The two soldiers fled from the enemy into dense forest cover. Blasts exploded all around as they hugged the ground, racing away from the enemy as fast as they could. They climbed over tree stumps. They jumped over logs. The blasts continued to come closer. Closer. Until…
They were hit.
They toppled over, stunned from the blast. They lay on the ground, their eyes still recovering from the flash, and their ears still ringing. After a few seconds, one of them summoned enough strength to stand. He went over to his comrade, who still lay motionless on the ground. “Get up,” he said. Nothing. “Get up!” Still, nothing. “GET UP!” His comrade let out one long, painful moan. Then he was quiet. He lay still. He was dead.
His fellow soldier crouched over his fallen comrade and wept.
The annals of human conflict doubtless contain countless scenes like this. But I have not just relayed one of those to you. The above is, rather, a melodramatic description of a short scene in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, in which one of two cuddly yet brave Ewoks fleeing the Empire’s deadly AT-ST walkers on the forest moon of Endor perishes from a walker’s laser blasts, and is mourned by his comrade-in-arms.
There is much carnage in the seemingly lighthearted Star Wars saga. A New Hope opens with the violent boarding of one ship by another, with the boarding party slaughtering everyone aboard. We later see the burnt corpses of a massacred couple and the destruction of an entire planet. There is also a great deal of conflict in places such as the icy Hoth and the sylvan Endor, and in space, in and around the two iterations of the Death Star. Yet strange as it may seem, few, if any, moments in Star Wars convey war’s stark reality as movingly as the death of a character from a species (the Ewoks) derided even by Star Wars fans as a craven merchandising opportunity.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promised to change that. Launched as part of Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm, the Gareth Edwards-directed, Felicity Jones-starring movie, slated for release this December, will tell a Star Wars story separate from the trilogy begun by The Force Awakens. Specifically, Rogue One will reveal how the Rebel Alliance acquired the Death Star plans that allowed Luke Skywalker to destroy the Death Star in the climax of A New Hope. To vary the movie tonally from other installments, Edwards wanted a gritty war movie, with ground-level, hand-to-hand combat, violence and death, and little of lightsabers or the Force. The first trailer, released in April, seemed to confirm this approach.
That was the plan, anyway. Recently, however, rumors have emerged that Disney studio executives have ordered extensive reshoots for Rogue One over concerns that “it was tonally off with what a ‘classic’ Star Wars movie should feel like,” and “had the feel of a war movie.” The reshoots will attempt “to lighten the mood, bring some levity into the story and restore a sense of fun to the adventure.”
These are understandable concerns. Too many modern movies mistake “darkness” for artistry. Star Wars has, moreover, at its heart, always been fun, despite dark elements. And I haven’t seen the rough cuts. Maybe the concerns are justified.
But if it’s true that Disney executives are so risk-averse about Star Wars that they might homogenize a potentially unique approach to telling its story, then they may spell eventual doom for the franchise. After the success of The Force Awakens, Disney will probably give us Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars for years, possibly decades, to come. The cash will roll in purely on fan dedication for a while. But if all Star Wars movies must hew to a common corporate vision, eventually even superfans will tire of it.
One way to keep Star Wars interesting and entertaining is to use the standalone films, such as Rogue One, to explore different aspects of the Star Wars universe, or to explore the same aspects in different ways. Let Rogue One show us the gritty reality of war for semi-expendable, non-Force-using/lightsaber-wielding characters. Let the forthcoming Han Solo spin-off (ahem) fully embrace the series’ long-running undercurrent of action comedy. And someday, maybe release a Star Wars crime epic and a Star Wars horror movie. Such an approach could keep Star Wars fresh.
Yet if rumored in-studio reaction to early cuts of a Rogue One is any guide, we may never see such cinematic diversity. If so, even though “war” has always been part of Star Wars (it’s literally in the title), the closest Star Wars ever gets to the brutal reality of war may end up being a few seconds of Ewoks running through the woods.