For the seven people who haven’t seen the latest Star Wars Movie Rogue One, I will try to not spoil the movie with unleashing too much information by telling you who dies in the climax of this film. Granted plenty of nameless storm troopers and Jedi knights have bought the planet in plenty of Star Wars movies where they try to blow up or re-blow up that pesky little death star. But in Rogue One, unlike other encounters in this universe, death visits the protagonists.
Not saying this is some kind of seminal moment in Star Wars lore where I brilliantly discovered some evidence of latent Christian spirituality. I’m fairly convinced the Star Wars world remains in all its manifestations, a Saturday Matinee writ large with slightly more complex characters and peppered with post-modern Joseph Campbell inspired gnostic paganism. That little piece of over-thinking aside, Rogue One was a refreshing change of pace over the last twenty years’ worth of action movies that have been supercharged with incredible and, without the assistance of computer generated imaging, impossible feats of action while at the same time maintaining ridiculously low levels of mortality rates…especially among the good guys.
Look at super hero movies like the Marvel Avengers series. Buildings get knocked down and death rays blast hither and yon, yet nobody seems the worse for wear. And whereas some of the Marvel Superheroes are not fully human and can take bullets to the chest or fall 30 stories with nary a scratch, Captain America, supposedly fully human, comes out the other end of one of these computer generated melees with maybe a tear in his costume.
The Pirates of the Caribbean film series likewise has mind numbing amounts of action with very little consequences. In the first film I always wondered, why were they even bothering to fight the cursed pirates in the first place as they will just come back to life. And even when it looks like Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa’s character finally suffers the consequences of 18thCentury flintlock technology, he magically reappears in the sequel.
Not so in Rogue One. It’s still pop art and as popular as it may be, not quite sure if its art, but the fact that the plot line invites the grim reaper in for a closer look, gives the film a little more heft and if the box office receipts are any indication, the general American movie going public is up to a little adult seasoning even in its popcorn movies.
In the golden age of the big studio system, otherwise known as my wheelhouse, almost every big name star, with few exceptions, died in one or more of their movies. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney died in multiple movies and I don’t just mean critically. Bogart and Cagney usually met their demise due to their bad behavior whereas John Wayne universally died while performing some heroic act. The point is that death is a reality and whether you are a gangster in 1930s Chicago, a Marine on the Sands of Iwo Jima or test pilot flying an experimental aircraft to its limits, death can come by for a visit.
Death orders us to our fallen natures but the cartoonish way in which some popular movie franchises excised death from the formula lessens their ability to connect. Star Wars is not Ibsen or even Mickey Spillane for that matter and action movies are supposed to be fun and we don’t want to see our heroes splattered into galactic mush before the third act, but without at least the specter of death, their heroics become less formidable.
That is the curveball the makers of Rogue One threw and quite effectively too. We want the good guys to win and for justice to prevail in our popcorn movies because in some kind of Newtonian counter force equation we see so much of the opposite occur in real life.
But real action, particularly heroic action whether it be hiding Jews in your Amsterdam attic or making the sign of the cross in Aleppo sometimes brings the ultimate price. As unreal as many of the movies from the big Hollywood era were, the idea that death was a reality even in some “A” pictures is something they knew and we have un-learned. With Rogue One maybe the re-education has begun.