Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

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Breaking away from the mainline Star Wars movies, Rogue One follows the group of rebels responsible for obtaining the Death Star plans that led to the iconic events of the original Star Wars; Lee and Darren review.

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The Star Wars movies have been nothing if not jarring to all parties at all times. Consistency has never been a strong point for the series or the individual films it contains, and some might say that lack of consistency is what makes the series what it is today: a melting pot of neo-retro sci-fi nostalgia and analogous reference movies full of one-liners and dour-faced heroes, contradictory space magic with space World Wars and family scuffles tacked onto Flash Gordon-esque comic operettas and made as shiny as the technology of the time will allow them to be, and that’s just generalising. A series where any one film could start with a heist and end with a pyre for the redeemed evil dictator of all interstellar evil, complete with teddy bear picnic, is a series that wants to be every single thing all at once and, for the most part, that works fine.

It’s not that we set a special place aside for Star Wars because it’s Star Wars, it’s because these films genuinely do capture a lot of our essential wants from cinema: to be taken away, to be given a reason for the trip, to be given reason to be invested on the trip and to let what happens in space happen because space is a crazy place where crazy space things happen. Sometimes, it just makes sense that we’re channelling Samurai movies, or dogfighter movies, or religious movies; adventure can take weird turns like that, and Star Wars more than any series has captured that bizarre balance of unpredictable scale and scenario.

Now, with Rogue One, a brand-shiny new prequel has shown up to ruin our catch-all use of the word ‘prequel’ as shorthand for ‘terrible Star Wars film’; if you didn’t catch that, it means Rogue One is good. A send-up of old World War II movies (fitting), Cold War spy movies (also fitting), Westerns (who could resist) and, of course, Star Wars itself; we don’t get to a ninth cinematic entry in a series (yes, that Clone Wars pilot does count) without a little self-congratulatory back-patting, right? Hell, in Star Wars’ case, we didn’t even get to the fourth.

Finally taking Star Wars to an actual war setting, this time around we follow Jyn Erso (you’ll remember that name because they say it quite a bit) reluctantly lead a gang of scoundrels (you’ll assign names for these guys because you’ll struggle to remember one) on a mission to get the plans that help Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star in the first film. It’s a simple story, one that’ll try to disengage your casual movie watcher with overblown sci-fi rhetoric and a constant barrage of names, places, call-backs, perspective changes and exposition scenes so unnecessarily long and self-important that the film acknowledges you can skip the details by having side-characters shout reminders to other characters about the current mission as they proceed. And, while that sounds negative, for most viewers this all won’t matter too much because the action is bombastic and the visuals alien enough to keep even disinterested eyes glued. It’s an attempt to meet both the fans and the blockbuster-watching masses half-way, and it does that job reasonably well; at least as far as the plot is concerned.

However, when it gets to the other details, half-measures aren’t likely to cut it so finely. This might not apply to the universal appeal of Star Wars action scenes, which typically hit that sweet spot of involving and remarkably well put together, and thankfully there’s nearly an hour straight of that to summarise the ambitions of this film, but when it comes to the remaining elements, there’s always something missing that will lead to dissonance for purists, casuals and newcomers alike.

Gareth Edwards does a serviceable job with most of the direction in Rogue One; handheld cameras give the universe a far more ‘lived-in’ feel than previous iterations and keeping the audience on the ground for much of the action is a novel concept that, ultimately, needed a less standard Star Wars film to warrant the effort. Early film scenes are jam-packed with world-building exposition and slow character conversations with seldom any urgency and only the occasional militia battle to heighten the mood, leaving the persistent camera wobble to convey unease where there isn’t any. And while we do get substantially more payoff as we transition from steady pans in space to shakycam on the ground in the latter half of the movie, quick cuts and a minimalist cinematography style rob the audience of potential showcase moments and tight perspective cues.

Characterisation also takes a blow thanks to a script that, while keeping the stale robotic dialect of the old films, fails to inject nearly enough of the wry wit and sincerity that differentiates the good Star Wars from the bad. K-2SO gets his laughs, and rightly so, and the villains are written with that limp campness that makes them all so noteworthy, but there’s not one lick of irony in Jyn’s multiple rebellion speeches, nor desperation in Andor’s will to fight, nor underlying compassion in Malbus and Îmwe’s partnership but, by the end, we’re all expected to understand exactly why these people got together for this mission and feel connected in some way and we simply can’t. Pair this with some stand-out fluff lines (see: Vader’s sass-threat, Jyn’s rebellion hope callback, anything Andor says) and the crisis of faith begins to set in: how does one even begin to write a Star Wars anyway? How do they intend to do this every year?

Even the nitpicks are half-measures: the rubber faced CGI people look bad already, and just wait until another ten-to-fifteen years roll by. A recast would have been perfectly fine, the series has done it before and done it well. The score keeps the trademark horns and twinkling, but essentially inverts the original sheet music to give the film its own feel? Not remotely convincing. We drop the opening crawl, which seems like a great idea for the tone, but include a title card that interrupts the opening drama? And to hell with your planet names and description text, nobody cares nearly enough to confuse them and everybody states where they are out loud repeatedly anyway, so what was the point?

Fans aren’t likely to heed much of the criticisms however; there’s an abundance of fan service that could Jedi trick even the hardiest mind. Little secret codenames that are almost certainly book, game and comic plot devices; Lightsaber, Death Star, Imperial and Rebel lore that are sure to tantalise encyclopaedia editors; cameos and call-backs and new toys to buy and subtle nods to old design decisions like desert troopers/AT-ATs and lightless saber-canes and the list goes on and on and on.

For everyone else, there’s a muddled movie here, but still a thoroughly watchable one. Performances are fine, the worlds visited are pretty and diverse and the spectacle keeps up the series’ long tradition of being utterly absorbing. Even at its loosest, Star Wars can’t help but please the masses, but had the series been allowed to venture further from the formula, this could have been something a little more interesting than a competent but restrained Star Wars action movie. Give it a few years, call back when the series gets desperate/stupid rich, then we’ll start seeing some real visionary nonsense from these spin-offs.

B+

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The weirdest thing about prequels is their own special brand of spoilers. How can you spoil events you already know? Ok, sure, you don’t know the nitty gritty details, but you know the important movements, the big story beats. So why even tell a prequel?

I’ve never hidden my dislike for prequels, whether it is for the vague events before a story such as The Thing prequel or Rogue One; or if it is for the even more idiotic prequels like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, that literally tells you the plot in its entirety in the first movie.

Creatively bankrupt and a sickening cash grab, at least in their inception, prequels might be even worse than remakes. At least they can have some creative insight.

With this in mind it’s hard not to be sceptical of Rogue One, considering the pedigree of movies that inhabit the term ‘Prequel’.

Rogue One tells the story of Jyn Erso, the orphaned child of Galen Erso. After her father is captured by the sinister Director Krennic, he is forced to build the ultimate weapon; the Death Star. When she is broken out of prison by the resistance she is given an opportunity to strike back against those who robbed her of her family.

I almost think I need to split the review in two here. As a moderate fan of Star Wars (prefer Star Trek, sorry) and that of a more critical viewer. Because in many ways this is just a fan film. Every shot, every musical score is meant to evoke fan appeal. If you love Star Wars as most people do, you’ll love it. Warts and all. And it is a warty beast, for sure.

Seeing characters you love back in action again can be exhilarating but at the same time it’s hard not be cynical. The cameos/fan service occasionally come off as cheap, such as C3PO; exploitative and disconcerting, like CGI Peter Cushing; or just down-right shoddy like the famous line being stepped on by the cast.

But that’s how it looked to me.

A die-hard fan will love those jokes, those hints to the bigger expanded world, such as a reference to a ‘Dark Saber’. But to those who don’t will either miss them or find them clunky and exasperatingly bad; one line delivered by Vader in an unnecessary scene should go down in infamy.

And that’s a thing I keep coming back to: unnecessary. Vader had a few scenes; unnecessary. Peter Cushing, while nice, didn’t add a lot and kept taking me out of the scene, because while CGI has advanced a lot it’s very much not perfect, resulting in the uncanny valley effect. Those scenes are interesting, comparable to the Nazi structure of government that the Empire is clearly based on, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Same for Forest Whittaker’s character, simply unnecessary. It could be the tagline of the film.

While it might seem like I’m being harsh I don’t mean to be. I have actually been looking forward to this, despite my misgivings of its origins. And for the most part that view bares out. The action is fun and fast, the cast for the most part are likeable and show a side to Star Wars we haven’t seen in the movies. We see The Force as a religion and the kind of people who follow it, the dark underbelly of the rule of the Empire, the oppression of the world; it’s damn intriguing. While I disliked Deigo Luna’s character, I could understand him. The world they show doesn’t contain the out and out optimism of the original trilogy.

I wanted to see more of that but half way through its just dropped, returning to the typical style of the other movies, albeit tempered with a more fatalistic tinge. I can’t fully fault that because it works. The fatalist nature of the rebellion in its infancy, of the desperation they are facing against the most powerful weapon in existence; that was powerful.

The rag-tag group of rebels are great., forming a nice balance of elements from the world with Donnie Yen’s Force sensitive blind ‘monk’ being a stand out in terms of world building. I wanted more of this universe building. I love the fact that they aren’t the bland moralistic white protagonists we usually see, they are morally grey and ethnically diverse. Wonderful: it actually feels like a rebellion.

Still, they are lumped together a little quickly. The bonds they form seem a little artificial and for the sake of the plot but you can almost forgive this given the extreme circumstances forcing them together.

I want to talk more in depth about certain scenes that truly evoke the feel that they’re going for but for the sake of ‘spoilers’ I won’t. Suffice it to say the ending scenes really carry the tone well, serving the emotion and fatalism I talked about earlier.

To sum up and arrive at some sort of point, let’s say that, yes, this is a good movie. Visually appealing with diverse characters, interesting world building and one or two genuine emotive scenes make it more than worth watching. But, it still feels unnecessary. Not truly carrying well into the original trilogy.

I’d have loved this to be not so linked to the original trilogy, just having it set in the intervening years between the formation of the empire and the inception of the rebellion is fine. The looser feel giving them a lot more room, allowing the villain to be more prominent instead of overshadowed by Vader. That would have been more interesting. As it stands, it’s a good movie, marred by cringy moments of fan service and doomed to be expected, unable to breathe fully as its own work.

If it only it rebelled. It was its only hope.

B+

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3 thoughts on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

  1. Pingback: ASC Podcast EP#18 – Miracle on 34th Street (1947) | Big Picture Reviews

  2. Am I crazy and imagining things, or did Vader acually pause for effect for his big stupid one-liner?
    It was the strangest feeling. I have no idea if the jump to HD made these things more visible or if was just this depiction, but Darth Vader felt really plastic in that scene; his green and red chest buttons looked like a little Christmas toy. And it was this, his dumb zinger and the reminder that, oh yeah, force-choking is still the coolest thing ever that made my brain just *click* into: “Oh! This is dumb schlock!” and suddenly the whole scene became “Oh you! That Darth Vader, always such a mischevious character!” and subsequently much more enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha! You’re definitely right, it’s the way to enjoy the film man. It takes itself very seriously, but it’s good fun that I’m sure an extra watch will make clear.
      I’ve been using that Vader pun for weeks now, it’s marvellous.

      Like

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