20 December 2016

First Impressions: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For the foreseeable future this will become a Christmas tradition - an exhaustively long, soul-consuming post about a Star Wars movie. Last year we spent 3757 words on The Force Awakens (2015), so the challenge is on! I thoroughly enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), although it's received a decidedly chilly response from most of the Internet outlets that I usually respect and agree with. I'd consider the film to be one of the very best Star Wars movies ever, but there seems to be a whole ton of dissonance here, with simultaneous complains of excessive fan service while not even being a Star Wars movie. All of this is fertile ground for discussion, and I'll say this again - I have no intention of keeping this short, because the combination of seeing this film along with most of the original and prequel trilogy on TNT this weekend has reminded me of just how much I'm into Star Wars.
Not actually a still from the film.

It's nice to remember that Star Wars really does trounce all the lesser franchises scattered about these days. It's the monolith of movie filmmaking, a movie so big that it forever changed how we think about movies. The original Star Wars (1977) was in theaters from May 1977 to July 1978, and then had a November '78 re-release. Let that sink in a for a bit. Even in a post-VHS era that's crazy - no one is downloading and watching a movie every day like these Jimmy Carter people did. So much of the past forty years has been chasing that kind of success again, both from within and without Star Wars.

Largely Star Wars has been universally successful, even with tremendous fan disdain of the prequels, every Star Wars film ever released has become the number one film for their year domestically, except for Attack of the Clones (2002), which was sniped by Spider-Man (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002). Revenge of the Sith (2005) also fell to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) worldwide, but still, we can say that a Star Was film has at least been in the top three worldwide every year of its release, and that includes three pretty rough films.

At the same time, re-watching The Phantom Menace (1999) this weekend I was sitting around with my friends naming every pod racer, from Gasgano to Ody Mandell (not to be confused with the planet, Ord Mantell!) and the Jedi Council members from Even Piell to Yarael Poof. This stuff is just in my mind forever, and one big reason why I just can't deal with sorting out Game of Thrones characters on any level. The point is the old adage that Star Wars is like pizza - even when it's cold and sitting in the fridge for days you'll still eat it. And to be sure, re-watching The Phantom Menace again made me remember just how inconceivably bad it really is. There's no defending it ever. Every line is terrible along with a reliance on slapstick and juvenile humour - which, and this has been rationalized to death, may be suitable for a mostly children-based audience, but seems awfully out of place for the centerpiece of Galactic Conflict. Then again, Ewoks. More on how Rogue One contrasts this in a bit.

I had this theory a few years ago that I'm really appreciative of when movies throw up their incredibly awful entry that ruins the franchise for decades to come. Rogue One or The Force Awakens can't ruin Star Wars because it's already been pretty ruined. I've also never been one to think that having a new Star Wars movie each year diminishes the brand because there has literally been thousands of years of Star Wars history developed through expanded universe, now under the Legends brand. This also seems to lead to weird canon issues, especially since the newer movies have overwritten a lot of what we all understood to be canon, but suffice it to say that I've always believed Star Wars to be able to be a lot of different things, with different characters in different locations, and I believe that one major reason why it's been so sustainable is because the rules of its universe is so specifically developed and understood so well. Only Harry Potter really comes close to equivalent (possibly superior) world-building, and because of that, audiences are free to spin their own stories and imaginations using whatever books, toys, or brains they have.

At some point this review should start focusing on Rogue One specifically, but suffice it to say that most of my enjoyment of the film came out of the above paragraph. There are some stumbles it faces, particularly in plot and character (more of the former than the latter, particularly in a messy first half), but Rogue One supremely succeeds in concepts. Chiefly this comes from throwing out the bread and butter of every other film in the franchise - the Skywalker family and Jedis.

It's a brilliant move and a strong step forward towards developing the idea that other shit exists in this huge Galaxy. Even The Force Awakens centered around finding Luke Skywalker, and presumably, he'll have lots of shit to do in Episode 8 (2017), which for some reason doesn't have a title yet. We're still hung up on this craziness. And even without Luke, the ongoing saga of Kylo Ren (or Rey...probably), demonstrates that this stupid family has really dominated the Galaxy for like 50 years. I love the idea of focusing on something else.

So much guy love
While we don't have explicit Jedis or Sith per se, we do have Chirrut Îmwe - more on specific characters and the horrible fact that every name is kind of forgettable and awful in a bit - who seems to be force sensitive but not necessarily a Jedi. It makes plenty of sense that especially in the time of the Empire, plenty of force-sensitive people were born that did not have access to Jedi training. Further than that, though, he seems to be part of the Guardians of the Whills, which is simultaneously a reference to Lucas' original Journal of the Whills treatment of Star Wars and a possible canon reference to the ancient alien beings to re-tell the story of the Galactic Civil War. I'm not one to put much stock in either of this besides a cheeky Easter Egg, but it makes the question of whether or not Chirrut is an actual force user more oblique, thus expanding the number of force interpretations in the Galaxy significantly.

All that is awesome to me - an expansion of the Star Wars sandbox in pretty fun ways. At this point it ought to be clear that I long ago lost the ability to look at Star Wars films with unbiased eyes. I do think that this flick mostly stands up on its own, though. Actually, I've also got to think that context has become integral to this particular franchise. There's less need to set-up background or what's happening here because the cultural force of Star Wars is so completely ubiquitous. There's not too much you need to actually know here besides the Death Star, at least until the final few minutes (we never dropped a SPOILER warning, but ought to at this point), but if you've never seen A New Hope, then why the hell are you even watching this anyway?

Let's stick with concepts some more. It's a great concept to depict another aspect of the Rebellion. It's a nice show that there's a lot of other stuff happening in this universe, including different rebel factions of various ideologies and methodologies. For most of the Original Trilogy, as great films as they are, it was always a little weird that even though this was a huge Galactic Conflict, we tended to focus on this group of eight or so people who kept running and hiding in asteroids and fighting giant Vaginal Dentata monsters instead of doing more rebel-y things. By all accounts Rogue One is the best film to feature an actual demonstration of the war, and for sure that final third is a bravura accomplishment of action filmmaking, a beach insurgency that looks like a space age Vietnam battle more than the flashy bright lit conflicts of the prequels, or the uh...log-based combat of Return of the Jedi (1983). The Empire Strikes Back (1980)'s Hoth battle is the only one that comes close, but this seems so much more visceral and focused, with actual tactical objectives along with a clean demonstration of the Rebellion's cut-throat personality.

See, the Rebels in this film fit the bill of being a scrappy brigade of assholes that sneak around, blow shit up, and steal and con their way to victory. The Alliance is actually at times a fairly contentious alliance that didn't seem to really pull together, ironically, until the construction of the Death Star, which was originally designed to wipe them out. Since this film seemed more focused on this adult version of the Galactic Civil War there was certainly freer reign to give everyone more realistic stakes and stronger conflicting personalities.

And we should talk about how there's this weird attempt to shoot what 1977 thought the future would look like, except with 2016 technology and film techniques. This essentially gives us lots of old computer images, blocky data discs, and a ton of moustaches. I always wonder about who was the most 70s of all the original Star Wars actors - definitely Cassio Tagge. Maybe Moradmin Bast. I'd love for continuity to forever trap future anthology installments of this era into wavy 70s hairdos, but I also feel like even by Empire, Lucas (to be more specific, Kershner) started using more timeless, neutral haircuts and outfits.

We also finally got some sweet planets. Let's go through this, since I was always attuned to how well the original trilogy defined itself by its incredibly simple two to three-planet structure. Star Wars had Tatooine, the desert planet; the Death Star; then Yavin 4, the jungle world that didn't really feature any trek through the jungle. Empire featured Hoth, the ice planet; then cut between Dagobah, the swamp world and the Asteroid belt; then all ended on the gas giant Bespin. Jedi simplified everything, starting on Tatooine again (the first sign that we were getting repetitive), then ended on the Forest moon of Endor.

The prequel trilogy seemed to falter a bit with this clear and consistent structure. Phantom bounces around like crazy, going from the underwater section of Naboo to the city planet of Coruscant (briefly), then Tatooine (AGAIN), then back to Naboo, but this time, Thebes-side. Clones gives us Coruscant again, then splits between the...rain? planet of Kamino and...Naboo again (with a brief stop at Tatooine of course), then ends on Geonosis, which is like Mars but filled with weird bugs. Revenge of the Sith gets super-blurry, bouncing around all over the place, starting with Coruscant again, then featuring pitstops at Utapau the Sinkhole Planet (yep), Kashyyyk the Wookie Planet, that we never spend much time exploring, then ending on Mustafar the Lava World along with Coruscant YET AGAIN because everything happens there. In between we see a bunch of worlds where the Jedi die. None of the prequels really had that structure, which actually makes them harder to remember and decipher.

The Force Awakens took us to Jakku, yet another desert world that's made kind of cool by all the downed Star Destroyers, then Takodana, which is a jungle-ish world although it could have been anything, finally ending on Starkiller Base, which is a snowy mountain forest planet. All this means we didn't actually really see any new kind of world in The Force Awakens, although I love the structure.

Rogue One bounces around a bit, especially at the beginning, which is fantastically disorienting. They do list the planets,which is cool, even if we don't spend much time in some places where it might have been cool. We get Jedha (DESERTTTTTT, although it's used mostly for its city, which feels like witnessing a Middle Eastern insurgency more than anything, made all the more gray since we're effectively meant to cheer for the wrong side), a brief stop at Wobani, which could have been the scene for an awesome dirty snow prison break-out, Yavin again, then a bit on Eadu, which is a purple rainy mountain planet? Wait...was that possibly a Prince reference? Has anyone put that together yet? C'mon, Internet! We finally end on Scarif, which is an impeccably rendered beach planet, I definitely got shades of Namek, but the whole thing is gorgeous. I like the idea of being assigned to guard the Imperial Data Center and you get to Scarif like "Damn! This beats the hell out of Coruscant! Or Mustafar! Or Byss!" All the Imperial planets seem so evil, Scarif should be like, the jewel of the Galaxy, the Fhloston Paradise of Star Wars - what happened here?

Speaking of Mustafar, why did Vader put his Tower of Barad-dur there? I suppose it's because that was Vader was born, his hometown, if you will. Even if it's also the site of insurmountable pain. At this point we should probably talk about Vader, because even though his costume looked kind of off, and that Mustafar scene was also superfluous, how did how did it take us 40 years and eight films to actually see some truly badass fearsome Vader fights? For a second imagine we had no idea Vader would be in this film, and in the final minute of the film we just see a dark smokey hallway and that red lightsaber light up...this was probably the most badass moment in all of Star Wars history - surely this wouldn't really work in a kid's film (although hell, Revenge of the Sith came close), but here where we see the entire brutality of war it's great to see the true power of Vader, and it's everything it could possibly be.

There's also these weird parallels to Vader in some of the new characters. Saw Guerrera seems an obvious analogy, with his mechanical body and oxygen need. I'm not sure about the symbolism there, though. Back in Sith, Grievous was obviously the worst case scenario of Vader's descent away from humanity into cybernetic technology. Guerrera seemed to be similar, perhaps an indication that Rebel leaders could also lose touch with their humanity and sacrifice their souls for their ideological crusade. It illustrates another prominent Rogue One theme that splits from a lot of previous Star Wars films - where there's no clear good and evil distinction, but a swath of grays, where Rebels seem downright Machiavellian in how hard they'll push against perceived tyranny, to the point where they're murderers and tyrants themselves.
"You've got my men driving all over town looking for strawberries!"

I was also struck by Orson Krennic, whose costume provided the inverse of Vader's. He seemed just as treacherous and cavalier with both ally and enemy lives as Vader, but it's clear that he's worked and wormed his way up through non-force political means rather than just being born powerful and getting cozy with Palpatine. Again, I'm not sure if the symbolism is on point or he's really a proper counter to Vader, but Ben Mendelsohn is outstanding here, and provides a damn sinister villain. He does choke on his aspirations, though. Part of my hope is that screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy included that line as a callback to how terrible Anakin's dialogue was in the prequels - just a little internal consistency with how awful Vader speaks, even though he's a total menace.

So let's get to the other characters. Besides Ip Man himself Donnie Yen's Chirrut Îmwe, who is clever, wise, and a spiritual quasi-stereotype of mystical blind samurai, the other standout here is clearly K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. His hilarity is a side effect of his Rebel re-programmed Imperial-ness, which makes him come off like C-3PO by way of Drax the Destroyer, which is somehow even better than that sounds. The sarcastic goofy side character may be turning into a modern movie trope, but I don't mind at all if directors and screenwriters can pull it off as effectively as Tudyk does here.

Beyond that our core characters also include Bodhi Rook, who started off more interesting than he ended up, and was perhaps most engaging when his brain was drained (that'd be a fun challenge in itself! Wait, what the hell was the point of that weird monster anyway?) and Baze Malbus, who wields the best Star Wars gun ever, probably deserved a more badass death, and is totally gay with Chirrut Îmwe. By the way, I definitely had to look up all these names. I remembered "Bodhi" because Cassian Andor shouts it like forty times, but they either needed some more dedicated introductions or some more decipherable names. Han...Luke...Ben. These stick out more than Baze and Cassian.

Speaking of that jerk, Diego Luna does a fine job here, even if he's introduced as a rogue-ish badass and ends up kind of a puss. Why does Chirrut ask if he's a killer and then he doesn't snipe Galen Erso!? He killed the Rebel informant in his introduction scene in the coldest character intro since Han shot first! There's some inconsistent character work here that certainly comes up short.

Finally we have Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who is largely the anchor of the film. Jyn is a memorable name - it rolls off the tongue a lot easier than Chirrut Îmwe for fuck's sake. I do think there probably could have been a little more done for her background beyond the bland Star Wars staple of orphanizing - stuff that was actually included in the damn trailer. For the record, I actually think that that kind of stupid rap sheet list is an overdone method of establishing character, and I also don't totally care about when trailer footage doesn't show up in the final film, even if Rogue One seems like an egregious example, where virtually nothing in that first impeccable teaser (that still gives me chills) ended up in the final film. I'm totally into trailers existing to sell mood and to fit well into little hype stories rather than what works for a final product, but it is a shame to lose some really cool shots like Krennic wading through warzone puddles and Forest Whitaker's warning of Imperial capture.

The emotional core of this tale, though, is Jyn's relationship with her father, who is essentially a double agent for the Rebellion so secret that the Rebellion doesn't even know that's his intention. Some of this relationship is lost in a cluttered first half, which bounces around a bit much to really establish her motivations. It's only when she confronts Saw Guerrera (who is her adoptive father, I guess? That was about as weird as the Yondu - Peter Quill relationship in Guardians of the Galaxy[2014]) that we really see how she thought her father betrayed her, but he didn't, that the depth of their relationship is shown. This could have certainly been cleaned up, and I'd be curious to see the gaps from re-shoots, even though I'll say this again - every film ever has re-shoots, particularly big ones, and this was probably more successful because of it.

There's a lot of surrogate family stuff in Star Wars - the original trilogy is full of it. The prequel trilogy comes close, but everything is more like a work family rather than a real family, formalized and tepid, with a bit too many people coming in and out to really establish anything. Rogue One is probably somewhere in the middle, where this rag-tag gang of ne'er-do-wells gets lumped together through meeting in prison and then sticks it out. Like the Vader character parallels, though, there's never any real thematic resonance to this, though, and nothing really pushes over the edge.

We haven't much discussed the director, Gareth Edwards yet, but it's worth it, now. His other big feature film, Godzilla (2014) flirted with all these terrible, undeveloped human themes but really worked as a concept movie as well - letting monsters fight, Godzilla's triumph, and some spectacular trailer-worthy shots. Monsters (2010) also flirted with greatness, hurt by some weak dialogue while being more thematically sound, although marred by a subtly that may have pushed another film over the edge. All of that is readily present here. It's clear that Edwards has a keen eye for scale and spectacle, I dare say better than most working directors today. He's also extremely adept at crafting giant action pieces with a steady camera and competent CGI work. He does seem to miss the mark with his human characters, though, from Bryan Cranston's wasted work in Godzilla to strands in Rogue One that never seem to take off.

And speaking of CGI, we really should address Tarkin and Leia's appearance. It's definitely jarring, and while I'm not totally sure why Tarkin simply wasn't re-cast, Leia's face was probably completely unnecessarily. C'mon - just show the buns! We don't need the face! Ugh. The one good thing is that this is a good step towards future human CGI renders - the issue of course is deceased actor's rights (or...actors' existence in general), along with the fact that in ten years Rogue One will look as shitty as The Matrix Reloaded (2003) does now.
Also not in film. But somehow AT-ATs haven't been seen
since 1980.

Altogether I ended up being a big fan of this, although again, that's more for conceptual reasons along with the spectacular final third. I do think a lot of the character and plot work is really choppy in the first half, although it does end up coming together with some kind of glue. With the only other Anthology rumours being a Han Solo movie, a Yoda movie, and a Boba Fett movie, though, I'm a bit disappointed. Star Wars is truly the only franchise where you can say "Hey - this is a Star Wars movie! It features a force-sensitive wizard battling Dugs on Malastare!" and people will come out to watch it.

On that note - one last comment on concepts - even though Rogue One largely stands alone (up until the last few minutes leads directly into A New Hope), it works mostly by the words and shadows of the Death Star - a MacGuffin that works more from the audience's knowledge of its cultural weight and power within the universe than what the core players really understand. It's the same thing with Luke's lightsaber (actually Anakin's) in The Force Awakens (and eventually Luke himself) - these new films trade on their predecessor's iconography, using reverence for their most significant sources of power to create these integral moments of tension and stakes. For the record I side with this being a cool way to spin previous touchstones, although we do remain waiting for the next great Death Star. No, not Starkiller Base.

Stay tuned next year for my excessive thoughts on Episode VII: The Search for More Money (2017)!

What did you think of Rogue One?

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