IF YOU WERE to ask a Star Wars fan for their opinion on the two latest entries to the canon, you would probably be told that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir: Gareth Edwards, 2016) is superior to 2015’s The Force Awakens (Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2015). Watching the pair, it becomes very clear why this should be the case. Rogue One, unlike its predecessor, is made by and for fans of the franchise, and therefore offers a slew of masturbatory cameos and esoteric references to leave admirers of the original trilogy satisfied. For this reason, however, it suffers when viewed by general audiences. Although it offers plenty of exciting action sequences and a visually stunning experience, that the film merely serves as an extend prologue to A New Hope is to the detriment of the drama and the characters. The Force Awakens, though similarly reliant on nostalgia, gives us enough unfamiliarity and high enough stakes – as well as sharper writing – to make us care about the new characters, their motivations, and their fates.
There’s nothing wrong with fanservice. Rogue One, however, makes us ask whether there’s a limit to nostalgia. Canon is preserved in meticulous detail: Darth Vader’s costume is based on the cheaply produced 1977 version, rather than higher-quality ones used in subsequent films, right down to the weird red eyes; Red Leader and Gold Leader are brought back to life using unused footage from A New Hope; Red Five is shown being shot down, opening up the call sign for Luke Skywalker to use. CGI recreations of Peter Cushing and a young Carrie Fisher stretch the suspension of disbelief – Tarkin’s facial expressions are almost too lifelike – but are ultimately very pleasing cameos. For anyone familiar with A New Hope, there’s an anorak-like joy in seeing the great care that has obviously been taken to ensure that nothing in Rogue One contradicts the gospel of the original trilogy.
Ben Mendelsohn’s scenery chewing performance makes Krennic far easier to sympathise with than the blank canvases that pass for heroes.
But the question is: is any of this necessary? The fanservice and nostalgia leaves the new characters seeming a bit flat and hollow. Aside from Alan Tudyk’s socially awkward droid, the most compelling character is the villain of the piece, Director Krennic, whose death at the hands of the Death Star – his own creation for which he has spent the entire film trying to claim the credit – is the one real moment of pathos in the film. Ben Mendelsohn’s jealous, scenery chewing performance makes Krennic far easier to sympathise with than the blank canvases that pass for heroes. It is a testament to actors’ performances and the direction that we genuinely care when the protagonists are killed off one by one at the climax of the film – although this is perhaps more due to the fact we know from A New Hope what their sacrifice actually represents.
Ultimately the film works. Star Wars has never been much more than a simple and effective tale of good versus evil, and where Rogue One really succeeds is where it deviates. It depicts the rebels in a hitherto unexplored way, orchestrating assassinations and terrorist attacks that run contrary to the narrative woven by the original trilogy. It even shows – through Director Krennic and Galen Erso – a more human, and even sympathetic, side to the Empire. Evil though Krennic is, his is a cold, corporate evil born out of a desire to do a good job and get the credit he deserves. Perhaps if the film had further explored this grey area, it would have been an even greater success. Ultimately it is beaten by The Force Awakens, which gives us more to marvel at, characters you can care about, and much higher stakes. It weaves enough unfamiliarity into the plot and the setting to keep us guessing in a way that Rogue One does not, and in doing so, we are struck by that same sense of interplanetary wonder that characterises the original trilogy. In Rogue One, we are treading familiar ground, and although to a certain extent this is comfortable and reassuring, the film never really challenges us to grasp anything new.