I think about Star Wars every single day. Some might say that’s unhealthy, but for me, it’s weird combination of having my childhood interests match up with my professional aspirations. My occupation is not entirely unique: in political circles there are pundits, in Star Wars fandom there are opinionated journalists like me, all looking for fresh takes on that galaxy far, far away. And, just like political pundits, we often disagree with one another sharply. After seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I feel a growing divide between myself and other Star Wars fans: I simply don’t know who these movies are made for anymore. But I do know for a fact that my eight-year-old self would have hated Rogue One.
Major spoilers for Rogue One follow
To be clear, while I know eight-year-old me would not have liked Rogue One, I’m also 100% positive my 13-year-old self would have loved it. A tween can handle — and love — a film in which the majority the heroes die, an eight-year-old can’t. And there’s the divide: When fans talk about their their reverence for Star Wars, words like childhood are used a lot. In regard to the vitriol for the prequels, the fanboy battle cry was “George Lucas ruined my childhood.” But, some of those same fans are likely saying that Rogue One made them “feel like a kid again.” I can’t change fan feelings about the newest Star Wars story, I can only try to explain mine. Still, I find this childhood thing — to quote K-2SO — “vague and unconvincing.” Vague, because there are a lot of sections of childhood, and unconvincing because children do not universally love gritty, violent films like Rogue One.
One of my earliest childhood memories about conquering fear came from watching The Empire Strikes Back when I was eight-years-old. It was on VHS, with my parents, at home. And I dove behind the couch when Darth Vader sliced off Luke’s hand. Nevermind the revelation that Vader was Luke’s father, I hated the idea that the hero was losing, and losing badly. Right now, a lot of fanboys are saying that this is why The Empire Strikes Back is “brilliant.” It’s about the loss of innocence and all that bullshit. I’ve heard it all before, and again, I’m not convinced, or rather, I don’t personally remember it that way. Instead, I remember my mother gently telling me it was going to be okay, because if I watched the ending of the movie, I would see that “Luke is going to get better.” Which is true: Though plot points are unresolved in The Empire Strikes Back, the heroes of the film don’t all die horrible deaths.
But that kind of Star Wars is over, now. Everyone dies in Rogue One, and that’s arguably — according to fans and critics — why its a “good movie”: It takes a huge risk that these movies have never truly attempted. Yes, Revenge of the Sith had a bitter ending too: Padmé died after giving birth to Luke and Leia, and Anakin turned into Darth Vader. I wouldn’t bring an eight-year-old to that movie either. But, while it’s objectively a better film than Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One goes even further into the Dark side: Its ending is ten-times as dour as Revenge of the Sith.
This Star Wars film specifically depicts its heroes being shot, blown-up, or Death Star-ed, and more often than not it makes sure we understand that there is a dead body there. Sure, countless pilots, troops, and other minor characters have died in Star Wars movies before, but this is a record number of main characters erased forever from the galaxy far, far away. Rogue One begins with a mother being shot in front of her daughter and ends with that grown-up daughter being killed by a space-age nuclear bomb. Even this movie’s version of Obi-Wan Kenobi — Donnie Yen’s charming Chirrut Îmwe — doesn’t get an honorable pseudo-Jedi death. Instead of having his robes elegantly fade away like Yoda or Obi-Wan, he dies a mortal death, one where he body is left behind to be forgotten. Hey kids: You like Melancholia? You like Star Wars, too? Well, here comes Rogue One!
The fact that Rogue One upset my inner eight-year-old isn’t even a criticism: It’s a compliment to the film. The actors are all dynamite, and their characters, though not exactly likable, are incredibly engaging. The death scenes were far more effective because of their talent. My wife and I both found ourselves crying, because for me, it’s not 2005 anymore, and this isn’t a pre-established Darth Vader fall-from-grace storyline. Now, I’m an expectant father myself: My daughter, my first child, is due in June. And as the explosions and shooting got worse and worse in Rogue One, I reflexively covered my pregnant wife’s stomach, as though I were covering my daughter’s eyes. I also was thinking about my good friend in Dallas, a guy who has an eight-year-old daughter who totally loves Star Wars. Can he take his daughter to Rogue One? The answer is no. This is not a film for young children. It’s a film for very excited adolescents, some who are probably technically in their 40s.
Infamously or not, George Lucas claimed he created Star Wars to give children a new generation of heroes. In Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, we learn Lucas nixed ideas for Lando dying, Han dying, Luke dying, et al, because he knew it would be too much for children to handle. In George Lucas’s version of Star Wars, there’s only one truly tragic main character: Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, and even he doesn’t really die since he returns as a smiling and redeemed ghost in Return of the Jedi.
Another good friend of mine in New York, a father with three kids, told me recently that he’s held off letting his children see the existing Star Wars films, but that he occasionally tells them Star Wars bedtime stories to keep them at bay. Han Solo may have died in last year’s The Force Awakens, but Rey and Finn were very clearly okay. This year’s version of Rey and Finn — Jyn and Cassian — very obviously will never be seen in a Star Wars film again. My eight-year-old heart was totally broken by this fact. Even the computer-generated grinning Princess Leia at the very end was a half-hearted apology to small children and their parents. Too little, too late.
My wife does not eat and breathe Star Wars, and she wasn’t bothered by the sad ending of Rogue One at all. She thought it was a great, fun, and exciting film. “Maybe you were too young to see The Empire Strikes Back when you were eight,” she said. These were calm, wise, and centered words, the kind of comfort you might receive from Master Yoda, or Chirrut Îmwe; you know, something an adult might say.