‘Rogue One’ looks great, thrilling even at times; all while failing to justify its own existence (SPOILERS)

By reading the title, I think one surmises I am going to be complaining just a tad throughout this view. Well, I wouldn’t say complaining. I’d say critiquing is a more applicable term.

I saved this for the end last time, but I’m going to address right at the jump now and (hopefully) keep it short: it is completely okay to like or dislike any given movie and it sucks to be criticized for falling in either category.

You don’t have to go that far back to see my views on the last film, which were mostly positive. I say that only because I don’t want to be accused of only liking old things or being some sort of Star Wars snob.

I’m not.

Or at least I don’t think I am.

I could be though?

I don’t think my views on the series as a whole are all that controversial either.

I love (for the most part) the original trilogy.

I don’t care for a large portion of the prequels.

I’m a huge fan of both The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series.

I LOVE Marvel’s recent revamp of Star Wars comics.

I grew up reading the AU material, and remember enjoying quite a bit of it.

So when I say I didn’t really care for a large portion of the new Star Wars movie, please don’t take it personally. I’m not attacking you or Star Wars.

One of the most interesting ideas about this movie (and its one I feel it almost achieves) speaks to the entire Star Wars-verse as a whole. This universe is HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE. There are a crazy amount of stories, perspectives, arcs and what have you to explore and the story of how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star is one that immediately conjures interest, or at the very least a raised eyebrow.

The peak it must surpass is monumental however as the telling of that story is arguably pointless given we know the end. Therefore your approach must emphasize journey over destination in way that is actually satisfying. Adding color and levels to something that arguably did not need them in the first place. (See: the Star Wars prequels) To surmise, I wanted a movie that sucked me int to such a degree that I FORGOT that “Oh, of course the rebels win.” Also probably important to note that when I say useless, I don’t mean automatically bad. I mean it needs to be a story worth telling.

For me, this prequel did what most do and tell a story we know the ending to without justifying its reason for doing so.

Before diving in, it’s also important to note there will be spoilers peppered THROUGHOUT. I don’t think I reveal anything that huge but still be advised. There is no set spoiler section this time so enter at your own risk.

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The plot:

“Jyn Erso, a Rebellion soldier and criminal, is about to experience her biggest challenge yet when Mon Mothma sets her out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star. With help from the Rebels, a master swordsman, and non-allied forces, Jyn will be in for something bigger than she thinks.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Rogue One‘s biggest sin is its utter failure in convincing me to care about what was going on, and I think that relates right back to the rather flat cast of characters that round out our main team.

Jyn Erso, as played by the wonderful Felicity Jones, was perhaps the biggest disappointment for me overall, particularly in relation to her characterization. She’s posited as a quasi-Han Solo surrogate. Cocksure, stubborn, a scoundrel through and through. Oh wait. No. Sorry I’m describing Han Solo. Jyn Erso…is…hm….she’s….confident sometimes? She’s brave. And…stands by her beliefs? Right? Like near the half-way point, she starts doing that….for reasons? Really, and let me stress I cannot prove this, her character reeks of re-tooling from the much maligned and (allegedly) extensive reshoots from earlier this year. Her transition from “I don’t give a fuck” to…

…kind of comes out of nowhere. Sure, (utterly-wasted here) Forrest Whitaker TELLS us she has this backstory of a freedom fighter, but we don’t see that in action all that much. We get the sense that she’s a decent enough person given she saves a child at one point early on but I’m struggle to remember another instance of that pop up.

Jones plays the character with no charm. There’s no flair to the character. Now I’m not arguing she be more like Solo. I’m arguing that she be a character. Jones, who I’ve seen be great time and time again in other things, is flat and unaided by the fact that almost everyone around her is playing a more interesting, but equally undeveloped characters. That’s a MASSIVE problem for a lead.

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Oh sure, with the exception of Erso, the other characters are entertaining. They range from cool to less-bland. None are particularly memorable by themselves however outside of Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO who has the excuse of being a droid and the film’s de facto comic relief. (No matter what, the fact that Tudyk is now considered Disney’s lucky charm delights me to no end.) Riz Ahmed, so good in HBO’s The Night Of and movies such as Four Lions and Nightcrawler, is probably the one I’d point to when asked who my favorite was if only because I found his turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi to be the most compelling. It was also really, really, REALLY cool to see an actor of Middle Eastern descent as one of the good guys in a major studio release. Having an entirely diverse cast is also just flat out refreshing. I just wish the movie had been up to their talents. Donnie Yen and Jiang Yen (playing blind Force-sensitive monk (?) Chirrut Imwe and his mercenary pal Baze Malbus) are cool enough when the action comes a calling but never really expand beyond passing amusements. We no next-to-nothing about these people outside of their shared interest in not liking the Empire. What we are told is often conveyed interestingly through flat-exposition. The original films are almost effortlessly characterize its leads. It’s done so breezily that you almost don’t even notice it. Take the first time we meet Lando in Empire. 

Extrovert.

Doesn’t carry himself too seriously.

Not overtly trustworthy.

Smooth like fine wine.

You get just about everything you need to know about Lando pretty quick in one scene. I don’t really remember any of the characters in Rogue One getting a similar introduction. I use Lando because he’s a somewhat morally grey character from the offset, much like the characters in this are purported to me.

It’s also telling that I literally had to look up the names of each and every one of the new characters. And don’t even get me started on Ben Mendelsohn’s imperial scientist whose name I’m not even going to bother looking up. Not sure I’ve seen such an ineffectual bad guy since….well, since Ghostbusters this year. Man, this year was not great for franchise baddies. I guess when Donald Trump is an actually out there, all other conceited, whiny, creepy villains pale in comparison, huh?

Even characters in the prequels were memorable, to one extend or another. Hate him or loathe him, I fucking remember Jar Jar Binks. (Pump the breaks, I’m not making the case that Jar Jar Binks is a better character than anyone or thing in Rogue One. Maybe characterized? Not a better character by any means, but I KNOW who that idiot is within seconds of his introduction.)

This isn’t a slant to the actors at all. All of them are completely fine. All do well with the material they’re handed; a feat most of the actors in a set of other prequels set in a galaxy far, far away failed to accomplish.

The relatively weak characters play into the plot, which also failed in more than a few respects for me. Because those characters are what’s going to justify whether this is a story that needed to be told, and they don’t. At least no for me.

I wanted something akin to 13 Assassins or The Dirty Dozen. Instead, the mission is relegated to the tail-end of the movie with the rest of the movie spent fumbling around from set-piece to set-piece with actual character development being waved away at nearly every corner.

Our core group goes through enough adventures together that by the we got to the climax, I really felt no tension in regards to whether they would ultimately succeed. There was never really a moment where I felt our heroes were properly fucked. It’s almost the exact same problem I had with Suicide Squad, a movie I have largely soured on since seeing it this past summer. 

Can you imagine for one second actually forgetting about whether these rebels ultimately succeed in their mission? To me, it would have awesome to just have the movie be the mission rather than the movie lead up to the mission. Like cut all of Jyn’s backstory stuff or at the very least minimize it. Use that time to bulk up our leads, emphasize that desperation, dedicate ALL action to the mission. That or having something akin to Munich wherein our team goes from place to place, taking out Imperial higher-ups, finally landing on the architect of the Death Star. Once again, I’m skidding the line of “HEY DER I COULDA WROTA BETTER MOVIE THAYN THEM” territory which really, REALLY hate doing so let’ pump the breaks and move on.

We’re granted glimpses of a desperate Rebellion, filled with shades of moral grey stuff which defined the best season of Battlestar Galactica. 

I loved that aspect (more on that later), but once again, it felt small rather than being emphasized. Except when the movie felt like taking a paint-by-numbers soapbox stance on what “sides” are.

Before we move on, I do need to address another negative and that is fan service. Well… the overabundance of it, I should say. Some of it’s great, particularly when it doesn’t feel like pandering. (Vader’s house from the abandoned Empire-screenplay is a deep, DEEP cut that I never thought I’d see in a million, trillion years. Not to mention the Whills get an actual shout out. You’re past the point of rabbit hole at that point.)

Some fan service really gets in the way however. Sure, it’s great in the moment when a bunch of others are screaming in excitement but the true test all relates back to if that nod was just that or something closer to a distraction. Which brings me to Grand Moff Tarkin’s inclusion.

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It would have been very simple to have him appear in a one-scene bit, explaining how the Death Star was placed under his command. But no, he’s arguably a pretty major player here. The problem? Peter Cushing has been dead for a few decades now.

The uncanny valley is very real and very at play here. It’s completely baffling to me that Disney rather CG an entire person that go for an actual actor. They found someone who looks EXACTLY like Mon Mothra (to be fair, actress Genevieve O’Reilly was cast as the character for Revenge of the Sith with her scene not making the final cut), and yet they cannot find someone who looks enough like Peter Cushing to cast and put some prosthetics on? Hell, just have Ben Mendelsohn play Tarkin! The same goes for the surprise appearance at the end. Neither are bad effects in and of themselves. But there is a major difference between a CGI character like Gollum or K-2S0 (literally had to scroll back up to see what its name was again) and a CGI person, or even doing minor touch ups to an actor to make them look younger or older. Speaking of…

Let’s move ahead to the positives of which there are a number, which may surprise some who think I hated this film.

The entire climax is utterly masterful. I daresay possibly the best action sequence in a Star Wars movie on the level of sheer spectacle. Well-worth the price of admission alone. Leaps and bounds ahead of the dog fight over Starkiller Base near the end of Force Awakens which seemed tacked on in the face of the saber-duel on the planet-surface. The iconography at play is also outstanding. We actually get a proper war film in a film with WAR in the title. It’s Star Wars meets Saving Private Ryan as the rebels face off against Imperial forces on a beach planet, something already cooler than any of the planets we saw in TSF. The ways in which the Star Wars iconography is put to use is utterly drool-inducing as well. AT-ATs storming the beach, a Star Destroyer coming out of light-speed out of nowhere, etc. It’s phenomenal.

If the entire film built to that entire sequence it would have been all the sweeter. Particularly given all the respective fates of our heroes. I credit the twinge of sadness I felt to credible filmmaking in that section rather than anything beyond that. As far as I’m concerned, the whole last act could be a short film with the first two done away with completely. Does that justify the movie existing? No, but I had a shit ton of fun watching it.

I’m also a huge of how un-Star Wars like the whole affair is. Right off the bat, no title crawl. Something that immediately jars an audience with a near-Pavlovian expectation to be smacked with the iconic John Williams fanfare right away. It’s also nice the film doesn’t fall back on said score all that often either. Composer Michael Giacchino adds hints and there but saves those cues for the bigger moments, largely falling back on original music which fine. You can kind of tell he only had a few weeks to write it here and there, but it was competent enough to get through and I don’t think the man is capable of turning in a score that is anything less than at least hummable.

Also really important to note that the film is flat out gorgeous. Cinematographer Greg Fraser shot the hell out of the movie with some of the most breathtaking shots you’re likely to see in a Star Wars movie. He opted to go for digital over film (all three original films and TFA were shot on film) which I ultimately think was a good call. There’s an abundance steadicam, giving it a more gritty feel. As I said, this movie isn’t concerned with looking like a Star Wars film and nor should it. I say embrace your existence outside of the spectrum/saga, and be your own thing to the best of your ability. Letting different directors, cinematographers, composers and what have you contribute is something I’m most excited for looking ahead. Star Wars is at its best when not under one unified vision but in the capable hands of craftsman at the peak of their craft. That’s how we got the two best movies in the series after all as well as two incredibly good TV shows and fleshed out AU. It’s something I think the Harry Potter films or Pirates of Caribbean could have greatly benefited from.

I’ve been reading a few reviews of the film here and there, some good and some bad, and a common theme is just how dark it is. As if Star Wars

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…has been nothing but…

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….sunshine and lollipops.

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That all being said, yes this film is pretty bleak. Not bleak enough to be a determent mind you. This is a war movie. We get scenes of rebels being rebels, and you know what? Sometimes rebels aren’t exactly squeaky clean.

In this “silly sci-fi film for kids” we are treated to visuals of suicide bombers, friendly fire and more.

Given the very real situation underway in Aleppo, I can’t recall a time in which Star Wars got this  “real” or relevant. Well…

I should probably also discuss the Vader of it all…

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It should go without saying, the prequels did quite the number on Darth Vader as a character. It isn’t wholly fair to say those movie ruined such an iconic character. Pop culture did its part too, but man, was the characterization just off there in relation to use feeling empathetic towards him.

Star Wars: Rebels has been doing the Lord’s work in terms of bringing him back to speed in terms of how utterly terrifying he needs to. Oh and not to mention the insane level of pathos it provides for fans of Clone Wars.

Not to mention Kieron Gillen’s masterful take on the character in his solo-Marvel series which I highly recommend anyone with even an ounce of Star Wars love in their hearts to go pick up and read right this second.

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So I approached his appearance here with initial trepidation. He’s not in the movie all that much; by the end I believe he only appears in two scenes, one of which could have been cut entirely with no consequence whatsoever.

However, it is really hard for me to sit atop an ivory tower when I enjoyed LITERALLY every second he is on screen. His appearance near the end is the closest the movie ever comes to being full-blown cathartic, all while returning the menace and dread such a character demands. His saber emitting from the black is an image I could never tire of and it is used to maximum effect here. Director Gareth Edwards is incredibly adept at not (and pardon my crudeness here) blowing his load so to speak when it comes to giving audiences what they desperately want, also evidenced by his approach to his 2014 take on Godzilla. Giving the viewer a taste here and there, only to given them a full taste right at the end.

I compare his appearance to Spider-Man’s in Civil War; wholly unnecessary, but so much fun.

So, I wasn’t a big fan of Rogue One but don’t let my whining fool you. It was a passable movie, at best, to me and really that is what defined this year for me in regards to many of the bigger studio releases.

There’s a wonderful video essay that basically covers all the same beats I would make.

If you had fun, great. If this movie meant something to you, great. More power to you in fact and that’s not meant to be condescending. I had fun for a good portion of the movie and not so much in others but I’m not here to take away anything from you. People get way too personal about movies in general these days, something I’m sure that will only worsen as division gets easier and easier. That’s a different rant for a different day though. What matters most though is the experience that is wholly subjective.

A lot of people seem to like or even love Rogue One, and that’s fine.

I thought it was kind of empty providing only the most basic-level of entertainment, and that’s fine.

I think Christopher Orr of the Atlantic said it best in his review:

“These are the risks and rewards of trying something new (or rather, new-ish): Rogue One is neither as good as a good Star Wars movie nor as bad as a bad one.”

How about I meet you in the middle and say that it is hands down the best Star Wars prequel to date.

Now, can we still be friends?

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One thought on “‘Rogue One’ looks great, thrilling even at times; all while failing to justify its own existence (SPOILERS)

  1. Pingback: Over the Wall and through the snow, to the White Walkers house we go (A Game of Thrones Spoiler Blog) | Sharks with Laserbeams

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