We took our daughter and a friend to see Rogue One a few nights ago, and it turned out to be one of the better offerings in the Star Wars franchise. Perhaps none of the films will live up to the promise, the hope (more on this in a moment), of A New Hope, but, in my current moment, I would put Rogue One up there with The Empire Strikes Back as offering the promise of a continuing story which has a nice mix of characters and world(s) and a larger story, or braided collection of stories, to be told.
That is not to say, however, that the film isn’t without its problems, many of which are inherent in the Star Wars universe itself. I’m going to put aside the light saber, which is both ridiculous and cool at the same time, as a necessary fiction, like faster-than-light travel, and FTL communication, is to much of science fiction. What I can’t put aside is the weird reliance that Star Wars has on things like crystals. Early on, we learn that Jedda is being mined for its crystals, because that’s the power behind the Death Star’s weapon. It felt like a throwback to the original Star Trek‘s "dilithium crystals" as the basis for power. Even worse, at some point a minor character says something like "these crystals are the power behind the brightest suns" or some such nonsense. In a universe that already has ion cannons and some sort of fusion drive, we need to have crystals, too?
In the same vein, the SW franchise seems to be sticking with the need for its big bad weapon to be an energy weapon — at least with the Death Star, both the weapon and its target need to be in some kind of physical proximity, unlike The Force Awakens where a radiation-based weapon, which we see as light, can cross trans-galactic distances at hyper-light speeds. Alas, in Rogue One our planet-killer is not quite up to speed and it can only kill cities, but, oh, this is impressive. So, we are led to believe that a civilization based on advanced technology has no knowledge of an atom bomb, which is an effective city killer and at a fairly small cost, all things considered; nor is it aware that simply speeding an asteroid of a decent size will accomplish the same thing? (This is something that Babylon 5 got exactly right, and the scene where one of its main characters stands and watches his civilization’s fleet shoot rocks at another civilization’s home planet is quite effective in capturing the mixed emotions of destroying a fellow civilization.) Worse, the empire functionaries, here in the form of a CGI-revenant Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, seem reasonably impressed with the results. In reality, if all you could do is destroy a city from space, given what the empire has spent, your empire overseer should be pretty pissed.
But let’s put under-imagined — and that’s what it is, just flat out under-imagined and uninspired — science and technology aside and discuss a few things that are central to the Star Wars universe, woven into the very fabric of its plots to the point where it becomes almost ideologically necessary, it seems. There are two, one major and one minor: the major device is orphans; the minor, revenants.
At this point my wife walked into my study and shook her head, noting that orphans are a very common narrative figure / trope and that I shouldn’t hold Star Wars responsible for killing off parents on such a scale that Obi Wan Kenobi might very well feel a disturbance in the force. If we begin with the fictional chronology, we have, of course Anakin Skywalker, who is already sort of orphaned — the mother seems a pretty minor character — and who gets officially orphaned by the third episode of the series.
That leads us to the orphaning of both Luke and Leia, the former of which is raised by an uncle who is never explained — we have to assume he’s either Anakin’s (older?) brother, who’s a complete bum for letting his mom rent his younger brother out to pay off debt or he’s a great uncle by being the mom’s brother or he’s just sort of a avuncular character that Obi Wan knows, likes, and trusts with a kid because, well, Tattooine! (The SW need for desert planets is something we can discuss another time.)
So Darth Vader is an orphan, and, as it turns out, Luke isn’t really an orphan since he had a dad the whole time, but then dad gets killed, as does another orphan’s dad, Galen Erso, father of Jyn, and thus, as the father of a Star Wars hero, doomed to die. The heroine of The Force Awakens, Rey, is also an orphan, making her way through another desert world, Jakku, all alone, only to discover she has a bit of family, and, oh yeah, she may be the daughter of Luke?
While you may have your doubts about Jedi parenting — after all, one could argue that Qui Gon and Kenobi do a terrible job of wrangling the terrible teenager Anakin and the galaxy pays the price (Oh! What a millennial he is!) — what you cannot doubt is that having a family means you’re aren’t going to be having a grand adventure any time soon. Granted that a character being orphaned is simply a way to dramatize that feeling of being alone that all of us encounter, and our loneliness may actually be considered a strength. Star Wars has turned being orphaned into something like a fetish. If I were a kid in a galaxy far, far away, I’d want to get rid of my parents to increase my chances of getting in on some adventure, hopefully the evil empire ending kind of adventure, but whatever.
The minor fetish, er, regular plot device in Star Wars is, of course, the revenant. Darth Vader is our prime example — and was no one taken between the sadness of old Kenobi remembering in A New Hope that Vader killed Luke’s father and the hacking at limbs of the young Kenobi? Maybe it was just me. The business of bringing people back from the dead was brought home to me when we got to witness Vader in one of the life support tubes — perhaps left over from the second or third Alien film, but it was highlighted even more watching the creepy CGI version of Peter Cushing — wouldn’t another Grand Moff had done, and he, or she, could simply have said, “When Grand Moff Tarkin gets here, he’s gonna be pissed.” This is something older films get right: oblique is better than the creepy computer zombie of a beloved character actor. That goes for zombie Princess Leia as well: just have a woman in the white costume glimpsed only from behind. The audience will get it. (Lucas, and now Disney, has never had much confidence in his audience.)
And how are they going to bring back Kylo Ren from the blowing up of the death planet thingy? He’ll come back. The same way that there’s some talk of the Rogue One character re-appearing in the next Star Wars films as the Knights of Ren. Because why complicate things with new characters when you can recycle familiar ones?