Thoughts on Rogue One [Spoilers]

So I’ve seen Rogue One twice now and think I have some thoughts on it.  

Overall

Rogue One is a nearly perfect Star Wars story.  It’s only drawbacks seem to be random film moments and miscellaneous creative choices and execution.  It is a better made film than The Force Awakens, A New Hope (which isn’t fair – it was the most resource constrained) and, perhaps, Return of the Jedi.  It is perhaps better story telling than The Empire Strikes Back – though not as important as a Star Wars film.  The characters are unique, different, and morally conflicted in a way no other Star Wars film has ever executed.  We were taken to the most worlds in this film than any other.  So while it is perhaps not the Best Star Wars film in story, it is perhaps the best made Star Wars film.  That’s a real achievement.

Copyright Lucasfilm.

The Story

This was supposed to be a very straight-forward, simple story about how the Rebellion recruited Jyn Erso to help them find and steal the Death Star plans.  But the plot was far more complex than this.   What we got was this story wrapped in a narrative about the moral grey-area surrounding the tactics of the Rebellion and its members as well as the back-stabbing politics of The Empire.

One of the best features of Star Wars is that the good guy doesn’t always win.  Sometimes they just survive.  With Rogue One, we got a story about characters who are questionably “good” or “bad”. We have an imperial scientist and cargo ship pilot who go to great lengths to undermine The Empire.  We have a Rebel officer who is willing to commit outright murder to protect the Rebel Alliance.  This is a far more morally complex film that was wrapped in a cohesive story.  This is something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars story before and this artistic experiment worked for me to that end.

From a story-telling standpoint, Rogue One is perhaps the best of any Star Wars film, the only challenger being The Empire Strikes Back. Empire is about as perfect as it gets, but suffers from some continuity issues (how long were Han and Leia running from the Empire and how long was Luke on Degobah training?).  It’s characters were far more interesting though (how do you beat Lando and Yoda?).  Rogue One though takes us through many twists and turns that make sense for the story and for each character.  Even though we *know* how it ends up, we’re constantly questioning if the Rebels will be successful.

The Characters

These characters were unlike any we’ve seen in Star Wars.  They’re flawed and only somewhat likable.  They’re certainly not as fun as Rey, Finn, Poe or even Kylo Ren (they are better than Hux though).

Jyn is tough, but seemingly out of need, not out of nature.  She can certainly fight – she was raised by Saw Gerrera.  But she seemed to be led by a heart and not a hard one.  Overall, though she lacked a drastic character arc. She loved her father and she was going to do what she was going to do and nobody was going to stop her.  And she did.  There lacked a key turning moment for Jyn where she wasn’t just going to walk away.  The destruction of Jedha and losing Saw was probably that moment, but we didn’t really see a shift in her outlook or motivation.  If you’re not going to have a character arc, then I think there should be some type of revelation about the character – a reason *why* they are the way they are that helps the audience understand where she is. But we don’t really get that from Jyn.  It’s ok though.

Cassian doesn’t seem like a killer – which seems intentional.  He seems like someone who has chosen to kill for the Rebellion because of what the Rebellion is trying to accomplish.  It’s a choice not a character.  He follows orders… until he can’t.  He constantly tries to do the right thing even if it means killing an informant.2016-10-13-39

Bodhi I think had the most character of any of the Rebels.  He has to go through many different emotional states – fear, anxiety, determination.  He seemed reluctant about things, but also was the one who made concrete choices about his actions in front of the audience.

Baze and Chirrut were awesome characters who I think really furthered the Jedi lore.  Their being Guardians of the Whills and protectors of the Jedi temple raise a lot of questions about how the Jedi are/were thought of about the Galaxy.  They reinforce that the there are no more Jedi.  Baze has lost his faith and considered Chirrut a fool for maintaining his.  But their bond seemed unbreakable and they fought along Jyn out of respect for her and in response for losing their home.

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I think Saw Gerrera was my favorite character of this film.  While the Rebels are unique an interesting, Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Saw Gerrera was a bit frightening.  He seemed strong when we meet him saving Jyn at the beginning of the film.  He seemed undone and paranoid when we meet him on Jedha.  His mannerisms, expressions, and delivery all just worked to sell me on him being someone harmful and perhaps distrustful (he seemed very close to his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of scotland).  His line where he questions Jyn on if she was sent to kill him told me that the writers of this film were paying attention to these characters and their motivations.  It really set the tone for me.

K-2SO was just hilarious and touching.  His humor was right on point – that seemingly unexpectedly snarky for something made by the Empire.

The Rebels

Rogue One gave us our first glimpse of the Alliance Council and a bit about how it “worked”.  Though we saw a more cohesive intelligentsia at the outset of the Alliance (assuming the deleted scenes from Episode III are kinda Canon).  But we get to see a Rebel group that was fearful.  They had only recently assembled their disparate forces diverge greatly on their course of action when faced with the Death Star.  Half wanted to disband and surrender.  The other half wanted to fight.  They only wanted to act unanimously – an apparent form of political dysfunction (that matters post-Return of the Jedi).

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Perhaps the most interesting Rebel is General Draven.  He seems more extreme than his superiors in his command.  We see him undermine(?) the orders of Mon Mothma to Cassian instead saying he should shoot Galen Erso on site.  His behavior seems closer to that of an Imperial than we feel comfortable.  He isn’t even apologetic when confronted with Jyn’s information about her father’s message and the ramification of his death at the hands of the Rebel fleet.  Cassian seemed to understand this dysfunction.

Copyright Lucas

This just isn’t what I’d expected from the Rebellion.

But through this dysfunction, they’re effective.  They got Jyn out of jail pretty readily after just a few points of intelligence. They executed the plan to reach Saw Gerrera pretty quickly and effectively.  They organized a strike on Eadu pretty quickly as well.  So even with all this dysfunction, they can execute and be resourceful.

The Empire

Similarly, we get a glimpse into how The Empire does power grabs.  The entire focus of Krennic’s character was to gain favor in the eyes of the Emperor.  He succeeds in getting the Death Star’s weapon completed with the input of Galen Erso.  But his tactics were undermined by someone as lowly as a cargo pilot.  These kinds of slip ups aren’t tolerated and left him open to a political coup by Governor Tarkin.  If you’ve read Catalyst (no spoiler review here; spoilers here) you get a much better view into Krennic’s machinations.  Ultimately, though his primary success was manipulating Galen Erso.  When the weapon was finished, ultimately so was Krennic as far as his ambitions went.  Vader warned him as such.

Copyright Lucasfilm

I was really surprised by how much of a role Tarkin plays in this film.  It raises a lot of questions as to what is possible with deceased actors (Peter Cushing who played Tarkin in Episode IV died in August of 1994).  The CGI recreation of him was fantastic.  It wasn’t perfect – the human eye can catch subtleties that the technology has yet to perfect.  But it was extremely good and it was clear that Tarkin was in this film in a big way.  That was a surprise, but this film probably wouldn’t have worked without Tarkin.

I think my favorite characterization of the Empire is the Storm Troopers.  One of my favorite moments is when Jyn is on the transport on the prison planet Wobani, we see her look over at the guard Storm Troopers and you just see dirt and grit all over their helmets.  That speaks volumes as to what living in the Empire is like, even for the Imperials.

The Revelation

Another hall mark of Star Wars films is some significant revelation.  For Episode 4 it was that Luke could be a Jedi.  For Episode 5, it was that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  For Episode 6, it was Leia being Luke’s sister.  In Episode 7 it was that Kylo Ren was Han and Leia’s child (and maybe that Rey is Force sensitive).  In Rogue One, the revelation that Galen Erso built a weakness into the Death Star such that a small explosion could trigger the destruction of the station.  That was always a bit of a sticking point with A New Hope and this revelation adds some great texture to that story.

Squadron Up

We had some of the best X-Wing battles in this film.  The space battle above Scarif is, I think, second only to Return of the Jedi (hard to beat the scale and scope of that battle).  We got to see a LOT of TIE vs X-Wings.  We saw a Red 5 die, leaving this call sign available a new rebel pilot to pick up, say, a week later (whisper… Luke Skywalker is Red 5).  We see a blue squadron which leads the strike on Scarif (and mostly die indicating why they’re not really around for Episode IV).

Characters from All Over

I think some of my favorite parts of this film is that it included characters that we’ve seen in other Star Wars media.  Saw Gerrera came right out of The Clone Wars (and a quick mention in Season 2 of Rebels and rumored to appear in Season 3).  The Hammerhead cruisers we see in Season 2 of Rebels play a big role in the battle over Scarif.  Jimmie Smitts reprised his role of Bail Organa who he played in Episodes II and III.  Bail Organa also appears in Rebels Season 1.  This was a big Star Wars fest and it was great to see the continuity of characters across the various forms of media.

Fan Service

Even the fan service and easter eggs were done all in support of the overall story.  We got a shot of blue milk in the opening scene.  We have a run-in with Dr. Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba on Jedha.  We get a glimpse of Chopper from Rebels on Yavin 4, we see a very Ghost-looking ship in the Rebel fleet above Scarif. We got a mention of the “Guardians of the Whills”.  We see Red Leader and Gold Leader check in during the battle of Scarif. We even got a rather gratuitous shot of Vader’s castle on Mustafar.  There are many many more.  And they all worked.  There was nothing that stopped the action or seemed shoe-horned in. Everything felt realistic to the story at hand.

The Effects

This film is beautiful.  It has a defined visual quality that is unique to this film and it really works for me.  We’re taken to many worlds – something a bit lacking in the Original trilogy where we only see 3 or 4 places).  We get some unique visuals in the space sequences.  We see many different types of ships.  The street scapes in Jedha and the Ring of Kafrene (the asteroid city) were just fantastic.  The diversity of people and species were visually striking and unique.  They seem like what George Lucas was shooting for Mos Eisley and just didn’t quite get.

And there was a lot.  The volume of places and scenes was deceivingly immense.  I recall hearing the Phantom Menace being promoted as being visually dense with the number of effects being done for it.  While Rogue One doesn’t layer it on like in TPM (thankfully), there is a depth of texture and quality to everything that just feels real and meaningful.

The Score

If there’s anything that I’ve seen the most hate about it’s the score for this film.  It’s not great, but it’s not bad either.  If John Williams is an A+ (though I thought The Force Awakens was weak), this was a solid B+ and maybe an A-.  I think it will take time to grow on me.  I mean, even the Prequels gave us a fantastic score to go along with rather bad storytelling.

This Isn’t the Story we were Expecting

Given the sharp differences between the first trailers and the finished product, this final Rogue One film seems to have been changed quite a lot.  I’d say it’s for the better.  I’ll probably write more about this later, but it’s clear that the original plot was mangled in a way to add complexity and richness in the early stages and simplicity in the later stages.  It does mean, though, that there’s a mostly finished version of Rogue One out there that’s quite different than the finished one.  And I’d like to see it.

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Other things that were awsome

  • The last scene with Vader is just unreal.  It’s what we always knew Vader had done, but had never seen it.  It’s marvelous.
  • Watching Episode IV now feels different.  It makes the actual destruction of the Death Star have so much more meaning when we see all the sacrafices and precarious situations that had to take place in order to get those plans back to the Rebellion.  Vader very nearly gets those plans and they were only just out of his reach.  And who happens to end up with those plans… Kenobi.  Ep4 just has more meaning because we have much better context about everything that happens.
  • Death Troopers were awesome and woefully underutilized.  It’s not quite clear why nobody else got them in the original trilogy or why Vader didn’t have his own super troopers. But fine.
  • The Walkers on Scarif seemed much more menacing than seeing them in the battle of Hoth.
  • Vader’s castle on Mustafar was pretty cool and heavily utilized early Ralph McQuarrie concept art.
  • The Death Star had much more visual intrigue.  We got to see it in a few different environments and got to see it angle to aim its primary weapon.  We also see its destructive power, though less than what it’s capable of.

Things that I kinda didn’t like.

  • I didn’t particularly care for the giant lie-detecting slug monster in Saw Gerrera’s dungeon.  I get it – Star Wars needs a creature.  We’ve had the Dianoga, Wompa, Rancor, Sarlaac, and Rathtars.  This slug monster didn’t do it for me.  I’d, perhaps, feel differently had we learned if it said Bodhi was lying or telling the truth and seen Saw’s reaction.  But we didn’t – it just seemed weird and unnecessary.
  • They should have included more female characters.  There’s a lot of outrage about this among the fan community and I think it’s warrented.  For me there was a lot of diversity to appreciate: the main character was female; the primary supporting character (Cassian) was played by a latino.  There were black people with actual lines;  There were several female rebel pilots (I counted 3 in my last viewing);  I suspect that one of the Imperials who played an small but important role was a famale actress as well.  Those are all good things. But going from glass empty to glass half-full seems like a choice rather than some normative coincidence of yesteryear.  There were lots of opportunities for female characters – Bodhi Rook; Director Krennic; Admiral Raddus; More Rebel pilots; A couple of Saw Gerrera’s crew; One more of the Rebel Senators; Rebel Soliders;  Lucasfilm didn’t take these opportunities and that’s kinda blah.  But I don’t think it should be considered a step backwards but rather a missed opportunity (I might write more about this later).
  • No opening crawl kinda sucks, but it was the right decision.  However, the prologue of Galen being taken by Krennic was very entertaining and was, perhaps, more effective than a crawl.  A proper crawl would have articulated, perhaps, the first 15 minutes of the film.  Given that Rogue One itself is just a film articulating the first two paragraphs of the opening crawl to Episode IV, I think it’s ok to leave out a crawl.  But it was very noticeable that something was missing.
  • I thought the shot of the Star Destroyer crashing into the second Star Destroyer didn’t quite work.  It looked like two models being rammed together in a film room.  It’s visually interesting certainly, but it didn’t seem “real”.
  • Vader’s neck stuck out.  In Episode IV, in the scenes on Princess Leia’s ship, Vader’s cape had a short chain that went across his neck. In other points in the film it is tucked under his helmet.   In Rogue One, his cape was tucked  under his helmet and his helmet kinda stuck out a bit.  It looked bad.  That seems like a really bad oversight in the shooting.  It could have been the angles that Vader was shot.  It could have been the wardrobe.  But it wasn’t good.
  • That Rogue One font was pretty awful too.  The Star Wars logo & related font is pretty iconic.  To have all the creative genius at Disney/Lucasfilm’s disposal and only come up with that title screen font is a huge disappointment.
  • The CGI Princess Leia looked fine, but I think showing her with a kind of halo shot wasn’t the right artistic choice.  I think something less direct and more subtle and emotional would have been better. It’s not clear she was even needed, but I’m glad that she was.  But it worked.
  • Rogue One doesn’t leave us with a lot of unanswered questions.  This isn’t really bad but it bears mentioning.  What really makes Star Wars films captivating is that they tend to raise more questions than they answer.  Take TFA for instance: who is Snoke?  Who are Rey’s parents? Why did they leave her on Jakku?  Who are the Knights of Ren? Where did Maz get Luke’s light saber?  So many questions that leave us wondering.  We don’t get that from Rogue One and that’s a bit of a let down.
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