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We are two movies into the rejuvenation of Star Wars in contemporary multiplexes, so it's time to do what any self-respecting movie geek would do: Pit the two movies against each other in a fight to the death!
No, really, we want to explore the divide that exists between J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The movies serve different masters, as one had to launch a new trilogy, but another was able to operate as a solo, standalone story that supplemented a corner of the existing Star Wars universe. But there has been some heated debate around the CinemaBlend offices about which Star Wars movie we prefer (and, yes, which one is better). Conner Schwerdtfeger and Sean O'Connell have decided to step into the ring and defend their choices for the "Best" current Star Wars movie. Read their discussion, then weigh in with your choice in the comments. Needless to say, there are a TON of Star Wars spoilers in this piece:
The Star Wars Experience
SEAN: Conner, I want to be perfectly clear. I'm not trying to say that I dislike Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I think it's fantastic that Disney and Lucasfilm allowed Gareth Edwards to make a bleak, unflinching war movie that just happens to use characters from the Star Wars universe. But when I step back and look at the two movies, the one I had WAY more fun with was J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I prefer it, by a country mile. Tell me why I'm wrong.
CONNER: My biggest issue with The Force Awakens is its constant need to wink at the audience and echo things that we have seen before. It was as successful as it was BECAUSE it remade/rebooted so many classic Star Wars elements. The Force Awakens is a classic hits album, and Rogue One is an attempt to dust off the instruments and try to write some original songs. For all of its Easter eggs, I just felt like Rogue One was making a far more earnest effort to give me something I haven't seen from this universe before, and it worked.
SEAN: This is going to be fun. Because we disagree wholeheartedly. I'd say that both of the films equally reference the familiar, and play on our nostalgia, to guarantee success. I think it speaks volumes that the one scene most Star Wars fans are talking about post-Rogue One has nothing to do with any of the new characters, but rather a two-minute long sequence built around one of cinema's greatest (pre-existing) villains. You mention Greatest Hits. That scene was Led Zepplin launching into Stairway to Heaven. But in the weeks and months following The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans dug into lengthy conversations about Rey, Kylo Ren, Snoke, Maz... new elements of a new world.
CONNER: For me the Vader scenes in Rogue One work without feeling overly nostalgic because I know upfront where this film takes place in the Star Wars continuity. Vader is one of the first to board the Tantive IV in A New Hope so his presence logically fits into place, and I don't think you're giving newcomers like Kaytoo and Chirrut enough credit when you say people are ONLY talking about Vader. On the other hand, The Force Awakens takes the cool new elements like Kylo, Rey, and Finn, and forces them through a story that is basically a hodgepodge of classic moments from the original trilogy. We get the young hero living on a desert planet who meets a droid that changes her life, we get the death of the aging mentor, and we even get a large, spherical superweapon to destroy. We've seen that movie before. Rogue One wasn't afraid to play with tone, genre, and moral ambiguity, which felt undeniably refreshing for me.
SEAN: I'm glad you mentioned story. Let's use that as a launchpad for the next topic in this debate.
SEAN: While I agree that The Force Awakens follows a blueprint that many connect to A New Hope, I also latch on to the elements that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasden used to lay the foundation for the next trilogy, which will be explored in the next two chapters. Who is Snoke? What is Kylo Ren's overall goal? What happened to Luke Skywalker, and what has he been doing during Kylo's rise to power? These are big questions that stand apart from the New Hope aspects of The Force Awakens, and it is what's to come that has me most excited. I understand that, by design, Rogue One couldn't do that. And I had a real issue with that.
CONNER: I think that might cut to the core of our fundamental differences here; I have almost grown tired of the main Star Wars saga and the drama of the Skywalker family at this point, and Lucasfilm will have to do some serious legwork to get me back on-board. Return of the Jedi gave Luke, Vader, and the rest such strong endings that treading back into their stories felt like a waste. I am far more interested in these one-and-done standalone stories that explore the gritty corners of the Star Wars universe with definitive beginnings, middles, and endings. So few franchises are ever willing to kill off main characters, so the fact that Rogue One had the stones to end Jyn's story on such an explosive (literally) note had me cheering in my seat.
SEAN: On that, we also can agree. I was so happy when Rogue One killed off the entire cast, because I found the bulk of them to be disappointing, and I didn't need to see them on screen again. OK, I'll play fair. Jyn is a total badass, K-2SO was decent comic relief, and Chirrut received enough of an arc that I was invested in his journey. But I honestly found Cassian to be a bore of a character, and I have no clue what Riz Ahmed was doing in the film. Don't know his name. Can't think of what he contributed to the overall film. And the villains started strong, but were cut off at the knees by Darth Vader. Let's expand on that point in the next section...
SEAN: When it comes to the new characters introduced in the two movies, I'd argue that The Force Awakens has much stronger and far more interesting characters than the ones introduced in Rogue One. Yes, Rey is a Luke Skywalker mirage, but the lingering questions about her heritage, her Force sensitivity, and her checkered past are just the type of Mystery Box nonsense that J.J. Abrams specializes in. The supporting cast is equally embraceable. There are reams of fan fiction centered on Poe Dameron. Can you name another Rogue One character who had such an impact? And while I liked Krennic in his opening scene with Galen Erso, I really thought the villains in Rogue One were underserved, overshadowed by both Darth Vader, and the presence of the ultimate space weapon, the Death Star.
CONNER: I am not going to sit here and try to argue that any of Rogue One's characters are better than Finn or Rey, because that's pretty much an indefensible position. However, mystery and narrative potential don't necessarily make The Force Awakens' new characters all that great. Fan fiction doesn't change the fact that Poe Dameron does little more than act charming and miraculously survive a TIE fighter crash, and other newcomers like Snoke, Kylo Ren, Hux, Maz, and Phasma really haven't proven themselves to be that compelling yet. I will concede that the characterization in Rogue One is thinner than the average Star Wars movie, but I will counter that with the fact that a lot of really great war films (Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, etc.) don't actually flesh out the supporting cast outside of the main protagonist in ways that we're used to seeing from this franchise. Rogue One's ensemble could've been deeper, but I got what I needed for the story to work.
SEAN: Yes, they did help move the story along to its natural conclusion. And with Rogue One being a solo, standalone film, versus Force Awakens' trilogy starter, I guess it could be argued that Abrams had to put way more focus and attention in establishing the personalities of the characters in his movie because he knew that they'd be carrying multiple films. Edwards had to know that as much as we might have fallen in love with Jyn Erso, there was no chance of us following her story through the rest of the Rebellion.
CONNER: I could go on and on repeating myself on this topic, but that's still one of Rogue One's biggest assets for me. By virtue of being a standalone heroine, Jyn Erso will probably never achieve the iconography of characters in the main saga, but I absolutely love the idea of watching a movie about a group of nobodys who make all the difference in this enormous conflict.
SEAN: OK, let's wrap up this debate with a final sticking point, and one that I believe is separating people into Rogue v Force Awakens camps.
The Overall Star Wars Style
SEAN: What ultimately separates The Force Awakens from Rogue One, for me Conner, is that I prefer the way that J.J. Abrams makes his slick, shiny, perpetually moving tentpoles versus Gareth Edwards' ... style? I'm not sure that's the right word. Someone who had yet to see Rogue One asked me if Disney at least allowed Gareth Edwards' "style" to shine through. But I don't know what Edwards' style is, and Rogue One didn't prove anything to me, either. From Godzilla to this, he shoots and stages dreary, bleak battle pictures, and if that's what you want out of a Star Wars adventure, this delivered. With J.J., you know that you are going to get a roller-coasting popcorn thriller, and while some might argue that he's style over substance, I find that I just prefer the way that Abrams makes these movies -- from Mission: Impossible to Star Trek and eventually Star Wars -- to the way that Edwards made his movie.
CONNER: For me, Rogue One finally delivered the dark, gritty, and downright dreary version of Star Wars that I have wanted to see since a very young age. No disrespect to The Force Awakens (because I DO like that movie), but J.J. Abrams delivered a Marvel movie in an era when every franchise is trying to duplicate the Marvel tone and style. Despite its familiar imagery, Rogue One gave me a fundamentally different movie compared to what I've seen before from this franchise, and it got me far more excited about the coming standalone films than the continuation of the main saga.
Well, Sean and Conner have to agree to disagree on which is the better movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Now, it's your turn. Tell us which movie you preferred in the comments section below, and why. Be nice. We're all Star Wars fans here. Even though Sean's right, and Conner's wrong. (Kidding!)