Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they not only sought to continue the main saga with a sequel trilogy, but also to branch the franchise out with standalone features and even entire series separate from the primary ‘episodes.’ After the sequel trilogy got off to a successful start with The Force Awakens in 2015, the first standalone Star Wars feature, Rogue One, was released the very next year.

Rogue One tells the story of the ragtag group of rebels destined to uncover the plans for the Galactic Empire’s newly-constructed Death Star. These are, of course, the same plans that will eventually end up in possession of R2-D2 and, subsequently, Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope.

While Rogue One’s focus on connecting its narrative directly into A New Hope may rob it of surprises, it was a good point to start with for the first Star Wars standalone film. It’s familiar enough to make the transition easy, but different enough for it to stand on its own two feet.

The heroine of the story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade who’s been on the run from the Empire since she was a child. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was once a research scientist for the Empire, but defected and went into hiding with his family once he learned of the true devastation of the Death Star he was helping to build. The Ersos were found by the Empire, including their Director of Advanced Weapons Research, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic’s troops kill Jyn’s mother, and take Galen hostage to continue his work on the Death Star. Jyn, meanwhile, slips away, and is found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised her as both a daughter and one of his fighters.

“Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)”

Fast-forward to the present, and an Imperial cargo pilot serving under Galen, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), defects from the Empire, and delivers a secret message from Galen Erso to Saw Gerrera. When Jyn Erso is finally caught by Imperial forces, she is set free by a band of Rebels. These Rebels are captained by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid companion, K2-S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk…because Disney), who have received word of the Death Star and Galen’s message by an informant. They’ve rescued Jyn to help them retrieve the message from Saw Gerrera, as he’s such an extremist they’ll need someone close to him just to gain an audience with him.

Jyn, Cassian and K2-S0 are eventually joined by Bodhi, as well as Chirut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) – a blind man who draws strength through the Force – and his accomplice, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), who was once just as devoted to the Force as Chirut, though now relies more on mercenary weaponry to aide his friend.

Once Jyn sees her long-lost father’s message, she learns that he secretly built a weakness in the Empire’s seemingly indestructible Death Star, and the ‘rogue’ group sets out to retrieve the Death Star plans to give the Rebel Alliance a fighting chance. All the while, Krennic and his forces are hellbent on preventing the plans from falling into Rebel hands.

There are some issues with the plot. Namely, the film features a few sub-plots that don’t end up going anywhere. The most notable example sees Saw Gerrera wiping Bodhi Rook’s memory by means of a Lovecraftian alien, only for Rook to regain his memory the next time he shows up in the film by…having someone recognize him as a pilot. Okay.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides a fresh take on Star Wars movies. It deviates away from the hero’s journey format of the series and replaces it with military espionage. In doing so, it separates itself enough from the main series, while still retaining the franchise’s exciting action sequences and epic space battles.

There is a slight double-edged sword aspect to Rogue One’s take on the Galaxy far, far away, however. The film creates an intriguing plot out of a passing reference from A New Hope’s opening crawl, and it’s consistently entertaining. But it’s also a case of an interesting plot coming at the expense of memorable characters. The cast of characters in Rogue One aren’t bad, but their personalities don’t extend beyond what we see of them in their introductions. Star Wars may have always been a series built on archetypes, but it always (well, mostly always) knew how to build upon those archetypes. K2-S0 gets some funny moments, but otherwise, the characters of Rogue One don’t exactly measure up to the main heroes of any of the Star Wars trilogies.

Perhaps the one exception is Director Krennic, who continues in the Star Wars tradition of memorable villains. Contrary to other Star Wars foes, Krennic is neither a wielder of the Dark Side of the Force or a ruthless bounty hunter, but a recognition-hungry survivalist trying to rise the ranks of the Empire. Unfortunately, there is still some missed potential in Krennic. It would have made for a nice change of pace to have an Imperial higher-up in the Star Wars universe who actually believed what he was doing was for some greater good. Such a concept is briefly hinted at during the character’s introduction, when Krennic tells a defiant Galen Erso “we were this close to providing peace and security across the galaxy.” Galen responds with “you’re confusing peace with terror” to which Krennic ultimately retorts “Well, you have to start somewhere.” It’s a brief character moment that suggests there might be more to Krennic than the usual Star Wars villain, that maybe he believes the Death Star to be a necessary evil that – in his mind – would ultimately lead to greater good. But the film robs Krennic of this nuance later on, such as when he comments on how “beautiful” the destruction caused by the Death Star is.

That’s a shame, because it at first looks like Rogue One is painting things with a gray sense of morality not usually seen in Star Wars. Cassian Andor – a Rebel – kills one of his informants in cold blood during his introductory scene. Later, Rebels bomb an Imperial facility filled with scientists who are only there under duress. We see the darker side of the Rebellion in Rogue One, but we still can’t get an Imperial villain who isn’t cartoonishly evil?

This is especially curious when you consider that Rogue One brings back two classic Star Wars villains: Darth Vader (voiced of course by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (motion-captured and voiced by Guy Henry, with CG resurrecting the likeness of the late Peter Cushing). Krennic often butts heads with Tarkin in what is probably the film’s best sub-plot, and like anyone who isn’t Palpatine (or Tarkin, I suppose), Krennic cringes in fear at the mere mention of Darth Vader.

With two such iconic villains making a comeback, it further begs the question as to why Krennic couldn’t have been a little more morally ambiguous, since he was never going to be as threatening as either Vader or Tarkin, anyway. Though Krennic is the film’s best original character, he still feels like a missed opportunity.

“My homeboy CG Tarkin.”

Talking of Tarkin, the decision to recreate Peter Cushing as a motion-captured character was a bit polarizing during the film’s release. Many considered the visual effect an example of the uncanny valley, though I personally never found it to be too bad (except maybe the stiff shoulders). Though “CG Tarkin” seems to be a rare instance in which a visual effect looks better on the small screen than it did in theaters.

The visual effects elsewhere also look great, continuing with the trend started with The Force Awakens of combining CG with practical effects to make things (appropriately) look like a modernized take on the world of the original trilogy, as opposed to the prequel/special edition route of CG everywhere for CG’s sake.

Rogue One may have its missteps in the character department, and its over-reliance on A New Hope makes this first standalone Star Wars feature not especially standalone. But it is undeniably a welcome entry in the Star Wars canon. It’s consistently entertaining, visually captivating, and it finds creative technical ways to separate itself from the main Star Wars saga (no opening crawl, transitional screen wipes, etc.). And it’s just refreshing to see a prequel to a Star Wars movie that actually cares about maintaining continuity with the original. For example, in A New Hope, Tarkin mentions the destruction of the planet Alderaan as the first test of the Death Star’s “full power.” Sure enough, every time the Empire uses the Death Star in Rogue One, the film makes a point to acknowledge it’s only a limited taste of its strength. If only the prequel trilogy had committed as much to keeping continuity with the overall plot of the original films as Rogue One does with even such small, throwaway lines like Tarkin’s emphasis on the words “full power” from A New Hope. History may have remembered them more fondly.

Rogue One is a thrilling chapter in the Star Wars universe, one that both enriches the overall mythology and retroactively adds even more heft to the plot of A New Hope (again, if only the prequels could have done something similar). It may not boast the most memorable cast of characters in the franchise, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is very much a story worthy of the Star Wars name.

 

7

Why The Force Awakens is Better Than Rogue One

*This post contains spoilers for both The Force Awakens and Rogue One!*

You know what I’m sick of? Hearing Star Wars fans constantly put down The Force Awakens while touting the supposed superiority of Rogue One. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Rogue One. But if I’m going to be honest, I thought it was the weakest non-prequel trilogy Star Wars film, while I felt The Force Awakens deserves to be ranked alongside The Empire Strikes Back as one of the series’ best entries. Again, I liked Rogue One, and hopefully by the time I’m done writing this, I won’t appear to be too dismissive of it.

I’ll save some of my more specific praises and quibbles for when I review the individual Star Wars movies. For now, I just want to write about why I think The Force Awakens is a vastly better movie than the almost-strangely beloved Rogue One.

Now, if I were to completely simplify this, my main complaints with the pro-Rogue One, anti-Force Awakens crowd can be summed up exactly as you might imagine, given the audience in question: Virtually none of their complaints are rooted in storytelling or filmmaking critiques, and are instead (as expected), little more than nerdish nitpicking.

For example, most of the people who cry foul at The Force Awakens will praise Rogue One for “reminding everyone that Star Wars is about war, and that the Galaxy isn’t all about the Skywalker family.”

Here’s the thing about that, Star Wars was always about the Skywalker family. These people seem to forget that Star Wars started its life as a singular movie. A movie about Luke Skywalker, that eventually expanded into a series about Luke and, subsequently, his father Anakin.

Yes, there is more going on in the Star Wars Galaxy than just the Skywalker family, and one of the great things about the Star Wars franchise is that it has a well-developed mythology going for it. But these fans seem to have become so engrossed in the many “expanded universe” aspects of the Star Wars franchise, that they’ve forgotten the heart and soul of the franchise (that is to say, the film series) isn’t an encyclopedia of the Galaxy far, far away, but a narrative focused on a select number of characters within said galaxy.

What I’m getting at is, if you want to find out the history of some random background character, or read up on Jedi history, or get the finer details of the many battles in the Galaxy, you have plenty of other sources to get such information. The movies are just that, movies. They have stories they need to tell, and can’t get bogged down by over-explaining a bunch of needless details about their universe just to appease fanboys.

With that said, I’m not trying to rag on Rogue One for telling a side-story within the Star Wars universe. I have nothing against the idea of spinoff Star Wars films. But the way so many Star Wars fans get irritated by the fact that The Force Awakens’ plot was centered on Luke Skywalker is ridiculous. Of course the Skywalker family was at the center of the story (even if they weren’t the main characters this time). It was the seventh episode in a saga that’s always been about them. Don’t fault it for not straying outside of the characters who have always been at the heart of the narrative.

Another complaint you’ll hear all the time from Star Wars fans targeted at The Force Awakens is how it was “a copy of the original Star Wars” (that is to say, Episode IV). While I fully admit that some of the similarities in plot were the shortcoming of The Force Awakens, it had more than enough differences in story and characters to give it its own identity. Hell, if The Force Awakens were a direct copy of A New Hope (which it isn’t), I’d argue that it’s actually the better version of it. The writing is better, the characters have more depth, and the acting is most definitely an improvement (the one look Mark Hamill gives at the end of The Force Awakens is better delivered than any of his dialogue from A New Hope).

It’s even a bit ironic that the same people who complain that The Force Awakens is too much like A New Hope are also so quick to praise Rogue One, a film in which the entire story just serves as an opening chapter to the plot of A New Hope. It literally is the same story, and ends with the beginning of the original film.

Again, I’m not trying to write-off Rogue One in the same way that so many Star Wars fans try to write-off The Force Awakens (despite having nothing but good things to say about it just over a year ago). I definitely like how Rogue One retconned the nature of the Death Star’s weakness (thus putting an end to all jokes of the competence of the Empire’s engineers), and I appreciate how – unlike George Lucas when making the prequels – the filmmakers actually seemed to have watched A New Hope multiple times to keep continuity (when Alderaan was destroyed in Episode IV, it was the first use of the Death Star’s full power. Sure enough, whenever the Death Star is used in Rogue One, they make a point to mention that they’re only sampling its strength). Point being, I like what Rogue One did with its connections to A New Hope, but don’t rag on The Force Awakens for its similarities to A New Hope when Rogue One is literally A New Hope’s previously unseen first act.

Things don’t end here though, as it seems The Force Awakens’ naysayers often criticise the characters of Episode VII, once again without so much an insight on storytelling, so much as throwing out buzzwords they probably heard on some clickbait articles. And once again, with more than a little bit of an irony, since the characters are the main weakness of Rogue One, whereas they’re one of The Force Awakens’ biggest strengths.

“You know you laughed in this scene. That’s because it worked.”

The popular target seems to be Rey, the main character of The Force Awakens, whom disgruntled Star Wars nerds like to describe as a “Mary Sue” (again, buzzwords). People often like to claim that Rey magically learns the Force and is able to do anything without even trying (it’s almost as if the Force is like magic or something).

There are a number of problems with these claims. To point out the obvious hypocrisy, Luke Skywalker learned the ways of the Force and how to use a lightsaber basically by conversing with Obi-Wan for a few hours. Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock down A New Hope, one of the most influential – and one of my favorite – films of all time. But you can’t claim Rey’s fast ascension with the Force is a problem and turn a blind eye that the exact same thing happened with Luke Skywalker. The whole point is that Rey, much like Luke, is exceptionally powerful with the Force. Ergo, they learn the ways of the Force much faster than most. Their status of being exceptional Force users is kind of the whole point of their characters.

“People like to bemoan how Rey defeats Kylo Ren in her first lightsaber duel, but Kylo Ren is still in the learning process of lightsaber combat as well. Also they use magic.”

So people like to claim that Rey “magically” learns everything, and is inexperienced in lightsaber combat when she defeats Kylo Ren – a master of the Dark Side of the Force – in a duel towards the end of The Force Awakens. But there are a number of reasons why these complaints are – as is often the case with Star Wars – little more than fans overreacting.

I already touched on the fact that Rey is supposed to be exceptionally powerful with the Force, and like all stories where the main character is particularly gifted in magic, said character learns their abilities quickly.

More notably in Rey’s case, we still have two more movies on the horizon that will explain more about her character. There are still places for her to go, and secrets about her to be revealed. Don’t be surprised if she’s revealed to be the “Chosen One” who has been brought up in virtually every Star Wars film, but never actually realized (Luke was never revealed as such in Return of the Jedi, after all). So we still have apt time for explanations for why Rey learns the Force so quickly. Maybe, just maybe, people shouldn’t get ahead of themselves just so they can complain about something.

Another aspect to point out is that The Force Awakens doesn’t treat Rey like an expert in everything she’s doing. She’s just as taken aback as anyone by her powers. She’s someone who’s exceptionally powerful with the Force, but is surprised by her power. It doesn’t just make her out as someone who automatically knows the solution to every dilemma (that would be a Mary Sue).

Most importantly, Rey actually has a character. She’s shown to have dimensions and depth, she actually has worries and concerns (sometimes to her detriment, like wanting to stay on a junk planet to hopelessly wait for someone from her past to return).

Compare this to Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One, who doesn’t have many defining character traits outside of being the daughter of a scientist coerced into the Empire’s forces. She has a decent enough opening backstory – being adopted by a Rebel extremist after the Empire takes her father and kills her mother – but she really doesn’t have much to speak of in terms of personality or depth. She just comes off as a character passing through the story. Sadly, the same can be said about most of the members of Rogue One (save for K-2S0, the droid of all characters).

Yes, we do see some different shades of the Rebellion in Rogue One (like when Cassian – Rogue One’s eventual captain – kills his informant in cold blood, revealing a previously unseen side to the good guys of Star Wars), and we get to see a more ruthless Rebel leader in Saw Gerrera. That’s a great change of pace for the Star Wars franchise, to be sure, but while Rogue One succeeds in giving the Rebellion some depth, it struggles to do so with its main characters, and outright doesn’t even try with its villains.

Now, Star Wars has largely had archetypal characters since day one. But the movies always managed to bring out a lot of personality and depth out of them. And though not all of Star Wars’ villains have shared in that (Boba Fett and Darth Maul, despite being fan favorites, really didn’t do anything other than look cool), The Force Awakens actually managed to create one of the series’ most fleshed-out villains in Kylo Ren, who is – ironically enough – often the subject of ridicule by the same old critics.

Kylo Ren was something akin to an inverse Anakin Skywalker. While Anakin was a Jedi who was seduced by the dark side of the Force, Kylo Ren is a master of the dark side (they never quite referred to him as a Sith) who is tempted by the light side of the Force. He was the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa/Skywalker, and the grandson of Darth Vader. He wishes to become more powerful than Darth Vader, while trying to avoid what he perceives as Vader’s downfall (his last minute turn to the light to save his son). So Kylo Ren is a villain who’s trying to prove his worth to himself and his cause, while also showing a level of insecurity that usually only the good guys display.

Of course, many fans are quick to point out Kylo Ren’s “temper tantrums” as reasons why the character is supposedly not a compelling villain (yet these same people swear by Boba Fett who, again, never really did much of note). The thing is, these so-called “temper tantrums” go back to my ‘inverse Darth Vader’ statement. As any Star Wars fan knows, when one of Vader’s lackeys failed to do their job, Vader simply strangled them for their failures. Kylo Ren instead shows a level of restraint, and when given bad news by one of his men, will take his anger out by destroying some equipment and breaking a few things, instead of killing his henchmen in cold blood. He may be trying his damnedest to surrender himself to the dark side, but he’s still not there yet, and can’t bring himself to kill his own men.

That’s called inner conflict within the character. That’s interesting.

Let’s compare that to Rogue One’s baddie, Director Orson Krennic. Though the character is well-acted by Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic ends up being a huge missed opportunity. As stated, Rogue One does a great job at showing an ugly side to the Rebellion, yet it showcases the Empire as more cartoonishly evil than ever.

Rogue One had the chance to show an Imperial higher-up who wasn’t simply doing what he did “because evil.” It would have been nice to see an Imperial villain who maybe believed what he was doing was right, instead of simply delighting in causing destruction and death across the Galaxy.

“How can I best evil today?”

The disappointing thing is, Rogue One almost hints at such a character in its opening moments through a quick dialogue exchange. “We were this close to providing peace and security for the Galaxy.” Krennic tells a defiant Galen Erso, who responds with “You’re confusing peace with terror.” It’s a brief bit of dialogue that suggests Krennic may actually believe what he’s doing is ultimately for a greater good, no matter how terrible it may seem (and indeed is). But then the film fails to follow-up on that moment in regards to Krennic’s character, who instead remarks on how beautiful the destruction of a city is when they test the Death Star’s power on it.

That’s really where the great fault with Rogue One lies: the characters. Though The Force Awakens had some character missteps (the underutilized Captain Phasma being the most obvious example, but at least she has two chances to be redeemed in the sequels), it managed to make most of them memorable additions to the franchise. Aside from the snarky K-2S0, none of Rogue One’s characters end up amounting to much more than what their introductions present us with.

Chirrut Îmwe, for example, is a blind man, but can fight because of his skills with the Force. And that’s pretty much all there is to say about him. Meanwhile, Bodhi Rook, the Imperial pilot turned Rebel, is so bland you’ll probably forget he’s even a part of the team.

“Would you like to know the probability of K-2S0 being the one endearing character in this movie?”

This proves especially detrimental due to Rogue One’s ending. Now, I’m not about to rag on the third act of Rogue One, because I think it’s brilliantly executed, and arguably the best “last ten minutes” of any Star Wars film. Seeing every last member of Rogue One meet their end (some in a blaze of glory, others in tragically unceremonious ways) is an effective and moving ending. But it would have been all the more effective and moving if the two-plus hours beforehand had really made us care about this band of Rebel misfits for reasons other than that they’re the main characters.

Think of how impactful Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens was (even if we saw it coming). As soon as Han Solo died, the film reached an emotional crescendo. Sure, it’s easy to say that Han Solo is a classic character who many of us have loved since we were kids, but the fact of the matter is we loved him in the first place because of how well-realised he was as a character. As great as Rogue One’s ending is, it’s a big emotional ending to a lot of characters who previously didn’t give us a whole lot of emotional resonance.

Okay, by now I probably am sounding dismissive of Rogue One. But that’s only because the whole reason for writing this post is to point out why I don’t think it’s as good as The Force Awakens, which most Star Wars fans seem to disagree on (though it seems like most movie critics are more on the same boat as me, if that means anything). The Force Awakens isn’t a perfect movie, either (as stated, there are indeed maybe a few too many similarities to A New Hope, even if fans exaggerate them, and Captain Phasma probably should have waited to show up in Episode VIII, where she’ll hopefully have more to do). But with the way so many Star Wars fans talk about The Force Awakens, you’d think it were some kind of plague.

Star Wars fans seem to love Rogue One because of how it shows that there’s more to the Star Wars universe than just the Skywalker story, and how it showcases various little details about the Galaxy far, far away that broaden its world-building and revive memories of the expanded universe (my friends still mention how a Hammerhead from Knights of the Old Republic shows up). That’s all well and dandy, but these elements don’t make a better movie. They just adhere to hardcore fans who read all the books, watch the TV shows, and so forth. They aren’t elements that improve storytelling.

In the end, Rogue One is a fun entry in the Star Wars franchise that serves as a great introduction to these new Star Wars offshoots. But The Force Awakens gave us more compelling characters, more memorable dialogue, and better editing and pacing (the “Bor Gullet” scene in Rogue One should have been left out entirely, considering its a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere).

It seems like fans’ insistence of Rogue One’s superiority over The Force Awakens is rooted more in its placement and setting in the Star Wars universe – which branches out the fanservice a bit – as opposed to more legitimate and insightful critiques on the storytelling.

I greatly enjoyed Rogue One. But to put it simply, The Force Awakens is a better movie.

Top 10 Films of 2016

Yes, I am extremely late in writing this. You may think “why bother making a top 10 films of 2016 list by this point? We’re more than five months into 2017 now!” Well, this is my site and I can do what I want on it. That’s reason enough for me.

In all serious though, I intended to write this some time ago, but there were a number of 2016 films that I had wanted to see that I didn’t get around to until much later. Now that I’ve seen them, I can write this with a deeper knowledge of 2016 films.

Of course, keep in mind that this is my own personal list. Ergo, my personal taste will probably make this look wildly different than many other lists. For example, I like movies that actually gain an audience and make money  a lot more than professional award committees seem to. Sure, I’m open to liking any movie if I think it’s good (hell, sometimes I like movies that I know are bad, if they provide enough entertainment). But I’m not going to place some critically acclaimed, artsy films just to make me look more “legit.” I like what I like, so that’s what’s going to be here.

As a whole, I don’t think 2016 was as good of a year for movies as 2015, but it still provided some gems. These are said gems that I really liked.

But first, I’d like to give a shoutout to both Dr. Strange and The Founder, both of which I greatly enjoyed and wish I could place on here as well. But top 10 is the tradition, and it’s a perfect number that appeases my OCD. So they have to settle for runners-up spots. Still, one’s a great superhero movie that changes things up by actually including magic (instead of skipping around it like Thor) held together by Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelsen. The other is a surprisingly engaging look into the origins of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain, lead by a great performance by Michael Keaton.

Okay, now onto the top 10.

Continue reading “Top 10 Films of 2016”