REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

Warning:  There will be lots of spoilers.

When I reviewed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, it may have seemed to some that I did it with a gleeful cynicism and happy animosity that probably annoyed and angered a lot of fans of the space opera.  It was a scathing review, to be sure, but in my opinion, the film deserved every word of vituperative criticism I gave it.  I literally came home from the theater enraged that I should have wasted a matinée ticket price for something that I thought was put together so sloppily, and felt compelled to write the review straight off.  That so many people were saying the film was great only added fuel to the fire.  How could the generous portion of plot holes and defects JJ Abrams served up for consumption go unnoticed by so many when the box office called them to dinner?

One should remember that I am a Star Wars fan, and part of the emotional response to “Force” was that Abrams’s treatment of the continuing saga seemed so disrespectful to what had come before it in my opinion.  Then and now, my feelings about Star Wars in general remain the same:  I want the Star Wars universe to continue to exist, and I want it to expand… but only if what’s newly-birthed is not going to be dead on arrival.

Now comes “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, and as I write this, I am debating what to say about it.  That I saw it on New Year’s Eve afforded me a few moments away from the film afterwards as my wife (who also so the film) and I, took some time to set off some fireworks and have some popcorn before I sat down to write.  I had hoped that with the small degree of separation from the movie I would come to like “Rogue One” a little more fondly, but regrettably, I cannot say that it was a perfect film, certainly not a great film, and possibly not even a good film.  And as with “Force,” the reasons for my lack of festivity with regard to “Rogue’s” arrival are due to what I see as plot holes, continuity flaws, clichés, tropes, weak characterization, and reserved use of important and favorite characters.  Yet, setting these problems aside, the film does have redeeming qualities enough to prevent me from berating it as harshly as I did “Force.”

In defense of the film itself, it has one strike against it that is not its fault, and that is that it is telling the story of what happened before “A New Hope”, and whenever a prequel is done after the originals, there will be limitations.  There is a possibility that books thought to be canon also tell part of the story of “Rogue,” but I could care less about these books.  I have the first three Star Wars comic books ever issued, and event these are not 100% loyal to “A New Hope.” But despite the limitations that may or may not bind the basic plot, I feel what’s lacking the most is George Lucas’s influence.  Though the film legitimately aspires to attain the same level of interest, intrigue, and enjoyability of “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back”, and “Return of the Jedi”, it falls short in terms of the kind of originality Lucas brought to those films.  Then again, it’s been said that Lucas’ hands were too ham-fisted in the three prequels which tell the story of Darth Vader’s ascendance to power, and this may have been what caused those films to be seen as too political for some.  So perhaps I am wrong about wishing for Lucas to have some say in “Rogue’s” plot and execution.

My hopes for the franchise overall are increased, however, by director Gareth Edwards’ efforts.  I believe he comes closer than Abrams did to providing the “feel” that is associated with, and conveyed, in the original three films. This happens from the first frame of action.  Gone is the grittiness that we see in “Force.”  I can believe that the various worlds we see in the back stories for what will become the main characters of this film belong in the Star Wars universe, and so I can more easily step into the film with the characters… at first.

However, the problems with the movie do start the moment the previews of coming attractions end.  The film begins with a weak sound score by Michael Giacchino, and no rolling narrative explaining what’s happened up to this point in the saga.  Instead, the film falls into a familiar pitfall that happens whenever the “show, don’t tell” rule backfires.  The writers (Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel) and director have us learn the history of the plot and characters we are being introduced to by watching what happens.

As a result –and my wife felt this also- there is a bit of confusion at the beginning as to where the film is headed despite fans of the movie knowing where it will end.  Ironically, I believe the cause of this may be the writers’ desire to stay faithful to the Star Wars trope that it is fate and destiny which brings us all together, and that sometimes destiny is accomplished only when all vectors converge in exactly the right alignment to make the outcome the favorable one for all.

Still, the manner in which these back stories are fleshed out is somewhat rushed and confusing.  In the original Doctor Who, there is an episode called “The Five Doctors” in which the first five doctors and their companions are all brought together to face old enemies.  The way in which this happens was somewhat mysterious, but not puzzling, yet done quickly, in maybe ten minutes or so, with the remainder of the hour and a half long program devoted to the action.  In “Rogue One”, we are still trying to figure out who these people are and what significance they have in the story as the story moves on regardless.  This is discouraging, and a bad omen for anyone who has never seen the rest of the Star Wars films.  If they see this movie, they may be put off from seeing any other, because it might worry them that they’ll have to try and make sense of a kind of slipshod mythology that precedes each movie.

I suppose my gripe is that, given that just about all of these characters die in the end, is there any point in learning where they came from?  If the idea was to increase the pathos we feel when these characters die, I can understand this ploy.  It’s been done before by many writers and directors in many movies, but as with Han Solo’s death in “Force,” which almost seems offhanded in its happening, I find myself caring only for the loss of two characters and one ‘drioid at the end of the movie.

I’m not going to get into the back stories except to point out significant flaws in one of them, because as I have stated, the back stories seem irrelevant in importance once the plot starts up and gets rolling in earnest.  But, in the beginning, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist, is hiding from the Empire.   He’s the scientist who has invented the energy weapon housed within the Death Star, and has somehow escaped when work on the project is not quite complete.  Now, he is posing as a farmer on the planet Lah’mu.

This in itself is silly.  Every moment you sow, plant, reap, and sell, you are exposing yourself to the outside world.  While I appreciate that he and his family need an income to sustain themselves, surely there is a better alternative for a profession.  Another thing that irks the viewer is that he, like Uncle Owen in “A New Hope”, is now a farmer on a remote planet.  So already we get the idea that this movie has been, like a line of cars, built off of one chassis, and rolled off an assembly line, and we hope that this won’t be the way it is with the whole movie.

When representatives from the Empire come for Erso, he, his wife, and his daughter split up according to a prearranged plan. His daughter, Jyn (as an adult played by Felicity Jones), is very young, and being a parent myself, I’d have to say that in order to train a child to go into hiding in response to a situation like this, it would take a lot of drilling.  Extrapolating from this, the three family members would have to work in unison to ensure that everything would go right should there be a need to actually use this plan.  While we can believe that the young girl will fudge a little, it’s harder to believe that Galen’s wife Lyra (Valene Kane) would deviate from the plan and attempt –with a single blaster, on the spur of the moment- to rescue her husband from more than a dozen armed military personnel.  Prior to her killing, and just afterwards, there is a tense moment when we almost believe that Galen will pull off some kind of intricate defensive ploy, but it never happens.

Jyn sees her mother killed and Galen taken away, and this becomes her motivation for everything she does later on with regard to the Empire.

And here, so early in the movie, was where I began to lose patience, because what we are witnessing is no different from Luke Skywalker coming across his dead Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and using that as his reason to fight against the Empire.  Further to the point –as the film progresses- I found myself –as with “Force”- feeling that Annikan Skywalker’s life was not tragic enough for him to turn to the Dark Side when compared with Luke’s or Jyn’s motivations.

Thus this prequel, which seems to be a sinking ship, in some ways, torpedoes the other movies in the series.

Let us remember that the only thing that absolutely needs to happen in this movie is for the plans to the Death Star to be stolen.  Other than that, the movie can do anything it wants.  But rather than be inventive, we’re stuck with a story we’ve already seen before, and one that seems to disrespect many of the other movies.

At any rate, time passes, things not worth mentioning happen, and just before everyone comes together, a grown-up Jyn, and a character named Cassian (Diego Luna) are wandering around the capital city on Jedha, trying to find the rebels there.  They have left a turncoat Imperial droid -K-2SO- back at their ship as they search for the rebels.  Before they reach Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the rebel unit on this planet, and coincidentally, the same person who saved Jyn when she was a child, they face a few skirmishes with some Storm Troopers.

In watching these battles, where we see what looks like an Imperial battle tank, my mind drew comparisons from this scene to the last few scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hanks and the remainders of his unit hook up with another group of soldiers to try and stave off the Germans, whose goal is to take and hold a bridge in the city where the Americans are holed up.  But we don’t see such an epic and honorable battle here.  Instead, we see Storm Troopers shot up and shot down with ease, and when K-2SO abandons the ship and steps into the fray, things get worse.  This ‘droid is able to knock down the Storm Troopers like bowling pins.  My feeling is that for those who had never seen any of the other Star War movies, they would come away from “Rogue” –if they left at this point, anyway- with no reason to fear Storm Troopers -or the Empire- in any other movie, because Storm Troopers as depicted here are little more than comic relief, and if they are representative of the Empire’s military forces, then the Empire is not a power to be feared.

When Jyn meets up with Gerrera, she gets to view a hologram of her father, Galen.  This hologram was brought to the rebels by someone from the Empire who defected.  The hologram explains that for the past decade or so, Galen has been working with the Empire to develop the main weapon aboard the Death Star, delaying its progress as much as possible in the hopes that the Empire, or at least the project, could be vanquished or sabotaged in the meantime.  Did Galen bother to send the plans with the hologram?  Of course not.  Perhaps he didn’t do it because it would have been too dangerous to copy and send the plans. Perhaps he didn’t do it because he didn’t have the time to copy the plans in the first place.  Perhaps he didn’t do it because it was too logical for him to consider doing it.  Perhaps he didn’t do it because it would have shortened the movie.  We don’t know.

Now, in my review of “Force,” I wrote “But the first thing that comes to mind is a question:  Why does The First Order even exist? With the members of the rebellion having blown up the last Death Star in ‘Return of the Jedi’, did they not go after the remnants of the Empire and get rid of them? And since this movie happens 30 years after ‘Return’, one wonders what the resistance has been doing all this time if they haven’t been doing that. This question arises a second time later on when we discover that an even bigger weapon than anything we’ve seen before exists, a whole planet that houses a canon capable of destroying multiple planets at once. Didn’t the resistance think it might be advantageous to destroy this weapon before it became operational? Apparently not.”

In “Rogue,” the question comes up yet again.  We know the Death Star is in development before Galen is taken away by the Empire to resume work on the weapon, and for as many as ten years the Death Star is under construction, and the rebels do nothing to destroy it, instead waiting until the Death Star is finished and with a shield around it before commencing their assault.  To be sure, in a later scene, an attempt to provide an explanation for this missed opportunity arises.  When all the rebel factions convene and vote on whether or not to steal the plans for the Death Star, the vote turns out to be negative.  It’s too risky, they say.  But what have they been doing for all these years up until now?  One would have thought that from the moment anything was discovered about the Death Star, there would have been some convention about what to do.  But all this time, nothing has happened.

Back on Jedha, and long before that vote happens, Jyn and Gerrera have a brief let’s get re-acquainted session.  [I should say at this point that Forest Whitaker is one of my favorite actors, but the directors or writers elected to make him a bit crazed, perhaps using his ptosis to enhance his inexplicable and randomly portrayed madness.]  Then the Empire uses the Death Star to destroy Jedha’s capital city, but in a dumb way.  Rather than hitting the city directly, they opt to project their giant laser blast in the nearby dessert and cause an explosion there, which travels toward the city swiftly, but not swift enough for Cassian and Jyn to escape with K-2SO in their spacecraft.

They escape specifically by switching to hyperdrive while still in the planet’s atmosphere as the debris from the explosion is about to overwhelm their craft.  [REMEMBER THIS LITTLE FACT FOR LATER.]

Now, I’m going to step away from the plot for a minute to compliment one aspect of this movie.

As with most of the other films, there is a lot of jumping between what’s going on on the rebels’ side and what’s happening on the Empire’s side.  Up until this point, we’ve been seeing a lot of scenes on the Empire’s side with Grand Moff Tarkin in them that I haven’t been mentioning.  In “A New Hope” Tarkin was played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994.  Yet here in “Rogue” we see Peter Cushing standing before us in so many scenes, looking like himself, moving like himself, acting like himself, and sounding like himself –except it wasn’t Cushing.

At first I thought it was footage from “A New Hope” that had been left on the cutting room floor which had been digitally re-mastered and integrated into “Rogue One.”  But as the movie went on, I thought “That’s a lot of footage that was cut.”  And soon it became apparent that it could not possibly all be leftovers from the other film.  I understand now that none of it was.  Evidently, Cushing’s estate gave permission for the makers of the film to put a likeness of his face on the body of an actor (Guy Henry).  I must say that to date, I have never seen such good CGI, and later in the movie, similar CGI happens again with another character.

There were other familiar faces in “Rogue” who had made appearances in other chapters of the saga, the most notable being Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous).

Vader’s role and impact was paradoxical.  James Earl Jones’ voice is every bit as frightening as it always was, and I couldn’t help but feel delight as he threatened and destroyed various members of the cast.  However, I could not get petulant Annakin’s petty motivations out of my head, and found it had to believe that Annakin should have matured into Vader.  In my mind, I almost see Vader as a separate person entirely.  I also could not help comparing the feeling of sheer terror Vader evoked in his minions with Kylo Ren’s pathetic attempt at leadership in “Force.”  One gets the idea that Ren is playing it being in charge.  He’s just a tantrummy wimp.

Another problem is that I felt the movie up until the point could have benefited from Vader’s presence throughout it.  I understand the need for characters to cut their own gouge into the saga’s history, but seeing as the majority of the ones in this movie die at the end, couldn’t this film have been as much a continuation of Vader’s story as a telling of the other characters’?

But getting back on track here, Vader is upset.  Apparently the majority of the carnage to Jedha was caused by a mining accident, not the Death Star, and he wants development of the Death Star put back on track immediately.

From this point onward, there is very little that needs telling until almost the very end.

Apparently, the secret plans to the Death Star –along with all kinds of files of supreme importance to the Empire- are kept in a building on the planet Scarif, which is, of course, protected by a shield, and also by a paltry number of Star Destroyers.  You’d think, given the importance of the installation, that the planet would be more heavily guarded, and you’d think, after the Empire’s defeat in the battle that ensues, that they would provide heavier security on Endor in “Return of the Jedi,” but whatever.

And so, again, we as movie-goers are resigned to sit through a rehash of what we have seen already in so many other Star Wars movies.  A big battle where a shield has to be lowered so that something big can get blown up.  The only thing of interest at in this particular experience is seeing what it is going to get blown up and how they are going to do it, and once you find that out, you might as well leave the theater.

I say this because in so many different ways, the closing scenes of “Rogue” are botched, thanks to a lack of imagination from the writers, and thanks to poor script editing.

As in “Return of the Jedi”, a small group of rebels sneaks onto the planet via an Imperial shuttle which has the necessary codes that will cause the Empire not to be suspicious of them.  Upon arrival, Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO sneak into the building were the files are kept to steal the Death Star plans.  The other rebels who have come with them cause disturbances near the building to deceive the Imperials from the real reason for the mission, and to draw, and divert, distract the Imperial troops from where the mission is going to go down in earnest.

In the battle that ensues, we see some of the most memorable and dumbest battle scenes in the movie.  I very much enjoyed seeing the Imperial walkers in action on what is in essence a giant beach, complete with palm trees, but I could not suspend my disbelief as the X-wings took them out with ease.  In “The Empire Strikes Back”, didn’t Luke and his buddies have to resort to using harpoons and tow cables to trip the walkers because the X-wings’ energy weapons had no effect on the walkers?

I could not suspend my disbelief again as a rebel ship rams an Imperial Star Destroyer and pushes it into another Star Destroyer that’s sitting next to it.  Accomplishing this feat takes a few minutes during which the Star Destroyer that’s about to get hit takes evasive action and tries to move out of the way.  But let’s remember that this ship is already in outer orbit and can simply go into hyperspace as Jyn’s ship did back on Jehda.  Instead, the one ship is pushed into the other, and both ships are destroyed, and we have no explanation for why the hyperspace escape isn’t thought of or used.

The remnants of one of those two ships plunges into the “doorway” in the protective shield (just like a Star Destroyer smashes into the Death Star in “Return,”) thereby shutting the shield down, enabling Jyn to transmit the Death Star plans to the rebel fleet.

What’s worse is that the Star Destroyers did nothing during the space portion of the battle, and neither did the major ships in the rebel fleet up until the ramming of one vessel into the other.  Rather, the battle was executed like a gang fight, with everyone pulling into a parking lot in their cars, with one gang parking on one side of the parking lot, and the other gang parking on the other, and everyone pouring out of the cars to enter the fray.  Except that in the movie, it was X-wing fighters against TIE-fighters.  Heck, in real wars, there are tank battles.  I’ve never heard of tanks pulling up to face each other, and the tank crews getting out of the tanks to fire at one another with rifles.

Now if all that action sounds exciting, I can say that it certainly looked exciting, but the unbelievability of the plot screwed things up for me as already stated, and multiple other times.  Here are other points that had me shaking my head:

  • While the main action is going on, different groups of rebels are in communication with one another, telling everyone what to do and where to go, and somehow –as in all the other movies- the Empire is unable to intercept any of these transmissions.
  • Jyn was realigning a dish on top of the tower in order to send the plans via transmission to the rebel fleet. But does anyone on the entire base think to blow up the dish before she succeeds? After the plans are transmitted, Jyn, having no idea whether or not the plans are received, or whether the rebel fleet will survive the battle that is taking place, leaves the disk with the plans in the transmission module.
  • And when Jyn encounters Krennic, (Ben Mendelsohn), who is in charge of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military, she tells him that her father, Galen, has built a flaw into the Death Star’s systems which will enable the rebels to destroy it. She even tells him what and where this flaw is, knowing that all he needs to do is kill her, and then fix the flaw in the system, thereby denying the rebels their victory.

During this battle, three characters that I actually care about die.  K-2SO, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus).  Why have I not mentioned the latter two characters up until this point?  Because though they command a strong screen presence, the writers, or maybe the director, use(s) them only in a weak secondary capacity.  They are foils for other characters, and one wishes they would have been used more.

The movie wraps up with Vader wreaking havoc on Princess Leia’s ship, and we get a brief glimpse of the CGI’d Leia before the credits roll.

I gave “Force” two and a half stars, and in looking back on it in comparison with this movie, my rating was generous, because “Rogue One” probably deserves three stars max.  I do afford it the credit it deserves for the CGI.  I believe the absence of Jar Jar Binks humor was pleasant.  There were some good action scenes.  But setting these aspects of the movie aside, it’s still shoddily put together plot-wise, has a number of continuity flaws (e.g. the inexplicable invincibility of the X-wings against the walkers in this movie and the invincibility of the walkers against the X-wings in “Empire”), and takes more away from the overarching space opera than it gives for all the reasons cited in this review.  As a standalone movie, I’d also consider it a disappointment, the convoluted beginning being confusing for those few people who had never seen a Star Wars movie, and Vader’s appearance being under-utilized, thus making him almost a secondary villain to other Imperial characters.

Thomas D. Taylor

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