I haven’t been writing too much lately, but then tonight, I went and saw Rogue One, so, you know…
First, some spoilers: they all die. Which is, of course, as it should be.
This is a film that we already knew the ending to. The effort to steal the plans for the Death Star was going to succeed. And for some reason, the folks who pulled off that little scheme were never heard from again in the live action Star Wars universe. You could invent a variety of reasons for this, but the film makers opted to go for the most obvious one, which happens to also be the most emotionally affecting: that none of them made it out alive.
And it works. Really well. As does most of the film. Not all, but most.
So what’s good? First of all, it’s the Empire: never before has it been so overwhelmingly menacing. In the original Star Wars film we got a glimpse of their villainy with the attack on Leia’s ship and the fate of Luke’s family, but it was never something we really felt. There was just a vague sense that things were bad out there, even though Tatooine itself seemed nicely off the beaten path. In Rogue One, the film gives a stronger sense of just how awful it is to live under the thumb of this cruel dictatorship, without getting bogged down in the politics of it all. Resistance really does seem futile when you realize the seemingly endless the supply of weapons and reinforcements that these guys have. Over and over again, the Rebellion has to jump into battle, strike hard, and then get the heck out of there because if they don’t they are going to get crushed by the huge machine of the Imperial Fleet, not to mention the Death Star itself. And the scenes of the Death Star destroying cities made clear the devastating power of this super-weapon far more effectively than anything we saw The Force Awakens (and I liked that movie)
The cast of characters is enjoyable and refreshingly gray in a world that has traditionally been known for its black and white depiction of people. Before this, the most ambiguous question the franchise had raised was whether Han Solo was hard-nosed enough to shoot first. Here, a real point is made of the fact that fighting a war, even against an unjust oppressor, often involves choices which are morally questionable (to say the least). In fact, the film more or less opens with one of our heroes, Cassian Andor, doing just that as he kills an apparently doomed ally in order to have a better chance of escaping himself with critical information. And of course, one of his major story beats later in the film is the decision as to whether the follow the order to gun down another ally for the sake of the cause. These sort of dynamics make the sacrifices that the characters ultimately make all the more meaningful.
Too bad the movie takes the simplistic approach of populating the Empire entirely with white men. It used to be that the whole Star Wars universe was made up of white men, droids and aliens, but now it’s all been diversified in every area but the villains. I suppose the producers are attempting to make a political statement, although maybe the takeaway should be that the Empire is led by a bunch of animated cadavers, if the new Grand Moff Tarkin is any indication. In all seriousness, the CGI used to bring Peter Cushing back to life for that character’s substantial role is impressive, but it just doesn’t look quite right, not exactly like a normal human being. Neither does Princess Leia at the end.
Back to the positives, the movie nicely expands on the Star Wars universe in a number of fun way. There are some neat new settings–we’ve got city, we’ve got village, we’ve got beaches, we’ve got mountains. Thankfully, there’s a complete absence of deserts! There’s also new variations on the Empire’s war machine, including the introduction of a cool new droid called K-2SO, who is one of the movies few sources of humor. He’s played by Alan Tudyk, who is one of those go-to guys for motion capture characters.
Another point in the film’s favor is how well it integrates its shout-outs and callbacks to characters and concepts from other Star Wars movies. The movie does not feature appearances by Han Solo, Chewbacca, Greedo, Jabba the Hutt, Uncle Owen, the Chief Jawa or Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. The people who do appear all make sense in the course of the narrative. They are the characters who really should be there for this story to work: Governor Tarkin, Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, General Dodonna, Red Leader, and of course, Darth Vader. Maybe the only exception was the random encounter that Jyn has with Walrus-Man and Dr. McCreepy…you know, those guys who hassle Luke in the cantina scene of the first movie (aka, the first person in Star Wars to ever have his arm cut off by a light sabre). That cameo felt more shoehorned in, though it was still enjoyable.
Before I get into my favorite thing about the movie, let’s think about what else doesn’t work as well as it could.
Well, this doesn’t bother me too much but it is a bit funny how similar Felicity Jones’ Jyn is to The Force Awakens‘ Rey. They are both attractive, caucasian, brunette females in their 20’s with British accents and narratively-important parentage (or we assume so anyway, in Rey’s case) who display plucky courage and impressive combat skills. Still, I liked her, though we probably don’t really get to spend enough time with most of the characters to have more than a passing connection to them.
I’m also not quite sure what Princess Leia is doing on board the lead ship in the final battle. Last we heard, her father was going to task her with bringing Obi-Wan Kenobi back into the war, so how did she wind up there? Presumably, she just got caught up in things when the fishy Admiral decided to go and help the Rogue One crew in their quest, but maybe it would have been nice to have a line that acknowledged that.
Another nit-pick is Darth Vader’s line about his underling “chocking” on his ambition, stated in the midst of a Force-Choke. It’s perhaps not as bad all the things he said when he was bratty Anakin Skywalker, but is still pretty hokey.
And while I didn’t mind Donnie Yen’s Force-Martial Arts guy praying himself over to that lever at the end, but I thought it was silly that he did so by just walking slowly toward it, rather than by a last display of awesome martial-arts acrobatics.
Finally, I thought the idea of the Rebel Alliance having a hard time staying on track with one another was an interesting one, but it was a bit silly that nobody could agree that they needed to fight back except for our group of hearty anti-heroes. In fact, I don’t really know why they needed to go back to the Rebel Base at all, except to pick up some reinforcements. I think after The Force Awakens and now this, we don’t really need to see any more scenes of everyone standing around those big display scenes that are shaped like tables talking through all their plans.
So, there’s a lot of flaws there, but they could all be described as nit picks, and for this viewer they pale in comparison to what what I loved about the film–what I’d call the best thing about Rogue One, and fortunately it’s a big one…
It’s called…the third act. Also known as the climax. Or the last 45 minutes or so. That’s where we get the big battle, being carried out simultaneously on land and in space, and it’s outstanding.
First, it has the general positive quality of not focusing on trying to hit the one weak spot in an indomitable super-weapon (although, of course, in a way that’s what the entire movie is about).
More importantly, it’s just an extremely well directed, well edited piece of extended action with high production values and good choreography. It may be the best war scene we’ve had in eight live action Star Wars movies, and certainly the one which has the greatest sense of desperation to the proceedings. The stakes are clear and intensely felt, and we’ve never been as aware of the consequences of losing as we are here. As a result, there’s tremendous meaning to the heroes’ deaths, and their ultimate victory is all the more satisfying. I for one almost wanted to cheer when I watched the rebels push a disabled Imperial cruiser into the shield generator to destroy it.
And then after the climax, we get one of the best Darth Vader scenes we’ve ever seen. The guy is genuinely terrifying as he uses his Jedi / Sith skills to take out squads of escaping rebel soldiers, complete with deflected blasters, force chokes, telekinesis and fearsome swordsmanship. Again, it gives the movie a sense of how dire things are for the galaxy if these guys get what they want. And it shows us that the story we’ve watching is actually about a whole bunch of people–not just a small few–who are fighting and dying for their cause. And in that way, it makes the film the most inspirational of the lot.
So, Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards…far from a perfect movie, but a tremendously satisfying one. So far, post-Lucas Star Wars is doing pretty well for itself. I still the find the idea of a Young Han Solo movie (coming up sometime soon) to be a bit hard to swallow, but if they can keep up this quality, I guess I’ll have to give it a go.
And now I’m not sure, but I think one of my daughters is wondering when Rogue Two is coming out.