My experience with watching the Star Wars franchise as an adult could be summed up during a key moment, in Return of the Jedi, that fans of the series consider a turning point in Western narrative tradition: Incredulous, I turned to a friend and commented, “I can’t believe we’re watching a puppet die.” The difference between adult and child reactions to Star Wars is central to comprehending the new installment, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which adds to the Western economic tradition by commercializing the franchise’s fantasy appeal to post–Baby Boomer and Millennial generations.
The brand-name consumerist practice continues in Rogue One’s tale — another flashback to the very, very beginning — about efforts, headed by the Rebellion’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Endor (Diego Luna), to steal the Empire’s plans for the Death Star. This latest “origin story” features no storytelling development but simply repeats Star Wars formulae as did last year’s The Force Awakens (and just like the indistinguishable episodes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter). Rogue One, a huckster’s tale, confirms the Disney Corporation’s routine indoctrination of its captive audience.
It would take a social psychologist on the order of Bruno Bettelheim (author of the fairy-tale study The Uses of Enchantment) to parse Rogue One’s repetitive story and characters as recurring dream figures. Certainly, abandoned child Jyn and rascal Cassian represent Hansel and Gretel adventurers seeking to repair their damaged family and community relations while contending with fearful social forces (Darth Vader, Saw Gerrera, Grand Moff Tarkin). This traumatic condition fits the obsessive pattern of behavior that defines contemporary cultural habits.
So, while Jyn Erso fulfills the new feminist mandate, Jones’s bucktooth charm is juvenile without quite fitting the gung-ho manner required. Luna’s Cassian Endor suffers the fate of Hollywood’s usual multicultural gestures; he stands in for diversity yet hasn’t been given a personality beyond representing the now-diminished masculine principle. (As for the new robot sidekick K-2SO, I can’t believe we’re watching mechanical comic relief.) If Luke, Leia, and Han Solo were already tired pop archetypes, these types feel degraded. They are, to quote a prominent pop propagandist, the JV team.Rogue One works on this basic, familiar level by distracting from it. Like Star Wars back in 1977 (when it offered a childish diversion from the social and personal inquiries that distinguish the ’70s films of the American Renaissance), Rogue One flatters the moral and political distance felt by today’s audiences. But this form of escapism is tricky. It depends on the reassuring recognition of well-known characters (the intergalactic menagerie of alien creatures, stormtroopers, and robots) and customary details (sci-fi surplus space ships) with slight variations (machinery painted in worn khaki colors, and iterations of that good old lightsaber).
The JV aspect of Rogue One reflects Gareth Edwards’s uninspired direction. The first 90 minutes of Jyn and Cassian and the ragtag Rebellion traversing distant planets occurs in drab, shadowy places with monotonous dialogue repeating Star Wars cant. When the Rebellion finally arrives at Scarif, a tropical planet housing the Death Star, the bright sky, blue atmosphere, and unexpected palm trees are a real relief from aesthetic tedium. Suddenly, the toys appear: from the walking dinosaur tanks to space crafts in origami shapes. It’s like the March of Wooden Soldiers from Babes in Toyland, set at cliché warp speed.In a tired attempt at making this Death Star battle a quasi-political allegory, Disney’s screenplay hacks (including Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) cajole the Occupy generation with the phrase “Rebellion is built on hope” — uttered twice, as if Star Wars had not been appropriated by Reagan’s defense department but was now in sync with contemporary student protest. But it’s a deceptive, Machiavellian mantra. Rogue One isn’t sophisticated enough to see past the phrase’s falsehood or adult enough to dramatize the current administration’s betrayal of “hope and change” and how its media sycophants eventually lost public trust in hope or change. Rogue One’s juvenile politics recall how, in Revenge of the Sith (2005), Princess Amidala (Natalie Portman) whimpered, “So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.” Liberal reviewers hailed the line as a rebuke of George W. Bush’s reelection.
But there’s no need to ascribe fake significance to the Star Wars franchise when there are other great space movies, from Altman’s Countdown and Kubrick’s 2001 to Spielberg’s Close Encounters and Walter Hill’s Supernova. These films make Rogue One look like the JV team indeed.
— Armond White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and, most recently, New Position: The Prince Chronicles.