In 1977, Obi-Wan Kenobi taught us about The Force.
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” he told us via his conversation with Luke Skywalker. “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
The Force is beyond the human experience. Its permanence and guidance is something we can rely upon, beyond our own senses. “Your eyes can deceive you,” Obi-Wan told us later via teaching Luke. “Don’t trust them.”
Forty years later, the mystical experience of The Force is embodied by Chirrut Imwe, a character in the newest addition to the Star Wars universe, who lives in Jedha City, also known as the Holy City on the moon of Jedha. This Holy City is one of the few concentrated pockets of believers in the “ancient religion” (as Obi-Wan once referred to it) of The Force.
Chirrut is a warrior, who, though physically blind, believes in The Force without question. He regularly engages in a prayer chant: “I am one with The Force, and The Force is with me.”
He also maintains his faith, despite his longtime friend Baze Malbus being an obvious doubter.
On a Star Wars timeline, the new movie actually takes place before the 1977 movie, Episode IV. The new movie, called “Rogue One,” is a 2 hour, 13 minute film based around words from the opening crawl of Episode IV:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
Although released at the end of 2016, I waited until early this year to see “Rogue One.” A movie theater consisting of me and four other people only? Ideal achieved.
Truth be told, I had no intention of seeing “Rogue One.” It’s the movie I never thought I needed, and I was sure I never wanted. None of the previews grabbed me. The characters felt flat; the music sounded off. I was still reeling from not enjoying the stiff, formulaic and mystically-devoid Episode VII.
Reviews from my Star Wars-aficionado friends only made it worse. (No opening crawl? Are you kidding me? Even the Star Wars animated series has an opening crawl.) At that point, I declared that I would not see “Rogue One” in the theater. Maybe I’d wait for Netflix. Maybe.
Then, on December 27, 2016, Carrie Fisher, My Princess and first love, died. I was already aware that she makes a CGI-intense cameo as her younger self in “Rogue One.” To see her on the big screen for almost the last time (Episode VIII will be the last, I presume) was the deciding factor to see “Rogue One” in the theater.
My initial post-watching reaction was that the last 30-40 minutes, where the events noted in the Episode IV opening crawl take place, were intense and Star Wars-worthy. The space battles are straight out of any Star Wars movie and get the heart racing and the blood pumping.
The mission that our heroes are on is fraught with danger. Even though we know that they will acquire the plans to the Death Star, we don’t know how or what will happen during the process. This journey is well-told, capturing physical perils and internal doubts that our heroes experience. The Rebel attack is unexpected by the Empire, planned out but not 100% solid. The end goal is in sight; the steps to get there are not all concrete. But our heroes are guided by belief.
That’s the last 30-45 minutes. In contrast, I felt completely dissatisfied with the majority of the first hour and a half of the movie. Character development was shaky. Character relationships were largely forced. The so-called “Easter Eggs” were hackneyed at best (seeing Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba, for example, evoked zero response from me).
The movie literally started as a downer for me, having the lack of an opening crawl confirmed. We jump from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” to a space shot of the planet we are about to visit. The brain and soul both know that something is missing.
The music was off; the themes implied that I was watching a random action movie. This, I learned with the ending credits, is because John Williams somehow did not score this Star Wars movie. The visuals matched; take out crashed X-Wings, Stormtroopers and the word “Rebels” and this could have been a random action movie with martial arts scenes.
At the movie’s end, I was combination intensely satisfied with certain elements, while horribly disappointed with much more. I went to Starbucks for a coffee and to engage in a brain dump of all I’d just soaked in. Laptop set up and notebook in hand (I sketch and write simultaneously with both), I produced just under 10,000 words, going into each and every character and all the scenes.
Even with the edits, I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d written. The tone was wrong. A principle I live by for myself, as well as in Certified Practical, is that disagreeing or not liking something is fine, but outright negativity isn’t necessary.
Yes, Star Wars is large enough; it can take it. Gareth Edwards, the director, and Michael Giacchino, the composer are all well-established in their respective positions. They, too, can take critiques.
But I wasn’t happy with my writing, so I put this article aside and focused on a civic duty that I’d gotten involved with. Throughout, elements of “Rogue One” remained in my conscious mind — particularly Chirrut Imwe and The Force itself. In downtime, I decided to experiment with his chant: “I am one with The Force and The Force is with me.” The chant reminded me of one I’d encountered in Nichiren Buddhism. The Nichiren chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” is rhythmically repeated over and over for strength and clarity. Chirrut appears to do the same with his Force chant.
There I am, on the street, chanting about The Force, getting a good rhythm going. No joke, however it happened, this process accessed something in my subconscious. There’s the a-ha moment. I realize that the title of the new Star Wars movie reveals all I need to know about my frustrations about the film.
It is not called “Star Wars: Rogue One.” The title is “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
The placement of the words tells all. This is not a Star Wars movie. It is, instead, a movie set in the Star Wars Universe, containing Star Wars characters and themes.
John Williams isn’t there because this is not a Star Wars movie. There is no opening crawl because this is not a Star Wars movie. The pacing, the feel, it’s all different… because this is not a Star Wars movie. With this in mind and The Force in my heart, I scrapped the brain dump document completely — the simultaneous best and worst thing a writer can do — and what follows is a review that I am most satisfied with.
The Force is everywhere, as Obi-Wan taught us. “All is as The Force wills it,” Chirrut reminds us. Both statements are not saying that The Force is synonymous with rainbows and unicorns. The Force encompasses the entire spectrum of emotion, of experience.
With that in mind, there is still a great deal about “Rogue One” that I do not enjoy. It would have functioned better as a 50-minute epic containing the entirety of the surprise Rebel attack and a much more condensed version of the hour and a half proceeding this.
The Erso family is incredibly important to the narrative, yet their stories get too drawn out in parts that take away from the characters. Galen Erso is an Imperial engineer, who has worked on the project that will eventually be called the Death Star. But he also has a conscience, and doesn’t have any interest in completing said project. When we meet him, he is living modestly as a farmer with his family. Imperial Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (hey, it’s Daggett!) finds Galen, wanting him to return to finish the project.
Krennic doesn’t need Galen necessarily, but requests him there just because. Galen’s hand is forced, so he returns to work, seeing the project to its end. This fulfills Krennic’s greedy ambition, as he wants to be known as the one who saw the Death Star to its completion.
Galen’s daughter, Jyn, meanwhile escaped Imperial capture and was raised under family friend and resistance fighter Saw Gerrera. The Rebels know of the Erso family; they have information that Galen worked on the Death Star, and they have located his daughter, whom they hope to use to find Galen. Somehow, Jyn has been imprisoned, but the Rebels find her and free her. Jyn’s motivations are unclear for quite a time. She doesn’t seem to be a Rebel per se, aside from her verbal claim of “I rebel.” More than anything, Jyn comes off as agitated.
It is Galen’s conscience that allows him to design the Death Star with the fundamental flaw that allows for its destruction in Episode IV. Galen’s desire to do what’s right allows him to find Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot who has misgivings about the side he’s affiliated with. Whatever Galen tells Bodhi, it’s enough to make him defect and carry a recording for Saw Gerrera, which tells of the intentionally-designed flaw in the Death Star. A majority of the recording by Galen is for his daughter, Jyn. Galen says in the recording that he doesn’t know if his daughter is watching, but that doesn’t stop him from expressing his eternal love for Jyn. Quite the gamble and payoff there.
Galen-Jyn is a great father-daughter story. His nickname for her – “Stardust” – says it all. She is literally his everything; even when not physically present, she is there with him in everything he does. It’s just not portrayed well. I don’t feel it in the beginning scene when Jyn is a child. And when Galen dies in his daughter’s arms, it’s cheesy in concept and writing.
I want to like Jyn. I want to celebrate her progression up to her speech to the gathered Rebellion hearing on Yavin 4. It isn’t until that point that I care about her as a character. I was expecting her to be another Leia throughout — strong, resourceful, equal parts feminine and tough, each when needed. But there is only one Leia. While Jyn is galvanized by the death of her father, that’s also her defining aspect, which is her enduring limitation.
Hollywood has a propensity for needing a “main” hero to guide stories. “Rogue One” gets bogged down by this, acting as though Jyn were the focal point of the movie. She is not, and acting otherwise hurts both the movie and her character.
The movie is equal-parts about the crew of “Rogue One,” the Rebels who, against the wishes of the Rebellion, wage a surprise attack on Empire headquarters in Scarif in order to obtain the plans for the Death Star.
Star Wars, at its heart, has always been a redemption story. It was Darth Vader’s redemption in the original trilogy, running concurrently with Luke’s Hero Journey. But it was also the redemption of Obi-Wan, Han, Lando and others.
“Rogue One” keeps with the tradition of redemption. The entire crew of the surprise attack of Scarif has a reason greater than themselves for being a part of this mission. For many of the Rebels, it is to atone – be redeemed – for the unspeakable things they’ve had to do while being a part of the rebellion. It’s Bodhi’s redemption for being on the wrong side. It’s Galen’s redemption for actively helping create a death machine.
To highlight the heroes’ redemption even more, we see the lack of redemption for Krennic. He is driven by personal greed — the credit and notoriety for the Death Star. Krennic meets his demise, as expected. His is without redemption, without honor or meaning. He served no great cause. And in the end, his greed didn’t even serve himself. Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, back from the dead!) presumably takes all credit for the Death Star, elevating his status in the Empire. But we’ve all seen Episode IV, and we know how HIS story ends.
The last half hour IS the movie. It’s exhilarating to watch the members of “Rogue One” arrive at Scarif, carefully planning their attack when on the planet itself. When additional members of the Rebels arrive to confront the Imperial fleet, my pulse quickened. The firefight in space is delightful, wonderfully reminiscent of any previous Star Wars movie. As the Rebel Squadron members identified themselves – Blue Four, Blue Five, Red Twelve – I sat in the theater with a smile on my face.
And it’s at this point that all characters came into fruition and became more than their individual stories. They became what the characters have been all along – the collective “main” character of the movie. Whether they admit to it or not, the characters are all being guided by The Force. As Chirrut states earlier in the movie, “The Force is with me, and I fear nothing.” Every one of them went about the mission without fear, with the end goal in sight.
Nobody survives. They couldn’t. This is not a mission with an “out” strategy. That didn’t make their sacrifices any less heart-wrenching.
The most compelling parts of movies are the ones you get lost in. You forget where you are sitting. You lose sight of the actors on the screen and see only the characters. You are in the movie as it unfolds, albeit as a fly on the wall.
Each character’s loss hurt with a greater sting. I sit there, hoping they’ll be alright, hoping they will duck and avoid incoming peril. Hoping they’ll pull a surprise trick.
When the last of our characters were gone, I heard open weeping in the theater. Rightfully so. This is the sacrifice of the few to benefit the galaxy.
My Princess gets the last line in the movie, rightfully so considering how Episode IV begins. But more importantly, she is talking to every one of us. She reminds us of a driving force to exact change and progress in our own lives.
In summary: “Rogue One” is a story of the indomitable nature of human will; of unity over ambition; of the power of harnessing a force greater than ourselves; of coming together, as one, to achieve something beyond our individual imaginations.
It’s a story of what humans are capable of, if we have hope and belief, but also put in the hard work.