Through seven feature films (and countless tie-ins ranging from television shows and comic books to novels), Star Wars has been an entity that parents could share with their kids, that families could experience and enjoy together. The movies, in the past, have dabbled in adult themes and conflicts, but the space-opera genre always lent itself to wide-eyed wonderment and swashbuckling spectacle that glossed over the attempts at serious storytelling. For every trade federation speech, for example, there's a somersaulting Yoda or -- God help us -- a Jar Jar Binks to balance the story for all ages.
Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story strikes me as the first film in this expanding franchise to be made without kids in mind -- which is good, and bad, for the series. Rogue One, by design, is meant to be a heavier, grittier war story about Rebellion soldiers who put boots on the ground (and lives on the line) to steal plans to the Death Star so that the Rebellion can gain the upperhand on the evil Empire. In choosing to tell a story lifted straight from the opening crawl of Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope, Edwards has made a movie that mostly appeals to fans who grew up on Star Wars, and who were young when A New Hope first opened. It's not inaccessible to kids, but it feels like it was crafted to place a greater emphasis on historical Star Wars Easter Eggs (hey look, those guys were in the Cantina scene in A New Hope), and less of an emphasis on selling toys to children.
There are other reasons why I'd hesitate to recommend Rogue One to kids, but to dive into them, I need to open the floor to spoilers. The conversation will continue after this photo. Read on if you want to know some of the obstacles I saw in Rogue One, as a parent. If you want to stop now, but still have questions, email me at [email protected].
We're going to start digging into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story now with spoilers. One last warning.
So, the story focuses largely on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the child of a brilliant scientist whose work can help the Empire complete their devastating weapon, the Death Star -- nicknamed a planet killer, for obvious reasons. In the opening scene, Jyn's parents are confronted by the film's chief villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), and Jyn must watch in horror as her mother is killed. No big deal, right? The death of a parent is a common trope... only, this isn't an off-screen event (like in most animated films). It's a tough scene.
It's also the first of MANY bodies to drop in Rogue One, a contender for highest body count in a Star Wars movie (if you subtract the planet that The First Order wiped out in The Force Awakens). Again, by design, this is a war picture. Gareth Edwards has chosen to make a film set during a time of military conflict in the Star Wars universe, and the genre he selected was "gritty conflict picture," so during this time of rebellion, blood is going to be spilt. However, Jyn's band of freedom fighters aren't exactly heroic, as we see Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) murder a man in cold blood in an earlier scene, and we watch several key members of the Rogue One crew die before the story ends.
OK, fine. All of them. We see them ALL die before the movie ends.
Your kids, if you choose to take them to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, will likely fall head over heels for the hilarious K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid reprogrammed to help the Rebellion who still speaks his mind and usually pokes fun at Jyn and her crew. Just wait until they see K-2SO getting blasted, repeatedly by Stormtroopers until he collapses in a heap of burning metal. Almost everyone in Rogue One gets a heroic moment. But there's a reason we don't hear the names Jyn, Cassian, or Chirrut (Donnie Yen) in future Star Wars movies.
Not that there is anything wrong with heroic sacrifice. The actions taken by the characters in Rogue One are ESSENTIAL to the story that Gareth Edwards wanted to tell. And going forward, Star Wars stories need to take risks and push envelopes to continue to entertain.
There's one scene in particular that everyone will be talking about as they leave Rogue One. And it's the scene that proves, to me at least, that Edwards made this film for grown-up Star Wars fans who have been waiting since The Empire Strikes Back to see how dark this series could go. Darth Vader gets an action scene. He's in pursuit of ... something (I'll try and save some secrets for you, my dear parents). And in order to get it, he plows through numerous grunt-level soldiers who are standing in his way. People get choked. Bodies get tossed. It's shot like a horror movie, with Vader standing in for Jason Voorhees. It's thrilling, as a Star Wars fan, to see Darth Vader's full power unleashed for the first time on screen since Return of the Jedi, as the prequels stopped short of showing a suited Anakin in action. But it's a terrifying scene for young audience members, and I don't think that thought ever crossed Gareth Edwards' mind. He knew, rightfully so, that adult Star Wars fans would love that scene. And they will. Because this movie is more for them then it is for kids.
Rogue One absolutely succeeds in telling a gritty, violent war story set in the Star Wars universe. But this movie doesn't have the light whimsy of an episode of Star Wars Rebels, or the popcorn thrill of The Force Awakens. It's a hard-fought battle, and parents probably should understand that going in.