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Going Rogue

by Ross Douthat

I still remember the moment when my teenage self first dared to contemplate the possibility that there might, somehow, someday, be more Star Wars movies. This was before the Internet (or before it mattered), in the days when geekery was not yet a culture-bestriding force, when sci-fi and fantasy and superheroes barely merited a mention in the pages of glossy movie magazines. I was reading one of those magazines — Entertainment Weekly, I imagine — in a doctor’s office, and there in a modest item near the front was the stunning news: George Lucas was considering filming . . . wait for it . . . prequels.

We were fanboys, once, and young.

That feeling, that pure geeked-out thrill, is a hard thing to recapture. In my case it lasted through all the trailers for The Phantom Menace — the first trailers to be downloaded one gazillion times — and fizzled out somewhere during the second act of Attack of the Clones, when all self-deception finally failed and I admitted that yes, these movies really are that bad.

When Disney bought the Star Wars brand from its legacy-squandering creator and announced not only sequels but a new adventure in the galaxy long ago and far away every single year from here till doomsday, there were people for whom the old magic clearly came rushing back. But for me the announcement had the opposite effect: It made me feel more regret, not less, over what George Lucas had tried and failed to do.

If the prequels had been at the level of the originals (even the level of Return of the Jedi, the weakest of the three), The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker would have been a pop-culture achievement for the ages — distinctive, self-contained, needing no embellishment. Now instead Star Wars would be just another brand in the blockbuster factory, one more tentpole among many, competing with Marvel and DC Comics for the fanboy dollar every summer, too oppressively omnipresent to conjure up that old exciting shiver.

I was in the minority in feeling this way, judging by the reaction to The Force Awakens, the first Disneyfied Star Wars film and a straight-up nostalgia trip, an almost blow-by-blow reimagining of the first Skywalker adventure: Critics praised it, fans embraced it, and everyone agreed it was way, way better than the prequels. Which it was, on the level of acting and screenwriting and execution — but it had no originality whatsoever, it was (like most J. J. Abrams flicks) a pure homage, zippy but derivative, and by the time things wound up with a lame do-over of the Death Star assault, I was almost pining for the chloroform-drenched galactic politics of The Phantom Menace.

So after all that curmudgeonly preamble, I’m here to tell you that Rogue One, the first of the stand-alone Star Wars movies (Force Awakens kicks off a trilogy, the next installment of which bows next year) is also the first Star Wars movie of my adult life that has stirred my long-dormant fanhood, kicked sparks up from its glowing coals. It is not quite the movie it could be — it’s too rushed, too crowded, too undercharacterized. But it’s a movie about the Star Wars universe that actually made me glad to step into that universe again — and after Lucas’s botch and Abrams’s retread, I’ll take it.

The plot is set just before the events of the original movie, with the Empire clamping down throughout the galaxy, the rebels plotting ineffectually, and the Death Star project a dark rumor on the stellar wind. “A planet-killer,” spies and outlaws and informants call it, in the seedy outer-rim back alleys where crucial information is exchanged. And one piece of information, in particular, becomes the movie’s MacGuffin, its pearl of great price — the Death Star schematics, and with them the weakness that a certain Skywalker’s torpedoes will ultimately exploit.

In pursuit of those plans are a motley crew, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) coerced into working on the Death Star, and joined by — deep breath — Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and the bone-dry droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). I don’t have time to explain every character (I haven’t even gotten to the rebel-splinter-group leader played by Forest Whitaker or Ben Mendelsohn’s imperial heavy, Orson Krennic), and neither does the movie, which is the main weakness of its first two-thirds: Everything is hurried and underexplained, and, as in most blockbusters today, the characters never relax enough to become genuinely knowable. Just an extra ten or 15 minutes would have done wonders for the story, let it breathe and let its details flourish.

But those details are still well chosen. There is good stuff on the moral ambiguities of the rebellion (if not quite enough to clinch The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last’s influential case for the Empire), a fine mix of villains old and new (I thought the CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin worked, though others found it uncanny), just the right amount of Easter eggs and call-backs for fans, some planet-hopping that actually expands the universe a little (though maybe someday we can have a Star Wars movie without a desert planet), and exactly the right amount of a certain Dark Lord of the Sith. And Gareth Edwards, the director, crafted a finale that’s actually up to the standards of the original series without simply rehashing its best beats.

Calling something the best Star Wars movie since the originals isn’t the strongest form of praise, and Rogue One isn’t the strongest movie. But it reminded me that I like Star Wars, and it made me remember — if not quite re-experience — what it feels like to really love it. Two Disney movies in, I’ll take that level of achievement; they’ll probably have another few hundred chances to get closer to perfection.

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