Battles with Heart

Something has been bothering me of late, and it has only just come together in my head, so let us talk about it a little.

Possible (minor) Rogue One spoilers (but not really) ahead.

Rogue One is truly the Star Wars movie I’ve wanted for a long while. Despite some weaknesses in the pacing and screenplay, it pressed all the nostalgia buttons and legitimately made me feel like a kid again. The final act is particularly noteworthy in this regard, as the final battle is exciting, emotional, and gripping. Even though the ultimate outcome is already known, the journey to the end is well worth it.

That is when it occurred to me: the Battle of Scarif is the first Star Wars battle since Endor that truly felt like an actual Star Wars battle.  What I could not quite figure out was why.  After all, the prequel trilogy is filled to the brim with fighting and duels. Very often, these battles were the highlights of otherwise incredibly mediocre movies. So what was it about this particular battle that made it better than three movies worth of battles combined?

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The problem is that the prequels’ battles are merely a backdrop. They are the frame rather than the painting. The Battle of Naboo exists so that WesleyAnakin can do something cool and save the day. The Battle of Coruscant exists so that Anakin and Obi-Wan are not simply flying through empty space to save the chancellor. The battles themselves really are not important, based on how little we see of everything happening around the heroes. The battles are merely a means to get the heroes from point A to point B (in a fashion).

By comparison, the Battle of Yavin, while indeed a coming-of-age test for Luke Skywalker, is also just as much about the Rebellion’s desperate struggle against the overwhelming might of the Empire. Every Rebel pilot shot down in battle impacts the viewer in some way. The battle is not a background element; it is the story, of which Luke is a part. The story of the battle and the story of Luke compliment each other and strengthen each other.

Likewise with the Battle of Endor; we do not only see Lando Calrissian at the helm of the Millennium Falcon. We see rebel pilots like Wedge Antilles fighting overwhelming odds. The movie continually returns to Admiral Ackbar trying to save his fleet from the trap it has fallen into. Not only that, but the preceding two films laid the groundwork for the plight of the Rebel Alliance and the necessity of their cause. The viewer is emotionally attached to the fight, making it that much more intense and exciting.

Now, the Battle of Naboo contains some of these elements, but the problem is that the viewer has no real attachment to the plight of the Naboo. Any sympathy we feel for them is forced upon us by the movie’s framing rather than because there is an inherent goodness to the Naboo. At the very least, there’s nothing redeeming or enjoyable about the villains (after all, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin were cool), thus leaving the woefully underdeveloped Naboo as the only option.

George Lucas made a critical error when making the prequel trilogy. He thought the plot should be a (political) metaphor, the battles should (only) look cool, and the characters…well, they would work themselves out. It seems that he never once considered that none of these elements could make a movie to which the viewer could attach themselves emotionally. Or perhaps he forgot how to create a movie containing that emotional pull.

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Emotion is why Star Wars is not merely another summer blockbuster. Emotion is why Star Wars is such a phenomenon that transcends its time. If it were another brain-dead sci-fi flick, it might have a cult following, but nothing like what we see today.

We are pained when Luke’s foster parents are murdered by the Empire, sharing in Luke’s grief. We are elated when the Death Star explodes and a costly battle for the Rebel Alliance turns out to have been worth it. We feel Luke’s shock when his lineage is revealed to him on Bespin. We feel joy when the Empire is finally defeated at Endor, emperor and all. All of these moments mean something because they have captured our hearts.

Rogue One’s greatest strength is the power of emotion and connection. It manages to do what the prequels failed to do, creating a cinematic Star Wars experience that even The Force Awakens fell a bit short on.

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