Mekaela and I spent Christmas in Taft, California this year, visiting our dad. Taft is a small place in the middle of absolute nowhere (though, in fairness, I feel obligated to point out that it is actually larger than the place I grew up) and during the holidays, when everything is closed downtown except the movie theater and one corner mini market, Taft feels quite a bit like an actual ghost town. Which made walking through it pretty awesome, actually.
As none of us had seen Rogue One yet, the family St. George decided to watch it on Christmas afternoon. Considering the movie had come out weeks before and I had just spent the last hour walking through a town that I had happily pretended was post-Rapture, I thought there was a more than decent chance that I would finally, finally see a movie with no one but the people who had accompanied me to the theater.
Alas. Others emerged, like total bastards, and ruined my Christmas miracle. The Grand Movie Theater Dream remains unrealized.
There will be no spoilers for this movie, at least not until the appropriately designed Spoiler Section. There will, however, be SPOILERS for A New Hope because seriously.
The Rebel Alliance taps Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of one of the Empire’s top engineers, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to go on a mission for the resistance. She, along with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), eventually lead a small crew of rebels to steal the Death Star plans that will, in time, allow Luke Skywalker to blow up that infamous not-moon.
1. I didn’t want to be spoiled for Rogue One before watching it, so I avoided reviews like the plague and did a lot of “scroll, SCROLL FASTER” maneuvers on the internet in the weeks before Christmas. That being said, I couldn’t help but pick up some general impressions of the movie, and boy did the vary. Some people loved it. ‘Best Star Wars Movie EVAH’, they said. Other people really enjoyed it, although it wasn’t knocking Empire down to a silver medal or anything. And then there were people who were super unimpressed, like, no one’s saying worst Star Wars movie out there–cause, dude, prequels–but many did seem heartily disappointed.
My general impression of Star Wars 3.5 is it’s . . . okay.
It’s a well-made enough movie. The acting is all decent. The action scenes are all pretty great. The last, oh, twenty minutes of the movie or so? From an action standpoint, they’re all pretty awesome.
But while I had a decent enough time watching this movie and I certainly don’t regret going to see it, I did find it kind of disappointing and, honestly, have no particular desire to ever see it again. So despite the fact that the movie wasn’t terrible by any means, this is probably going to be a primarily negative review . . . not because it’s bad, but because I think there was a lot of potential for it to be better.
2. One of my own personal (if minor) disappointments: I miss the opening crawl.
I get that it’s silly. I understand that the movie’s position between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope means that very few people actually required additional exposition to set up these characters, their goals, and the Star Wars universe at large. And yet . . . I still missed it. It’s a completely ridiculous expository device that, to me, feels as much of a part of the Star Wars movies as The Force, droids, and Stormtroopers; I actually remember watching The Force Awakens in theater last year and feeling all emotional when the movie started and the opening crawl appeared. Here, clearly, not so much.
Its absence obviously isn’t a major flaw to the movie or anything like that, but I did make a sad face and was forced to eat additional Milk Duds in order to compensate for my woe. So, you know. I want you to be aware of the sacrifices I’ve made.
3. Slightly more significant disappointments: Jyn Erso.
In a sense, Jyn Erso was already a disappointment to the franchise in that she was yet another white brunette instead of a woman of color–and don’t get me wrong, people: I’m very fond of white brunette ladies, being one myself. But clearly we’ve been the star of this particular show for a while now. It’s our turn to be awesome side characters for a bit, and for an awesome black, Asian, or Latina lady to lead the show instead.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with Felicity Jones’s acting; it’s just that Jyn herself is kind of underwhelming as a heroine. As the main character, she does get a personal arc, but it goes so quickly that she ends up feeling a little underdeveloped for a protagonist. Not every successful movie has a layered and fully developed MC, of course, but there’s something especially frustrating about a story that gives you the outline of a worthwhile emotional journey and then pretty much skips from, say, Point B to Point Z. Cause that’s kind of how I felt here, sitting in theater thinking, “Wait, what the fuck happened to Points C through Y? Like, we’re missing some pretty crucial letters here. Like, pretty much all of them.”
I like Jyn okay, but I don’t love her, and the thing is, I’ve kind of loved all the other Star Wars heroines. I absolutely adore Rey and obviously Princess/General Leia was a fucking icon (RIP, Carrie Fisher), and while I know Padmé Amidala has her faults, that’s mostly because of her bullshit love story that I don’t remotely buy, like, I almost feel like I’m watching a character being forced into a romance against her will when I watch Attack of the Clones. Outside of that, Padmé’s okay and Amidala is AWESOME, like, I don’t think people properly appreciate how goddamn amazing she is at all, and Jyn . . . just doesn’t inspire much in me one way or the other. She’s a competent enough heroine, but in my opinion, she’s also a pretty forgettable heroine.
4. Our other primary MC, Cassian, is a bit more interesting . . . but I also feel he gets somewhat short-changed.
What I like about Cassian, at least theoretically, is that he’s a spy for the Rebellion and does things that aren’t so great for the Greater Good. In that sense, he’s a bit of a darker, more complex character than we often get in the Star Wars universe, and I find that really interesting. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is him and Jyn basically arguing ethics with one another, and I would happily have seen much more of that, especially because I can absolutely see where both sides are coming from. I LOVE it when stories can successfully accomplish that.
Unfortunately, Cassian also has a character arc set at lightspeed–maybe even Ludicrous Speed–so he, too, ends up feeling a little thin to me. He doesn’t suffer from comparison quite as much as Jyn, though, since the boys of Star Wars have always been something of a mixed lot: on one side, you’ve got Poe, Finn, and Han; on the other, Luke and Anakin. Clearly, things could have been much, much worse.
5. No one, of course, gets more shortchanged on screen time than Everybody Else on The Team. Which is a common enough problem in ensemble movies and, to be fair, there are a fair number of people to juggle in Rogue One. That being said, the movie also has well over two hours to figure out that juggling act, and I am 100% convinced they could have done a better job.
That being said, this actually isn’t one of my bigger problems with the movie because, despite their lack of allotted time for personal development, my favorite characters in this movie actually are Everybody Else on The Team, partially because I have always had a thing for sidekicks, but also because these guys are the primary sources of humor in what is otherwise something of a grim film.
Let’s discuss them briefly.
Okay, I kind of love K-2SO, who will henceforth be known as K because, for whatever reason, I cannot keep this bastard’s name in my head. (Also, I’m pretty sure he’s called this in the movie.) Part of my love, I’m sure, is because he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I’ve adored for many, many years. But also, I totally enjoy that we have a surly droid; it was like watching a puzzle piece finally slide into place after 30 years, like, how have we not had a droid who’s this totally unimpressed with nearly everyone around him yet. (I mean, we do have R2-D2, who I think we all know is spouting plenty of profanities at Luke Skywalker. But it’s a little different, getting to hear the actual dialogue.) K has some of the best lines in the whole movie, and he definitely made me laugh.
Chirrut & Baze
Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang
These two are a serious contender for Dynamic Duo for my 2016 Movie Superlatives. (Which, yes, I’m still planning to eventually get to. I’m optimistically hoping for next week.) I do wish we got to know a little more about them, especially Baze (whose name also would not stick in my head for whatever reason–he ended up being Cool Friend With Big Gun while watching), but I still liked them both a whole bunch. This is partially because they’re funny (especially Chirrut, which I’m grateful for because otherwise Mystical Blind Guy is a really tired trope) and partially because the actors sell me on their friendship, despite not having a lot of time to develop it.
I liked Bodhi pretty much immediately. I was unfamiliar with Riz Ahmed before watching this movie, and he instantly sold me with his disbelieving reaction faces and line deliveries, particularly as he dealt with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his men. Bodhi also goes through something early on that made him very interesting to me . . . only for Rogue One to not do ANYTHING with it. (Grrr, argh.)
Bodhi does have something of a personal story, but I’d call it less of an arc and more of a very, very tiny, pencilled-in hill with the words ‘REDEMPTION STORY’ written above it in itty bitty letters. Anytime Bodhi makes you feel anything, it is, in my opinion, entirely due to the actor’s credit, not the script.
6. I’ve discussed this before, I’m sure, but the idea that a story is only as good as its villain is crap, and Rogue One should be thankful, because the primary bad guy, Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is a complete and utter disappointment.
Again, this is not the actor’s fault. But if you give me a guy in a fabulous white cape walking around like a badass in the trailers, I’m gonna be disappointed by a whiny, incompetent bureaucrat, like, in case I haven’t made this clear in my various Star Wars reviews, “whiny” is NOT my favorite flavor of Star Wars villain. Of course, this is a personal preference and not a death blow to the movie or anything. But considering how little time is given to the characters I actually care about, we get way more time with this useless bastard, like, I understood his character in about the space of a scene, maybe two. For multiple reasons (some of which I’ll divulge in the Spoiler Section), I’m absolutely certain that I would have enjoyed Rogue One SO MUCH MORE if we’d cut our Empire Time by half.
7. Finally, some random notes before we get into spoiler territory.
7A. While it was nice to see a lady fighter pilot and a few women on the council–who each probably had a whole two-to-four lines in the movie–come on, now. This is 2016. (Well, it’s 2017 now because I had to push off writing this review, but you know what I mean.) As much as I like our team of underdeveloped heroes, I bet I would have liked them even better if Jyn Erso wasn’t the only goddamn woman among them. As is, I’d say this movie only has two female characters other than Jyn of any vague importance: Mon Mothma (who actually isn’t that important but is one of the few tie-ins to the original trilogy that I actually enjoy, despite her annoying lack of relevancy) and Lyra Erso (who I can’t even bitch about properly until the Spoiler Section, but let’s just make it clear that I’m unimpressed). And it should probably be noted that all of these vaguely important-to-important female roles? All white ladies.
7B. On the upside for diversity, we do have quite a number of non-white men in this movie, like, way more than any other film in the Star Wars franchise. The only white guy on the team of heroes is the one doing voice work, and Diego Luna keeps his natural Mexican accent, something that I honestly didn’t think much about at the time but has been understandably hugely significant to other people.
I do have one negative note about the overall diversity (other than the lack of WoC), but unfortunately, I can’t really talk about that until the Spoiler Section. But I promise, I’m not saying representation doesn’t matter, and I’m certainly not one of those assholes who boycotted Rogue One because the cast was too diverse and the story was–apparently–too anti-Trump.
7C. Unfortunately, I will also have wait to discuss Saw Gerrera, but let’s just make it clear that my Unimpressed Face about Lyra Erso has transformed into MEGA Unimpressed Face. (GRRR, ARGH.)
7D. This is apparently the first Star Wars movie that John Williams hasn’t composed, and I’m super sorry to tell you that I totally didn’t notice while watching the movie. I know. The Star Wars and/or music geeks actually reading this blog are probably all screaming at me right now, but the truth is that while sometimes soundtracks get my attention right away (which is awesome), often I barely notice them at all initially, and they only grow on me with repeated viewings. For some people, the absence of a John Williams score meant that this movie didn’t feel like a real Star Wars movie to them. For me, I didn’t even think about the music while watching Rogue One, so–despite owning a handful of John Williams songs, three of which are from the Star Wars movies–I actually missed the opening crawl considerably more than the composer, at least at the time.
7E. Finally, despite the opening crawl and apparently inferior music, Rogue One did actually have a lot of tie-ins to the original trilogy, which isn’t so surprising, considering this movie’s placement in the overall timeline. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually like most of them, which I’ll continue discussing now. Hope you like spoilers!
I’m very grateful that I saw this movie before Carrie Fisher died. For one thing, I didn’t need that particular gut punch at the end, thank you–I already disliked the actual scene when I watched it (that hope line landed like an anvil for me, not to mention the CGI didn’t seem as good here as it did for Tarkin), so I’m glad it also didn’t have the opportunity to kick me in the heart as well. Two, I’m really not a big fan of using CGI to resurrect dead actors for your movies or commercials. At best I find it distracting and at worst I find it distasteful. Here, I kind of found it both.
Of course I loved Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, but the man died over twenty years ago, and it feels weird to me to bring him back in this way. I’d be fine with them casting another actor, like they did with Mon Mothma. (That was amazing casting, BTW, even if Mon Mothma herself ended up being a fairly pointless character with not much to do. I do understand it’d be hard to get that lucky with everyone, though.) I’d have been fine if we got a very brief glimpse of Peter Cushing’s reflected face as he stands facing the window or something, you know, one scene, something subtle, a tribute. But that’s not how this felt to me. It felt like a showboat of technology; worse, it kind of felt like a ploy, which I’m really not crazy about using dead people for. All of the Grand Moff Tarkin scenes took up far more time than necessary, made me uncomfortable, and repeatedly took me out of the story.
But moving on. Rogue One is any number of things; what it is not, I’m afraid, is terribly holly jolly film viewing for Christmas, considering that basically every person who opens their mouth and isn’t already in another live-action Star Wars film dies. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I don’t necessarily mind seeing a darker Star Wars film, and of course it would be a bit odd if all the important heroes to the Rebel Alliance in this movie just decided to spend Episodes IV, V, and VI chilling in some corner, lazily waving Luke, Leia, and Han forward, all, “Nah, I’m just gonna hang here, but no worries. You got this.”
On the other hand, once you realize that yes, they are indeed going to be killing off every single character one by one, I think it loses something in tension. Because, you know. It’s not like we don’t know how the mission ends. It kind of has to be a success; otherwise, no New Hope and all that. The idea, then, is to invest in all of the heroes on the mission–but not only did we spend vital time ignoring them to hang out with the villains, once you realize the good guys are all going to bite it, what the hell are we even watching for? As I said before, from an action standpoint, the last 20 minutes or so are awesome. But from a narrative standpoint, I can’t help but feel like I’m just watching a very, very slow firing squad. If I’d really believed any of them had a chance of escaping, it might have worked for me . . . but I didn’t, so I think it’s flawed.
Actually, in some ways, the whole movie kind of feels like a very, very, VERY slow firing squad, and I think that might have somewhat contributed to both the ending’s sense of inevitability and my “meh” reaction to the movie in general, especially because a couple of the earlier deaths were so, so dumb.
Let us begin with Lyra Erso.
This fucking lady.
You can debate back and forth whether Lyra should have left her child or not to go back for her husband. Personally, I think she should have at least made sure Little Jyn got inside the bunker before embarking on a rescue mission–none of this ‘you know where to go, right’ bullshit, like, dude, she’s tiny and what if she’s wrong–but theoretically, I’m okay with Lyra trying to save her husband from the Empire. And besides, her leaving Jyn behind is important for, like, thematic reasons.
The reason why I’m only theoretically okay with it, though, is because Lyra’s idea of “rescue mission” isn’t to try and sneak up on the bad guys and covertly take them down one by one, nor is it to grab a big fucking gun and go on a killing spree before inevitably getting taken down. No, instead, Lyra completely abandons her small child so that she can walk up to the bad guys, either announce her presence or wait to be noticed (I can’t remember which), and–in a completely non-intimidating manner–point her gun at Krennic.
What the hell she thought that was going to accomplish, I don’t know. She doesn’t seem to have a plan. She doesn’t even really make a “let my husband go, or I’ll kill your leader” play. (Even if she had, I don’t know who would have bought it.) She pretty much just stands there until Krennic shoots her, and she only gets to (non-fatally) shoot him back as a reflex, like, it’s not even a choice to shoot the bad guy, just a body spasm before she bites it.
I would have been 100% okay if Lyra had nobly tried to save Galen and killed a couple of Stormtroopers before getting shot herself, but instead, it’s more like Lyra basically asks to get murdered as some sort of weird protest, like, “Galen, baby, I can’t save you from getting abducted and I’m not really going to try, but I can show everyone how unhappy I am about the whole situation by getting murdered for you. No, don’t worry about Jyn. She’s totes fine. Uncle Saw will swing by in a few days to pick her up; I’m sure she’ll be good until then.”
And boy, do we need to talk about Uncle Saw because what the EFFING EFF.
Saw Gerrera’s death, if possible, is even more needless and stupid than Lyra’s. I don’t want to spend too much time going over everything that happens in this plot (this review is already a good 1500 words longer than I’d anticipated), but the barebones is this: Galen sends Bodhi, a defecting Imperial pilot, to Saw with a Very Important Rebellion Message, but Saw has seen some hard times since the beginning of the movie. If memory serves, he has prosthetic legs, is occasionally reliant on some manner of breathing device, and has split with the rest of the Rebellion, probably because he’s become seriously fucking paranoid over the years. In many respects, his mental instability makes him quite a tragic figure, but he’s also interesting, especially in regards to his relationship with Jyn. (He abandoned her for the Cause. Like I said, theme.)
Anyway, we find out that the message is about the fatal flaw Galen has built into the Death Star: the Rebellion needs to go steal the blueprints so they can figure out how to destroy it. Once we find out this message, Rogue One apparently decides that Saw isn’t important to the narrative anymore before because, very abruptly, he dies. Does he die trying to get Jyn to safety before the bad guys can kill her? Nope. Does he die doing anything of ANY importance? Nope. Once the city is targeted for imminent destruction, Saw just decides to . . . stay there, and I have no idea why. Maybe he felt he was going to slow the good guys down, although he didn’t say as much or even try to escape before realizing he couldn’t do it. (And no one makes any real effort to pull him along, either, which seemed weird to me.) Honestly, the impression I got during the movie was that Saw didn’t feel he had any reason left to live because he was disabled and mentally unwell, but, like, that kinda strikes me as ableist as fuck?
Not to mention that Saw living–or at least surviving for a little while longer–might have significantly helped with the Underdeveloped Jyn Erso problem. Mending or at least examining her relationship with the father figure who left her behind for the Rebellion might have given her lightspeed arc some much needed shape, like that could totally have been a Point J at the very least. Instead, I guess Saw is killed off because the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with him–and that’s where the otherwise awesome diversity of this movie doesn’t work for me as well as it could. Because while I absolutely don’t want to take away from the people who were grateful to finally have someone who looked and/or sounded like them in the Star Wars universe, I can’t help but feel like it’s disappointing that this only happened in the movie where the script starts reading like a Checklist of Characters To Kill Off.
Because by the time Galen died (in a somewhat boring and predictable, if not totally infuriating way), I kind of figured out the bleak turn this story was headed for, and while I really don’t mind some bleakness in a story, I genuinely think the movie would have improved with one team member surviving the mission. And not just any character, but this guy.
When you think about it, it’s gotta be Baze, right? It certainly shouldn’t be Jyn. Cause a) it’s way too obvious, b) the last man (or woman) standing should definitely not be the only white person on the team, and c) Jyn’s arc from “what has the Rebellion ever done for me” to “I’m totally committed to the Cause” may go way too fast for my liking, but regardless, she is committed by the end. If she had survived this movie, they definitely would have had to make up some kind of BS excuse for why she apparently stopped caring about stopping the Empire, and that applies to Cassian, Bodhi, and probably Chirrut too.
Baze, on the other hand? Uh-uh. Because I don’t think Baze is there because it’s the Right Thing to Do. I think Baze is there because Chirrut is there, and once Chirrut dies, I don’t think Baze has to stay committed to the Rebellion. If he escaped, I can totally see him saying, “Nope, I did my part for queen and country, and lost my partner for it. Peace, rebels, I’m out.” It doesn’t actually make the story much less tragic, but it does make the ending much more surprising, and I think the film would be better for it. As it is, Rogue One is well-constructed . . . but it also feels constructed to me, and I have a bit of a hard time emotionally investing in it because of that.
A few more random notes before I sign off:
A. By now, I’m used to thinking that the Jedis are a bunch of elitist assholes, but this is the first movie where I’ve been severely unimpressed with the Rebellion, too. Not our heroes, necessarily, but the upper-ups. I found their total disorganization kind of annoying, actually, and I never really bought the dude who ordered Cassian to kill Galen. Not because it was badly acted or because I didn’t think the Rebellion would do such a horrible thing, but because something about that plot point also struck me as artificial. If Rogue One wanted to do something with disorganization at the top, I think it could have benefited from a couple of good, in-depth scenes about politics in the Rebellion. And hey! Mon Mothma could have actually been useful and not just a glorified cameo!
B. Seeing Vader was kind of fun, but also a little bit disappointing because a) that pun, and b) he doesn’t actually kill Krennic. I would have forgiven a lot about the villains in this movie if I could have watched Vader murder that whiny bastard.
C. I’m super happy that Jyn and Cassian don’t actually have a love story. There was a significant look or two that made me fear where they were going, but they never really did, and I didn’t read their embrace at the end as romantic so much as “I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.” (Which, to be fair, is probably pretty often seen as wholly romantic. But, like, you know what I mean, right? When the end is nigh, it’s probably pretty normal to be glad you’re not facing it alone.)
That being said, Cassian and Jyn do sort of make up after their whole ethics fight pretty quickly, and Mek and I both thought it would be kind of neat if they hadn’t, if they’d remained relatively antagonistic toward one another–while still working with each other–until the end of the movie, and then had the embrace. I think that would have actually hit me a bit harder, emotionally speaking.
D. Finally, to everybody on Twitter chanting, “I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me” . . . you realize that everybody who says that in this movie DIES, right?
Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Force is a bit of an asshole. I am definitely not one with the Force. If I could, I’d punch the Force right in the nuts.
K-2SO: “Did you know that wasn’t me?”
K-2SO: “Congratulations. You are being rescued.”
Galen Erso: “You’re confusing peace with terror.”
Krennic: “Well, you have to start somewhere.”
Jyn: “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.”
Krennic: “There’s a great many things to attend to.”
Darth Vader: “My apologies. You do have a great many things to explain.”
Chirrut (as a bag is placed over his head): “Are you kidding me? I’m blind!”
K-2SO: “There were a lot of explosions for two people blending in.”
K-2SO: “I find that answer vague and unconvincing.”
Chirrut: “You almost shot me.”
Baze: “You’re welcome.”
K-2SO: “Jyn, I’ll be there for you. Cassian said I had to.”
I know this has been a pretty negative review, but really, I didn’t hate watching this movie or anything. I just don’t have any particular desire to ever watch it again. I’d definitely put it above The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but while it’s probably a better move than Return of the Jedi, I didn’t actually like it as much. And it’s nowhere near A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, or The Force Awakens for me.
Oh, something about hope, probably. Or, maybe, make your death mean something–a feat that some characters spectacularly fail to accomplish.