I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story yesterday. I enjoyed it; it was a solid outing in the newly-rejuvenated franchise, and one that shifted focus somewhat.
Instead of the clearer-cut good-versus-evil conflicts of the earlier films, Rogue One gives us a morally grey band of rebels; although they evolve into more straight-laced heroes by the story’s end, they have to make some pretty big sacrifices along the way. I will say no more lest I tread in spoiler territory.
Something else stuck out for me about the movie. Out of all the Star Wars films, Rogue One is the movie that works least well as a space opera.
The film downplays a number of the more colourful aspects of the franchise. None of the new characters will be as memorable as Luke, Han or Finn; none of the new alien and robot designs will reach the iconic status of Yoda or BB-8. The element of supernatural fantasy – so integral to earlier Star Wars films – is largely absent in Rogue One, with the Force being reserved for a few token scenes that could have been removed without a dent to the narrative. The most-discussed special effect is a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing.
The spectacles of spaceship battles and mass destruction on an interplanetary scale are noticeably less spectacular. By and large they re-use imagery from previous instalments, but in deliberately muted form. A fine example of this is the obligatory show of the Death Star’s power, which obliterates a major city as a warm-up for Alderaan; but instead of making the obvious decision to focus on the destruction, the film intercuts the moment of impact with a dialogue scene. The true spectacle occurs immediately afterwards, when we follow the characters dealing with the resulting aftershocks. Rogue One is, above all, a film interested in people caught up in chaos, rather than the broad strokes of exploding planets.
The climax to Rogue One shows a ground battle against a forest of palm trees, imagery which recalls the Vietnam War. Intercutting with this is a space battle between X-Wings and TIE Fighters, directly based upon the climax to the original film – which was famously inspired by The Dam Busters.
The contrast is stark. World War II air battles are arguably the most romanticised area of twentieth-century warfare (this is certainly true here in Britain; I would be interested to hear if it is so elsewhere in the world). Vietnam, on the other hand, is Hollywood’s byword for the horrors of war.
It is no secret that the universe of Star Wars is an assortment of settings from other films, given united by a veneer of technofantasy: our Jedi chums have taken their lightsabers to feudal Japan, the Wild West and – in the Clone Wars animated series – 1920s Chicago. But now that Hollywood ‘Nam has been added to the Star Wars almanac, the franchise has moved beyond recreating movies that George Lucas thought were cool when he was a kid, and is now emulating films that were specifically intended to reflect the horrors of war in gritty realism.
This is very different to the earlier Star Wars films, where the dominant symbol of evil was a black-cloaked wizard. The Force Awakens, and to a lesser extent the original film, drew upon Nazi Germany in portraying the evil Empire, but restricted themselves to the iconography of the Nazi regime rather than the atrocities that it committed. Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to consciously dial down the romanticism and fantasy sparkle and try to portray the brutality of war in more honest (if still Hollywoodised) terms.
But as I watched the Vietnam troops fire their laser guns across the screen of my local Odeon, I felt that a major ingredient of space opera had gone missing somewhere. I found myself asking exactly what the story of Rogue One gained from being set in space, as opposed to a real-world conflict. I could provide only one answer: the audience knows full well that, no matter how grim things get in this particular movie, Star Wars ultimately has a happy ending.