Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

More than one rogue element detracting from the story.

It probably speaks to my lack of interest in Star Wars that Rogue One probably ranks second, maybe third in my personal ranking of the series. I still haven’t seen The Force Awakens, and I can’t help but feel that endless television repeats of the prequel trilogy (I suspect the originals are more expensive, rights-wise) have almost certainly ground down my reserves of goodwill, even as they demonstrate the extraordinary goodwill Star Wars itself inspires — not many film series, or cultural phenomena of any kind, could lie fallow for 16 years, fuck around with tedious bullshit for another 7, and then spend another 10 years in relative silence, only to be greeted with the biggest (unadjusted, admittedly) box-office reception yet.

It was, whilst rewatching Rogue One, however, that I realised two crucial things, one about the film itself, and the other about the series, namely this:

At least 90% of the appeal of Star Wars is audial.

Maybe this has always been too obvious, or too subliminal, to show up in thinkpieces to this point, but it’s undeniable. The visuals of the Star Wars universe have never made sense, or been that compelling. The Death Star is a masterpiece of design, sure, but X-wing fighters don’t need movable wings, and the design of a TIE fighter contains active crimes against logic. Stormtrooper armour looks like exactly the kind of plasticky, worthless crap that can’t withstand a hit from a stick, let alone a blaster. And, despite this film’s half-assed attempt at proving otherwise, AT-ATs aren’t intimidating. They’re horseshit on legs. Once you take away these individual elements, you’re left with a used future aesthetic mandatory to 1970s science fiction, including Lucas’ own THX-1138.

No, once the Eadu scenes start up, and the blaster cannons kick into gear with a literal punch like a champion boxer attempting to ruin a large, fragile Amazon parcel, this is when it all becomes obvious. The reason to have TIE fighters is in order to roll out the ryyyyyoooorrrrrrgggh of the engine noise; the only reason to choose lightsabers over any kind of gun is for the wumwumwummm of it swinging about. And Star Wars is nothing without wise, sonorous voices contemplating the ineffable wayzz of the fource.

It’s quite amazing how Star Wars as a franchise has done so little with radio, focusing so much on visuals, described or depicted, across films, books, TV shows and comics. Star Wars really is the only kind of blockbuster series which could, in fact, thrive if broken down to sound, maybe even stripped of what is so often rudimentary (original trilogy) or overcomplex (prequels) plot, reduced to a kind of Stockhausen-esque sound art.

Gareth Edwards, to his credit, angles for the visuals to match the sound, and as Godzilla proved and this film confirms, he is brilliant in his depiction of scale: huge things get foregrounded against huger things, until the hugeness saturates the screen without seeming cropped. The makers of Superman promised that you would believe a man could fly. Rogue One convinces you a laser can blow up an entire planet.

Unfortunately, focusing on the visuals reveals that Rogue One is not as good on a smaller screen as it appears in cinemas. The most experimental film of the series also reveals the limitations of the franchise. Rogue One strains for nuance, depicting the Rebel Alliance as an ever-fracturing coalition, and the Empire as a squabbling bureaucracy, but the fundamental ideologies driving these groups are completely distinct anyway. Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) is described as an “extremist”, but it’s not very clear why this is, apart from his willingness to use giant psychic octopuses as interrogation devices.

So many romantic comedies are reluctant to have any scathing humour or satire, lest it detract from the romance, and reluctant to let the romance get too intense, lest they stop being funny at all, and as a result, end up in an insipid no-man’s-land. Star Wars finds itself in a similar bind — the conflict cannot avoid politics, in case the entire thing floats away into becoming an unrelatable and glorified pie-fight (see Return of the Jedi). But to fixate on politics is to expose and/or muddle the oversimplified Manicheanism the series rests on (see Revenge of the Sith). Rogue One is a valiant effort to square this circle, but it still ends in a blizzard of blaster fire and swooping X-wings, lurching in its final half-hour from politics to pie-fight.

But it does sound terrific.