“Casterfo had the same sort of aristocratic accent Grand Moff Tarkin had spoken in, the one so many senior Imperial officers affected the one [Leia had] mocked when she and Tarkin last stood face-to-face. She tried not to let that put her on edge.” — Claudia Gray, ‘Star Wars: Bloodline’
“[George Lucas] took me aside and told me ‘This is a very big deal for Leia… her planet is about to get blown up…and that means everything she knows is gonna be gone forever. So you’re upset. SHE is very upset.’ I listened carefully because I was the one with most of the earnest lines, and prior to this I didn’t know whether I was going to have to deliver them earnestly. When you watch the movie, it turns out that the voice I used when I was upset was vaguely British, and my not-upset voice is less British.” — Carrie Fisher, ‘The Princess Diarist’
Long ago, in the before time, we lived in an era where there were no Star Wars movies being made. It was an epoch known in the common tongue as “The Nineties.” And during the Nineties, with no new Star Wars movies on the horizon to to tide us over, we were left with a cultural landscape as arid as the Jundland Wastes. Sure, we could reminisce about the paltry three movies (kids these days, with their prequels and spinoffs!) or even read a good Timothy Zahn EU novel. But really, all we did was twiddle our thumbs, hum the “Parade of the Ewoks” to ourselves, and speculate whether the man running at the time for president wore boxers or briefs. But in these dark times, we did have a weekly respite. Every evening, on Thursdays, entire families across the land would huddle up, together, in their living rooms. I’m talking, of course, about Frasier.
You might not think the 90s-era misadventures of a Boston psychiatrist turned Seattle radio personality have much to say about the most popular science fiction film series of all time. But in addition to one cute (if hackneyed) reference and a barely-qualifying cameo, the show also imparts some instructive wisdom in the season 2 episode “Retirement is Murder.” Upon returning from an “exquisite” meal at some trendy new restaurant, Niles laments he found the experience “marred only by the lack of even one outstanding cognac on their carte de digestif.” Yet without missing a single beat, his brother Frasier gleefully replies the only thing better than an exquisite meal is “an exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.” Of course, the text of the joke ribs the brothers and their haughty pretenses of making “perfect” the enemy of “exquisite.” (When Niles repeats his single quibble later to Daphne, she replies “Oh, just how you like it!”) Yet I do think more fuels this ritual than simple haughtiness. There is a communal experience here the brothers share, having had the sensual pleasure of a stellar dining experience—while still looking forward to an evening of testing the limits of their wit, snark, and capacity for cutting language. They are having their cake and picking it too.
Star Wars is the great popular medium’s version of an exquisite meal with the sub-par cognac listing. Each movie—good and bad—is rife with pickable nits, ranging from plot inconsistencies to reservations about the story’s logic to eyebrow-raising directorial choices. How does Leia possess faint memories of her mother, despite her dying minutes after giving birth? Why does Luke have no memory of that same mother, even though he’s the twin Padme interacts with before croaking? How does Rey know to perform a Jedi mind trick, even if she’s never performed one? Why is Darth Vader, for to-be-obvious reasons obsessed with tracking Luke in Empire, nonetheless seem surprised by the Emperor’s revelation of their family lineage? How does Palpatine’s face, deformed by his own electricity, melt into something perfectly symmetrical?Why wouldn’t Obi-Wan and R2-D2 recognize each other? Or Vader and C-3PO? Why wipe 3PO’s memory, but not R2’s? Speaking of droids, which sicko thought it was ethical to program them to register enough pain that they could be tortured?
(Here’s my favorite: in The Phantom Menace why does a Queen’s decoy—disguised as the queen—command actual-Queen Padme to clean up R2-D2, even though their ship is stranded in space and important decisions likely need to be made? It’s not as if Padme can actually break character in front of people, because that’d defeat the purpose of having a decoy? What game are the Handmaidens playing? Is it any wonder the government’s been overtaken by an import/export conglomerate?)
I really could dedicate the full essay to this. But I’ll end with one of the most popular logic flaws in all Star Wars lore: the ease with which the torpedoes of a single-manned X-Wing could obliterate a planet-killing, heavily-armored space station. General Dodonna does explain how a less rigorous defense means a single pilot could conceivably sneak through. But isn’t it a little convenient, George Lucas, to have such a small, yet gaping, solution to your plot?
As a fan who delights in these kinds of holes, I can’t quite say I needed an answer to this. But Rogue One feels it’s a question in need of answering. In a critical scene of exposition-dumping, Jyn Erso learns of this weakness through a holographic voicemail from her father Galen, the Death Star’s chief architect. He reveals, as a brilliant act of revenge against the Empire, he intentionally embedded this structural vulnerability to allow for easy destruction.
And like spackle on drywall, a legendary plot hole is gone.
The choice to retcon the most glaring logical flaw of the original Star Wars is, I say with a deep sigh of resignation, an inspired one. And for all the other storytelling issues at play in Rogue One, this is one of the more ingenious instances of the series ironing out its wrinkles. I ought to find this narrative trickery gratifying. And yet it kind of bums me out. It’s a little like brushing out the wrinkles or blemishes on a model’s face, removing the weedy tendrils from a building facade, or converting your favorite 35mm film to a digital projection. Of course, things look smoother, even slicker. But for all the good intentions of the corrective act, some of the character gets lost.
There’s also something vaguely insidious to this, the choice to hammer out the dings of pre-existing stories that, for all their flaws, succeed in areas more valuable to the moviegoer than their logic. (As discussed in a previous essay, to explain rather than expand.) An attempt to sand off the rough edges in existing material, as opposed to capitalizing on this series’ first genuine opportunity for a self-contained narrative. More than anything in even The Force Awakens, which played comfortably (though compellingly) in the shadow of previous Star Wars movie, the choices here especially feel like the product of careful franchise curation. They betray a storyteller’s overarching wariness to approach this material with more perversity. Thus rendering the nits of Rogue One—the completely excisable appearances of Vader, of R2-D2 and C-3PO, of Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan—less fun to pick, because they are choices less interested in telling a new story than pruning an old one.
If you find this a frivolous subject for an essay on Rogue One, well, you’re probably right. Frankly, this is my most passionate takeaway from the lone Star Wars movie from which I struggle to muster affection. There’s a self-seriousness to this particular adventure that leaves me cold. I’m reminded of the time I tweeted that observation about Padme’s handmaidens ordering her around. A humorless individual on the internet (if you can fathom such a person existing) argued that the Naboo are a “utopian society that values humility” and, as such, would pride themselves on the upper class doing menial work (never mind that this so-called “utopia” ostracizes an entire species of amphibious beings). Of course there’s no “wrong” way to enjoy any movie, and honestly, god bless that internet commentor for his Gold-medal mental gymnastics. I just can’t imagine it’s very fun to invest such energy concocting explanations to make the cogs of a universe work more smoothly, when in truth running smoothly is not what this machine ever cared to do.
For all the adoration and fandom they garner, Star Wars remains a pretty silly, even stupid, collection of movies. But their inherent silliness, their lack of coherence, don’t diminish their power or artistry. They are works that recognize the appeal of the formative, popular art of our youth, and behaves every bit like that art. I envision George Lucas back in the seventies, hanging out with his pal Steven Spielberg, geeking out over Flash Gordon and other film serials, snarking Frasier-style—articulately yet lovingly—about those works’ inherent hokum. Hokum, not world-building, is Star Wars’ center of gravity. Taking the piss out of them is every bit a part of the experience of loving them.
Now that they are expected to return on Disney’s $4 billion investment, I guess I can’t be too surprised (or too dismayed) by the seriousness of Rogue One, by the perfection expected of it. Hopefully future installments will remember, though, that “perfection” is the last thing we really need from these movies.
This is the eighth in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Downside of Safe Choices
- How The Phantom Menace (1999) Compensates for a Lack of Mystery
- In Attack of the Clones (2002), John Williams is Smoother than Sand
- On Revenge of the Sith (2005), and George Lucas as Auteur
- With The Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars
Becomes its Own Mythology
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14