Christopher Maher: Welcome to our newest review style – Duel Reviews, in which we write two reviews right back to back for the same film with differing opinions. Since Star Wars is optimistic even when dark I’ll let contributor Brian Russell lead with his glowing review.
Brian Russell: I saw Star Wars in the movie theater in 1977, the way the director intended … glorious 2D celluloid with some new fangled loudspeaker system call “surround sound.” It was awesome. The Empire Strikes Back somehow surpassed the original. Return of the Jedi was fun, and felt like a satisfying conclusion, but in reality was a harbinger of not-so-great things to come in the Star Wars Universe.
When The Force Awakens arrived last year, it looked like the first Star Wars movie directed by a Star Wars fan might give us the movie I had been waiting for since 1983. J.J. Abrams did not disappoint — I loved every minute of the Force Awakens — even the ridiculous recycling of the Death Star. My teenage son’s friend actually said out loud, “Dude, what’s wrong with your dad? He’s acting like a ten-year-old.” I didn’t care — I was giddy.
I have seen The Force Awakens close to ten times, and still love it. But there is a problem: It lives in nostalgia-land. It’s not really its own thing, especially after Han and Chewie show up. Rather than stretching, the movie preys on my sense of past and love of what went before. Maybe Episode VIII will fix that in the Skywalker saga, but for now, director Gareth Edwards has delivered another option.
Rogue One is the prequel I would have liked instead of the BS story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is called upon to help the resistance find her father Galan (Mads Mikkelsen,) chief engineer of the Death Star. He sends a hologram — not unlike Princess Lea’s communication to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the the 1977 film — telling the resistance that he has implanted a weakness in the Death Star. Spoiler: The Death Star Get’s blown up in Episode IV.
The great achievement of Rogue One: While it has the requisite nods, inside jokes, and recognizable spaceships, AND it feels like Star Wars, this film stands on its own. Its narrative is swift, and feels like Star Wars without repeating Star Wars a new hope or the original trilogy. In many ways it makes the 1977 film stronger, giving needed backstory and erasing some of the weaknesses with a more complete narrative.
The story is clear, the action fast and exciting, and the mission has weight — this is important stuff. “The Mission” in action movies often feels contrived to me, and I participate in a lot of very active suspension of disbelief. Not in Rogue One — I believed. This is a make-or-break moment for the rebellion.
Darth Vader is not central, but he is there more than enough to give the people what they want. And if you are a continuity buff, then this story gives you just enough to see Vader transform from from angry, whiny Anakin, to the big dude in Star Wars ‘77. And he gets his best bit of on-screen action in the history of the franchise. The icing on this cake comes as Darth Vader swings that red saber, while force throwing scores of rebels against the walls and ceiling. This is what I always imagined an unleashed Vader might look like.
Lucas’ efforts in the prequels aside, Star Wars is not known for its commentary on the world. But this story has a bit to say about modern politics and the differences between safety & security, and freedom. There is no way the writers could have known what was coming politically with the last election here in the United States, but this story is directly connected to the way Homeland Security has evolved over the last fifteen years. The measures a government takes to protect its citizens directly connects to power, fear, and the story a government wants to sell.
Threats to our freedom don’t rob of us of our rights overnight, but evolve over time until one day we realize we are no longer free. Rogue One shows us what war looks like, how hard it is to regain freedom when lost, and demonstrates clearly that the way a society creates the aforementioned safety and security matters.
I had so much fun in this movie, I don’t really want to mention the imperfections. But here goes. Why, in this high-tech-world of flying space ships and laser-guns, is the data they seek stored on one hard drive locked away in a tower thousands of feet off the ground? And why are the controls to the satellite dish located on a catwalk next to that very same dish a mile in the sky? Have these people never heard of remote control? Do they not have gigabit ethernet? This is kind of like the Kylo Ren/Han Solo catwalk scene in The Force Awakens: Why are there no railings on the catwalk suspended above the bottomless chasm? Whatever.
Another weakness of the movie — and this is a much bigger problem — is that amid all the stuff going on, the characters feel disconnected. I’m not 100% sure I believe these people would be working together in this way — especially Jyn, who goes from not giving a shit about anything, to the catalyst for hope in all the rebellion in a “wait, did I just miss something” moment. They are willing to fight and die for one another, and for a greater cause, but there should be greater personal connection among them.
There are a few notable character standouts among the cast: Alan Tudyk’s K-2So is awesome — funny, engaging and just the robot I didn’t know I needed. And Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus’ (Donnie Yen and Wen Jaing) relationship feels completely authentic. Chirrut gives us our Jedi fix, and this pair give us some of our funniest, and saddest, moments.
Despite the character issues, this story made me believe that some things really are worth fighting for. Rogue One is a worthy Star Wars successor, AND the prequel the original trilogy deserved. These Rogues deliver eight out of ten Death Stars. Go see this movie.
Yoad’s words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFnFr-DOPf8
Padme’s words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1FFVWEQnSM
Christopher Maher: I actually enjoyed a lot of the elements of Rogue One. It was probably the most visually stunning Star Wars we’ve seen to date (The Force Awakens also had some breath taking shots and sets – visuals is something I imagine all new wave Star Wars will nail). The Death Star’s nuke blast ability is used a few times in this movie, and it makes the threat feel, as you said, real. Make or break. Fight or die. The earth literally peels away towards the sky. The atmospheres are great too. Jedha feels like a planet with history (huge fallen statues in the sand comprise the mountain tops) and the walled city holding an ancient Jedi Temple is well designed too.
This was also the first film to give the Empire and Rebellion some semblence of… politics? They’re still vague, but we at least see what an Empire occupied galaxy looks like, which at lights a fire under the butts of the Rebels in general. And we’re shown that the Rebels have got some ends justify the means philosophies of their own, throwing at least some gray into what has previously been a primarily good and evil struggle. Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitiker) also infuses the Rebellion with an extremist counterpoint, though the execution of his character was totally flubbed (we don’t see him actually do anything “extreme” – other characters simply tell us a few times that he is a radical).
Unfortunately, the highlights are eclipsed by a fatal flaw. I can’t care about this struggle if I don’t care about the characters. And boy are these characters flat. Often times when I see an action movie and say stuff along these lines I get “don’t be a snob, it’s an action movie.” But come on. Mad Max: Fury Road has less dialogue, more action, more characters with stronger personalities and character beats. Guardians of the Galaxy could have served as a template for how to build a team. The final battle in Saving Private Ryan has stakes because it is a massacre and I care about what happens to those individual people. This movie only has one of those things.
You mentioned the first major character offense above: the characters don’t have any sort of arcs. This stems from weak introductions (who are they at the beginning) as well as mysterious catalysts for change. When does Jyn Erso change her heart about the rebellion? What would have sparked hope in her? We simply don’t know, so the change feels unearned. There is a scene where Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor doesn’t go through with his orders to assassinate someone… but why? We’ve already seen him kill an informant because it was the right thing to do for the Rebellion if not the moral thing to do (this is probably the only truly strong character introduction, by the way, and gives at least some credence to his speech near the end about how he did some bad stuff). But in the scene where he changes heart, he lines up the guy in his scopes, sits there for a long time, and then doesn’t do it. Why disobey orders now? That is a big question mark for a lot of characters in this film: why are you taking action now, with these specific people.
Even that could be ignored if the characters were better defined and had compelling relationships. Look at Stagecoach, the first real action movie. There are eight characters in that stagecoach. None of them knew each other before, but the stagecoach feels lived in because it weaves an intriguing and memorable social net. We know why each character is in the stagecoach (motivation/backstory). Each character has a foil to bounce off of – someone to highlight their strengths and weakness. The stagecoach feels alive with relationships because each character has wants, likes, dislikes, and motives, as well as an opinion on each other character. They bring out new things in each other in recognizable ways.
Rogue One fails even that simple task. You highlighted Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, and while I think both performances were strong and the characters intriguing in theory, they failed to deliver. Why do they fight the Empire? We are told in one line of dialogue that they used to defend a Jedi Temple (which, again, cool!) but why do they stick their neck out for Jyn all of a sudden? Why now? Why her instead of Saw’s rebels? Did the Force tell them to? And what the hell does anyone else think of them? They hop aboard a ship and just come along for the ride. Cassian never once says anything like: “Sorry your city got blown to shiz” or “Who are you?” or “Why did you get out of the ship and interfere on that planet from Alien?” or “Should we take these strangers to Yavin 4, which is the secret headquarters of the Rebels?” or… etc. What does he think about them? What do they think about him? Hell, why are they loyal to each other? Are they friends? Brothers? Co-workers? Lovers? I could never begin to tell you, and it makes their loyalty to each other as well as their want to fight the Empire and their admiration for Jyn totally empty. It’s orchestrated, and it doesn’t evolve or reveal anything new. It is a static ill-defined relationship which results in static ill-defined characters who feel shoved into doing things because a screenwriter decided they ought to. No matter how good everything else was (and there really were a lot of good things mixed in there) without the basic building blocks, I couldn’t engage. It felt long and boring to me, and I really wanted to like this film.
But I agree about that Vader finale. One of the best sequences in the movie, and in the franchise. Maybe worth seeing it just for that. And the ending of the film showed some sort of integrity, at least, as to the stakes it set up. It followed through, which is impressive, truly, and to be honest the final ten minutes helped redeem the film moderately. Simply not enough. I wonder if it were not Star Wars if I would have liked the film at all.
I give this movie a very reluctant and heavy hearted five death stars out of ten.