantial reason to watch it again and again (for me--sorry Lou). And it does it while wearing the costumes of a beloved franchise, expecting me to be automatically on board just because, you know, it's Star Wars. So it’s no wonder that I felt faintly insulted.

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IN CONCLUSION

The movie simply doesn’t fit into the franchise. Or, even worse, it fits perfectly into a franchise that is increasingly unrecognizable from the films that launched it. Furthermore, it is mediocre and unimaginative. I could forgive mediocre, I guess, because most movies like it are mediocre. But unimaginative is unforgivable. Star Wars deserves better. Star Wars has already suffered enough. 

Nevertheless, Rogue One suggests I am in the minority in this opinion. It's box office and critical success, in addition to how much it has won over some of my fellow die-hard fans, suggests a future for the franchise that worries me. If this is really the kind of Star Wars movie we want, then this is the kind of Star Wars movie that Disney is going to keep giving us. And then the franchise, which has already been slowly dying for decades, will finally collapse under the weight of its own cultural cache into self-referential drudgery and narrative mediocrity.

I may simply have to come to terms with this. Movies are not made to accommodate my particular sensibilities, after all. And maybe it's just plain ridiculous that all this bothers me at all. Look at everything that's going on in the world! Why do I care about this so much? I mean, they are just movies, right? Why bother writing a huge essay like this to argue about some silly movies?

But, if you are a true fan, you know that they are more than that. They are the myths through which I subconsciously processed my own journey to adulthood. They are the allegories through which I came to understand the humanity of my enemies. And that is worth arguing about.

Well, at least I have the original trilogy, no matter what the future brings to the franchise. It's not like George Lucas is gonna go back and mess with those and ruin them or anything, right?

Oh, wait. :(