If there’s one thing we know from post-2016-election media, it’s that everyone on the internet sees things through their personal hobbyhorse. This well applies to major reviews of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; the leading film critics are invoking not only previous Star Wars films but also The Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen, and more. Fair enough, but the operative comparison should be Aliens, the 30-year-old James Cameron-directed film starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Using the lens of Aliens tells us what Rogue One did right, and wrong.
Aliens is now universally recognized as the first action blockbuster to centralize a bad-ass, kick-ass heroine. (Pam Grier got there first, but her films didn’t earn enough to be called blockbusters.) That said, franchises like Charlie’s Angels, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Underworld, Resident Evil, The Hunger Games, or Divergent weren’t all that inspired by Aliens.
Rogue One is far more like Aliens. It was pitched to Lucasfilm and to audiences as a “men-on-a-mission-in-space” film. Both groups feature (but aren’t always led by) a reluctant heroine who does more worrying and complaining than ass-kicking. It was Aliens that convinced the Lucasfilm people that a story like Rogue One could work (several of them are on record as fans).
If you’re one of these reddit commenters whining that Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) doesn’t do enough Resident Evil-style ass-kicking in Rogue One, you can blame Aliens. If you rewatch the 30-year-old film, you may be surprised to see that Ripley doesn’t actually whomp on anyone for the first – wait for it – ninety minutes of the film. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature; Aliens holds up precisely because we get to know Ripley before she begins to bear arms (and bare arms).
SPOILERS for Rogue One start around here.
The Star Wars people were right to structure Rogue One similarly, and they were right to cast Felicity Jones as Jyn, and not, say, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It’s still amazing to think that Weaver was 37 when she played Ripley in Aliens; hard to imagine studio heads today green-lighting an actress of that vintage to play a bad-ass heroine, even if the end of the film means her character is One and Done. Disney/Lucas wisely cast an Academy Award nominee; they were smart to find someone with Ripley-like gravitas.
The problem is that the script doesn’t give her Ripley-like reasons. In her first proactive moment of a battle, the adult Jyn rescues a crying little girl from harm – a possible salute to Ripley’s Newt. However, a moment later, Jyn passes off this girl to her mom, and the movie loses any possibility of playing on Jyn’s maternal instincts.
A deleted scene on the special DVD of Aliens reveals how crucial family was to Weaver’s work on Ripley. Shortly after coming out of her 60-year hibernation, Ripley asks Burke what happened to her daughter; Burke explains that she recently died, and shows Ripley a photo of an old woman, who barely holds back tears. In the DVD commentary, James Cameron says the photo is of Weaver’s actual mother. He further explains that Weaver based her character’s entire emotional arc on that scene, and that when she saw that the scene had been cut, at the film’s premiere, Weaver took to the press to badmouthed Cameron.
Despite the typically excellent work of Mads Mikkelsen as Jyn’s dad, Rogue One would have been better if Jyn was trying to save her mother, her mother being a renegade brilliant scientist. Not only would this have added a badly needed second female role to the cast, it would have helped summon some of that Aliens feeling of women resisting the patriarchy (yes I know Ripley squares off against a queen mother; more below). Or as Amy Nicholson put it on MTV.com, “Instead of a dimensional role, she’s been white-elephanted with Disney’s default motivation — ‘Won’t somebody help me find my daddy?’ — which might have had emotional impact if the studio hadn’t already foisted it on us in this year’s The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Pete’s Dragon.”
Or Rogue One might have eschewed parent issues full stop, and worked on Jyn Erso being more proactive. Jon initially collects her fellow warriors almost as haphazardly as Dorothy finds co-travelers in Oz. After her escape from Jedda, after the council thumbs-downs her idea to go get the Death Star plans, the film might have had her approach each of the those warriors individually, with something like an “I know this is a suicide mission, but I need you, I can’t do this without you.” This more Seven Samurai-like story would have made Jyn more of a leader, and given her more of an arc as her comrades fall later on. (Frankly, if the idea was to finally have a “grown up” Star Wars film, the “suicide mission” idea could have been far more emphasized, so that we in the audience could have been made to think, “nah, it’s Lucas, they’re never going to kill all these new heroes,” only to see the film stick it to us.)
Perhaps Lucas/Disney felt they could get away with Jyn showing minimal agency because it worked for Ripley in Aliens. Right, except that Aliens was about a corrupt, distinctly patriarchal technological-military-industrial complex that sends Ripley and friends to clean up its imperialist mess, then betrays them. Weaver’s eyes blaze with not only fear but righteous indignation; Jones’ eyes are simply ablaze. Although Ripley must finally defeat the Queen Mother, that only happens after both female hero and female villain are positioned as victims of male rapacity. Perhaps the makers of Rogue One thought that the Death Star and the machinations of Grand Moff Tarkin would seem patriarchal enough, but despite Jones’ fine acting, we never get that sinking feeling that people should have listened to the “crazy” woman and that only she can save us now. That’s what makes Aliens resonate like crazy, three decades later. That’s one reason Weaver got nominated for an Oscar for her role, and Jones won’t.
Let me hasten to add: I liked Rogue One, certainly more than Amy Nicholson at MTV did. I loved its diverse band of underdogs, even as I am aware of the irony that Star Wars finally assembled a majority-minority cast just to kill them off. Grand Moff Tarkin, or as I call him, Cyber-Cushing, started to scan like the blue-eyed monarch in “Hamilton,” which is awesome. I liked that Jyn stayed clothed from the neck down, which wasn’t entirely true of Ripley. I liked all of Rogue One’s final half-hour, partly because it really looked like the Maldives (where it was, indeed, filmed), and the previous films hadn’t essayed the tropics. I liked returning to the hallway of the beginning of Episode IV, and feeling the pieces click into place. I liked the idea of a non-Jedi Star Wars film.
Of course, they mitigated that by bringing back Darth Vader – and it was obvious, even before my friend on the inside confirmed it, that Vader was a late addition and the film would have done fine without him. As my friend said, the problem with having Vader is that it has to be all about Vader. So now we can see Vader in Rogue One as the dictionary definition of “too much and not enough.”
I’ll give Rogue One credit for being a rare Star Wars film without obvious cutesy product for toddlers. The film’s featured droid will never have a fan base comparable to that of R2D2 or BB8. And as it turned out, K2SO’s dialogue was the best part of the film. The big android’s movie death was more emphasized than that of the humans, which is both fitting and not unlike what happened to Bishop in Aliens. To give credit where credit is due, in the chess match of Rogue One versus Aliens, K2 beats Bishop. Maybe next stand-alone Star Wars film, they can create a more powerful, more three-dimensional queen.