I don’t really get excited for films any more. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my life stage that I don’t have hours to spend pouring over trailers or blog post theories or wiki sites. I will typically give a trailer one or two viewings and move on, reasoning that my next taste of the action will be whenever the film hits a convenient medium. That said, last year’s successful resurrection of the Star Wars franchise did have me looking forward to some spinoff stories. Considering what Disney/Marvel has been able to do with the MCU, I was happy to hear that we’d be fleshing-out the world in a way that only the expanded universe had attempted in the past.
As fate would have it, my whole family was off for the holidays recently, and my mother-in-law (surprisingly, since she doesn’t like fantasy) offered to take us out to see Rogue One. My kids, being raised on the prequels and Clone Wars cartoons, and myself, a huge fan of the original trilogy (and proud owner of several Kenner action figures back in the day), jumped at the chance. My friends Void and BJ over at the Geek to Geek podcast did a very nice episode detailing their reactions to the film. It’s a good listen, and it triggered a few of my own thoughts that I’ll attempt to communicate below. They will be spoiler-filled.
First of all, I like the story choice. This film had a distinctly different feel from every other Star Wars film I’ve seen – in a good way. Void and BJ, who seem to have studied film more than I have, categorized it as a war movie. I’ll just say that I liked getting away from the “center of the universe” characters in favor of some unsung heroes. I’m not completely sure how my youngest two kids felt about it. They said they liked it, but I sense that the death of every major character did bother them a little bit. I was eight years old when I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater. I’m not sure how I would have felt if Luke hadn’t escaped the Death Star or if the whole rebel squadron on Endor was wiped out. Sometimes, the things that make a film interesting for adults do so at a cost to the kids to whom the franchise originally belonged, which makes me a little sad. But, the adult in me is happy to see Star Wars grow up a little and do some things that are less predictable. I was a little surprised that the main characters weren’t rescued in some last-minute X-wing fighter miracle, but on further reflection, everybody had to die. I guess that’s what makes these heroes “unsung”.
One of BJ’s major complaints about the film was the lack of character development. To which I would respond: have you never seen a Star Wars movie? Character development within a single film has never been a strength of this franchise. Backstories have only ever been hinted at through vague dialog and brief visual references, with the exception of Luke Skywalker who benefits from Kenobi’s expository dialog in a couple of the films. Heck, we had Padme for three movies and I still don’t feel like I know anything about her. It’s easy to name examples of flat characters in Star Wars films: Boba Fett, Jango Fett, Count Dooku, Qui Gon Jinn, the afore-mentioned Padme, Captain Phasma, and General Grievous. Even the main characters, like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, don’t get very interesting until they appear in multiple films. So, the character arcs we see within Rogue One seem about par for the course to me. No, I didn’t remember everybody’s name by the end of the film, but that’s typical for me when there are more than three or four people to keep track of. The only name I can recall from watching Doctor Strange earlier this year is…Stephen Strange.
My favorite character in Rogue One was Chirrut, a blind Guardian of the Whills encountered at Jedha. I like the fact that, despite the utter destruction of everything around him (including his purpose in life – to guard the temple that has been seized) at the hands of the empire, he maintains faith in the force. And even though it does not save his life, his ultimate purpose is made possible through that faith for the greater good of the rebellion. I also love that his dedication to that belief is an inspiration for his friend Baze’s redemption. I could ponder all day long about the symbolism of Chirrut’s physical blindness and how it relates to him being the character in the film with the largest amount of faith in the force (“blind faith”, anyone?). Not to mention, he really kicks some stormtrooper butt with that staff. As far as the other characters go, none really stood out. I liked Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO. The last, in particular, proved quite effective as both comic relief and in filling the role of “heroic droid”. I’m going to disagree with Void, who didn’t like the comic relief in Rogue One. I think the humor was vital to this film. There were parts where the tension needed to be broken up.
The action sequences in the film were all very good. Both the space battles and land battles are able to one-up the practical effects that were so groundbreaking in the original trilogy. I very much enjoyed the inclusion of the red and gold squadrons in the final battle, as well as the “red five” reference. That unused footage from A New Hope was integrated into Rogue One with perfection. That was a nice surprise, considering some of the callbacks weren’t so graceful. For example, when Jyn runs into the cantina outlaws in Jedha City. This reference would have been much better had Jyn simply bumped into him and if the line “watch yourself!” was heard in the background. As it is, the camera lingers on the pair for what seems like an eternity as if to say “hey, remember these guys? These guys right here? You know, from episode four…..the cantina…..oh yeah, now you remember…..” It seems pretty heavy-handed. Also less successful is digital Peter Cushing, who plays a fairly large role in the movie but was so obviously digitally enhanced that I couldn’t even pay attention to any of the dialog in his first scene. Again, I think a lighter touch (with more shadows, shots from behind) would have made Cushing’s character less distracting and more believable.
I’m a little split on Darth Vader’s inclusion. I like the idea of him in this film, but I think the execution was about 50/50. In Vader’s first scene with Krennic, he doesn’t move or sound like the Vader from A New Hope, the events of which are supposed to immediately follow Rogue One. The scene itself does very little for the film, other than to show Krennic’s willingness to go behind Tarkin’s back to more quickly advance his career. It appears to exist mostly as a way to get more screen time for Vader. However, in the final scene of the film, we see Vader personally chasing down and slicing through rebel troops in an effort to recover the stolen Death Star plans. This scene shows Darth Vader as we’ve never seen him, terrifying and deserving of the fear and respect that is omnipresent throughout the first three films. The other nice thing about this scene is that it shows exactly how the plans ended up with Leia Organa in the first place.
Overall, I really liked Rogue One. I thought it was a very good movie set inside a universe that now feels much larger than it used to. It felt like a Star Wars film, but one that had “grown up”. It laid the groundwork for some interesting new concepts (for the films, anyway) like kyber crystals, The Whills, stormtroopers who don’t always miss (ha!), and even questionable orders within the rebel alliance. Like Void said in the podcast, this opens Star Wars up to explore the “shades of grey”. As an adult, I’m excited to see what kind of shades they decide to paint, even if the kid in me still kind of pines for the bad guys to wear black hats and the good guys to always win.