Rogue One: The Prequels Strike Back

(A totally spoiler-free review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

Let’s sum it up for the Twitter crowd:

Pros

  • A good prequel
  • Hardcore Fan service
  • Casual fan service
  • A more adult kind of Star Wars movie
  • Puts the “war” in Star Wars
  • Focuses on new characters
  • A crafted puzzle piece that fits well with the other episodes, particularly Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Adds more depth for certain returning Star Wars characters
  • Shows off some really good special effects

Cons

  • Not a “saga film” and isn’t about main saga characters or their their conflict
  • The Michael Giacchino soundtrack is good, but not very memorable
  • Some of the fan service scenes felt gratuitous. As in: “that’s cool, but is there a logical reason for that?”
  • Feels like a studio “fan film”
  • Some scenes depended on contrivances that felt phony

I was very impressed with Gareth Edwards’ first feature film, Monsters (2010), shot on a shoestring budget down in Costa Rica by a then-unknown Edwards. The film used home-made-on-my-PC special effects sparingly, but to great effect. The chemistry between the main characters during an alien invasion of Mexico was a story worth telling, and had a great payoff. His second film was the more tedious and forgettable Godzilla reboot starring a sprawling cast of cameos (which was frankly overproduced and poorly written).  But Edwards delivers the goods in Rogue One; the end result feels like Lucasfilm contracted him to make the world’s most expensive Star Wars fan film.

And what a fan film it is! Instead of the usual home light-saber battles found on YouTube, Rogue One combines a more modern, gritty, science-oriented realism to the Star Wars universe, while retaining the production design that seems to fit the aesthetic foundation established by George Lucas’ original Star Wars (Episode 4: AHN). The film’s pervasive use of Easter eggs and callbacks to other SW films and even the TV shows makes it feel like vital connective tissue between the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy.i heard it compared to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and that’s a really good comparison in more ways than one: it’s gritty sci-fi, and it’s about a crew of outlaws hopping planets fighting The Man.

If you’re just casually acquainted with Star Wars, as most people are, you’ll find this movie either awesome or disappointing, depending on what you expect from, and what you like about Star Wars. George Lucas was first and foremost a student of Joseph Campbell’s hero myth, and his Star Wars films are really more fantasy than sci-fi, and were heavily guided by the hero’s journey. As such, the Jedi, Sith, the Force, and their back stories were very archetypal. Their light saber duels and their codes of conduct made them more “space samurai” than sci-fi characters. If this quintessential to the Star Wars experience for you, you may be disappointed.

Now, there is also a sci-fi component to Star Wars: space battles, hyperspace, ray guns, and galactic politics. This is what Rogue One focuses on: the science behind the fiction. Ok, they gloss over plenty; this isn’t science-based fiction the way Andy Weir’s The Martian, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are. We’re not getting an explanation of how the potatoes were grown on Mars, just that potatoes were involved. Rogue One makes real the people, engineering, and resources behind the creation of the Empire’s most important military asset: The Death Star. It also makes the Rebellion (who are mostly background characters in the saga film) the primary characters. No midichlorians, no Force Ghosts delivering exposition, no space samurai. Just a motley crew of misfits, rebel scum, and troublemakers and their fight to free the galaxy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Darth Vader is in the film. While his scenes are few, they are absolutely some of the best in the film, and not just for fan service. He’s an important side character involved in the events surrounding the theft of the Death Star plans, which, (non-)spoiler alert: is the plot of this film. James Earl Jones’ creamy bass tones is a touchstone of the Star Wars movies, and worth the ticket price alone. Other character(s) from the saga trilogies make cameo appearances, courtesy of some groundbreaking special effects–to say who would be a spoiler. But I was both geeked out and delighted by what they did. Yes, I’m adult moved to tears by digital special effects what the hell is wrong with me.

And that would be OK, as this film is a more adult version of Star Wars. Gareth Edwards had described it as a “war movie,” inspired by the classic films from the 50s and 60s depicting daring WWII combat adventures. And it is. Besides being gritty in production design, it makes war look and feel gritty, ugly, tragic. Rogue One solves one of my biggest complaints about the George Lucas-directed prequels: that the combat was too sanitized, bloodless, and kid-friendly. Most of the conflict was between keystone-cop silly battle droids and disposable clone army who were born slaves to the Republic. As such, the death and destruction were centered on manufactured military assets, not innocent civilian casualties. War felt like a video game. I will give both Disney and Lucasfilm huge props for letting the writers and director take the film in this direction. The movie has the right mix of levity, adventure, and a dark tone. I wouldn’t describe the ending as dark, nilhilist, or sad, but that could be because I already know what happens next. If someone new to Star Wars saw Episodes I-III, then Rogue One before seeing Episode IV, they might find this movie kind of a downer.

The new characters have good chemistry, and I really enjoyed the space battles, particularly the one at the end. I didn’t think they could top the space dogfights from the previous Star Wars movies, but they did. You don’t need to have a trench run, pod race, or asteroid chase to feel a rush from a space battle. I found a few POV shots looked really good in Rogue One in 3D; I also saw the film in 2D and trust me: you’re not missing anything. The 3D conversion looks OK, no weird parallax effect, but mostly wasted in the vast majority of scenes.

There was a running joke in this season of South Park in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone shit all over last year’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. They criticized the film and/or the audience for liking it because it seemed to rehash classic elements of A New Hope. What would they make of Rogue One, an actual prequel set before the events in A New Hope? Does it get a pass for rehashing original trilogy material because it’s set during the time of the original trilogy? Or are we the audience victims of the “member berries” and deserving of meta-scorn for craving more from the same buffet of Star Wars characters, themes, and story lines? My opinion is that the audience has expectations about anything called Star Wars, and Disney is not going to ignore that, Parker and Stone’s metacriticism notwithstanding.

Disney and Lucasfilm say that how well Rogue One is received will help them decide whether they need to keep making saga films. Personally, I prefer saga films, so I was a little disappointed by what wasn’t in Rogue One. But having seen it a second time, I can say that it’s grown on me, now that I know what I’m going to get. I hope they continue make saga films, as long as the right filmmakers are involved in filling George Lucas’ proverbial shoes. But if this is the future of Star Wars, I’m in as long as they can continue to find good characters and stories to tell. 8/10

My rankings:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. Attack of the Clones
  8. The Phantom Menace

 

 

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