Friday, December 16, 2016

A Spoilerless Review of Rogue One

I've been excited for the release of Rogue One, because I am (as I'm sure you've noticed by now) a Star Wars fan, but also because the new turn of the films promises to reinvigorate a beloved, childhood franchise and return the energy and goodwill that the prequels lost.

The Force Awakens managed to do that by carefully hewing to the beats of the original trilogy, and thus while you can overstate its lack of originality, it doesn't feel like something new.  Rogue One, however, promised to be something new, or at least it seemed to be. To me, that suggested that this was the real test of the new franchise: Can Disney stand on its own two feet when making a Star Wars film?

In a word, yes.

Is it a fun film?

My wife frowns when I start to pick apart the deeper context and narrative nuance of a film.  For her, what matters is whether or not it's fun, which is fair.  The average viewer, I think, isn't that concerned with deeper nuance as long as the film thoroughly entertains them.  Did Rogue One hit the mark there?


If you go back and watch the Force Awakens, it's two hours of pure cinematic bliss.  Sure, it might be derivative, but it's so watchable!  I find when I turn it on (it's on Netflix) I rapidly get lost in it in a way that I seldom do with most films (I have a short, ADHD-addled attention-span).  I don't think Rogue One fulfills that.  It breaks up into movements, and I find the transitions between those movements a little stiff.  That is, there are moments where the film takes you out of the flow, so if I were watching it at home, at those points I might stop it and flit to something else.  So, less than perfect in this regard.

Is it spectacular?  Really grand and amazing-looking films can be delightful to watch, and on this point, Rogue One hits it out of the ballpark.  You have only to watch the trailer to see the grandeur and awe conjured by Rogue One.  We see the Death Star in its full, terrifying scale.  We see its destructive power.  We get to see Darth Vader yet again, and he's as impressive as we could possibly want.  We see a magnificent space battle set-piece.

Will we love the characters?  Maybe.  I personally found Chirrut Imwe to be a fun character, and K-2SO regularly drew laughter from the audience, but Captain Andor pushed towards being deliberately unlikable.  I enjoy dark horses like him, but my wife and my friend gave him a thumb down.  Given the power of his lines in the trailer, I found myself disappointed by Orson Krennic.  He's fine but forgettable.  The main character too, Jyn, is there.  The actress is fine, charismatic and rather attractive, but the character doesn't jump off the screen and demand your attention.

Is it nerdtastic?  Oh my, yes.  It addresses many points that nerds tended to raise, and also introduced more casual viewers to concepts that they might not be familiar with, like kyber krystals, as well as introducing us to genuinely new and awe-inspiring elements, like the holy planet of Jedah.  It pushes straight into a New Hope in a way that will make you want to pull out the old film to watch it again to see how seamlessly it connects and it gives the new film a sense of urgency.  This devotion to the old films creates a weird problem, though, in that they need to bring back old characters and they do so with CGI, and the result tips into the uncanny valley.  The one old character who works was Darth Vader.  The moment I heard James Earl Jones' voice, a tingle shot up my spine.

So is it fun?  Fun is probably the wrong word.  The movie is dark.  It features no super-heroic jedi or dramatic rescues.  Instead, we watch characters die and see the desperate struggle of the alliance against a horrifying weapon.  This is a film about heroic sacrifice rather than heroic victory, and represents the darkest moment of the rebellion.  It becomes easy to see why Tarkin, in a New Hope, thinks he's almost crushed the Rebellion, because he has. The result is that this is by far the best Imperial film, probably eclipsing even the Empire Strike's Back for sheer Imperial bad-assness.  It also features a great deal of messy, chaotic combat, more typical of war than the sanitized, choreographed duels of the prequels.

Is it a Good Film?

The quality of the movie usually determines whether or not people will have fun. Sure, lofty critics might have a different opinion about a film than the audience, but the two line up more often than they realize.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward and creates the sense of urgency necessary for an action film like this.  The Empire has devised a weapon of mass destruction and will use it to crush the rebellion unless the rebellion can grab those plans before it's too late.  The result is a fast-paced and hectic film that rarely slows down (though it does at times).  However, in my opinion, it also introduces a few chekov's guns (Jyn's necklace) that it does nothing with.  Why?  That seems wasted. 

More broadly, the film neatly stitches in elements necessary for the larger shared universe, like new locations and the emphasis on kyber crystals, which will surely be a plot point for later films in the franchise.  It also carefully ties into older films, though it also undermines the prequels.  At one point, Bail Organa mentions Obi-Wan and says that he "served him well during the clone wars," which is an exact quote from a New Hope (and thus spoils nothing), but also violates the prequels, where Obi-Wan never served Bail Organa.  On the other hand, the movie does reference Mustafar, or seems to (it's the one planet where no subtitle announces the planet's name).  The problems noted above might be addressed in later films, but Rogue One also ties itself off with a bow.  It doesn't seem meant to give us additional prequel movies.  Rather, it has told its story, and it's done.

The characters, though, are fairly thin.  The film lacks major conflict.  Jyn Erso goes from being agnostic on the rebellion to being devoted to it, but there's no real moment of conversion, it just sort of happens.  Likewise, Captain Andor goes from being a jerk to being somewhat less of a jerk, but again, no moment of conversion.  Finally, we see a bunch of characters that seem cool, like Chirrut Imwe and his ally, Baze Malbus and their interaction regarding faith, but it's fairly thin.  They're in the movie, they have a couple of cool action scenes, and that's largely it.  The villain is probably the most memorable of the characters, and I feel his acting failed to reach the lofty heights of Peter Cushing or James Earl Jones, leaving him an ultimately forgettable villain.

The setting is where Rogue One shines.  The movie lavishes details on new locations, like the richly beautiful Jedah or (forgive me, my memory fails me) the asteroid marketplace shown briefly at the beginning.  It delves deeper into the rebellion, breathing more life into that group as an organization, and it shows the bitter, behind-the-scenes politicking of the Empire.  It brings the galactic civil war to life in a way that even the original films didn't really do.  Rogue One is the sort of film that I expect fans of the universe will be discussing for a very long time, as it introduces a lot of fascinating ideas into the mix.

A brief note on the music, though.  They clearly had someone new composing the music for Rogue One and he hasn't found his voice.  The music obviously isn't John Williams, but at the same time, it sort of is.  I found myself listening to it, and hearing snatches of familiar music which then sort of wander away from it in a way that I found emotionally confusing rather than invigorating.  The soundtrack isn't very good, because it's not John Williams, but it also isn't this Michael Giacchino guy either.  It's a weird hybrid that somehow manages to be the worst of both.

Ultimately, I would argue that Rogue One is a work-horse film that draws its inspiration from better films, but definitely draws you into the greater Star Wars mythology and inspires you with its magnificent imagery.  That's where it's strongest.
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