Last year we saw the return of the most successful film franchise on the planet with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Whether you believe it was a true successor to the glory of the original trilogy or a pale imitation, you have to admit it got people excited. And by all accounts, that excitement has not abated for the new Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, released just this past friday and already grossing close to $400 million, with its pre-sale ticket numbers second only to The Force Awakens itself.
But who cares about the numbers right now (apart from executives)? We, as fans and consumers, want to know how that product stands in relation to the others we so dearly love, and whether these new ones are deserving of out devotion. For many of us, Star Wars was a franchise we grew up on. It helped shape us, mold us, create the individuals we became. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it holds us all together. And despite the massive amount of backlash directed at the prequel trilogy, each one of those films was hotly anticipated by fans nonetheless. Now that we are told we will be getting a new Star Wars film every year until the end of time, only one question comes to my mind:
How long must we wait until Star Wars no longer needs to survive on nostalgia?
Now don’t get me wrong, nostalgia is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Nostalgia is more a symptom of hard times, difficulties, and foreboding futures. And yeah, the future is looking quite bleak at the moment. So it is understandable to a degree that Star Wars continues to mine the nostalgia gold as much as it can. I even spoke about this last year after the release of The Force Awakens.
But something’s got to give. Kathleen Kennedy and company can’t bank on our cherished childhood memories forever. Eventually there’s nothing more to be excited about, nothing to bring audiences to the theater, nothing to create new fans. The well will dry up.
With the release of Rogue One, it starting to look like the answer to my question is: a long long time, a long time. Because despite the film’s spinoff classification, despite its darker tone, despite its straying from the usual Star Wars formula, Rogue One perhaps relies on nostalgia more than any other Star Wars property in history. Through the numerous callbacks and call forwards, the integration of old characters alongside new characters, even the revival of characters portrayed by actors who died more than 20 years ago (here’s to the wonderful Peter Cushing), Rogue One can’t stop bashing you over the head with references, in-jokes, and cameos. For God’s sake they even felt it necessary to explain why Luke would come to have the call-sign of Red 5 during the attack on the Death Star.
However, that’s all surface stuff. In order to get to the meat of the problem, I’m going to need to head into spoiler territory. So, if you are so inclined, you can opt out right now until you’ve seen the film. For the rest of us:
Okay, let’s talk about that Hallway scene. Did you freak out about it? Did it make you giddy? Were you unable to contain yourself? Because I wasn’t:
Wasn’t it awesome to see Vader use a lightsaber again?
Wasn’t it cool to see him throw people around with The Force?
Wasn’t it great that he’s slow and lumbering not because it’s difficult to walk in that suit but because he doesn’t need to move fast?
Wasn’t it dope how he sliced that dude in half while he pinned him to the roof?
Well, yeah, all of that was cool. But we have to realize it has almost nothing to do with the story we have just witnessed. To wit: Rogue One is the story of the band of rebels who sought out the plans to the Death Star in order to find and verify the fatal weak-point hidden in its structure by the very man who built it. The hallway scene finds the plans finally transmitted to the Rebel Alliance, a hard copy being personally transported to Princess Leia as she makes her escape. Okay, fine, it’s leading the story directly into A New Hope.
But the story of the characters? The characters introduced in Rogue One, who will only ever exist in Rogue One? They’re all dead. Every one of them dead. Is that a problem? No, stories can end on a down note. And, in fact, I applaud the producers for allowing such a dark ending in what has largely been such a kid-friendly enterprise. But we’re supposed to be invested in Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and K-2SO. Their arcs, the changes they go through have, only barely, been wrapped up before this tagged on epilogue that is laser-focused to appease the baser instincts of fanboys comes bashing through the wall to make you drink the Kool-Aid.
Because for all of Rogue One’s faults (of which there are plenty, but I won’t dive into them here) the biggest problem is that it becomes too scared to mark out its own territory. It never pulls back the veil and allows you to get lost with the new characters in new locations. The film is constantly reminding you that, despite very few lightsabers, Jedi, Sith, Force-wielders, and most importantly NO SKYWALKERS, this is still a STAR WARS film and it will bend over backwards to assure you of that. They’ll dig up unused footage of actors in A New Hope and splice them into the X-wing dogfights. They’ll shoehorn in as many cameos as they can think of. They’ll even pay out the butt to essentially resurrect a dead actor for one final performance (not to mention call into question the ethics of doing such things).
And yet despite the criticisms of CGI Tarkin, his inclusion is actually one of the more interesting proponents of the story. It was interesting to see an old character interact with a new one, Orson Krennic. It was a nice glimpse into a character we barely understood from that first movie. Imagine if they had treated the franchise’s most beloved villain the same way? Imagine, as Film Crit Hulk suggests, if Vader had been an actual obstacle for our core group of rebels? What if he killed one of them, or several of them, or all of them? The problem is not that Vader isn’t scary anymore because, yes, the hallway scene is brutal. But more that we now seem to want Vader to win…? People cheer that hallway scene. And that’s because Vader is the only person in that hallway that we actually care about. There are no longer any stakes, our lead characters are dead and we know Leia receives the plans. So it’s nothing but indulgence for indulgence sake. Honestly, the first time I saw the movie I couldn’t get over how cool that sequence is. It’s so damn awesome! But the second time it truly hit me how little reason I have to care about it. What I’m saying is that it is a moment that has no staying power.
And Star Wars still needs staying power. The franchise has survived a lot, that’s to be sure. But it can’t continue on the “one Star Wars movie a year for the rest of forever” promise based solely on the good will of the original trilogy. Sooner or later the new Star Wars movies will need to carve out their own identities. They’ll need to survive on their own merits. Instead of constantly waving Mom and Dad out in front to remind us of where they come from.
It’s clear now that Rogue One never had any hope of carving out its own place in the Star Wars canon. It would never be allowed its own identity. Because no matter how hard you try, no matter how many new characters you create and new conflicts you explore and new corners you discover, it’s the basic part of all of us that really only wants to see Darth Vader rampage through that hallway.