Rogue One handcuffed Jyn Erso with Star Wars nostalgia
Spoilers throughout for every Star Wars movie.
Luke Skywalker was an orphan, but that wasn't the only important thing about him. The point of Luke in the first Star Wars wasn't that he had a complicated past, or that he had a particularly interesting motivation. The film didn't underline the idea that he was living up to his father, or that he was openly defying his foster parents, or that he had a thirst for social justice. (He barely seems to know what the Empire is.)
The important thing about Luke in the first Star Wars was that he was unencumbered by all that. His whole life was this great big possible thing. He didn't have to be a farmer, he could choose to follow in his father's footsteps, he could be a far-out space guy, he could be the hero, he could do something new. Everything from Mos Eisley onwards was so new for him.
So sure: He asks a few questions about his father, he mourns Obi-Wan for a minute, mourns his foster parents for a barely half a second. But their absence isn't some void in his heart, some trauma he will never get over. It is the collapse of boundaries, it is his arrival in adulthood, it is the film's way of saying "Luke, it's all up to you now." Even in Empire, when Luke's a Commander, he doesn't really take authority seriously, he leaves the Rebels to go to Dagobah, he leaves Dagobah against Yoda's advice to go rescue his friends, he finds out the bad guy is his father and that father-figure Obi-Wan lied to him. In Return of the Jedi he brings his father back from the Dark Side but then burns him to ashes, and at the end of the trilogy he's still a young man with his friends and his whole life ahead of him and everything is just so possible.
Jyn Erso is an orphan, and it seems like the only important thing about her — at least according to the new Star Wars movie. It defines her, it is her plot, it is her motivation, it is her mission, it is her justification. Rogue One starts with a prologue, with Jyn and her father and her mother and Ben Mendelsohn as the man who will kill her parents. (This is a Disney movie in 2016, so of course it's the story of a child entirely defined by their separation from Mom and Dad: The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon and Civil War and Finding Dory and I think the little girl was an orphan in The BFG.)
In the prologue, Jyn's mom dies and is never mentioned again. Her father gets taken away. In case you arrive at the movie late, the first half of Rogue One will recite this first scene over and over again (drink every time someone says "Galen" or "Father"). At one point Jyn has a dream, which is just a clip show of this prologue. I have to believe this prologue scene was added in reshoots; the movie makes more sense if it's not there at the start, if all the talk about "Galen" and "Father" is a gradual teasing-out of mysterious Jyn's hidden motivation and not an endless repetition of something you already saw.
As grown-up Jyn, Felicity Jones gives an okay performance as a character who is never allowed to be as cool as she looked in the advertisements. She does't get to say the most important line of the trailer: "This is a rebellion, isn't it? I rebel!" Which makes sense, because Jyn's actually not rebellious, and she's never flippant enough to say something like that. Jyn is a a thief who was forcefully pushed out of the rebellion by one father figure (Saw Gerrera) but she's brought back into the Rebellion because they need her to contact Saw, because the Rebellion needs information on her actual father. She goes along with everything and gets sad when she sees her father on a hologram, and gets sadder when she sees her father in real life, and then she gives a speech about the importance of rebellion, and then she leads what the movie implies is the first real important battle of this whole star war. <iframe src="//giphy.com/embed/xTiQyC6kT9N7qJBZGU" width="480" height="198" frameborder="0" class="giphy-embed" allowfullscreen="" scrolling="no" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>
Jones has a much better angle on this material than I think Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and Oscar Isaac had in Force Awakens. They went big, acting like grown-up Disney kids who loved everything and were just so super excited to be there. Jones is tough without calling attention to her toughness, sad the way tough people can be sad.
Actually, during Rogue One's interminable let's-fly-to-another-planet-then-cut-back-to-Tarkin second act, I kept on imagining what Rogue One would be if the same exact cast had just re-performed A New Hope. Like, if Felicity Jones was playing Luke Skywalker, and Diego Luna was playing Princess Leia and well, I guess, the gender-flipping game gets hard there. Because like Force Awakens, this movie has one strong female lead and one strong supporting female and a lady pilot. But let's say just for fun that Mads Mikkelsen played an andro Han Solo hot for both Jones-Luke and Luna-Leia, and Donnie Yen was Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Alan Tudyk was a more catty C-3PO, and Forest Whitaker played Uncle Owen, and Jiang Wen played Biggs Darklighter, and Biggs would have a much bigger role, because no way they would they cut the Tosche Station scene today. Rogue One is basically one long extended Tosche Station scene: The whole point of a Macguffin is that it doesn't really matter but here we are with a whole movie about the secret history of the Death Star plans (coincidentally here's my spec script for Letters of Transit: A Casablanca Story).
So in this ludicrously constructed New Hope remake I just laid out, it's clear to me that Felicity Jones would make at least as good and maybe a better Luke Skywalker than Mark Hamill. You imagine her staring at the two suns, her melancholy eyes not giving off the vibe of someone who's bored seeking adventure but rather someone who is totally desperate to get the hell off Tatooine.
Is it weird that I would prefer that direct remake to Rogue One‘s lateralized New Hope remix? Is it weird that I would rather see some actor who looks nothing at all like Peter Cushing essay the role of "Grand Moff Tarkin," instead of watching the reanimated digital version of long-deceased Peter Cushing play out an elaborate bureaucratic subplot while waiting for his actual story to start in the next movie? (When people play Hamlet, nobody thinks they should do a whole play about Hamlet with the pirates, or what life was like when Hamlet's dad was King.)
But something occurred to me when I was daydreaming about the Felicity Jones version of New Hope. We tie Luke to his father in our memory, but in the first Star Wars, he didn't have memories of his father. He wasn't haunted, he wasn't ruined, he wasn't Bruce Wayne, he wasn't following orders from a previous generation, he wasn't defined at all by a previous generation. He was in defiance of the representatives of that previous generation. His two paternal figures are a weird hippie in a desert and a weirder hippie in a swamp. And they lie to him, and he's not happy about it.
I know Jyn's a different character and I'm not saying everyone needs to be the same. But allow, for just a moment, that one of the main purposes of these new Star Wars movies is to remind you of the original movies. Force Awakens and Rogue One aren't this franchise's The Next Generation, set a century later in a totally different context with a more expansive and evolved narrative style. Force Awakens and Rogue One are movies about recognizable imitations of other characters fighting a Death Star or a Super Death Star. They depend on you having some context. They invite comparison. Maybe you like how similar they are to the original movies, and maybe you think they are karaoke versions of greatest hits.
So indulge me, for a second, and compare Luke's arc to Jyn. She is defined, exclusively, in this film — probably her only film — by her parentage. Saw saves Jyn because of her father, the Rebels need her for her father, she only turns Rebel because she watches her father die, she's only able to be an effective Rebel because her father built a hyper-specific backdoor-to-destruction cheat code into the Death Star. Jyn is haunted by the previous generation, defined by it, this movie talks a lot about "hope" but Jyn's only real hope is that she can fulfill the hopes of her father.
Luke Skywalker was an orphan who didn't care that he was an orphan. He kind of liked it actually: you never hear him moan about his happy days on the moisture farm. Luke was off on adventures with his generation and he ultimately fought back against the generation that bore him. When I think of Jyn and how completely the movie traps her, how utterly ensnared she is in the actions of her father and her stepfather and the Rebel leaders, I'm reminded of Hanna Rosin's brilliant piece about the suicide clusters in Palo Alto just a 40-minute drive from Lucasfilm headquarters. Rosin talks to a child psychologist who practices in the Bay Area, about how teenagers have changed in the last decade or so…
"What disturbs her most is the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, she told me, where the teens would tell their parents, ‘This is bad for me! I'm not doing this.' Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what Levine calls a ‘mass delusion' that there is but one path to a successful life, and that is very narrow."
I don't know where this feeling comes from (and it's churlish to try and offer suggestions). But I know what that feeling looks like now. It looks like Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones in Star Wars, playing characters who literally cannot get over the idea of their parents. Ridley basically did play Luke Skywalker, except Rey wants to stay on her desert planet. Jyn is only important because her dad is important, and she dies because her father's last will and testament indirectly dooms her to die. That is actually an impressively depressing idea — it makes Rogue One feel a bit like The Marriage of Maria Braun, where a very independent woman's liberation is actually a fake ploy concocted by two men who loved her who didn't realize that the ploy was a kind of trap that would make the woman they both loved hate them and hate herself.
But instead Rogue One tries to argue that actually it's all about Jyn awakening to some higher social conscious: That, in fact, it is only by following the path laid down for her by her father and by Saw and by the Rebel Alliance — played, in Rogue One, by various Senators; was the Alliance always secretly just aristocrats worried about losing their power in the centralized government? — it is only by following that path that she can become her true self. So Rogue One is a film about a group called the Rebellion, but it's really about giving in: To Mon Mothma, to history that was written long ago, to the character who looks and sounds exactly like Ackbar and does everything Ackbar did in Return of the Jedi. Rogue One is a movie that says: "You will only be truly complete when you join up with the Star Wars."
You could argue that "awakening to some higher social conscious" was the Han Solo story in A New Hope. That film didn't underline Han's journey as a "journey." He was a cynic and a profiteer, and then suddenly he came back to help Luke. That's a sharp difference from a whole movie about a melancholy loner watching scenes of devastation before heroically agreeing to turn a satellite toward the southern hemisphere. Like a lot of modern superhero films, the new Star Wars films justify a lot of character development with a moral binary. Even if Dr. Strange still acts like an egotistical ass with a god complex at the end of Doctor Strange, he has "saved the world," so he's a good guy. Even though nothing happens in Rogue One to make you understand why total Zero Dark Thirty kill-allies-for-the-greater-good badass Cassian Andor is becoming a softy, the film justifies it on the principle that he's becoming a good person. That's a false character turn, and not a particularly interesting one. Han's choice wasn't "good" or "evil," it was "individualism" versus "community," or maybe he just wanted to punish the Empire for capturing his ship. His character arc was a character arc. Han lived in an open world, and the new Star Wars movies put everybody on rails.
In Rogue One, Jyn's only choice is good or evil, which means her only real choice is to follow the path set down for her by her father and her father figure and the authority figures of the Rebellion set down for her. So of course most of Rogue One is just people flying Jyn places so she can experience epiphanies. (The film actually gets much better if you imagine Cassian Andor is a Westworld host.) And of course Rogue One lands on the idea that Jyn's most noble act is one she was forced into, a journey begun by her father and her adopted father figure and the guy who recruits her into the Rebellion, all of it in response to the guy who kills her parents. A heroic woman, trapped on all sides by men. Written by Chris Weitz and John Knoll and Tony Gilroy and Gary Whitta, directed by Gareth Edwards.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story