Warning: Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rogue One, and The Force Awakens ahead.
Halfway through 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I started getting a sinking feeling. I was enjoying the movie, but its intentions were just starting to sink in. Rogue One doesn’t fully hide its seams. It’s a stitched-together production, but it’s easy to get swept up in the narrative. And then it becomes clear that not all of the heroes — maybe none of the heroes — are going to make it out alive. And though I was fine with that, I began wondering how I was going to explain it to my five-year-old, who was sitting next to me.
We’d taken her to see The Force Awakens the year before, but I’d taken precautions. I attended a preview screening and determined she could handle the story. We watched the original trilogy together at home, and I didn’t see anything in J.J. Abrams’ franchise relaunch that was more intense than in those films. My wife and I knew we’d have to talk to our daughter about Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens, and we did, without incident, just as we’d talked about deaths in other movies and TV shows we’d watched together. But explaining the elimination of Rogue One’s entire cast was another matter, especially when they all died in acts of heroic self-sacrifice.
Rogue One works largely because it lives up to the initial promise of Star Wars’ spinoff “anthology” films, offering a different perspective on the franchise’s universe, and a different genre lens through which to view it. Rogue One is a science fiction adventure like the other Star Wars installments, but it’s also a war film. And war films are often about how sometimes suicide missions, or missions so perilous they might as well be suicide missions, turn out to be the only options. All of which led to a day of unexpected, but ultimately instructive, conversations with our kid, who left the film more surprised than traumatized and started referring to it as the movie with “the funny robot who dies.” (Which, to be fair, is a pretty concise, accurate plot description.)
Rogue One didn’t introduce self-sacrifice to the Star Wars series. The theme goes back to 1977’s A New Hope, where Obi-Wan Kenobi surrenders himself to Darth Vader’s lightsaber to distract him as the other characters escape. Until recently, though, the series hadn’t returned to that well particularly often. From Rogue One on, Star Wars has become increasingly fixated on acts of heroic suicide. And until Solo, the films have mostly approached the theme thoughtfully, with the writer-directors seeming to be in dialogue with each other. Rogue One suggests that war sometimes means willingly dying for the greater good, and it wraps that choice in a glamorous, heroic veneer. The Last Jedi interrogates that notion, repeatedly returning to the idea that any avoidable casualty is a tragedy, and that dying in battle should only be an option once everything else is off the table.
The first sacrifice in Rogue One remains puzzling, even on repeat viewings. Having led and sheltered a band of anti-Imperial partisans on Jedha, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) chooses to remain behind and be destroyed with Jedha City rather than fleeing with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her growing band of companions. Saw has a long history that stretches through the animated Star Wars series Clone Wars and Rebels, but to viewers unaware of those previous appearances, he’s a mysterious character who seems to give up his life arbitrarily, after giving up too easily. Still, the moment establishes that anyone could die in the story to come, and that death might be a choice rather than an unexpected fate.
Jyn and the others don’t intend for their subsequent assault on the Empire’s Scarif base to be a suicide mission. They discuss an escape plan, and have every intention of leaving when they’re done. They also know escape will be the longest of long shots. But even in the never-tell-me-the-odds Star Wars universe, it’s still shocking that the film lets none of them get out alive, even the funny robot. One by one, they step forward to give their lives for the mission. The film treats their deaths as unfortunate, but also glorious, voluntary, and necessary for the greater good. The final scene of a de-aged CGI Carrie Fisher (only marginally less creepy than the film’s CGI Peter Cushing) talking about “hope” suggests the prize, the plans to the Death Star, was worth the price.
That’s one take on sacrifice during wartime. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi offers another. In the opening scene, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disregards General Leia’s orders and carries out a bombing run on the Imperial fleet. He succeeds in taking out a massive Dreadnaught, but at a tremendous cost in human lives. Leia doesn’t let him forget that cost, admonishing and demoting him, and the film lets the loss linger over the rest of the film via Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), whose sister Paige (Veronica Ngo) died ensuring her payload found its target. In the climactic battle, Rose prevents Finn (John Boyega) from committing a similar act of sacrifice, explaining, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”
It’s a lovely sentiment. It’s also one the film doesn’t try to apply to all cases. Both Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) give up their lives in battle, both in last-resort acts that the film treats with considerable gravity. In war, saving what we love is the goal. Fighting what we hate, even dying in that fight, is sometimes the only means to that end.
All of which makes one self-sacrifice in the Ron Howard-directed Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the depiction of its aftermath, that much more puzzling. An early action scene involves Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) joining the band of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Val (Thandie Newton) to rob a train as it travels along a perilous mountainside track. The heist proceeds according to plan until their group is confronted by a band of Cloud Riders, rival criminals whose ultimate motivations figure heavily into the film’s final act. With all hope for the heist seemingly gone, Val decides to blow herself up to ensure the job’s success.
It’s out of character. Nothing we’ve seen of Val before suggests she’d martyr herself for a mere score. In their scenes together, Harrelson and Newton capture the easy chemistry of partners who have been together long enough — professionally and romantically — to know that a reversal of fortune tomorrow could easily undo the setbacks of today, and that the day after that could be worse. Though this job is set up to be that time-tested cinematic trope, the one last score that pays off their dangerous debts and sets them up for good, everything about the characters suggests that this is far from their last chance. Beckett and Val seem like characters who’ve been through one-last-score scenarios before. As Han’s mentors, they’re visions of the life he’ll end up leading as a rogue bouncing from deal to deal, with a brief side career as a hero of the Rebellion. Failure is always an option in these kinds of schemes, because the galaxy is full of targets to rip off, and jobs in need of skilled hands.
So why does Val sacrifice herself? The movie doesn’t seem to know. It treats her like excess baggage that needs to be discarded. No one else’s life appears to be in jeopardy at that moment, though it’s such a clunkily staged action scene, it isn’t that easy to tell. Her death is a high price to pay to get past a momentary setback. Even worse, the film mostly shrugs it off. Tobias gets one scene to mourn his loss, and some halfhearted “sorry, dude”-style condolences. Then Solo keeps moving forward, losing one of its most intriguing characters (and a compelling woman of color, in a cinematic universe that isn’t exactly overrun with them) with a minimum of fuss, and no time to consider the implications, or depict any changes to Tobias’ character. Worst of all: in spite of Val’s death, the heist fails, and no one even brings up the fact that she died in vain.
Solo isn’t the worst Star Wars movie, but it is the shallowest. Say what you will about the prequel trilogy, they at least stay invested in their characters, and they have gravitas — sometimes in excess. And though Rogue One and The Last Jedi have different notions on how to depict the cost of war and scenarios in which death leads to a greater good for a greater number, they both treat these moments seriously. Solo has no such concerns. It glides past Val’s death without ever looking back. Her suicide is just another explosion in a film filled with them. If future Star Wars films want those explosions to matter, they’ll need to remember how to capture the impact, and the aftershocks. I haven’t shown Solo to my daughter yet, but when I do, Val’s pointless death will be much harder to explain than the dead funny robot.