Well, there are a lot of things wrong with Rogue One: paper-thin characters, a middling pace, a largely forgettable (and, within the mythos, unnecessary) plot.
But the tank – the TX-225w “Occupier” combat assault tank, as Wookiepedia tells me – is the perfect vehicle to address Rogue One’s fundamental problem: a superficial guise and muddled tone.
Because while the film purports to be a gritty war drama – tanks! firefights! no Jedi! – it never fully divorces itself from the character of the rest of the series.
And that has serious repercussions.
Star Wars – despite a misleading title – has never really been about warfare. In the series, wars merely act as backdrop and motivation for the melodramatic blood feuds of space wizards: a former slave is seduced by dark magic and rebels against his mentor (the Prequels); a farmboy learns magic to defeat his fallen father (the Original Trilogy); an orphan scavenger discovers magic and proceeds to beat up some goth kid (The Force Awakens).
The climax of these films usually feature a battle of some kind, yes, but it is the emotionally-charged contest between individuals that form their central focus: Luke vs. Vader (the battle of Yavin), Luke vs. Vader (the occupation of Bespin), Luke vs. Vader vs. Palpatine (the battle of Endor), etc.
Even so, George Lucas at least had the wherewithal to always craft a clear divorce from contemporary warfare, the only way to make such violence palatable in each of the movies he handled. Sure, there were the futuristic space dogfights — they still remain a far-off reality despite Reagan’s best efforts — but there’s a certain goofiness in the scenes of ground combat. Combatants in the Star Wars’ land battles are asymmetrical in a fantastical way (unworldly clones, anxiety-ridden robots, the diminutive but surprisingly effective Ewoks). Command vehicles also have characteristics that stretch the boundaries of the real: AT-ATs and AT-STs are impractical mecha, Clone Troopers ride into battle on flying boats, and even the Trade Federation’s AAT-1 looks like a bulky Frisbee.
But Rogue One gives us the TX-225w “Occupier” combat assault tank. Its film model reportedly built on an Alvis Stormer chassis — the tank’s frame closely mimics real-world equivalents down to the positioning of its crew (commander, driver, gunner) and the use of tracks (in a universe where just about everything hovers) for suspension. Although the twin (laser?) cannons on each side add a splash of fantasy, the TX-225w actually resembles equipment that could be seen rolling down the streets of Donetsk or Aleppo.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with injecting some hard reality into the Star Wars franchise. Remove the tacked-on emotional center of a father-daughter bond and the plot of Rogue One begins like an engaging war drama: a detachment of saboteurs (we presume them to be complete heroes) is sent on a mission into an occupied city (Jedha) to make contact with a local insurgent leader (Saw Guerera) to exchange information. And there are moments of great promise: Our first scene with Cassian sees him shoot an injured comrade in the back in order to avoid capture. It’s terrific because it’s not heroic — it’s just the kind of down and dirty work that a resistance is built on. It reveals the terrible sacrifices – physical, moral, and spiritual – that are made in war, even in the name of a “right” cause. Others have criticized the film for causing the Rebel Alliance to lose the high moral ground but that’s actually its masterwork.
But this is in the same film where Jyn gives a rousing speech about freedom and some-such; where the blind Chirrut has a Force-ordained saunter across a battlefield, unscathed by the laser-show on display; where fishpeople in giant spaceships try to bring down a planetwide forcefield; where soldiers are mowed down by… a new AT-AT variant. And all the while Michael Giacchino’s swelling John-Williams-inspired orchestral score reminds us what epic spectacle we are witnessing.
It’s a mishmash of tones, between the franchise’s standard nostalgia-fueled wonderment and a darker vision of military sci-fi. I’m not such a lying liberal peacenik that I don’t believe we can have heroes or heroism in war films, but in blurring the line between children’s fantasy and war drama, Disney confuses any real message the film might convey; more often than not, the struggles of call-sign Rogue One come too close to glorifying war when it should revile it. And this with an implicit target demographic of fighting age males.
Three months in and it’s already a cliché, but in the Age of Trumpistan – a post-fact age, an age in which entertainment is consumed more regularly than news – even our dumb popcorn entertainment needs to be better. And responsible spectacle – as oxymoronic as that may sound – is not some far-fetched fantasy. Captain America: Civil War, despite its tonally aberrant airport fight scene, complicated notions of (super)heroism by introducing political plot points. It also never set down exactly who – Cap or Iron Man – was right. Even Force Awakens does a better balancing act than Rogue One – Finn’s choice to follow his own moral center rather than the authoritative structure into which he had been born and bred is bold and reverberates into the real. And here I do have to wonder – I have to ask – when a Western audience sees Rogue One, sees a culturally-diverse desert city occupied by a technologically and numerically superior military force, do they realize that – in a real-world analogue – the military forces of their countries don’t exactly resemble the Rebels?
Rogue One is a mediocre space opera-flavored war film with some truly exciting scenes. But its adherence to the threads of the parental franchise means it never declares itself outright anti-war. And the only good war film is an anti-war film, elsewise you end up with John Wayne and the Green-freaking-Berets.
You want to play with the adults, Star Wars? Start thinking like one.