There were Asian people a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
by Thom Yee
If there’s one thing that’s rarely been central to (or at least pre-eminent in) the Star Wars movies, it’s an actual war. Star Wars has always involved its fair amount of physical conflict, but mostly it’s been about things like an individual hero’s journey, lightsabers, the Force, Gestapo-like imagery, whiny little protagonists, the tougher and smarter princesses they love, smooth-talking scoundrels, and funny mascot-type characters, and even the fall of the Empire (spoiler alert?) wound up being a battle where a bunch of adorable little bears were running around in the middle of the conflict zone, adding questionable value to the Rebel forces’ efforts. In fact, the only time I ever felt like there was a genuinely large-scale battle shown to us in the movies was in the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith when Anakin and Obi-Wan rescued Palpatine, the theretofore unrevealed would-be Emperor of the eventual Empire (spoiler alert again?), and that took place when the galaxy still had the Jedi Order around to keep the peace, clouded by the dark side though they and their Council may have been.
I guess somebody thought that needed to change, because Rogue One is the first actual war movie we’ve seen in the series, with ground-level conflicts following the very real and very not-force-powered soldiers that form the bulk of the fighting forces in the post-Jedi era. The people we see in Rogue One die like real people and never become more powerful than we can possibly imagine. They use guns and bombs and steel and brawn, they have to take cover when being fired on, they can’t just close their eyes, concentrate, and believe to make sure their payloads hit their targets, and when they meet their inevitable ends, they won’t all be remembered as the heroes or villains they may or may not have been. But that doesn’t mean Rogue One is a gritty movie. The people of Rogue One may be a little more grizzled and war-weary than our usual Star Wars heroes, but they’re still accompanied by a comic-relief droid, they still find times to joke and aren’t generally taking things that seriously, and they still have funny little animals taking part in the big battles (even if the best funny animal part was actually cut out of the movie). This time it’s a monkey.
What’s it about?
It is [also] a period of civil war. In the twenty [or so] years since liberty died [to thunderous applause], the Empire has taken a stranglehold over the galaxy, the people living in fear of the ruling elite (I guess; I’m still not very clear on how the class system works in these movies). Though opposing forces have risen against the Empire, desperation has begun to set in amongst the Rebels and hopes in the group could really use some renewing. When news of the Empire’s latest weapon, a planet killing “Death Star”, reaches the fledgling Rebellion, Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) leads a daring mission, seeking the aid of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of the man who built the Death Star, to… Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)… Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)… Kyber crystals… Bor Gullet… y’know, there are actually a lot of moving pieces here and the point is these are the people they were talking about in that “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon” bit.
I think there were two major narratives around the time of Rogue One’s release this past Christmas, and the first that comes to many of our minds at this point, unfortunately, has more to do with real-life mortality than a fictional war. On December 23rd, Carrie Fisher suffered a medical emergency, one she would never recover from. Now I’ve gone on the record as being someone who was never very taken with Star Wars, my youth filled more with other, even geekier distractions, but even I recognize what a loss to our global culture Carrie Fisher’s death is. I distinctly remember when her mother, former Hollywood starlet Debbie Reynolds, told us she was in stable condition, and it was a moment I found deeply reassuring if only because it felt like if her mother was still alive, surely she would be fine too. And then she died. And then Debbie Reynolds died a day later. There’s a type of beauty in their deaths being so close together, but it was still a sequence of events that hit about as hard as any Hollywood deaths could and it felt like a part of all of us died with them. Granted, it may merely have been the part of us that’s concerned with movies, but we should never underestimate how important these stories are to us as a people. Star Wars is, in many ways, the one thing that transcends all of the barriers we put up between each other, whether it’s age, race, our beliefs on gender or religion, and possibly things we hold even deeper. By coming out when it did and being so earnestly what it was, by so compellingly showing us what bravery, and growth, and heroism look like, Star Wars carved a space for itself unlike any other entertainment property, and it’s the one point of commonality we all seem to have when it comes to pop culture, the one thing we’ve all seen and can at least appreciate, and between Luke, Leia and Han, Carrie Fisher’s Princess, was at least one third of everything we loved about it.
The second thing that comes to mind with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s release is that it is not Episode VIII. That one’s coming this Christmas. I’m not sure how clearly the marketing materials were able to communicate that Rogue One wouldn’t be the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, and Poe but its own story, a separate piece about what we’ve known only as a minor detail in the overarching mythology, and to be honest, I’m not sure how effective that message had to be. Everyone’s going to see the new Star Wars. I mean, it’s not like George Lucas is directing them anymore.
Is it any good?
Is it any good? Is it any good? It’s Star Wars! At this point I think the only thing that has to be crystal clear when it comes to new Star Wars movies is that they’re not the prequels, and judging by the response to last year’s The Force Awakens, nobody’s thinking about the prequels anymore with this franchise. Sure, it’s also true that with a plot so deliberately and overtly reminiscent of A New Hope, The Force Awakens doesn’t exactly scream sequel either, but all most people need to know when it comes to any of the recently released or forthcoming Star Wars movies is that they’re not bad anymore, certainly not bad enough to skip. That’s the true force power that the Star Wars franchise wields right now, the power to command the direction of the cultural zeitgeist and ignore the lines between the light side (a good movie) and the dark (a bad movie). Everyone’s going to see the new Star Wars.
Rogue One is actually a really great movie in one very important way, and that’s that it’s so original-trilogy Star Wars that you almost have to like it. The gear, the artifacts, the smaller and bigger moments are all so unmistakably Star Wars that it’s hard not to feel not only engaged, but warm and cozy with what’s onscreen as it wraps us up in a big comfy blanket. Saw Gerrera, one of the key characters in our adventure, is so obviously a good guy analog of Darth Vader, lost limbs, breathing problems and all, and his use of the Bor Gullet, a nightmarish tentacle monster that reads men’s minds while destroying their sanity, evokes the scenes of casual cruelty back at Jabba’s palace with the rancor or the sarlacc pit. The space battles are among the best in the series and they cleverly make use of unused footage from A New Hope, allowing us to once again see some of that movie’s original X-Wing pilots in a new but era-appropriate setting, and that’s really, really cool because it’s such a great use of pre-existing resources. Things are dirty and grimy and half if not almost entirely used up in Rogue One, people are actively hostile to each other because that’s the environment they live in, with pig-faced people and walrus men seemingly all over the galaxy, people never seem to want to be told the odds, and of course others vocalize their bad feelings about what they’re about to do. I think it was also really smart for Rogue One to finally answer the question of why the Death Star had such a huge vulnerability, and maybe my favourite part of the whole movie is that it makes reference to the Force through characters who are unable to use it, a move that makes the Force more meaningful as an aspect of all life and helps to restore its ephemeral and elusive nature after it had been so indelicately codified in the prequels. There’s so much good stuff in Rogue One that it’s perfectly fine for a certain type of person to feel completely satisfied and maybe even energized after seeing it.
And that person is a Star Wars nerd. That may be a lot of you, maybe even the majority, and in terms of what’s on the screen, Rogue One is nearly flawless, but if you’re not so easily enchanted by such cheap (but highly expensive and technically demanding) tricks, if you’re more of a casual fan, it’s everything that’s not in the movie that becomes the problem, and unfortunately one of the things most missing is one of the most important parts of a good movie: characters. I didn’t care about anybody in Rogue One, starting with Jyn Erso, our main character, who’s defined more by her past and place as the daughter of Galen Erso, the man who built the Death Star, rather than being or becoming the dynamic action hero she needs to be to lead this movie. We learn how she became separated from her father, but we never really see how close they were, we’re told what she’s done since then, but we never see what from her background (growing up as a soldier of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera) truly motivates her, and so she’s just kind of a slightly sullen but slightly plucky character whose work with the Rebels seems more a plot point than a personal turn towards heroism. If we simply had one moment to get a real sense of who Jyn Erso is and why she has good reasons to be who she’s supposed to be, say a scene that actually introduces her in her adulthood rather than just suddenly meeting her in jail, it would be so much easier to get behind her and, really, the rest of the movie. Surprisingly, the rest of our cast fare better in terms of character development, particularly Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, the blind former guardian of the Whills (whatever those are) who acts as the movie’s spiritual centre and the droid K-2S0 who throughout the movie gets to say what we in the audience are all thinking, but without a strong lead character to lead these people through the movie, most of them become more weightless than they should be, and that’s especially problematic since [SPOILER ALERT] we’re supposed to feel mournful when they don’t all survive.
I was also disappointed by the movie’s score, which oftentimes felt underdeveloped, perhaps not a surprise given that Michael Giacchino (who’s worked on just about every sci-fi movie not scored by Hans Zimmer these days) actually had to fill in at the last second for the movie’s original composer. Think of the Han and Leia theme that so effectively assured us in The Force Awakens trailer that Star Wars was back or “The Imperial March” accompanying Darth Vader (and somewhat reused in Rogue One) that let us know that it was actually he who the ultimate evil in the galaxy. In movies like Rogue One, a bold, sweeping score can really smooth out problems like a lack of character development, but something was definitely off with most of Rogue One’s score, and especially for a Star Wars movie, there was a quietness to the music in many scenes that made the movie feel kind of empty. With a character like Director Krennic, our main villain in Rogue One and would-be commander of the Death Star (and I think we all know how that turns out), he never receives anywhere near the same level of majesty from the music in his scenes, and combined with the way he’s constantly undermined by his superiors (or is that overmined?), he comes across as small, sniveling, and petty rather than fearsome or intimidating.
So should I see it?
Honestly, I was disappointed in Rogue One, and I think a lot of that stems from what was in the trailers (including the first one above) and what wasn’t in the actual movie. Those trailers paint a rich picture of who Jyn Erso is despite their limited running time, their scores inject a sense of urgency and desperation and hope and pathos, their images and words stick with us (“the power”), and they ask a question about the cost of this rebellion. It really makes you wonder, as we so often do these days with news of reshoots and the emergence of “Ultimate Editions”, if there’s a better edit of the movie available somewhere.
Rogue One feels more like a successful experiment or a good first try than a real triumph, a movie with obvious appeals but also a piece that shows us there’s more to making a good Star Wars movie than returning to practical effects and not writing about how course, rough, and irritating your characters might find sand. The sheer, nostalgic spectacle on display in Rogue One may be enough to convince you of its quality — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but erase that nostalgia from your appreciation of Rogue One, and the picture changes. The people who will get the most out of Rogue One are Star Wars fans. That much might seem obvious, but it’s not something I would say about last year’s The Force Awakens, which was a much more inviting installment in the series despite its flaws. The Force Awakens invites you in, reminds you of and, for some, even gently introduces you to what makes the Star Wars saga so enduring while Rogue One is a slick, good-looking movie that’s hard to care about. I think more than anything else, I wanted a crashing wave of sadness to wash over me as I watched these heroes pass, their exploits destined to become nothing more than a footnote in the grander adventure as they died unfairly and mostly anonymously to get the Death Star plans to the saga’s real heroes. Those strong, lingering feelings, that deep, undeniable melancholy, are what make movies stick with us far beyond their running time, but I didn’t care about anyone in Rogue One, at least not enough.
Thom’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story final score