A year ago I received a lot of nasty hate mail over my “sort of” movie review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In short, I completely hated it (really even more than I let on in my review). In addition to hating what they did with the classic characters, it kind of ruined the Original Trilogy, in that by Han and Leia having a child and doing such an awful job of raising him (along with Uncle Luke), they created a monster and basically undid all of what they accomplished in saving the universe in the original films. So it kind of just made the entire Star Wars odyssey all pointless. But there were plenty of other things wrong with it as well (in my subjective opinion), and you can read all about it in my full review of The Force Awakens. But this review is different. Finally, since 1983, there is a legitimate fourth Star Wars film. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And I absolutely loved it.
Last night, I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for the second time this week, and I thought it only fair to give credit where it is due. As much as I hate The Force Awakens, I absolutely love Rogue One. For me, it is the first “real” Star Wars film since 1983, and has earned a spot among those three original films that started it all. Not only is it an excellent stand alone movie, it actually makes the Original Trilogy better, rather than worse. And though it does feature a handful of characters from the original films, it does nothing to detract from them. It really serves to make Star Wars as a whole better than what it was without it. But aside from everything else, I loved the story and the characters, and the film hit me emotionally throughout. I found it to be a powerful film, and felt as though I was the target audience (one who grew up with the Original Trilogy but don’t go into movies today with a child-like perspective).
Everything that follows from this point includes SPOILERS, so please stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.
I did have a feeling that Rogue One would be good, based on the trailer, but I made an effort to avoid reading anything about it. I wanted to see it fresh and be appropriately surprised seeing it in theaters, though I had some idea of the basic story (getting the plans to the Death Star prior to A New Hope).
As mentioned in last year’s review and as readers of the Original Prop Blog know, I am a huge Star Wars fan, and seeing the original in 1977 at 4 years old was a life-changing event. Collectively, the first three films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) are my favorite films of all-time. I tried to like the Prequels as they came out, but didn’t like too much about them, and have grown to find them unwatchable over the years (I’ve tried a few times and failed). I did buy The Force Awakens on Blu-Ray, but haven’t been able to bring myself around to experiencing it a second time. Over the past year, as I’ve thought about my one and only viewing of The Force Awakens at the theater, I really just hate what they did with the franchise, the story, the characters…
And as much as I’ve been critical of the idea of Disney being the caretaker of Star Wars (and honestly it’s more a positive than a negative), they have the potential to do it right, and I think that they done exactly that with Rogue One. They’ve done a mostly amazing job with Marvel Comics (apart from the Netflix shows that are pretty boring). I loved Captain America: Civil War this year (maybe my favorite of all the Marvel Comics films). And with Rogue One, I’ve really come around to see Disney taking over both Marvel and Star Wars as a good thing.
In any event… the movie. I’ll start with the negatives this time, since it’s a short list.
Loved the characters, but not too much time was spent with them in non action scenes, apart from the principal, Jyn (with an excellent performance from Felicity Jones). So the movie went along at a fast clip, but I would have liked to have gotten to know them a little better (which is a testament to the fact that they were engaging and likeable and interesting). I would have gladly sat in the theater for another 30 minutes to get to know the characters a little bit more in quieter moments.
Some of the circumstances were way too coincidental… but Star Wars films are supposed to be fairy tale like, so I can suspend my disbelief over those sorts of things with little effort (unlike the character issues I had with The Force Awakens).
The only other negative was that if you quizzed me about some of the names of the characters after seeing the movie the first time, I’d have some trouble recalling them. Not that I didn’t understand the characters and recognize them, but their names were difficult to track and remember while watching the film. The names in A New Hope were easier to latch onto and mostly monosyllabic (Han, Luke, Leia…).
The CGI Tarkin was both awesome and a little strange at the same time. Amazing accomplishment but not 100% lifelike. The Leia was, but it was such a brief scene that it didn’t allow as much time to really scrutinize.
So really not too much to criticize…
So what did I like?
The concept… a stand alone Star Wars film. One of the things I’ve hated about both The Prequels and The Force Awakens is how they were all slaves to recreating the same characters, stories, and scenes over and over and over (even Return of the Jedi did this a bit, with a second Death Star). Put plainly, it’s gotten beyond boring. The Force Awakens was more or less a remake of A New Hope, only adding in stuff that made it horrible. Copying and ruining the source at the same time, and mishandling the original characters.
Rogue One, while tying in to A New Hope, is still an original story. It did not “ape” anything from the other films. In fact, it seemed to consciously avoid any semblance of doing that. So the audience could actually be told a new story, and not know what exactly was going to happen (though have an idea of how it ends – but maybe not expect nearly everyone to die).
So many of the obligatory elements were excised completely… no lightsaber battle in a Star Wars film? What? Well, a lightsaber-based attack from Vader, but that is a different thing (and I loved that!).
Like A New Hope, it also cast almost all unknowns and actors not widely recognized by the average American sci fi fan, apart from Forrest Whitaker, but even he was kind of “hidden” within his (excellent) performance. So no louder than life actors like Samuel L. Jackson to completely take us out of the film (and no purple lightsabers for that matter!).
There was also no effort to try to outdo what came before in simple-minded ways (“a double-bladed lightsaber!” “a guy with four lightsabers”, “a lightsaber with blades that shoot out the sides!”). Instead we have a wannabe Jedi with a wooden stick.
Like The Empire Strikes Back, Rogue One has a much darker tone. Actually, I would say overall it’s both darker than Empire yet even more hopeful than A New Hope at the same time. Following George Lucas tinkering with the original films and sanitizing them on some level (i.e. after a lot of debate over “Han shot first”), Rogue One goes much deeper into this darker territory without hesitation. It really shows a more realistic side of war and conflict. Early on when Cassian shoots an ally in the back, I knew this was a much different Star Wars.
Rogue One actually manages to make A New Hope a much better film. One of the oft ridiculed elements of the first Star Wars film has always been “why would they build a battle station that can so easily be destroyed?” Rogue One exists to provide a real explanation to that question. Also, after watching Rogue One, rewatching A New Hope adds so much to the importance of the Death Star plans, and keeping them out of the hands of the Empire. And I love the contrast of all of the war and turmoil surrounding getting the plans in Rogue One, set against the early scenes in A New Hope on Tatooine – a place so remote and removed from what we witnessed in Rogue One. Also, the “introduction” to Vader in Rogue One makes him all the more menacing in A New Hope. As well as seeing just how much of him that is left is still human.
And the Easter eggs in Rogue One were all fan service; mostly things the average moviegoer wouldn’t pick up on and not distracting for the nerds but rewarding.
The action scenes were some of the best of all the films; and I would argue some sequences would be the best. Unlike the clumsy and slow lightsaber battles and “bang, bang” blaster play of the Original Trilogy and the just plain weird lightsaber battle at the end of The Force Awakens, the battles in Rogue One are more like something out of a contemporary war film – fast and gritty. And the land and space battles at the end of Rogue One were amazing.
I really liked how the film put light on a family that existed in the Imperial world, which gives it a lot more depth. The “bad guys” aren’t a bunch of nondescript guys in armor and helmets. Everything isn’t so black and white. Nor are the rebels all riding around on white horses and only doing good. It makes the Star Wars universe much more of a grey place, which suits the look and feel of the original movies even more. Even those against the Empire have differing views. And it’s not an easy “out” like in the Prequels where the stormtroopers are nothing more than a bunch of clone automatons. The way Rogue One is put together, what it portrays and focuses on, it all gives more depth and humanity to the Star Wars we have been familiar with for decades.
Also, Jyn is a dynamic character unlike any we’ve seen before in Star Wars. Imperfect and damaged, she initially is not part of either the Empire or the Rebellion. And rather than copying from the established Star Wars archetypes, she has her own unique story (though being a Disney film, I guess she has to witness the death of her mother!). And she is no cardboard cut out character, but is believable and is someone an audience can immediately empathize with and root for as she stays true to her own moral compass. Through her journey, she ends up actually making the Rebellion cohesive by the end of the film; many differing opinions coming together to become the Rebellion that we know from A New Hope and the Original Trilogy. And a huge part of this is the feeling throughout the film that The Force is moving these people through these events for a purpose.
I also really enjoyed the main antagonist, Krennic. He is something different. Human, with human flaws and believable motives that transcend science fiction. Ambitious and wanting power, respect, and recognition. Filled with hubris, yet willing to do what it takes to accomplish his goals. And his interactions and dynamics with Tarkin and Vader were very interesting, and again gives more depth to the Empire. I also loved that the Emperor was spoken of but never shown, so as to not undermine his reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. It also builds him up and makes him seem more powerful over the course of A New Hope and into The Empire Strikes Back.
All of the main characters in the film are very interesting and have their own journeys and struggles.
Cassian is very complex and yet there is a deep rooted goodness that guides him outside of his mission and orders. K-2SO was amazing – such a unique droid-based character but designed to provide much of the humor and lighter moments in the film to break up the darkness, but usually in a black humor style.
Chirrut is particularly fascinating in that he is so different from the characters in other Star Wars films that are deeply involved in The Force. Not a Jedi himself, he seems even more devoted to it than any other character in the other films, and in such a different manner – really a more pure and selfless way.
Also important is how the film deals with The Force. In A New Hope, it is presented as this mysterious lost religion of sorts. And the Jedi something that had long died out. By the time you get to the Prequels, Jedi are everywhere and thus made not so special. It kind of ruined the whole idea of what we had in the Original Trilogy, and The Force Awakens ruins it a bit more still… In Rogue One, there are no Jedi. But The Force is actually even more important, and set back in a way that fits in with A New Hope. It’s all much more Eastern, as it was originally envisioned by George Lucas. Not turned into some scientific mumbo jumbo like with the Prequels.
In terms of the direction and cinematography, I thought it was spot on for the film. Dark and muddy at times, it matches up with the Original Trilogy well in terms of the look and feel. It looks more like it was shot on film than digitally. It doesn’t “feel” like it was made many decades later.
Also over the course of the film, it is very dark and muddy, but then the final scenes on Scarif are very bright, as finally the Empire and the Rebellion come into focus in a more “black and white” manner of good vs evil.
The attention to detail on the film overall – the costumes, the props, the vehicles… everything familiar looks exactly as it did in the Original Trilogy, likely a credit to Doug Chiang. Being a prop collecting nerd, I know the details of things more than the average fan, and in close up shots of Vader, I could see the one grey cheek and one black, the red lenses, etc., that all match the costume as seen in A New Hope.
All that is great, but without a compelling story and storytelling, it would not work. But I thought that the script, dialogue, acting, and other components that make up the film were all stellar. I was previously unfamiliar with the work of the director, the writers, the composer, and most of the actors, and they all came together to make an incredible film. Yet there is not all the hype and hubbub over it all as there was with J.J. Abrams’ much higher profile The Force Awakens, which is a shame, because this is, for me, “the” Star Wars film I’ve been waiting for since I was 10 years old after Return of the Jedi was released.
I also love that the film is about morals and doing what is right, and making sacrifice for others and the greater good… concepts lost on younger generations today. The spirit of the film is very Band of Brothers in an era of narcissism, selfishness, and “safe spaces”. A new hope indeed. It also, through The Force, portrays religion in a positive light. There are critical moments when characters give themselves over to The Force and their faith in it (in a modern cultural climate today in which many hold no respect for religions and those who practice religion), and the consequences (whether good or bad for the characters in the film on a personal level does not matter). Like in the end, when Cassian asked Jyn if she thinks anyone is listening (to receive their signal of the Death Star plans) and she replies saying that she does, and that someone’s out there.
And, of course, everyone dies in the end. But while tragic, they died for a cause that they believed in, and they all seemed a peace with it.
So many other things to love about it… seeing Tarkin and Vader and Leia… the beautiful shots of the Death Star… Vader at the very end. Fucking amazing.
I really can’t wait to see it again.
Overall, I see Rogue One as a true equal to the Original Trilogy. If I would to rate all of the Star Wars films to date (overall as “Star Wars” films, and inclusive of how much they helped and hurt the franchise), this is how I would rank them on a scale of 1 to 10 (on a “Star Wars Scale”, since I can’t really put in context to comparing with other films, plus there is the nostalgia factor)…
- 10/10: A New Hope
- 10/10 The Empire Strikes Back
- 9/10: Return of the Jedi
- 2/10: Revenge of the Sith
- 2/10: Attack of the Clones
- 2/10: The Phantom Menace
- 1/10: The Force Awakens
- 10/10: Rogue One