Woah! What is this? I’m writing about a movie released within the last week? It’s a Christmas miracle! Don’t get to used to it kiddos, because I hate movie theaters and probably won’t see another movie on opening weekend for a loooong time.
Remember way back when I said hit guerrilla film maker Gareth Edwards has been swallowed up by the corporate machine, I totally missed the fact that he’s the director for this year’s Star Wars film, Rogue One.
Disney’s Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Episode 3.5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the newest movie in the yearly Star Wars output that Disney has scheduled for the next 500 years. Rogue One is a companion piece to the core Star Wars saga, showing how the Rebel Alliance discovers and steals the plans for the Death Star between Episode III and Episode IV.
Full disclosure: this review is going to be chocked full of spoilers. Also full disclosure: get a tall glass of something to drink, because I’m going to be real salty.
Go watch Rogue One before reading this. Or don’t. I mean, honestly, if you’ve seen A New Hope, I think you can figure out how this one ends.
Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a once-retired Imperial science officer as she leads a rag tag group of rebels on a suicide mission to retrieve the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new superweapon. Galen was forced into designing the Death Star, and in an act of defiance designed it with a crippling weakness that’s now stored on blueprints in an Imperial military stronghold. WILL JYN AND CO. BE ABLE TO STEAL THE PLANS FOR THE REBELS BEFORE THEY WITNESS THE FIREPOWER OF THIS FULLY ARMED AND OPERATIONAL BATTLE STATION?
I was honestly pretty psyched for Rogue One. The trailers were amazing, they painted it as a gritty war movie that also happened to be in the Star Wars universe. Donnie Yen was in it, which meant I knew there was going to be some serious ass kicking (The Ip Man films are some of my favorite martial arts movies). Despite this, Rogue One had to offer something else other than just the bare bones plot of the good guys stealing the Death Star Plans from the bad guys. Obviously the good guys win, because Star Wars exists. There is absolutely no tension throughout the film because the audience already knows that the good guys will succeed. So, what does Rogue One offer past this basic premise? Not much, unfortunately.
Rogue One is a movie that had tons of potential, but ultimately chose to play it safe rather than to capitalize on it and explore some interesting and compelling stories to flesh out the Star Wars universe. This movie sets up some really cool concepts but then goes nowhere with them. The ones that stick out the most to me are Galen Erso’s struggle building the Death Star against his will, Saw Gerrera’s (Forest Whitaker) radical rebel group that is so extreme that the Rebel Alliance want nothing to do with them, or Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) being the first non-Jedi we’ve seen using the Force on screen. Don’t those things sound like really cool things to expand upon in a Star Wars movie? Yeah, of course they do.
Galen Erso was a master scientist and the galaxy’s best engineer. He designed the fucking Death Star for Christ’s sake. His struggle to hide his true intentions might not be the most thrilling thing to see in a sci-fi fantasy adventure film, but it would be super cool to see the dynamic between Erso, Lieutenant Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and Grand Moff Tarkin (I’ll get started on this in a minute, don’t you worry) play out. Krennic and Tarkin were at odds with each other throughout Rogue One despite both working for the same side, and I think it would have been interesting to see Erso navigate his way between and deceive these two ruthless leaders as he tries to complete his ultimate goal. Instead we get a handful of scenes with Mikkelsen phoning in a handful of lines of exposition to help prod the characters along, and then he dies.
Gerrera’s extremist rebels were one of the most disappointing things in the whole movie. Ever since Episode IV, the Rebel Alliance has been just that, an Alliance. They’ve been painted as 100% good guys, freedom fighters, and as one cohesive, aligned group of people working towards the common cause of toppling the Empire and reinstating a Republic to the galaxy. Rogue One offers a glimpse of a group of rebels so radical and extreme in their beliefs that they’ve split off and been excommunicated from the Alliance. How cool is that? Star Wars has always been filled with morally black and white characters, and now we have a faction that sits uncomfortably in the middle. Sure they want the Empire gone, but they’ll stop at nothing and make the ultimate sacrifice to see it through, unlike their pansy-ass goody two-shoes cousins in the Rebel Alliance. Except they don’t. The only glimpse of Gerrera’s extremism is that he sics an alien that can extract memories on a defected Imperial pilot with the intent of ripping his mind to shreds and leaving a husk of a person in the process. Sounds fucking brutal, right? Good thing later all it takes is someone to say “Hey, you’re that one Imperial pilot, right?” to bring all his memories and cognitive functions flooding back like nothing ever happened. When the rebel extremists attack the stormtroopers in Jedha, I was hoping for some, y’know, extremism. Instead we just get regular old baster fire and a couple grenades. We aren’t shown dead civilians that were caught in the crossfire, we weren’t shown one of Gerrera’s men brutalizing a stormtrooper out of pure rage and passion for his cause, we just get another Star Wars blaster fight, except they throw in a shot of a crying kid walking through the streets. Extremism! I understand this film is PG-13 and Disney isn’t too keen on showing disemboweled civilians and rebels left over from an insurgency in a Star Wars movie, but if that’s the case, then don’t make extremist and radical rebels a major plot point or set piece in your PG-13 film. Also Gerrera’s character is wasted, I believe. He could have been a great character to contrast the more levelheaded and reserved rebels in our main group of characters through their adventure, but instead we get a handful of scenes with Whitaker phoning in a handful of lines of exposition to help prod the characters along, and then he dies. I swear this sounds familiar…
So maybe these ideas that I’m spouting off aren’t the best way to improve the movie, but the point that I’m trying to make is that Rogue One needed something else for the audience to dig in to rather than just make it about the Death Star plans. Maybe Rogue One could have been a character piece, showing Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) navigating their way through the plot as morally dubious and grey characters. Maybe take a minute or two to give our main characters some dialogue that expands and fleshes out their motives, hopes, dreams, aspirations, anything so that we can see the contrast between characters and setting. We barely get any development for any character throughout the film, and they’re all so underwritten that in addition to there being no tension from the plot happening, there is an equal lack of tension from fearing the death or injury of our characters. The only character that has even a touch of development is Cassian who just kind of pulls a turn halfway through the movie because the writers needed him to help Jyn steal the plans.
The last thing I’m going to bash about Rogue One is the one that has the least to do with good film making, but offended me the most from the movie. You know what it is, I know what it is, so I’m just going to say it.
CGI Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.
Why would anybody think this was a good idea? I understand that Peter Cushing has passed (may he rest in peace and may his ghost never see Rogue One) and Carrie Fisher is getting up there in age, but when your movie costs 200 million dollars and the best you can do is a PS3 render of two of Star Wars’ most iconic characters, you goofed up. When we first see Tarkin, it’s from behind and we see a shadowy reflection of his face in a pane of glass. Sure, cool. I like Tarkin as much as the next guy, and enough of Cushing’s features are seen that you’d immediately recognize him as the same character from A New Hope. Good job Gareth Edwards, you gave a subtle and reserved nod to one of sci-fi and horror’s greatest act– oh god, why are we seeing him in full frame next to real live human beings for multiple long scenes? I never wanted this! I didn’t realize this movie was going to make a detour into the uncanny valley!
Here’s a crazy idea. Hire an actor to play a character. Pretty novel, right? Peter Cushing had one of the most instantly recognizable faces in Hollywood, so why don’t you get your practical effects team to work on a cheek bone prosthetic while you find an actor who can learn and perform Cushing’s little ticks and nuances? No, you’re right. That would be too much work. How about just writing Tarkin out of the script? He really didn’t serve a purpose other than to butt heads with Krennic anyways, so let’s get our little reference to Episode IV in, and move on with our lives, shall we? No, you’re right. That would be too simple and easy, and would actually work.
The new generation of Star Wars movies are now zero for two with regards to the final shot of either film. We had the weird perspective Bayhem helicopter shot at the end of Force Awakens (to be fair, on a smaller TV screen this shot is much less nauseating) and this time around we get a sweet CGI Leia that lives next door to Grand Moff Tarkin in the uncanny valley taking up 60% of the screen while the camera lingers awkwardly on her weird, ballooned face. And all that right after one of the best sequences from the film (and the whole franchise, I’d argue). Great. Good job. Gold star. Why didn’t anyone get fired for this?
Alright, I’ve written well over 1500 words bashing Rogue One, and I can hear you now typing away in the comments: Wow David, you’re so nitpicky and salty about Rogue One, you’re just a cynical asshole who hates any movies that appeal to a wide audience and are successful. Not everything can be weird niche arthouse horror, you dick. Well guess what, I have good things to say about Rogue One, too!
All the proper war scenes near the end of the film are great. They’re incredibly well directed and live up to the darker, grittier tone that the trailer conveyed. The frenzied chaos of a ground battle between Rebels and Imperials in the Star Wars universe was handled with level of tact and seriousness that I was refreshing and respectable. As an audience, we really got to see the war part of Star Wars. We see primary and secondary characters die violently (as violent as PG-13 can really get), and we get a real sense for how quickly things can change in the tide of battle. I’m also impressed that the writers killed off pretty much all of the characters. I’m glad they didn’t go the route of The Hobbit by introducing characters in a movie that won’t appear in its sequel, and I think they tied it in with the heist of Death Star plans well enough that it doesn’t feel awkward or forced. I also need to give major props to the last sequence of the film, showcasing Darth Vader at full power, just wrecking rebel troops left and right. I know some people thought that scene was excessive and was too much of a fan service moment to be taken seriously, but I thought it fit snugly into the rule of cool as well as showcased the darker, more brutal tone that I think Rogue One should have gone for.
I guess now’s where I say where I stand on one of 2016’s more anticipated movies. When I walked out of the theater, I thought Rogue One was alright. Not great, but not bad. The more I thought about it and let it tumble around in my head, the more I lackluster I found it. I think Rogue One was a big disappointment for me and that it could have been much, much better if they focused on the characters and setting more and let the we-need-to-steal-the-Death-Star-plans plot fall into the background. I think that this film played it too safe to be considered a departure from the main Star Wars saga, but I do think that since it’s probably going to break a billion dollars in the box office that it will spark an interest in a proper stand alone film with a darker and grittier tone. Maybe in 2066 we’ll have the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars movies, but who knows. As long as making safe, predictable movies practically prints a billion dollars a year for Disney, I don’t think the Star Wars franchise is going anywhere exciting anytime soon.