Monday, December 19, 2016

Star Wars Watch: Rogue One - a Star Wars Story (2016)

When those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy thought of what might happen in the long-awaited prequels, I strongly suspect most of us expected something a bit more like Rogue One (2016).   We'd only received glimpses of the pre-Luke Skywalker past, embedded in the story we'd heard about the Clone Wars, an Anakin Skywalker who was supposed to be some sort of edgy fighter pilot who becomes a Jedi...  I was expecting three movies that took place against the backdrop of The Clone Wars, which always sounded pretty rough, at least in my head.

I'd also observe - Much as the superhero comics we read grew up with us, I think maybe I was expecting a Star Wars that acknowledged the conflict from which Episode IV sprang and maybe cut a little deeper - maybe had a bit of a rough and tumble edge that Ewok-laden finales may have foregone.

So, I think it's true that the content and execution of the three Prequel films surprised a lot of us.

Rogue One, the second of these films directed by the generation that grew up on them, expands upon what we know, creating far less continuity difficulty than Lucas introduced in the Prequels, brings back familiar sights and sounds, while filling in gaps and giving us all new adventures and characters.  In this, I think you can say it succeeds with a solid A-, B+ (I spotted an issue or two, and my pal Matt brought one up I thought actually a pretty salient point).

That's not to say Rogue One hits all the right notes or was exactly what I was expecting (it wasn't).   It's interesting to see Disney seeking to expand upon the seemingly vast universe Star Wars always promised, but which we could only visit in 150 minute increments.  Here, they risk tonal differences, deliver only bits of familiar characters and try something a little uncomfortable, and, for the most part, they succeed.

This is the first Star Wars film not centered on the Skywalker family, broadening the scope to give us an idea as to how things were going out there in the period immediately leading up to Star Wars: Episode IV.  Our characters have lived in the twilight world between Anakin Skywalker's fall and Darth Vader boarding a Rebel Blockade Runner, and things are coming to a head in the galaxy as the Emperor begins tightening his grip.

Desperation is driving people to extremes, a conscience is a major liability if you want to keep breathing, and even the "good guys" tend to have to do very bad things in a guerrilla war against the recognized government.

A scientist who was helping build the Death Star has left the Empire - disappearing to a backwater wasteland to live in peace when the Empire comes to reclaim him.  His daughter, Jyn Erso, escapes, and, flash forward, she's now a 20-something (now played by Felicity Jones), forced into labor by the Empire as payment for some petty crime.  She's liberated by the Rebels or the Alliance (it's not clear they've even settled on a name), who need for her to make contact with the man who raised her (Forest Whitaker) - a man considered an extremist by even the same Rebellion that seems okey-dokey with employing assassins and whatnot.  Meanwhile, Director Krennic is trying to bring the Death Star online, and seeks recognition from the Emperor and Darth Vader, seeing Grand Moff Tarkin moving in on his territory and likely to take the task of managing the Death Star away.

I'm realizing I don't want to tell too much of the story lest I spoil it, but Jyn falls in with a shady Rebel operator, his robot buddy, a blind martial artist and his heavy-weaponry-toting pal, and a former Imperial pilot.  All that you saw in the trailers.

The picture painted is bleak.  The Empire isn't shy about throwing its weight around, exploiting whole worlds for the advancement of the Emperor's causes - so, obviously, strong-arming a scientist into helping them build a weapon isn't really something to keep them up at night.  Meanwhile, The Rebel Alliance is more a loose arrangement of folks who can agree "yes, the Emperor is awful" than a cohesive organization.  They're a fractious bunch still trying to find a path as the shadows creep in from all corners.  Hell, The Imperial Senate still exists (disbanded in Episode IV in what amounts to a near throw-away line) and - while clearly ineffectual - is something bright-eyed hopefuls still think they may appeal to.

It's not without coincidence that this is also the first Star Wars movie since 1977 where I felt like the Empire itself delivered the genuine menace we didn't get to see as our heroes foiled and outsmarted their foes.  This is a fascist government at work, and the first time we get to see how that impacts cities and people, far from the glamour of Coruscant.  The Empire has driven whole populations to the edge and created a not-irrational level of paranoia.  Rather than the hapless goobers in armor we'd have by Return of the Jedi, these Stormtroopers reflect their namesake of the SS, a faceless goonsquad terrorizing helpless populations.  And, in his few scenes in the movie, Darth Vader appears as the Grim Reaper, a terrifying figure to anyone who lays eyes on him.

The story moves briskly, leaping from planet to planet, pulling the cast and pieces of the plot together to get us to the point we know is inevitable - heisting the plans for the Death Star and getting them into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.  While exposition heavy, it's punctuated with enough action (frankly, spectacular action that also tends to skew towards some of the more graphic violence in a Star Wars movie) that I never felt the drag that seemed to weigh down the plot-heavy Episode II and III as pieces slid into place.

As much as this is a more "adult" Star Wars movie (frankly, I don't know if this is a good one for the smaller kids.  It feels like it earns the far end of the PG-13 end of the spectrum), pulling together complex pieces that feel not unlike Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen or other movies that use the scenario of an ongoing war as a backdrop to tell the story of one remarkable unit - somehow the characters never quite gel.  Which - if I'm being honest - I'm not sure they gel all that well in those movies, either (eagle-eyed viewers will notice more than a little imagery matching Nazis v scrappy, multi-national Allies, picking up where Lucas left off).

While we can nod sagely at how simplistic we found Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens, I never questioned their motivations, who they were, what they were doing or why - or even why they were partaking in the conversations that they did.  But, with Rogue One, it's not that the movie delivered character with more subtlety, it's that character beats occurred sometimes without context or motivation.  (spoilery example:  where the hell did Jyn's speech before the assembled Alliance come from?  It was an odd, unearned moment for the character, motivated seemingly from nowhere).

Perhaps like The Dirty Dozen, we're seeing snapshots of characters, defined mostly by their role and less by digging into their psyche.  Certainly we never get much about the bling martial artist and his pal, we don't get much but boiler plate from our shady Rebel-guy, and I was okay with that, for the most part.  We can rely on shorthand in some movies, even if I don't think that's been Star Wars' MO to date.  But I still think we lost a lot of Jyn Erso on the cutting room floor.

It's not a total trainwreck - Jyn never seems to behave contrary to what we know.  She just seems to make some leaps in the movie that felt under-motivated.

If I had to guess, somehow that stuff got lost in favor of stunning action sequences, astounding design of the film (which feels so in line with the original Trilogy, you'll be spotting details in every scene), and an attention to what the story needed to deliver more than it needed to make Jyn a compelling character.

As you've seen in the trailers, the look of the film slavishly replicates the original Star Wars series, borrowing architecture, uniforms, even the shape of doors and how control panels work.  Scenes are recreated in meticulous, shocking detail, as if the crew that made the film in '77 was back at it the next week.  Parts of costumes will look familiar, and the design aesthetic of our robot supporting player sits pretty darn neatly into the "functional, no-frills" concept that seemed to be the rage in everything but protocol droids.  While we've passed the era when Star Wars spacecraft will once again be models shot on a soundstage, the ships look phenomenal, and even newer craft are clearly from the same design school as portions of the Rebel Fleet we saw in Episodes IV and V.

What will be long debated, especially as technically continues to improve, will be the insertion of CGI versions of familiar characters, including those once performed by actors now long since passed.  I'm not certain it was convincing enough to not become a distraction, and was, in the end, both a brave and strange choice when I'm not certain we're not okay with re-casting.

I did like the movie a great deal.  It's imperfect in different ways from it's predecessors, and I'm fairly well convinced Gareth Edwards is the sort of director who is phenomenal at spectacle and detail, but like Lucas himself, may need some polish on how humans interact (and I say this as someone who was bored stiff by all non-Cranston human characters in the 2014 Godzilla release).

It will be a movie people refer to often as what Star Wars can be when it wants to be - a dark chapter that brings greater light to the successes and wins (like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star).  And, it actually makes me all the more happy to return to see what our friends Rey and Finn are up to in the future, where I don't know exactly how their story has to end to fit in with much of anything.


RHPT said...

I'd love to hear what issues you and Matt spotted.

The League said...

Randy - I should mention, the number of Easter Eggs in the movie/ attempts to make sure we're in a cohesive universe is amazing. So, a few things that were or were not errors was no big deal.

[SPOILERS - I wasn't sure how R2 and C3PO were on the Rebel Blockade Runner if you saw them in the loading bay at Yavin IV and then they were on the ship which they said had just taken off for Scarif. Matt's point was that they got on the Rogue One craft and said "May the Force Be With You", which was not at all a common phrase for everyday people in the Star Wars Galaxy, and something people started saying with the arrival of Luke Skywalker. Also, no one says it before or after this point in the movie. And, a few other minor quibbles, but nothing that was distracting. The R2 bit seemed like a last-minute insert shot to make sure C3PO and R2D2 appear in all of the movies somehow.]

Stuart said...



I was particularly curious about your reaction to the Princess Leia's appearance at the end, because you're probably the most outspoken Leia fan I know.

For myself, I had a gut reaction to seeing her there that really surprised me. Like, I git really choked up. I almost cried. And then the credits rolled, and immediately felt kind of suckered and ashamed for feeling that way. Like, I saw that I had a knee-jerk Pavlovian response, and it annoyed me that they were able to push my buttons with something so fan-servicey and gratuitous and not at all necessary to the story they were telling.

The League said...

@stuart - [SPOILERS - yeah, I was absolutely delighted to see Leia from the back, less so from the front with the iffy CGI. Had a moment of elation that was tempered by the fact that I wondered if that were a last minute addition or not how that was initially planned. I hate considering the gears when I'm watching a movie. I don't want to think about process until afterwards, and the closing moment really shouldn't be one of the ones pulling you out of the movie.

But, yes, as you know, Leia is one of my favorite parts of the original Trilogy, so, yeah, of COURSE I got excited seeing her, and was willing to forgive the movie a bit to give me a glimpse of Her Highness. That said, the line-reading lacked the kind of world-weariness I associated even with 19-year-old Carrie Fisher. It felt a bit off.]

Sound Affects said...

I have to take issue with your assessment that Jyn fell in love with what's his face. I didn't get that at. I didn't get anything romantic from them at all.

I'm hoping the original cut comes out at some point because I have to wonder if it was darker or not dark enough. I can't imagine test audiences suggesting a massacre at the end, but from the little I've read comparing scenes that were in the trailers but not in the film, the ending was very different and suggests Jyn may have gotten away.

Grand CG Tarkin was distracting. I thought Leia was fine because she was only there for a second, but now that you mention it, that smile and delivery was a little weird. She may as well have said "It's a NEW HOPE!" and winked at the camera.

The League said...

I'm scanning what I wrote, because I didn't there was any romantic angle with Jyn and what's-his-face, either. So, we're in violent agreement there. Seriously - point me at what I said, because I'm not finding it.

I don't know what changed, but it wouldn't be Star Wars if we weren't obsessing about how it was made. The ending worked for me (especially since we never see those characters again).

There are always a thousand ways to deliver a line, but a "it's all gonna be okay" relieved smile when you just saw a mother ship taken out (and everyone on board likely to die) and know Darth Vader is about track you down - maybe something a bit more breathless...? Hoping for hope?

Stuart said...

"Our only hope" always sounded desperate in the original film. "Hope," rebellions are built on hope" comes across as ridiculously optimistic given the context.

Sound Affects said...

I somehow inserted "love" in the "falls in with" sentence. My bad. We will continue to agree, then. For now. . .

The League said...

Ah. Yeah, yes. That would do it.

Really, when you find yourself disagreeing with me, always ask yourself "why am I wrong? How can I take steps to correct how very wrong I am?"

Jake Shore said...

So much of this, it seems to me, comes down again to expectations. I know I've said this before, but I become more convinced of it as I watch movies. And there can be no greater expectations heaped upon a film than Star Wars, particularly one that seeks to place the audience squarely in the world of the original 1977 movie.

As look back upon all the films I have most highly anticipated, I notice some familiar patterns. I don't think I will ever be as excited as I was in 1999 with the release of Star Wars Episode I, and to a lesser degree, the remaining sequels. The next highly anticipated films were Superman Returns, then Man of Steel, The Force Awakens and finally, Rogue One.

In all these cases, I found myself a victim of my own hopes. It took me the better part of a year to admit, Episode I was a major let down and not that good of a film. I felt the same way, although not nearly so acutely about Superman Returns after the 2nd or 3rd viewing. I'm even ashamed to say, I got swept up in my own hopes for Man of Steel. It took about two weeks and after a second viewing to realize what train wreck it was. And last year, despite being cynical and jaded, I still allowed myself to become completely swallowed up by my enthusiasm after watching The Force Awakens; although that was as much as about the relief over what the film was, rather than what it was. And although that film holds up far better than others I mentioned, it's not hard to see the film's problems.

It was because of The Force Awakens succeeded, I allowed myself to get excited for Rogue One. I enjoyed the film. I think your review makes some salient points, but as I read the comments here (and to a greater degree those on other sites), I find myself a little sad about the way we sometimes nitpick our favorite movies. I'm not trying to be critical, and I'm not calling anyone out. It just feels like everyone is talking about what's wrong with the film. It makes me wonder if a movie based on a beloved franchise, or comic book characters, or popular book adaptations can ever really be accepted by their fan bases. Star Wars is truly a victim of its own success. People like me were thrilled to hear a movie that faithfully hearkens back to the 1977 movie, but we also cannot wait to dissect it, and tell the filmmakers where they failed. Our expectations set such an incredibly high bar, I almost feel sorry for J.J. Abrams and Gareth Edwards.

Jake Shore said...

Was the CGI distracting? A little I suppose; I mean, I noticed it. But was it terrible? I thought it was awfully good. Assuming that was the best human CGI Hollywood is technologically capable of, the question is, would I rather Governor Tarkin and Princess Leia had not been featured? Would we have settled for actors who look similar? I'm not sure there's a right answer because we would be criticize it, again for what it's not, regardless. Wouldn't we? I don't know. I guess I feel like when we start analyzing Princess Leia's one line (a single word) -- whether or not she would say this or that -- we've kinda jumped the shark, haven't we? When she's asked what she was handed, it's not like they zoomed in on her face a la Clubber Lang as she growled "Pain!"

The film wasn't perfect. I think you were right about some of Jyn Erso being left on the cutting room floor. Heck, the unused footage in the trailers and ads are proof of that. And you're right about Gareth Edward's human characters in Godzilla - terrible. But this was a vast improvement. Think about that amazing third act. As much as any Star Wars film, it felt like there was really something at stake. For Edwards to create such suspense over the last 15 minutes of the film, despite everyone in the theater knowing how it will turn out, is pretty impressive. We've seen other Star Wars films (Episode I) that flip back and forth between different parts of the battle, but has it ever been better executed or edited? And has a Star Wars movie ever looked this good? It was beautiful to watch. I think the CGI was, as you said, a bold choice. It wasn't perfect, but worked well enough. And finally, has Darth Vader ever been more menacing or frightening? Good grief.

Again, I'm not trying to troll anything. It just feels like we're a little spoiled. If the top 20 Hollywood directors had a shot at this film, how many of them would have been as good as this one? My guess, based on the caliber of Hollywood films these days, is maybe one. Spielberg maybe? Ang Lee? You want Michael Bay to have a shot at this? Peter Jackson? Christopher Nolan? Ridley Scott? Steven Soderbergh? Ron Howard? Wes Anderson? Tim Burton? Coen Brothers? Michael Mann? David Lynch?

Perhaps my I'm so jaded my expectations have become too low because I'm just happy it's a decent movie that feels like Star Wars.

The League said...

I don't want to give the impression I didn't like the movie, because I certainly did, and, yes, we're nitpicking as 40-something's with a lifetime of Star Wars fandom and spoiled to now have 8 Star Wars movies. And because it wasn't as hilariously bad as that weird live-action Ewoks thing or as tragic as trying to go back in 2016 and try to re-watch "Phantom Menace" as I attempted and quit just last weekend (my god... Jar-Jar...).

Are we spoiled? Sure. Is that a byproduct of exploiting devotion to the product? Most definitely. One breeds the other. I'm not sure how we have one without the other. Before "buy all the doo-dads" was the thing, the primary hobby of comics fans was to consider what they like and don't like in a team's take on a book, and much the same has occurred with serial movies.

The Disney-factory is not here to encourage the auteurship you refer to and we grew up on. The era of name talent is not what supports studios - it's gigantic franchises and everyone is replaceable. Marvel used name directors to get started, but these days, they're hiring people who won't argue with Kevin Feige, and at Star Wars, that will be Kathleen Kennedy. They wouldn't want any of those names you listed to direct one of these movies because those directors would go off the rails on them. (see Marvel's many firings and that DC can't get a director on board for Flash or seemingly anything else).

Again, I liked the movie. Certainly the spectacle of the movie alone is worth the price of admission. It's the best shot of all the films. It's the first to do many things, including checking out our interest in non-Skywalkers (turns out, we're all interested). And, yeah, it made the Empire and Vader terrifying.

The League said...

I'm gonna also jump on the "have we jumped the shark?" question about a single line reading bit, because it wasn't in my actual write-up, more of an observation in the comments. But...

The challenge of the interconnected movies is tonal fidelity and character fidelity. The tone of Rogue One is way off from other Star Wars films, and that is a feature, not a bug. I think it shows how awful things were under the Empire (and about to get worse), and why the Rebels were legitimized in rising up against their government, something we don't talk about much.

But if we're talking about Leia's one line, we have to put it in context. And I found it an odd way to deliver the line at such a bleak and crucial turning point. As they say in acting - every entrance is an exit from somewhere else. We've known for 40 years how desperate Leia is on the Tantive IV and this actually ups that intensity by a factor of 1000. For my dollar, it was a Disney Princess delivery, not a Princess Leia with her game-face on (something we've all seen for 40 years). So, sure, it took me out of the movie at a crucial point, and that's a sin of filmmaking in my book.

Stuart said...

I think there's a line between trading on nostalgia and audience manipulation, and it's a line that each viewer has to judge for themselves. For me, a lot of the callbacks and references in Rogue One seemed forced (no pun intended) or just poorly assimilated and took me out of the moment.

I think Rogue One was generally good, with some significant flaws. I'm also aware that my view of these things tends to change dramatically over time and multiple viewings. Maybe I will warm to it, maybe not. But I don't think just having *more* Star Wars is necessarily a good thing. And I don't see that as a fan I owe this movie or its current IP owners anything but an honest chance to make an impression on me.

The League said...

Having more Star Wars certainly increases the issues with flaws, perceived or otherwise, on a pretty steep curve of growth with each additional movie. And, of course, how many series really go on very long before becoming a shadow of what made them great to begin with? Or, at least, retaining what made them special?

You're right. None of us is beholden to the films because they exist, and we should feel free to judge each film on its own. Like it or dislike, accept or reject flaws. All that. And you can feel the "but..." coming.

We're in uncharted territory here with how Disney is handling Star Wars and the Marvel series. As these movies and their universes expand - and we get new movies that retroactively impact existing movies - it's gonna be fascinating to watch.

Sound Affects said...

It really is everything we've loved and hated about comics coming to movies now. These stories don't just go forward anymore, and it's not just because we're going backwards. They just expand in every direction. It's a dangerous game as we've seen over the years and many reboots at DC and Marvel. I figure in less than 10 years, there will be at least a serious discussion about rebooting Star Wars and people our age will lose their minds.

The League said...

Oh my god...

J.S. said...

Finally saw it today. Carrie Fisher died this morning, and I was greeted with her mediocre CGI Leia image this evening. At the moment, I'm having a really hard time accepting the wisdom of using CGI in this way (although at least her image was obviously used with her permission). Seems like all actors are going to have to start writing prohibitions on the future use of their CG images into their wills...

The League said...

Yeah, I'm not sure how all of that will work retroactively. No doubt they've signed away rights to their likeness for these films, and that's going to eventually mean a lawsuit when MGM decides to mount a whole new Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland and doesn't check in with Liza first (hypothetical example. This is not happening that I know of.). And that's what bothered me about it here. Did Cushing's family sign off on this, or did they walk in to see a Star War and see a ghoulish CGI version of dad?

These days, multi-billion-dollar franchises tend to touch base before-hand with anyone who could potentially sue - note the Kirby settlement over at Marvel/ Disney.

And, of course, if you start having the character behave in ways the actor never would have, or act *badly*. How do you guarantee quality of the performance?

It's gonna prove more trouble than it's worth when the first lawsuits show up.

Stuart said...

I actually enjoyed the film a lot more on second viewing and think Leia's appearance makes a nice tribute, especially considering its timing.

Stuart said...

I remember seeing a thanks to Peter Cushing's estate in the end credits.

Always stay through the credits.