“Writers should not waste their time or talent trying to tell stories in someone else’s universe.”
– Orson Scott Card, on fan fiction in the afterward to Maps in a Mirror
(NOTE: Despite this statement, Card does, in fact, write fan-fiction)
*I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Sunday – 25 December 2016.
It’s easy to see why some people think George Lucas hates Star Wars; that every post-Empire entry into the franchise – from the Ewoks to the digital addition of Hayden Christensen – was his way of trying to slaughter the very goose that continually laid him golden eggs (even if some of those eggs stunk). That’s an oversimplification, of course, but to read about the anti-corporate Lucas who cut his teeth under the tutelage of Francis Ford Coppola, it’s not hard to think that he’d rather be making the next THX-1138 rather than the umpteenth tale in the galaxy far, far away.
In 2012, he unburdened himself from the Death Star-sized chip on his shoulder by selling Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise to Disney. He’s lived a comparatively quiet existence since – getting married, fathering his first (biological) child, and only occasionally appearing to make stupid comments. And if he wanted to free himself from all corporate cinematic responsibilities, perhaps it can be read as subtle commentary that he turned his creation over to the (often) redundant corporate entity that is The Mouse House.
With the release of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens and the new spin-off Rogue One, Disney appear to be fully committed to their publicly announced plan to release one Star Wars film per year. For those wondering if this will lead to too much of a good thing, you needn’t worry: both films released thus far show Disney have no intention of making the films good.
Nearly two decades after the rise of the Galactic Empire, the last remnants of The Old Republic have manifested themselves in the form of a Rebel Alliance. They strike the occasional significant blow to the Empire, but the latter’s resources are unlimited. So much so that they’ve nearly completed construction on a new super weapon. With the aid of a petty criminal named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the Rebels plot to infiltrate an imperial base and discover if it’s at all possible to destroy this weapon before it destroys them.
I should love this movie. It’s a reverent nod to the original trilogy through a modern day sensibilities and technology meant to shed light on shadows of the classic story that were previously unseen. It has, to date, the most diverse cast of any live action Star Wars film. It presents the idea of moral gray areas that add complexity to series’ clichéd “good vs. evil”. This is like the Extended Universe comics come to life.
So why do I think it fails? Because both it and The Force Awakens fall into the trap of all fan-fiction: they just rehash old stories with familiar characters. I know how that sounds, given the debt Star Wars (and the Indiana Jones films) owes to both well-worn mythologies and film genres. Nevertheless, the original Star Wars distinguished itself in its retelling; the new films make the same mistake as Lucas’ prequels in the way the merely refurbish what we’ve already seen before. It’s like watching Eragon again. Strike that – Eragon was merely a rip-off; the new Star Wars flicks are fan-fic made canon.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing good. If Rogue One makes one indisputable triumph, it sure as hell isn’t the CGI grave-robbing of Peter Cushing (and, retroactively, Carrie Fisher), but how it treats one of the series most important characters: this movie makes Darth Vader scary. I don’t mean just “evil” (we already know that) or merely intimidating. No, there’s a scene in this film that appears to come straight out of a slasher film, with a Sith lord and his lightsaber in place of a masked man with an axe. It’s intense, it’s terrifying, it’s a great thing to behold.
And it’s a welcome relief to a film that exists to give unnecessary details to a story for which we already know the ending.
Credit where it’s due: Rogue One is pretty to look at, and has some genuinely exciting set pieces at its disposal. That doesn’t change the fact that its existence is only to prove that the franchise has become the redundant corporate machine Lucas feared it would be. At least he can say that doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. Not many paying movie-watchers can say the same.