Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Official Black Owl Review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

I am going to start non-spoiler here, and will give everyone a warning when it’s time to look away!

When Lucasfilm, now under Disney, released The Force Awakens last year, they played it safe.  They basically gave us a retooled serving of What Had Gone Before.  That’s not a complaint on my part; they used context well to introduce new characters, and they matched the feel of previous episodes, with that kind of “fairy tale” feeling with Princesses and Knights, and a hero rising into her destiny etc.  That’s all very Star Wars, and as someone who really liked how they did that, it was probably exactly what they needed to do. 

The “Story” films though were expected to be different.  They TOLD us they were going to bring some different styles, and I admit I was skeptical they really had any intention of that.  Formula is what defines Hollywood these days, and if TFA made a billion dollars, that would be the formula to go with. 

Thankfully, I was wrong.  Rogue One has its own voice, its own delivery, and it is anything but a fairy tale.  This is The Dirty Dozen (or at least half dozen) set in the Star Wars Galaxy, and the fantasy is over.  Now, it is not one of those nihilistic gritty reboots; the fun and adventure are still there, but there are stakes and consequences, and if Han shooting first made him too edgy for older Lucas, wait until he meets Cassian Andor.  The characters are rich and complex and realize that terrible things have to happen when you are defying an Empire; And that Empire is relentless.  Hordes of troopers (which is good, because I think this movie has a higher on-screen body count for Stormtroopers than all seven of the other movies combined) and starfighters, and of course the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins, The Death Star, delivered in a way that somehow manages to make the menace of the device even greater than a quick lightshow as Alderaan ceases to be.

The first act has pacing issues; we spend too long in some places, and not enough time in others, and there may even be at least one scene that doesn’t need to be there at all.  But after about 20-25 minutes, when the movie hits its stride, all those issues go away, and we get an efficient, harrowing espionage and war story that shows how hard the fight for the Rebellion is going to be.  I have seen this film elsewhere described as “The Star Wars film I didn’t know I needed.”  That is an apt description.  This movie manages to bring fresh-and chilling-insight to a story that has probably had more scrutiny and commentary over the last 40 (yes, FORTY) years than any other.  That’s an amazing feat to pull off without it feeling like a retcon, and it is done here to perfection, answering questions I thought had no answers, and taking two paragraphs of opening scroll and turning them into a delightful story of flawed heroes trying to give an oppressed Galaxy the one thing it doesn’t have: hope.


So there are a few things that really stood out as excellent for me in this film as a Star Wars fan.  The thing that hit me the most is the idea that the fatal flaw in the Death Star we’ve been writing off as a contrivance of the script or a symbol of Imperial hubris since 1977 was intentional on the part of a rebellious designer.  In an example of just how complex the characters are in this film, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) works for the Empire helping design the technological terror that will secure the Empire’s control.  He knows they would do it anyway, regardless of his involvement.  He goes ahead, despite the death of his wife and the possible death of his daughter, but leaves this one fatal flaw.  This one chance for hope that somehow the word will get out and a Rebellion will be able to plant a torpedo in just the right place.  It’s a fantastic reveal, and the crux of this movie, and it brings both a tragic and a hope-filled context to Star Wars that we never knew was there.

Part of the “fairy tale” being gone gives us some of the realities of insurgency as well.  Though not as extreme as Saw Gerrera’s group, we still see Mon Mothma’s Rebel Alliance send out agents like Cassian Andor who will sabotage military targets, assassinate officials if necessary, and perhaps even put a blaster in your back to take you out before the Imperials can capture you.  It gives a touch of consequence to our casually cheering them when they blow up a Death Star with two million people on board.  Sure, there were bastards like Tarkin on board, but were there also people like Galen Erso, trying to minimize the destruction?  Or like Bodhi Rook, the pilot in Rogue One who defects with news of the flaws.  He’s a guy who had to serve and makes a choice when confronted with the immensity of what the Empire is willing to do.  How many of those Stormtroopers on the Death Star watched Alderaan go up, and were planning defection or desertion?  Rogue One makes you look at those questions in a very grown-up way.

So grown-up that the characters, all of whom I would love to see expanded on, do not make it out of this film.  I had feared that The Mouse would not let a movie into theaters where each of their protagonists dies before the credits roll, but indeed they did, and to great effect.  We understand now what this truly means:

The peril you now realize is just the continuation of a much longer battle.  When Princess Leia (whose appearance here in R1 gives me great joy) looks at Vader (whose appearance here in R1 restores any menace Hayden “I hate Sand” Christiansen may have removed) and lies through her teeth about where they have been, we see how desperate she is.  We know why Vader is so sure; he just literally watched her spaceship fly away from the Scarif battle.  The heroes of Rogue One die passing on an important baton, one we’ve seen the outcome to for decades, but now know just how grueling it truly was for those plans to be revealed.  Making all of that feel organic is quite an accomplishment.  Kudos to all.

A big thumbs up to Felicity Jones and her character Jyn Erso (shown here with the K-2SO, which is what you get if you put R2’s attitude in C-3PO…and put them in a battledroid).  We see her character go from a little girl watching her mother die, to a dejected misfit in prison, to reluctant helper to a Rebellion she’s not sure she wants any part of to FORCING THAT REBELLION INTO ACTION when she and Cassian take on the assault on Scarif without any support.  Let’s think about that; the Rebel Alliance though formed, has (as we have seen on the Rebels cartoon) only been making little raids against the Empire for a few years.  But they are nowhere near being unified enough to stand up to the Empire.  Not until Jyn Erso forces them to be.  The next three movies, despite their focus on the Skywalker family drama, rely on the fact this woman listened to her father when he said “whatever I do, I do it for you.”  (Later, when she and Cassian are searching the Imperial database on Scarif for the plans, and find them under her father’s nickname for her, she says, “Because it’s for me.”  A great subtle payoff, the delivery of which brought tears to my eyes.) 

I have to also mention Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus.  Not Jedi, not strictly warriors, but a new type of adherent to the Force.  I have never much considered myself (as mentioned here) a Jedi or Sith  type, but I could sure get behind the way these two relate to the Force.  When Chirrut wraps himself in prayer and steps into the line of fire, it felt to me as big a hero moment as any Jedi anywhere in the saga pulling out their lightsaber. 

There are a few people who have read the relationship between these two as romantic, as if they are a couple.  I have to admit, when I was watching that was the impression I walked away with; in any sense of the word, these two are partners, and of all the cast, they are the two I would most love to see some additional material on…or perhaps theirs is an ambiguity best left to fanfic just so I don’t have to hear the complaints of some jackass on Twitter who also wants to “#dumpStarWars” because he just figured out the Empire is a Nazi allegory.  If you didn't see their relationship that way, fine.  Star Wars has always been open to interpretation.  Regardless, Chirrut and Baze?  I ship it.

Speaking of the Rebels cartoon, I got more references than I was expecting, but not as many as I wanted.  Chopper apparently shows up on screen on Yavin (though I missed him), Hera gets a namedrop over the loudspeaker, and of course the Ghost appears in the Scarif battle.  We don’t see their final fate there- will Hera and whoever is still on the Ghost there go on to fight the larger fight just off screen in Empire and Jedi?  Or will the last episode of Rebels show us something like the Ghost flying interference for the Tantive IV, blocking Imperial fire to allow the plans to escape, joining the cast of Rogue One as sacrifices who make the Empire’s eventual fall possible?  I look forward to finding out, but I don’t think it would have killed them to have a certain Twi’lek pilot be present in a briefing or walking through a hanger. 

And though I could go on for many paragraphs more about how Tarkin was portrayed, or Vader’s Mustafar castle, or how we get to see why the “Red 5” position is open for Luke to take at the end of Star Wars, I want to talk about one last thing: The Soundtrack.  I was underwhelmed by John Williams work on TFA; the only theme that stood out for me at all was Rey’s theme in the desert, and even that didn’t stick like “The Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.”  Michael Giacchino though manages to make music that is completely organic to the Star Wars universe, weaving in familiar themes, while giving us new music to carry us through like “Hope” (which plays during Vader’s force-driven murder spree), new Imperial themes that fit right alongside the March, and all the thrills the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack gave me when I played that vinyl to slag as a kid.  I’ve been listening to the soundtrack as I write this, and I am just glad that digital can’t get scratched or warped, as I will be listening to this quite a bit. 

So yes, the movie is a little awkward to start, but as it plays it delivers in ways I would never have expected.  I don’t know if it will have the rewatchable nature of the Saga films, but it is a fine fleshing out of the story and a taste of the sacrifice that must be made to stand up to oppression.  That is a lesson for every generation.  Rebellions are never easy, especially when they are necessary.  But I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

(All images are property of Disney and Lucasfilm, no infringement intended.)


Anthony Anderson said...

Thanks Dan. Leave it to you to find words for some of my thoughts. Definitely places in the movie that should of went faster or not be included as well as places I would of liked to seen played out a little more. But the whole of it made me want to look at it again.

I think the partnership you speak of doesn't have to be a romantic relationship (my issue with Beyond) but one of warriors...which is deeper than that.

At the end I was left wanting more Vader!!!

Good rundown.

Amy said...

Great review of a fantastic movie. I always enjoy your reviews because you see things in the movies that I find I usually miss on the first viewing. I too was left wanting more Vader. I would also love to see a story about young princess Leia before we see her. How her life was after she was separated from her twin.

I look forward to your next review of whatever comes next.


Dan said...

Hey Tony!
Thank you for reading, and I am with you on Vader. It's how I always imagined him.
And you make it sound like a romantic relationship and one of warriors are mutually exclusive; I think we BOTH know enough couples to disprove that! :)