Shortly after the premiere for Rogue One, I tweeted a number of reactions to the movie, including: “Darth Vader gets a moment of pure horror. Maybe more than one…”
Then I got a question from a reader: “Will my 4-year-old fall out of love with him? She refuses to believe he’s the bad guy.”
That made me want to reach for the “wince” emoji. I have a 4-year-old, too, and as much as he loves Star Wars, I’m going to wait a few years before we enjoy Rogue One together. It’s just a bit too intense, a bit too tragic, and bit too complex for him.
But that doesn’t mean every young kid should stay away.
The trickier question is my 7-year-old daughter, who is so eager to learn more about this new hero Jyn Erso that she would Force-push me out the window if I cancelled our plans to see it together on Friday.
I’m still going to take her, but I’m glad I saw Rogue One on my own first. There are some relentlessly terrifying moments in this PG-13-rated movie, and its final act is a true soldier’s story – which (as the MPAA notes) means significantly more sci-fi violence than past films in the series.
We’ve usually experienced Rebel losses in the context of starships exploding, and in Return of the Jedi the only battlefield melancholy was a single fallen Ewok mourned by a fellow furball. In Rogue One, there is much greater emphasis on the cost paid by noble people (and aliens) while trying to do what’s right.
It’s a bloodless movie, for the most part. (We’re dealing with blasters, not bullets.) But death is death. Younger kids may have a harder time seeing characters risk and (mild spoiler) sometimes lose their lives for a greater good.
Last year, I described The Force Awakens as the darkest Star Wars film yet, and I still think that was true at the time. The themes of abandonment, brutality, and death were much more intense in J.J. Abrams’ film than previous installments. But after seeing Rogue One, that title of “darkest Star Wars movie” has been usurped. This is the more “grown-up” movie that longtime Star Wars fans have been wanting – so we shouldn’t be shocked that it may not be ideal for the very youngest fans.
Still, every kid is different, as is every parent. One size doesn’t fit all. Some may decide to keep the kids home, others may simply want to know what to expect beforehand so they can manage their children’s reactions.
In that spirit, here’s a guide to prepping your younglings for what’s to come, and suggestions for how to talk to them about the emotions may linger after the credits roll.
I’m going to try to keep it spoiler free, but … in order to talk about these things, I have to touch on them in a general way. I won’t give away specifics, but I’m going to hit on a few themes – most of them, frankly, have been suggested by the trailers.DARK VADER
“And hey, how ‘bout Darth Vader in that black and evil mask! Did he scare you as much as he scared meeeeee?”
That was Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer, crooning about Star Wars on Saturday Night Live. But let’s be honest: Vader has always been more ominously cool than straight-up frightening.
At the point we met him in 1977’s original Star Wars, striding aboard Princess Leia’s Tantive IV cruiser, Vader was intimidating for sure, but he mostly reserved his cruelty for Force-choking fellow Imperials. We also saw his drift toward redemption in the original trilogy, but in Rogue One he is unburdened by the pull of morality.
This time, he’s a killer.
There are several scenes featuring the character, again voiced by James Earl Jones, but two in particular stand out as especially disturbing (and also, I admit, very cool). I’m not going to specify what they are here, but suffice to say we get a glimpse of what everyday life is like for the Sith Lord, whose ruined body remains functional thanks to his full-body armor and breathing apparatus. His day-to-day existence is anguish.
The Empire Strikes Back hinted at that, but Rogue One gives us a long, hard look in a moment of body-horror that would be at home in a David Cronenberg film. It’s a short scene, but it makes a mark.
There’s also a long-anticipated battle sequence involving Vader that, to draw another comparison, reminded me of something out of a slasher film. Picture Michael Myers with a lightsaber. (But, again, no blood.)
I’m really not exaggerating here. This moment is deeply unsettling. If it doesn’t make that reader’s 4-year-old fall “out of love” with Darth Vader, it may be time to check that kid’s hairline for a “666.”
Little ones who know Vader from adorable storybooks are going to grow up fast when they see Rogue One.
How to deal: Simple fix – a hand in front of the eyes. You’ll know these two scenes when they show up.
I don’t want my 7-year-old to absorb the full impact of the sequences in question. What’s awesome to me, may freak her out. So I’m going to let her know it’s okay to give into any impulse to curl up and look away.
Afterward, talk about the fact that there really are bad people in the world, and they don’t care who they hurt. Vader is like that. But bad people can repent, and that’s what we see in the original movie. They usually need good people to show them the way.JYN’S PLIGHT
Felicity Jones’ character is a great role model for kids, especially girls, who need more fearsome women to put in the action-figure collections alongside Leia and Rey. Boys will also see a strong, compassionate hero to admire and emulate. That’s worth talking about with them.
Jyn is an inspiration for everyone, a kid who was abandoned and found a way to protect herself without losing the good person she is inside.
But her story has a harsher, more tragic side than even Rey, who was abandoned to the desert world Jakku and remained unsure what became of her family. Jyn knows. All too well.
We see exactly how her abandonment takes place when she is about 7 or 8 years old. By now, it’s not a spoiler to say that her scientist father, Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is kidnapped and forced to work on the Empire’s Death Star project. But she also has a mother, and what happens to Lyra Erso is not just tragic – it happens right before Jyn’s eyes.
This kind of thing isn’t unusual to children’s storytelling. Parents have been lost in everything from Bambi to Finding Nemo, but in live-action it might be disconcerting for the very young.
I will say this incident in Rogue One is not quite as bad as what happened in the original Star Wars, when Luke returns to his Tatooine moisture farm to find the smoldering skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. But it’s definitely another hand-over-the-eyes, hold-them-close moment.
How to deal: Here’s the first thing I typed: “After the movie, reassure younger kids that although any parent would lay down his or her life to protect a child, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life.”
But then I began thinking about what little ears may have picked up from radio and TV news. There’s no shortage of dread and ugliness in our world, especially this year, and if kids connect those dots in the context of what happens to the Erso family I think it’s important to be honest rather than obfuscate.
What I would say is, yes, Jyn suffered a horrible loss, and what happened to her parents was cruel and wrong. It’s not right to hunt people down and tear apart families. It’s not right to punish scientists. It’s not right to use fear and intimidation to control people. This is what makes the Imperials the bad guys (even if they have cool costumes).
Our real world is also full of unfairness, but it’s important to see that Jyn didn’t react by creating more of it, by becoming cruel herself — as Vader did.
She dedicated herself to fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. She didn’t let fear consume her. She was still willing to run into danger to save others who were helpless, as she once was.
Hopefully, kids will find that reassuring. Nothing dispels fear like bravery.HEROES GONE WRONG
Rogue One has a few “good” characters who commit violent acts for what they believe to be a just cause. It’s a gray area that adds a layer of complexity to a franchise that is usually black and white about morality.
Rogue One goes beyond Han Solo blasting Greedo. This time, good guys don’t just shoot first, they target other good guys as the Rebellion struggles to find an identity and purpose.
What makes a rebel and what makes an insurgent? This is a deeper question that Rogue One makes us ask.
How to deal: Kids should know that one moral of this story is that it’s easy to go wrong while trying to do right.
That’s why it’s important to listen to that voice warning you if something feels wrong. You may think you’re supporting the right thing or acting for a good cause, but if a bad vibe nags you inside, it’s worth listening to that and reevaluating yourself.
Despite these heroes with dubious morals, there are also two major characters who were once villains but decided to change their ways: the Imperial security droid K-2SO and the cargo pilot Bodhi Rook.
Both of them feel regret over what they did in their pasts, but by listening to their consciences (for Kaytoo, that conscience is his reprogrammer, Cassian Andor) they discovered a different path and set out on a course for redemption.
Kids make bad choices, too. They might be reassured to know that even when you do the wrong thing, it’s possible to make amends.BATTLE FATIGUE
There’s a heavy-duty amount of gunplay in Rogue One, and while the battles are thrilling, their relentlessness may be hard for younger kids to watch — especially when characters they’ve come to know and like reach violent ends.
We already know the outcome of the story: the Rebels get the plans they need to blow up the Death Star. That hasn’t been a spoiler since the opening crawl of the original 1977 movie.
But that victory comes with a high price and it’s not just anonymous background characters who pay it.
Even tougher kids will probably find themselves reacting emotionally. But that’s not a bad thing.
How to deal: I’m actually looking forward to talking about this with my daughter after the movie. I think fantasy stories do a disservice when the only message they send is that good guys always end happily.
The concept of sacrifice is a hard one to teach a kid. Rogue One might do us a favor there.
Kids aren’t going to ever be responsible for stealing the plans to a galactic battle station, but the message of Rogue One can manifest itself in their lives in other ways.
On the micro level, it’s about not turning away when the playground bully is picking on someone else, even if the bully turns his or her attention to you.
Maybe it’s about sharing something even if you get less: fewer toys, a smaller slice of cake, tolerating your little brother’s cartoon for a while instead of watching your own.
On a much larger scale, the world – our world – usually seems too big to change, but history is full of people who did just that. Often they gave their lives, and even more often they have gone unknown.
Jyn and her Rebel friends were strangers to us until now, even though their work was critical to helping Luke and the other Rebels bring down the Death Star in the first movie. That’s because their story wasn’t written until this spin-off was planned, of course, but there’s also something moving about the previous anonymity of the Rebel team who stole those construction plans.
Being a hero isn’t about being famous. It’s not about being happy or even safe. It’s also not about winning.
It’s about knowing what you did was right and that it helped make someone else happier or safer.
It’s also about hope — the hope that others will follow what you’ve done, and maybe be inspired to carry it a little further.
For more Star Wars news, follow @Breznican.