Warning: Lots of spoilers within!
Star Wars: Rogue One came out over the weekend, and the reviews have been mostly very good. Mike and Kat were among those who saw it; and while we don't normally cover movies on this site, we thought we would have a little fun before the holidays? Have your own thoughts? Share them in the comments!
On the Streets
Kat Bailey, Editor in Chief: So as you may know, I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to Star Wars. I was a hardcore fan growing up, and the original movies still have the power to make me smile, but I've found the emphasis on merchandising to be tiring. With Rogue One, though, I decided to leave my cynicism at the door, and I was pleased to find what felt like one of the most "real" takes on the Star Wars universe in quite some time.
Rogue One is the first movie since A New Hope to take us down to the street level, as it were, and really give us a feel for what it's like to live in the slums of the Outer Rim. It gives you a feel for the oppressive reach of the Empire, and it adds texture to the Rebellion, which has to this point been a collection of heroic white guys. It served to refresh the universe for me after the cartoonish prequels and the zippy but one-dimensional Force Awakens. What's your take, Mike?
Mike, News Editor: One thing I enjoyed about Rogue One wasn't just the focus on the rank-and-file of the Rebellion or New Republic. I'm a long-time Expanded Universe fan, so I've had that in the Rogue and Wraith Squadron books. What felt right, and what I wish they explored a little more, was taking some of the shine off of the Rebellion. They are an insurgent force and showing that not every decision was morally good was a smart idea. I also think showing Saw Gerrera's extremism, even briefly, was a win.
The characters in Rogue One are probably its weakest point and that's down to a rough beginning. The Force Awakens was all about the characters; the film wanted you to have an instant connection with Rey and Finn. Once that connection was built, the film is all about showing you how these characters react to the situations in front of them. You enjoy seeing their reactions.
Rogue One is about the mission more than the characters. They're fun, but the intrinsic motivation behind all but Jyn is almost non-existent. They're thrown together and the essential nature of the mission and the futile nature of the fight is what makes Rogue One's final act one of the strongest in the entire franchise.
Kat: I made a point of not following much of the pre-release coverage or the trailers, so I was pretty surprised to see Peter Cushing seemingly alive and well in Rogue One. It was a risky move by the filmmakers, akin to making a CG Gollum a major part of The Lord Rings—poor execution could have ruined the entire film. As it stood, it was largely successful, but there was definitely that element of uncanny valley to Tarkin and Leia. What did you think, Mike?
Mike: Ehhhhhhhh. Digital Tarkin and Leia weren't horrible, but I think they should've been used sparingly. The longer you have the digital character onscreen, the longer you have to come to terms with the fact that things just aren't quite right. We've come a long way since Disney tired to de-age Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, but the technology still need to used with a deft hand. Leia's scene was probably the better of the two ideas.
In contrast, the use of Darth Vader was perfection. You get a quick scene on Mustafar, because of course a Sith Lord is going to stew on the site of his greatest failure. But the ending of the film, which matches up with A New Hope? That's the Vader we rarely get a taste of. Being trapped in a small metal tube with Vader is the definition of fear and that entire scene showed why the galaxy fears him. I don't need a whole movie with just Vader, but more of that please!
Kat: Yeah, I totally agree. Everyone was crying out for Vader to do something amazing in this film, and we definitely got that. I also liked the nod toward Mustafar despite hating Revenge of the Sith. If anything, this whole movie was continuity porn—they even managed to squeeze in Ponda Baba and his sidekick Dr. Cornelius Evazan! (Yes, I had to look up their names).
But getting back to Vader, the only quibble I had with his appearance was that it was the tiniest bit… prequel-y? The CGI was definitely strong with that scene. By contrast, all of the lightsaber scenes in The Force Awakens had a real weight and heft to them. The lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren is my second favorite of the series, right after the big showdown between Luke and Vader in Empire Strikes Back.
Finishing up the CGI discussion, I think it was ultimately successful; but like I said, Tarkin came very close to crossing the line for me. I'm afraid that in a few years it will look hopelessly out of date in a Star Wars prequel sort of way. But hey, if the original series taught us anything, there's always room for a few touch-ups down the line. (Note: I'm being sarcastic, please don't kill me).
Doing Something Different
Mike: There's been a great deal of argument of which "new" Star Wars film is better, but I honestly think that's the wrong way to think about it. Each film does something very well and stumbles in other areas. The Force Awakens was meant to relaunch the universe to the world and make you love these characters who you will continue to follow through a new trilogy. Rogue One shined a light on the people who make the Rebellion. It's as much the stories of those X-Wing pilots or the Rebel soldiers staring down Vader, as it is the story of Jyn Erso and her ragtag band. Every death is important for the tension and emotion of that final act, even the characters whose names you never learn.
As I said earlier, I'm an Expanded Universe fan and something that was present there, given the ongoing release of novels, comics, and games, was a willingness to explore new genres. Star Wars is a specific mix of fantasy and scifi, but there's so much you can do with the universe itself. There's the high-fantasy Flash Gordon feel of the original trilogy and The Force Awakens, but there's also room for Band of Brothers-style films like Rogue One.
What is low-fantasy for Star Wars? What is a heist film? What if you lean harder on the Jedi and the Old Republic in a faux-martial arts film? Is there room for a Stranger Things or Goonies-style feature starring mostly kids? Let's explore the darkest side of universe with a Knights of Ren of Bounty Hunters film.
What The Force Awakens and Rogue One back-to-back show is that Lucasfilm can execute on different tones within the same universe. It opens the Star Wars universe up to endless possibility. I was already excited about annual Star Wars, but knowing that a new trilogy is blazing "classic" Star Wars ground while the spinoffs can explore new facets? That's a great feeling as a fan.
Kat: Rogue One is being billed as a "war movie," but the seeds of Star Wars are still very apparent. True, it's not a roaring adventure film like the original A New Hope, but it does capture a lot of that film's seediness. The early parts in particular are like the cantina scenes writ large.
Personally, this is the Star Wars I've always preferred: The rich and textured setting that feels fantastic and alien but also grounded in its own way. But as you said, Mike, there's also a lot of room for different genres, like martial arts films. Of course, if Final Fantasy has taught us anything, such genre mashups can make a film feel disjointed and inconsistent. But I think Rogue One manages to balance its influences with the source material well.
One area where I do think it falls down, though, is in the pacing. There's a lot of great stuff in this film—I love the bit where everyone is arguing over the war room table in the Rebel base, for example—but too much goes unexplored. And yet, despite that, it feels weirdly rushed in the way that it glosses over major character arcs with quick conversations in hyperspace. It wasn't until the big finale that I felt completely locked in on and clear on the stakes and players on both sides.
And I'll be honest, I wish it really had been a "war film." I wish it had followed rebel soldiers or pilots instead of a band of miscreants. Granted, that ragtag little group was a lot of fun, but there's a lot more material to mine out of the Galactic Civil War than what's been shown on screen so far. I'd like for Disney to get a little more daring and stop leaning on the original trilogy so much.
Mike: I agree, there were missed moments and opportunities that made the earlier part of the film weaker. Jyn has the clear motivation, even if it's ultimately less heroic than the film portrays it: She doesn't believe in the Rebellion, but those Death Star plans getting to the Rebels are the only thing that justifies her parents' death and orphanage. Saw Gerrera is supposed to illustrate extremism, but we don't really see much of that film.
Likewise, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bohdi lack depth they could've otherwise had. Cassian has a moment where he mentions that he's been fighting since he was six, but that's the extent of it. Chirrut and Baze are along for the ride because Baze trusts Chirrut implicitly and Chirrut believes it's the will of the Force. Bohdi defected because Galen gave him a powerful speech or slowly worked him down, we don't know which. As it stands, I felt the same way when our primary cast died as when the rank-and-file died. Outside of that great shot at the end of Scariff.
But most of that is just me going "This could've been better here or stronger there." That doesn't mean what the production team did do was bad.
Rogue One was what I expected for the most part. A war film where everyone dies to ferry a key part of Star Wars lore into A New Hope. Lucasfilm delivered on that and I'm particularly impressed with the fact that they committed. I thought they might take the family-friendly way out and let Jyn and Cassian live at the end, but they held the course. It was bittersweet, but emotional. Two tired people who have given their all and have finally recaptured their humanity in each other, if only to die. And then Vader. So good.