14 March 2015

Rogue One: Looking Backward to Look Forward

Wedge Antilles - Rogue Squadron: The Rebel Opposition (Dark Horse Comics)

Since Thursday, I have been soaking up any details I can find about the first official spin-off movie set in the Star Wars universe (not counting The Clone Wars). [UPDATE #1: these "spin-off" movies will officially be categorized as Star Wars "Anthology" films]  Rumors abound, but what is official is that "Rogue One" will begin filming in London this summer and is slotted to be released December 16th, 2016.  The official release from StarWars.com is as follows:
Rogue One is the title for the first film in a unique series of big-screen adventures that explores the characters and events beyond the core Star Wars saga.  Rogue One will be directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) and written by Oscar nominee Chris Weitz (Cinderella, About a Boy, Antz).  The first actress cast is Felicity Jones, who garnered an Academy Award nomination and critical acclaim for her performance in The Theory of Everything.  The idea for the story of Rogue One came from John Knoll, an Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor and chief creative officer at Industrial Light & Magic. [full article here]
UPDATE #2: Gareth Edwards has revealed that the film "will revolve around a rogue band of resistance fighters who unite for a daring mission to steal the Death Star plans and bring new hope to the galaxy." [full article here]
To some degree, I wish this news of "Rogue One" hadn't come until after Episode VII's release, simply so I could know exactly how I should feel about it.  Any excitement I feel for either of these releases is tempered by a healthy caution, although the intensity is even greater for "Rogue One," simply because Rogue Squadron is my absolute favorite aspect of Star Wars -- movies, videogames, novels, or otherwise. My criticism for this release will be perhaps even harsher than that of "The Force Awakens."

In some sectors, referencing Star Trek in a blog about
Star Wars is a violation of intergalactic law.
Putting aside my feelings for the movie itself, however, I am absolutely thrilled that Michael A. Stackpole, one of my favorite authors, was justly credited by bloggers for the instrumental role he played in creating Rogue Squadron.  His influential series of novels and comic books featured the daring Rogues in their exploits against the remnants of the Empire following the events of Return of the Jedi.  These works shifted the focus of Star Wars away from the big heroes, lightsaber battles, and tyrannical Sith Lords to center instead on the pilots in the cockpits of snub fighters.  Stackpole's characters were the everyday men, women, and aliens who comprised the ranks of the New Republic military, but each was unique and integral -- not just red-shirted drones existing for the purpose of creating the illusion of the main characters'  mortality.  It was his attention to the reality of how squadron mates would truly interact, coupled with his unique focus on the internal political strife of Imperial command in the wake of Palpatine's death, that made the X-Wing stories so memorable.  Aaron Allston's later partnership, introducing an entirely new cast of characters in the Wraiths (a misfit band of pilots dually trained in tactical espionage), further fleshed out the universe by integrating well-suited humor into his novels -- the kind of wry give-and-take that one could expect from veterans who recognize that they hold their own mortality in their hands.

Together, these men made Rogue Squadron.

It would be one thing for Disney to release another movie full of explosions and edge-of-your-seat tension (and those are elements that should certainly be included in any Star Wars movie), but it would be another for them to truly delve into this area of Star Wars lore and release a deep and revolutionary tale on par with previous forays into the exploits of Rogue Squadron.  All things considered, there are three crucial elements from the groundwork Stackpole and Allston laid that "Rogue One" absolutely must utilize if its personnel intend to meet the expectations of fans such as myself.

Realistic Space Battles

Maybe that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but hopefully you know what I mean.  I want space warfare in the vein of the Battlestar Galactica remake: I want physics and flak and tight fighter formations.  I want detailed snubfighters with technical glitches that need repairs.  I want realistic chains of command and pilots just as desperate to have their fifth kill painted on the sides of their fighters as they are to make it back to the hangar alive.

One of the things that made the space dogfights in the original Star Wars trilogy so memorable was the fact that Lucas designed his models with WWII fighters in mind and relied on actual aerial footage to stage his space battles.  This use of models added a sense of the fighters'  fragility -- the unsettling feeling that the pilot was truly in danger and that laser fire could tear his tiny fighter apart at any second if he couldn't shake the TIE Fighters on his tail.

The prequels departed from this trend by relying almost exclusively on CGI.  While the illusion of massive space battles is great, the up-close-and-personal effect that the use of models created was much more powerful.  I'm not attacking the use of CGI -- I think it can and should be used very effectively.  However, just because we have the technology to create massive backdrops of explosions, capital ships, and swarms of snub fighters against a sprawling backdrop of stars, nebulae, and planets doesn't mean that we shouldn't still focus on the up-close details of the ships themselves and plenty of in-cockpit shots of the pilots.

If "Rogue One" does X-Wings the way Episodes IV-VI did them, it will already be head-and-shoulders above the prequels' underdeveloped attempts.  Since this installment of the Star Wars saga will focus primarily on pilots in snubfighters, it's going to have to do space warfare really, really well.

Quality Original Characters (and actors!)

I know virtually nothing about "Rogue One's" writer, Chris Weitz, or the story's creator, John Knoll, but I truly hope they will take a leaf out of Michael A. Stackpole's or Aaron Allston's book(s) and introduce unique characters into this new Rogue Squadron adventure.  Of course, if Lucasfilm were to resurrect EU characters like Corran Horn or Plourr llo, I'd probably weep a little bit with joy (and then, of course, be hyper-critical of their on-screen portrayal).  But whether or not the cast of characters is all-original, my real hope is simply that they will be a mixture of real people and interesting aliens played by well-casted actors.  When it comes to Star Wars, I've grown as weary of nameless extras, CGI-ed tentacles, and unnecessarily goofy personalities as I have actors who give halfhearted performances.

Plourr and Ibitsam, Rogue Squadron pilots.
Given that "Rogue One's" main character will be played by Felicity Jones, I suppose it's unlikely that Wedge Antilles, Hobbie Kilvan, and Wes Janson will make a return for this movie, and that's certainly a disappointing prospect.  However, I'll be even more disappointed if the Rogues in this movie turn out to be lackluster and expendable characters save for the inner circle of aces (the talented daredevil, the one with a dark past, and the practical joker -- one of whom will die at a critical point in the plot).

While it's necessary for some characters to be cannon fodder, I sincerely hope that this movie won't fall into the red shirt trap and will instead follow suit after the X-Wing series.  Reading those novels, you feel every pilot's death, because whether or not a character was doomed for destruction from the beginning, he or she was still a fully-fledged member of the squadron.  The cry of "I've been hit!" is a gut-wrenching occurrence in the text -- for both the characters and for the reader.  Some of the more recent Star Wars novels (see New Jedi Order) lost that reality and simply filled cockpits with faceless characters and sometimes nameless call signs.  In fairness, the focus of those novels was really on the philosophy of the Force, the grotesque biotechnology of the Yuuzhan Vong, and the development of the surviving Jedi who made up the ranks of the Order, so the lack of detail is somewhat forgivable.  Since "Rogue One," on the other hand, will be exclusively about pilots in X-Wing cockpits, camaraderie amongst the squad and significant elements of each character's backstory will be crucial elements in establishing a believable group of elite flying aces.


I'm not going to fool myself into hoping that any of Stackpole or Allston's stories from the X-Wing series might be retrofitted for this movie.  No doubt "Rogue One" will be a new story written to suit the big screen.  Sure, I'd love to see a film rendition of the Rogues retaking Courascant from the Empire and defeating Ysanne Isard, but that's simply not going to happen.  In that regard, what I hope is not that Chris Weitz borrows plot elements from the novels, but rather that he employs the integral storytelling pieces that Stackpole and Allston introduced to the Star Wars universe: things like the reality of space warfare -- what it's like for pilots to worry about fuel and resources, to practice snubfighter tactics, to mourn lost comrades; things like the intricacies of military politics, large-scale tactical offensives, and even biological warfare; things like unique alien races whose cultural and personal backgrounds are as rich as their anatomies (see Ooryl Qrgg, Elassar Targon, and Nawara Ven).

At the same time all the adventure, humor, and excitement that define the Star Wars saga is in the X-Wing series, there is also an element of gritty reality: these are men and women who have banded together, fighting for survival as well as the greater good.

I'm not asking for "mature" Star Wars.

I'm asking for Star Wars that takes itself seriously.


Since I'm a nerd, I care about these kinds of things.  But let me wrap this up by landing on just one emotion for now.  I'm excited about this new movie.  I really am.  I'm sure there will be things that I dislike.  I'm equally sure there will be things that I find really, really cool.  The bottom line is that I want to be open-minded and thrilled -- just like any other fan of Star Wars does.  I think Disney and their crew of writers, directors, and actors are all well-aware that a significant portion of the Star Wars fan base is dying to be impressed.  Being more than just casual fans themselves, they collectively want to deliver quality additions to the saga.

For that reason, I can let myself feel a little excitement.

If you're interested in Rogue Squadron, below are some quality articles you can check out for additional background reading.  I also recommend X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole, the one that got this whole thing off the ground.