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Movie Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

When Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012, plans were revealed for not only additional ‘saga films’, Episodes 7, 8, and 9, but also stand-alone movies that are set in the Star Wars universe…as such, turning the Star Wars franchise into a similar cash-cow as they had done with Marvel. In writing that sentence, I have to admit, I understand what George was trying to say when he made the rather off-color comment about feeling like he’d sold his children into white slavery. [Oh, yeah, you’re gonna criticize someone for an un-PC comment? Pot…meet kettle. – Ed.] The first of these stand-alone projects would be the story of how the Rebels came to acquire the Death Star plans. So…here we are. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now. Has Disney succeeded in converting another IP into a perennial money-maker for the House of Mouse?

The short version is yes.

Rogue One stands up as a pretty entertaining film, not without some nits to be picked, mind you, but there was nothing that proved to be a deal-breaker. There are a few things going into the movie that I think you should be aware of though. First, the more steeped you are in Star Wars lore (all the saga films, Clone Wars and Rebels, recent books after Lucasfilm set up their new Story Group back in 2014 and so on…) the more you’re going to enjoy this film as there are plenty of easter eggs, cameos (some good, some great, others forced), references and so forth for you to catch. Second, this film skews a little older than the Saga films. All of those, save for Revenge of the Sith, are rated PG where Rogue One is a solid PG-13 and it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to conjure up what an R rated version would look like, because honestly, it wouldn’t be a whole lot different. Third, think more Saving Private Ryan and less Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, it’s VERY clear this takes place in the Star Wars universe, but the tone is very different from the Saga films. Here, it’s very down to earth [Does that even work here? – Ed.], very gritty and, well, as realistic as a galaxy far, far away can be. This is very much a war story…not the science-fantasy myth-like tales that comprise the Saga films, and I have to admit, that change in tone did impact my enjoyment of the film. After watching Rogue One, I understand why people have an aversion to the DCEU movies so far. For them, they want their superheroes fairly light with the occasional moments of darkness. I didn’t realize this, but apparently that’s how I like my Star Wars. Sure, Empire and Revenge of the Sith are darker entries in the Saga, and they need to be so for dramatic purposes…plus they’re made better by the fact that they really are the only dark films of the franchise, surrounded by lighter fare. This, ultimately, is a matter of taste and certainly isn’t a criticism of the film itself…especially when you think of the larger picture and how this story fits into it. This story almost has to be dark, as it falls in a dark time where the Empire has consolidated their power and are about to put the cherry on the top that is the Death Star and the Rebel Alliance hasn’t really galvanized yet, being a loose alliance at best.

The cast ranges from serviceable to standout, as you typically see in films. [Good ones anyway. – Ed.] I’ll certainly join the internet consensus in lauding both Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk for their performances. Tudyk’s K-2SO proves to be the comic relief for much of the film but does so in an understated, snarky way that is perfect…allowing for laughs but never stooping to the silly the way certain past Star Wars comic relief characters have. Yen plays what in kung-fu films would be the role of the blind master, whereas here, he’s…well, certainly not a Jedi, definitely a big believer in the Force and probably at the very least Force-sensitive. As one would expect, his fighting scenes are pretty damn kick-ass, but, I have to admit, I think he probably has the funniest line in the movie. Mads Mikkelsen is always reliable for a good performance, and he does well as the primary designer of the Death Star, Galen Erso…who is the father of our main protagonist. Felicity Jones, as Jyn Erso, I fully expected to annoy the shit out of me for two reasons, both of them tied to another Disney franchise, the MCU. See, I expected her to have a role similar to Daisy ‘Quake’ Johnson in Marvel’s Agents of Shield…the junior member of the team who always proves to be right and ends up being the de facto leader of the team because the actual leader of said team will just follow whatever she says because, again, she’s always right. The visual similarities between Jyn and Daisy weren’t exactly helping things either. Thankfully, that’s not too much the case. There is one moment though where it very much was: the “rah-rah” speech. You know, from the trailers, it’s where the “Rebellions are built on hope” line gets delivered to the gathered Alliance big-wigs. Now, the girlfriend did try to counter with “why would that bother you but not when, say, Luke does it?” Because Luke never gave a “rah-rah” speech…he never had to rally the troops. In fact, he was pretty keen on doing things on his own for the most part. The most Luke ever spoke in front of a collective group was to either brag about being able to bullseye wamprats in his T-16 back home (they’re not much bigger than 2 meters), or to announce that he’d be joining Han, Leia and Chewie as part of the command crew for the shuttle that would undertake the Endor infiltration. That’s it. Back on topic though, the concession has to be made that in a war movie, yes, you do need someone to give a “rah-rah” speech, be it General Patton, William Wallace, fictional President Whitmore or one of countless examples. It’s a cornerstone of the war movie…the speech that rallies the troops to face insurmountable odds. So while the result of Jyn’s speech ended up being a bit trope-y, it’s more of a case of “don’t hate the playa, hate the game”. While I have to admit that there’s some personal bias here, none of which is terribly rational despite what I’ve tried to explain above, I found Felicity Jones to be serviceable in her role…which, if said bias were removed, would likely be rather high marks. Forrest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera only ends up being in the first half of the film and occupies an interesting place in the narrative. He plays a Rebel extremist who raised Jyn after the loss of her mother and the taking of her father that has broken away from the Alliance. What I found to be so interesting about him was that he’s succumbed to this paranoia, thinking both the Alliance and the Empire are out to get him with traps and traitors everywhere. Whether consciously or not, it’s not difficult to see that Whitaker pulled from a past role to help in his formation of Gerrera’s character, that of Idi Amin from The Last King of Scotland…and it was that decision that helped to inform you of this character’s state of mind without having to go into backstory that the film simply didn’t have time for. [Although the character can be seen in the Clone Wars animated series. – Ed.] I know I’m not going to go into details about Diego Luna’s Capt. Cassian Andor and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, although both have decent character arcs within the film (I found Baze’s to be more touching than Andor’s) when compared to the others, well, they just don’t stand out as much in terms of either goodness or badness. Short version: they did a good job by doing their jobs. Lastly a nod goes out to Ben Mendelsohn as the main antagonist of the piece, Director Orson Krennic, for providing an interesting villain who blends in extremely well with the established Star Wars universe as well as what I’m sure had to be a challenging task of acting against a full CG character in scenes that were vital in establishing his own character. I felt he pulled it off very well.

As with any Star Wars movie, you have to discuss the visuals and it’s fair to say that director Gareth Edwards shines here…the film is beautiful to look at. It certainly helps that it brings to life the battles we all had in our imaginations as we played with our old, beat-up Kenner figures. It even has that kind of feel to it…like some ADD five-year-old with too many toys…”There’s a massive ground battle and then…AN AT-AT SHOWS UP!”, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s all done very well visually, from the blasts from the Death Star to the space and ground battles at the end. Speaking of the space battle at the end…yeah, it ranks up there…it’s pretty damn good. This actually dovetails into the use of CG characters in the film (when you see the film, that transition won’t be nearly as awkward). You see, in a movie where the Death Star plans have to be stolen, certain characters…well, don’t necessarily HAVE to be there, but their absence would certainly be felt. I won’t say who to avoid venturing into spoiler territory but suffice it to say that when you’re making a movie that is an immediate (and I mean IMMEDIATE) prequel to a film that was released almost 40 years ago, well, those actors have either aged beyond their former character or have since died (hint hint). The movie inserts these characters using CG and for the most part, they work. They’re not going to fool anyone mind you, but it’s a really good approximation. For the two big ones though, they end up working for about 95% of their screen time, but it’s that last 5% that really shatters the illusion as the animators make a cardinal mistake: they end up over-exaggerating a gesture that was meant to be subtle. In any kind of animation, this kind of thing isn’t only forgivable but encouraged but if you are trying to well and truly bridge the gap that is the uncanny valley…no, just no. Using that analogy, just think Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, jumping on the rope bridge at the end, just with ILM animators taking the role of the short, annoying, Asian kid. It’s not a deal breaker and you certainly appreciate what they were trying to do, but really all it does is remind the viewer that Hollywood continues to overestimate where it is in regard to conquering the uncanny valley.

Rogue One marks something historic…something that many of us that pay attention to cinema scores know will eventually come to pass but never like to think about: Star Wars scores done by someone not named John Williams. Williams’ sound and style are so integral to Star Wars that they’re just as important as the visuals themselves and thusly succeeding him is an extremely large role to fill. Upping the ante is the fact that Alexandre Desplat, who had originally been tapped to compose the score on the merits of having worked with Gareth Edwards on his reboot of Godzilla, had to bow out of the process in September. Michael Giacchino was brought in as a last minute replacement and, to my ear anyway, you can hardly tell. Now, granted, I’ve been a fan of Giacchino for a while now, but the score he creates proves to be a pretty good one and one I’m looking forward to owning. Much has been made of the minimal inclusion of Williams’ themes, in particular the Imperial March in a film so Empire-focused, but I think those critical of that perceived slight are forgetting something…the March was never in Episode 4…it didn’t come around until Empire. As such, it makes perfect sense why that particular theme isn’t included and its exclusion shows that Giacchino is on his toes when it comes to this aspect of the score. Yes, there are hints of the March in the prequels…but just hints, not fully formed. Keeping that theme at bay (at least in the cinematic scores) until The Empire Strikes Back gives us an audio indication of where the Empire is in terms of its power. Yes, they may have lost the Death Star, but they’ve got the Rebels on the run and it’s only a matter of time before victory is assured. In fact, we hear the March at its grandest at the start of Return of the Jedi as viewers catch their first glimpse at the second Death Star. With a Rebel Alliance weakened by the events of the previous film and the unveiling of this new superweapon, that’s indeed exactly where the theme should be at its grandest. Wow…that got off topic. Anyway…score, yeah, good job, and, heaven forbid, we lose John Williams prior to the completion of the current trilogy, with this score as exhibit A I’d be perfectly happy if Giacchino were tapped as The Maestro’s successor.

I wanted to take a moment in this review to talk about Vader before wrapping up. It’s true what they say, he’s not in the film for very long but his two scenes make one hell of an impression…and maybe even open up the original trilogy to even deeper discussion. You see, the Vader we’re presented with here is a badass, an unstoppable force of evil. Sure, it goes without saying that no matter which side of the struggle you’re on, he’s the one person you do not want to mess with, but what we’re shown here, especially near the end of the film just serves as one kick-ass reminder of who cinema’s greatest villain is, just in case you even remotely thought it could be anyone else. All that being said, seeing this Vader of pure violence and hatred, it opens up a discussion about the original trilogy. You see, when Lucas talks about the difference in the Jedi between the prequels and the original trilogy, he talks about the latter versions of Vader and Kenobi as “a half-man/half-machine against an old man” whereas in the old days Jedi were more active in their battles. This version of Vader kind of blows that old concept away and replaces it with another concept that should be a point of debate for a while: Was Vader taking it easy on Luke? Was he holding back or, even more interestingly, indirectly continuing his training? The Vader we see in the original trilogy just doesn’t line up with what we see here and sure, if you’re a bitter movie or Star Wars nerd…and since this is the internet, I’m sure there are plenty…you can look at this as a mistake or a misrepresentation of the character, but it’s so much more interesting to contemplate the complicated familial aspects of the main struggle at the core of the original trilogy.

All in all, this is a very well done film and an easy one to recommend…so long as you make sure to mention the caveats we opened with in the second paragraph: this is more of a war film and it is a gritty and more realistic take on the Star Wars universe than we’ve seen before. It may not seem like that would make a difference, but I can tell you it really does and, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you kind of owe it to yourself to see if this fits into your own Saga. For me, I felt it to be a very well done film…but with something missing…maybe heart or just a lighter touch that we find in the Saga films. But I don’t expect that to be the case with everyone. In fact, just looking at the responses online, I’d wager most people didn’t have too much problem with that. And for Disney, that makes Rogue One a successful experiment with likely more such films on the way. If Rogue One is any indication, I’m very interested in seeing what they come up with.

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