Movie Review: Rogue One.
Star Wars gets a proper prequel that feels cut from the same cloth as A New Hope.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story manages to actually live up to its name. For the first time in four movies, we get a Star Wars movie that not only manages to feel like Star Wars, but also adds on to the universe in meaningful ways. This may seem like quite a knock to the prequels and last year’s The Force Awakens…and it is meant to be. For too long, Star Wars has felt like a prepackaged dinner, always including the exact same elements in the exact same proportions. It is a pleasure to say that Rogue One, while not perfect, is perfectly entertaining and redolent of the sights and sounds we’ve been longing for from a galaxy long ago and far far way, while still daring to tell its own story.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young woman with a history of violence and a strong anti-authority streak, especially when it comes to the Galactic Empire. The daughter of a brilliant scientist, she watched as her family was torn apart by the Empire when she was a child. Now an adult, she is sprung from prison by the nascent rebellion, who hope that she can take a strike team led by Captain Andor (Diego Luna) to her father, who is rumored to be collaborating with the Empire to create a weapon of unimaginable power: The First Death Star.
Life and Death in the Galactic Empire.
Rogue One is the story of an insurgency as told from the inside. This means the film borrows many elements from current war movies, but inverts them. The roadside bombings, the kidnappings, and the political assassinations are all carried out by the good guys. Right away Rogue One cloaks itself in violence, rebellion, and subversion. This isn’t the story of a fair-haired chosen child who wages a heroic battle against faceless evil. It is the story of broken and angry people striking out against what is ostensibly their government, willing to do almost anything to be free of an oppressive regime.
Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) captures the minutia of daily life in a war zone. We get living, breathing cities, crawling with recognizable faces (some recognizable from past Star Wars, most seemingly recognizable from the evening news.) The markets our protagonists walk through teem with life, and danger. In the background of nearly every shot is some memento of the Empire: a squad of white-clad troopers harassing shoppers, special ops kicking in doors and barking arrest orders, armored vehicles rolling through the town square, and a giant star destroyer in low orbit, clearly visible to anyone who dares to look up. Indeed, Jyn remarks that the Galactic Empire is possible to avoid…only if “you don’t look up.”
To fill these stark dioramas we get an eclectic and well-played group of characters. Jones plays Jyn as a traumatized and volatile survivor, just as ready to bite at the hand of the rebellion as she is serve it. When we first meet Captain Andor, he is about to betray and kill for the rebellion. His companion robot, K-2SO (voiced engagingly by Alan Tudyk) is perfectly glib about only restraining from murder because his commander has programmed him not to. This trio is strong enough to carry the main thrust of the film, but it is the characters that surround them that really bring Rogue One to life.
Forest Whitaker plays Saw Gerrera, an insurgent leader who has lost nearly all of his body for the cause. He rescued Jyn as a child and taught her to fight, but abandoned her to spare her from his war. Gerrera is a terrorist, willing to do anything in order to bring down his hated nemesis, the Empire. He’s essentially Star Wars’ version of Osama Bin Laden, and Whitaker plays him as such.
Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang play a pair of devotees to an ancient Force cult who join the rebellion when the Empire loots and destroys their ancient temple. Yen and Jiang have a fantastic chemistry and are incredibly engaging (and manage to get most of the best lines in the movie)…but they’re still for all intents and purposes religious fanatics willing to die in order to take down the secular government that marginalized their religion.
You may see where I’m going here. Rogue One is a “Star Wars Story” through and through: there are rebels and storm troopers, there are many familiar faces (more on that later), there are space battles with X-Wings and Tie Fighters, and there is everyone’s favorite red-saber wielding enforcer. But Rogue One is more than just a rehashing of all of the familiar and stayed elements of the series. Rogue One is a refreshing and fascinating story because it dares to subvert all of those tropes. We’re watching a rebellion that operates like ISIS or Al Qaeda, and we’re being asked to sympathize with them. If you want to see how an insurgency against a powerful imperial state works, you have to sign on for bombings, killings, and a smattering of fanaticism. Rogue One doesn’t shy away from that, and doesn’t let the audience get a pass from having to process that our good guys may not be all that pure.
Where to get off.
That is my review of Rogue One. It is beautifully shot and well-integrated with its settings, each feeling organic and live-in. The characters are interesting, well portrayed, and also believable as inhabitants of this very turbulent universe. Gareth Edwards really tells an adult story, drawing on modern themes and genres, and Disney managed to birth a story that is both Star Wars and war movie, to neither genres’ detriment. I would recommend going to see it. It was fun and thrilling, and mostly wonderful. Below I have some gripes, but as they are a tad spoilerish and may seem to contradict my final word, I will place them far enough down for those who just want a Yea or Nay vote to avoid. And my final word is yes, this is a good movie that incidentally happens to be a Star Wars movie. Thank the Force!
Gripes. (Only read if you love salt.)
My first gripe is that the beginning of the film is muddy and filled with hurried exposition. Jyn gets a wonderful backstory, but after that everyone else is rushed into the story while spouting names and information that will turn your head. It took me half an hour to figure out who was who, aside from Jyn. That’s unfortunate, and there definitely were scenes that needed to be made more effective early on.
Second, the CGI. I mentioned how returning faces show up, and mostly they show up as fully CG characters. It is merely acceptable. They are not greatly implemented, and would have been better used sparingly, but apparently Disney thought they knocked the effects out of the park and decided to use them repeatedly. Stop. I am willing to see fully CG characters in Rogue One because of the nature of this prequel, but NEVER DO IT AGAIN. Never. I don’t want to see old characters reanimated through CG necromancy. It’s worse than Hologram Tupac, and feels like a lazy way out instead of actually casting a realistic replacement.
Lastly, the first trailer to this movie lied. There are scenes in that trailer and dialogue that never show up in the movie. That is bad marketing. Several times I thought I was going to see some amazing scene from the trailer finally show up, only to have the scene end and never return to that location. Screw that. You can’t bait and switch, no matter if the final product ended up being fine anyway.
Lastly, there are some silly bits to the final battle, but they’ll only slither out of your brain long after you’ve left the theater. The tech that the Empire uses is laughably “evil villain” and obtuse. It made me think of the scene in Space Quest where Sigourney Weaver gets pissed that she is nearly crushed by moving pistons that have no reason to be in the ship other than to add danger. The radio coms are not only up 30 stories…but outside on a scaffold? Really!? Every damn time you want to send a message you have to have a storm trooper crawl out, in any weather, and insert your Sega Master System looking cartridges into that OSHA nightmare of a coms tower? No wonder a moisture farming hick and his hillbilly smuggler friend kicked your ass.