I’m writing this review over the course of two days. The first segment is about my expectations and mindset leading into the movie, and the second will be my review of the film. I’ll try not to spoil anything, but know in advance that I consider anything tied to the canon established over the past few decades to be fair game. So, I won’t tell you what happens to character X unless it is relevant to something else I consider highly important.[SPOILERS] is the tag I’ll use to introduce any paragraph containing spoilers.
My Pre-Film outlook
I was a huge Star Wars fanboy. And when I say huge, I mean I played the entire Jedi Knight series as they came out. The first science fiction book I ever owned was Heir of the Empire by Timothy Zahn. I’ve got two different unedited box sets of the original trilogy, and I’ve watched them hundreds of times. I still think Battlefront II is one of the best third-person shooters ever made. My friends and I broke dozens of plastic lightsabers on each other over the years.
However, I am such a fanboy no longer. Sure, I still love all the books I own (read the Darth Bane trilogy – it’s a real treat), but I grew disillusioned with the franchise over the years, mostly at the hands of George Lucas.
Did you know that Boba Fett didn’t always sound like he was from New Zealand (and his original voice is no longer credited on the edited releases)? Did you know that, prior to the abomination that is the 3D Clone Wars series, Dathomir was a planet of force-using humans and not Zabrak like Darth Maul? Did you know that Luke had a wife and a son? Because that’s the Star Wars I grew up on, and it is not the Star Wars of today.
I don’t really expect a lot from this movie for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, the fan-films so far haven’t managed to truly recapture the magic of the original trilogy (I refer to the non-original films as fan-films). We all know the prequel trilogy just didn’t feel right, was poorly written, contradicted the originals in several ways, and raised some technology questions that remain largely unanswered (chiefly why “old” droids were amazing fighting machines and “new” droids go “gonk”). The Force Awakens ripped the majority of its plot straight from the original trilogy, but failed to produce characters of comparable depth and complexity to A New Hope and embraced a trilogy-orientation over a film-orientation (that is, making a movie that is designed to service the follow-on movies instead of making a movie to be tightly contained within itself but with room to grow).
Second, this is Disney we’re talking about. They’ve produced a sequel to pretty much every piece of IP they’ve ever owned, and they continue to milk their existing IP until the last red penny is squeezed out. I don’t expect Rogue One to be anything more than a cash-grab, a stop-gap film designed to appease fans until the next Episode is released.
Third, I’m not convinced the creators have any confidence in their work. Looking at the hype, the majority revolves around the STRONG, EMPOWERED FEMALE PROTAGONIST and the diversity of the cast. Diversity itself is not the issue, nor the female lead, but the fact that these things are supposed to sell us on the film suggests that there’s not something to be more excited about. (Of course, they’re also soft-selling on the presence of Vader. I could get more hyped if I hadn’t seen the prequels and the remaster of Return of the Jedi, where Vader isn’t so much an unreadable menace as a whiny kid who screams “No” whenever he’s not happy.)
And finally, though least significantly for me, there’s the controversy about the writer. Chris Weitz made some political tweets regarding the Empire (the one I saw was “Remember that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization”, followed by Gary Whittia’s reply “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women”) and put the safety-pin on the Rebel logo in his profile (a movement almost universally criticized as stupid and weak). Considering how he was representing the upcoming film at the time, I can only suspect that there will be some relatively heavy-handed preaching in the film. I hate heavy-handed preaching in my entertainment media, but by itself it’s not a dealbreaker.
Frankly, I expect this to be a bad film. Not necessarily a disaster or a “so bad it’s funny” flop, but not something worthy of association with the classics.
Good news: it wasn’t preachy or anything.
Bad news: it wasn’t great. It borderline wasn’t good, in my opinion, but for reasons that confuse me a bit.
No spoilers here, as such.There’s a bit of a WWII vibe to the whole thing, and a bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy vibe, and a bit of a…you know what, it feels like bits of a lot of popular things.
Most of the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, especially if you watched Disney’s last Star Wars outing:
- Girl has a troubled childhood
- Girl becomes greatest warrior evarz (a character in the film basically says this) offscreen
- Girl ends up in the middle of Rebel plans
- Girl is important to somebody for some reason
- Girl knows something nobody believes
- Girl gives great big inspirational speech (Jyn Erso basically makes the Rebellion happen)
- Girl inspires a group of men to go do big thing
- Girl somehow becomes pivotal to the film
- Girl saves the day, falls in love for some reason
Seriously, the movie is all about Jyn. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but she’s the mcguffin for the entire film. Honestly, you could have made the movie without her and only minor emotional aspects of the story (things I didn’t find all that meaningful) have to change.
And while we’re on the subject of Jyn…
Jyn Erso is Rey without the character. And I mean that, truly I do. After thinking long and hard about it, she is less significant to the overall plot than Luke in his T-15 back home. All her merit is in feel-good scenes that don’t really feel that good, and her few action scenes (i.e. where she influences the plot in ANY way) aren’t that believable when we look at her. Seriously, she climbs like 10k feet straight up on a ladder in about a minute – how is that supposed to be believable?
On top of that, we have generic characters. We have generic French good-looking rogue, generic Force-following monk played by Donnie Yen (he did the role well, but it was a weird decision to put that character in the film), generic smart-alek droid there for comic relief a la Marvel, and some other people. You couldn’t do a character synopsis for any of them – they’re meaningless.
Now, one thing that was particularly interesting was the way they wrangled characters that have aged or died into the picture. They found an excellent stand-in for Jan Dodonna (the admiral for the Yavin IV mission in A New Hope) and for Mon Mothma (the general and former senator in Return of the Jedi), who played their roles well and were overall impressive. A+.
But how do you replace someone like Grand Moff Tarkin, and how do you do a stand-in for Leia (considering Carrie Fischer’s still alive and well, but it’s been about 40 years)? Of course, you create a CGI puppet. And they’re so close to good, too, but particularly Tarkin’s character looks like it belongs in a cutscene from a Call of Duty game. There’s something about the way his face moves when he’s acting that just doesn’t fit. And the eyes – something about his eyes just felt doll-like.
But Vader was in it. He was a cameo with about as much screen time and significance as R2-D2 and C-3P0, the bar thugs from A New Hope, or any of the other minor cameos I might have missed. All I’ll say about Vader was he seemed short for some reason.
Now this is where it gets really bad. This movie does not fit in with any of the other films, let alone the expanded universe stuff I obsessed over in my ill-spent youth.
- The vehicles they used are a mixture of things you would expect given it ends at the start of A New Hope (X-Wings, TIE Fighters, AT-ATs, AT-STs, etc.), but there are a few ships that have no prior existence in the series. Why did we not see them before if they were older ships, and why don’t we ever see them again if they’re new? The biggest offenders are TIE Interceptors and Imperial Shuttlecraft that only remotely resemble the ones in Return of the Jedi.
- Vader SEES Leia get away with the stolen plans. He SEES it! So much for a “diplomatic mission” that espionage revealed to be a front.
- Tarkin was completely uninvolved with the Death Star before A New Hope. For that matter, so was Vader. How odd that they seemed to run the place in A New Hope.
- R2 was on Yavin and watched the Armada take off. Leia was in the Armada. How did R2 get to her before A New Hope?
The Force and other Things
Finally, there were some very strange choices throughout the film. For one thing, everyone talks about the Force like it’s an everyday religion, but in A New Hope only a crazy old man in the desert and Darth Vader seemed to believe in it. Given the themes of the film, there was absolutely no reason for The Force to make an appearance except that “it’s a Star Wars film!”
For another thing, I mentioned Donnie Yen’s force-believing, blind, kung fu master monk character earlier. He beats the everloving shit out of dozens of heavily-armored troopers with a stick. A wooden stick. Made of wood. And he sees things with the Force but is unable to otherwise access it, which wouldn’t necessarily be strange if there weren’t so little of that in the movies so far. I guess they refused to have a Jedi but decided they needed one (“because it’s Star Wars”), so they made a very odd work-around.
You know how they never put a name over the planet Tatooine when it first appeared, yet we still knew what planet it was because the script informed us about those things? Rogue One goes with the Guardians of the Galaxy approach and puts the name of each planet and its important plot point up on screen for us, which is somewhat appreciated because otherwise they’d be “the desert planet”, “The rainy blue rocks planet”, and “Palm Springs, Florida” to me. They were just places for things to happen, and there were quite a few of them.
Finally, there were some blatant cameos that seemed to be “hey fans, look at me!” moments. Red 5 dies hilariously. Rogue One inadvertently inspires Rogue Squadron. Those two guys who picked on Luke and Obi-Wan show up and say their iconic line for some reason. R2 and C-3P0 are on Yavin IV and 3P0 says a thing. Vader chokes someone and says something witty. None of it needed to be there, but frankly that can be said for a lot of this film.
The movie had a high budget, and it shows. The movie is beautiful, and it was nice to see Air Force employment of starfighters instead of more naval approaches (well, it was for me, but I’m a bit of a nerd about that sort of thing).
But the movie just didn’t need to exist. It contributes nothing of significance to the overall canon of the films (and it raises some continuity errors that seem inappropriate in a franchise like this). There are no new characters worth knowing about, because they will never be seen again and they had no real personality or character. For decades, we were happy with “someone transmitted the plans and Leia intercepted them”, so it’s not like this fills in any necessary plot holes.