I was going to post this review a couple weeks earlier, but the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia, delayed my finishing it. Leia was barely in this installment, and much of the initial discussion of her cameo focused on the CGI. But even though I haven’t been a real Star Wars geek for many years, Fisher’s death hit me hard. Star Wars nerdery was a big part of my childhood, and an especially big part of my relationship with my younger brother, for whom it was more socially acceptable than it was for me to collect all the action figures and playsets. When Luke and Leia turned out to be siblings, it cemented my identification with Leia. She was a co-conspirator and an equal with her brother in the rebellion.
I looked forward to The Force Awakens last year as much as anyone else, and I was thrilled to meet onscreen Rey and Finn, a new Skywalker and a stormtrooper with a conscience: characters who blew out of the water the tired old stereotype that black or female leads couldn’t carry a blockbuster movie in the United States. I cheered them on and listened to the soaring John Williams soundtrack, delighted by their exploits. Except.
Except, as much as I loved The Force Awakens, I also hated The Force Awakens. The story was exciting enough and boldly told that I was mostly willing to forgive the many plot holes, but I will never forgive the way Han Solo was killed.
I seem to be a minority in this view, maybe a minority of one. When I ventured to my friends, “that part was a little too dark for me,” they answered back, “It’s *supposed* to be dark! That’s what Star Wars is about!” And they’re right. It’s not called the Dark Side for nothing.
But Star Wars is about more than that, to me. It’s also about humor, and about hope and redemption. And all the humor, hope, and redemption that I had lived along with Han and Leia’s love story and in their victory over the Empire died with Han there on that stupid, unnecessary catwalk.
I came home from the film to fitful sleep and disturbed dreams: Leia, Han, and Luke hadn’t just made a few parental and avuncular mistakes. No, they had screwed up so badly that they spawned a mass murderer. Leia Organa as Susan Klebold.
“It’s a classic battle of good and evil,” a friend told me. “An allegory, a morality play” (as my 10th grade English teacher had also once remarked). “No one side will ever really win or defeat the other side permanently.” This argument struck me as Nietszchean. It did feel to me as if Han’s death had plunged the series into some nightmare of eternal return, in which nothing and no one ever won or lost or even changed very much: Jakku was just Tatooine rebranded, and the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire, still apparently not having learned anything about not building planet-killing weapons with single fatal flaws that can be destroyed by small bands of fighter ships.
And then came Rogue One. (This post is supposed to be a review of that movie, after all). Yes, Rogue One is a war movie. There is a lot of shooting and killing and violence, and no romance to speak of. The bad characters are plenty bad, while the members of the rebellion are morally ambiguous: there are no noble Jedi, brilliant pilots, feisty Princesses, or cute robots. I thought it might be a good way to pass an afternoon over the Christmas break, but I did not look forward to it the way I had looked forward to The Force Awakens.
These lower expectations meant that I could engage with the film on its own terms. Some of the direction was choppy, the film was overly long and occasionally confusing. And while I didn’t think the soundtrack was bad, I also didn’t find it particularly memorable. There were moments that needed a Williams touch, and there just wasn’t one. Instead, the soundtrack did the musical equivalent of looking away. But thank goodness, this film had its own plot and wasn’t yet another retread of Episodes IV, VI, and VII. I also appreciated very much how it plugged the “womp-rat sized plot hole” of the original Death Star’s design flaw. And I liked seeing more of the inner workings and infightings of the Empire: how Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin got where they were, and how the Empire was really evil and needed to be fought with everything they had.
What I ended up loving most about this film was that it was a story of all the “redshirts,” a story of flawed and broken people who died for a cause and who might not be remembered at all, except in how they influenced the course of events. I didn’t get to know most of these characters very well, and I didn’t like all of them personally, the same way they didn’t all like each other. The lack of romantic chemistry between Jyn and Cassian was appropriate to the story and to their characters. It makes their embrace at the end more tragic, as they are not star-crossed lovers, but just people who were there for each other when no one else was, united in their common humanity.
I mourned for them, and knowing that they weren’t going to live beyond this episode made their sacrifices more meaningful. The excitement was palpable as the storyline approached the beginning of A New Hope and the familiar ships, characters, and costumes came into view. Rogue One, this violent, scary movie in which everybody dies brought hope back.
And then, days after I saw Rogue One, Carrie Fisher had her heart attack and passed away. Leia died, and on my little brother’s birthday no less, two days after Christmas.
In the intervening year, I had sort of made peace with the troublesome parts of The Force Awakens by thinking about Leia.
A friend of mine wrote this blog soon after The Force Awakens came out, and she reposted it when Fisher died. One of her points is that Leia, perhaps unlike many of the other characters in the Star Wars universe, grew up. Leia is “tough enough that when things go very badly wrong, she takes a deep breath and keeps going. Tough enough to comfort another, even when she herself is grieving.”
I had also, over the years since playing Star Wars with my brother, gotten to know a lot more about Carrie Fisher, the person. At first I’d been a little embarrassed by her. She wasn’t as good-looking as Harrison Ford or as clean cut as Mark Hamill. She was pretty open about smoking, drinking, and doing illegal drugs when she was young. She also didn’t have the brilliant career that Ford did, post-Star Wars. When I first read her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, I uncharitably thought that she sounded like a bit of a train wreck.
Then I learned more about mental illness. I experienced its effects in my own family and with loved ones. I came to admire Fisher’s openness about her struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction, and especially her tenacity, grace, and good humor in the face of what was a lifelong relationship with mental health issues. She was not only the grown-up and the tough one. Even though Leia is barely in Rogue One, it’s her movie. And Fisher’s. She was the flawed human being at the center of it all.