Rogue One Review: Old galaxy, new movie

First of all, if you want a spoiler-free review, here it is:

ME AT THE THEATER 2 1/2 HOURS EARLY (and I wasn’t the only one):

    ME AS THE SCREEN FINALLY COMES TO LIFE AND STARTS PLAYING STUPID CAR COMMERCIALS:

ME AS THE ACTUAL TRAILERS ARE SHOWN:

ME DURING THE FIRST HOUR:

ME DURING THE SECOND HOUR:

ME DURING THE FINAL MINUTE:

That’s it. The rest contains spoilers.

INTRO

Just as The Force Awakens had to be more than a good movie, Rogue One also had a lot riding on it and simply being “good” would not have been enough. The Force Awakens had to reintroduce Star Wars to a new audience as well as win back previous fans who had written off the series after the disappointing prequels. It had a lot of balls to juggle and for the most part succeeded in doing what it set out to do.

Rogue One, likewise, had to accomplish several things: It had to, first of all, be good enough to justify, not only its existence, but also the existence of the whole “side story” idea that Disney has in mind. If Rogue One had failed, it would have been very hard to greenlight a new side story every other year as Disney plans to do. It needed to succeed so much (financially and critically) that Disney could maintain the goodwill to keep diving into the mythos of the Galaxy Far Far Away.

Based on its placement in the timeline, it also had to succeed as a bridge between the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy, combining actors and aesthetics from both. It had to be a wholly original film that was simultaneously familiar enough to be Star Wars. That was probably its hardest challenge: Should there be an opening crawl or shouldn’t there? Should they use the Main Theme or shouldn’t they? Vader or no Vader? Too much fan service and call-backs and the movie becomes a giant parody of itself and collapses under its own weight (something that helped ruin Superman Returns and Star Trek Into Darkness). Too few references to the mythos and universe and it ceases to feel like Star Wars, which could easily invite bitterness on the part of fans. There was a delicate balance to maintain.

Fortunately, director Gareth Edwards walked the tightrope and, despite a few minor quibbles, succeeded in kicking off the Star Wars Side Story Sub-Franchise in excellent fashion.

BULLET POINTS

Here are ten basic observations I have, based on just an hour’s worth of reflecting. The movie certainly requires multiple viewings to pick up on all the more subtle easter eggs as well as appreciate some of the bigger moments, but after seeing it once, here are some things on my mind:

(1) Reading Catalyst first was such a good idea. I’d recommend it to everyone seeing the movie. The book was released last month to be a kind of lead-in to Rogue One, and it really fleshed out a few of the characters who are critical to the movie’s plot. Particularly Krennic, who is the major antagonist of the film, is given a lot of character development in the book, as is Galen (who, in the movie, is a secondary character). The book explores how the work of Galen Erso was co-opted by the Republic (later, Empire). He had been studying Kyber Crystals for altruistic purposes (Galen was a pacifist during the Clone Wars) but his research ended up being used to power the most destructive weapon in the Star Wars Galaxy. At the same time, the book delves into the rivalry between Krennic and Tarkin, a rivalry which carries right into Rogue One. Reading the book isn’t essential, but it does make you feel like you better understand the characters motivations (which is good, since “character development” isn’t really focused on in this screenplay).

(2) The cameos were delightful and there were too many to spot them all on first viewing. There was a combination of actors recast from earlier roles (Mon Mothma from Return of the Jedi, Buttface from Mos Eisley/A New Hope), actors digitally recreated (Gov. Tarkin and A New Hope-era Princess Leia), and footage from earlier movies spliced in seamlessly (Red Leader and Gold Leader from the Death Star Trench Run pop in during the climactic battle, in a cameo I did not see coming and which made me squeal like a little girl).

(3) Along the same lines, going in almost entirely spoiler-free made for a much more enjoyable experience. I had only seen the first trailer and avoided everything else (going so far as to shut my eyes and ears in the theaters when a trailer would be shown). I’m glad I did. After having so much of The Force Awakens spoiled because I couldn’t help myself but look up everything online, I intend to resist that urge for Episode VIII. It will be a long year.

(4) Getting back to Gov. Tarkin, the CGI that brought Peter Cushing back to life (the same tech used recently in Marvel’s Ant-Man and Civil War films) has come a long way from the plastic looking automatons used in The Polar Express. The effect has become very lifelike, especially when the characters are standing still. It’s not yet perfect, however. The “uncanny valley” problem is still a problem as a few little things are just off enough (especially around the lips when they’re talking) to keep you from forgetting it’s a work of technology. The lighting was a little off too, as though Tarkin was always standing in a more-lit environment than everyone else in the same room. Leia’s model was even more unpolished, but she was only used in one shot and it was such a magical moment in all other respects, it’s hard to be too tough on it.

(5) Darth Vader was given the perfect amount of screen time. He was featured in the ad campaign, because—obviously—he’s the most famous character in the whole franchise. You have to feature him for the same reason Batman was all over the Suicide Squad promotional material. Like with Batman, Vader was really only used for one big sequence and a couple smaller ones after that. Credit to James Earl Jones for continuing to do the voice well into his eighties. Although it was obviously weaker due to his age (he was only 45-50 when he worked on the Original Trilogy) there’s still no other voice like it and it’s great that he was able to be used in a film that showed Darth Vader in peak form. On the other hand, the actual lines given to Vader in the screenplay were too…sassy compared to how the part was written in the OT. He was a bit too snarky, as opposed to the man of few—decisive—words that he’s shown to be in the original movies, especially A New Hope. Of course, none of that mattered by the time Vader ignited his saber at the end and tore through those poor Rebels like a Horror Movie Villain. That was……there are no words for how awesome that was.

(6) It’s right there in the title, but it never really occurred to me that “Rogue Squadron” would have a connection to “Rogue One.” I just forgot and/or took for granted that the X-Wing fighters in A New Hope were called “RED Squadron.” By the time of Empire Strikes Back, Luke had formed a team of pilots called “Rogue Squadron” and now we see who their inspiration was. The movie did a great job showing how “Rogue One” was created, as well as giving each member a heroic death to lionize them for future fighter pilots.

(7) The musical score will probably be a source of contention among fans. At times the music was almost non-existent, which seemed more than anything to be an issue with how it was mixed. That’s not the composer’s fault; that’s the responsibility of the sound editor. When you could hear the music, it was mostly a good mix of homage to John Williams’ themes, usage of Williams’ motifs as well as moments where it was its own thing. It lacked the “catchiness” that Williams brought to the first six Star Wars movies (a criticism leveled against The Force Awakens too) but Michael Giachinno proved he is definitely the guy to replace Williams when the inevitable day comes. There were moments where the music felt like Star Wars, and moments where the music felt very new. Again, with a side story like this, that kind of balance is a feature not a bug.

(8) Probably the biggest criticism to be had was with regards to the pacing. The movie really slowed down a little too much in the middle (and the beginning wasn’t particularly action-packed either). A lot of the opening was world building and stage-setting, but it can perhaps make re-watches a bit of a slog. The middle portions probably could have used about ten minutes shaved off of it in the editing room, but there was nothing too egregious or anything obviously unnecessary. For basically the first two acts, the film was a solid 8/10. It was on track to be a good movie for fans, but not quite great enough to strike a chord with the casual moviegoer. But then the final act kicked in and the film became the “war movie” it was promised to be. At that point, everything clicked: The pacing was tighter, the editing was more focused, the action was intense and the stakes were finally felt. It features easily the best final battle in a Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, and one that will be skipped-to on Blu Ray and re-watched over and over for years to come.

(9) K2SO was hilarious. Almost every single funny line came from him. Great stuff.

(10) I loved the reference to the Whills and the incorporation of Jedi mythology. It was a pleasant surprise since the movie was marketed so heavily as being about soldiers not Force-users, yet the Force is all over this movie; not as overtly as in the main-stories, but it is weaved throughout like a thread that binds it all together. It helped the movie retain its place in the universe despite being such a different kind of Star Wars film.

FINAL THOUGHTS

9/10. Rogue One is hindered only by a somewhat slow opening and a middle that needed a little bit of a trim. Its final act is such a success, however, that those problems become insignificant.

Overall it’s a great first installment in the side story sub-franchise and, together with the record breaking and well-received Episode VII, represents as good a one-two punch as Disney could ask for. The House of Mouse spent four billion dollars for the rights to make Star Wars movies; so far it’s been money well spent and a property well handled.

Bring on Episode VIII!

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