"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) - Rated PG-13 / Runtime: 133 minutes
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy; story by John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk
Review by: JJ Mortimer
More dark and serious than colorful and fun, Rogue One is a capable, well-made spin-off of the Star Wars franchise that has some impressive visuals, some fun character moments, and an action-packed third act. Though after all the "Star Wars" action and movie spectacle has subsided, the true question is: Was Rogue One a story that needed to be told?
To be honest and fair, I preferred last year's Episode VII: The Force Awakens more than I did this film. I may have liked it more than anyone else I know. The continuation of the Skywalker saga, at least for me, is the heart of the Star Wars legacy. Once that story is fulfilled, so is the true soul of the franchise. Rogue One, being the first in a planned series of spin-off Star Wars films, though taking place in the pantheon of what we know as the "Star Wars Universe," is still a product of the nuances, trends, and styles of today's film making community. The Star Wars films we love so much (the original trilogy, ending with Return of the Jedi) are products of the 70s and 80s, and creativity and limitations of that era are evident in the charm those films brought to the screen. That same charm is what is sadly missing (not entirely, but mostly) from these newer generation films.
To the credit of The Force Awakens, much of its success relied heavily on our decades-long nostalgia invested into its history, but succeeded on its own in ushering in a new era to the epic story line with easily memorable characters and a push to continue the original storyline. Films like Rogue One (and the soon-to-be filmed spinoffs of a young Han Solo, and presumably Obi-Wan Kenobi post-Episode III) are just filling in fun little gaps without really adding anything that we need to know. This is a classic case of a production company and financiers mining every little bit that they can from a franchise of films they KNOW people will love when they first see them, but have no intention of caring whether or not the quality of their films stand the test of time.
Fortunately, Rogue One is an aptly made action film, made by quality film makers who at least attempt to give us characters we can enjoy that are acted by performers who care about their roles. For that much, I can appreciate this movie. Never in this film did I feel that anyone involved in its filming was running on auto-pilot. I felt there was great care and craftsmanship in making this film, even though many technical and visual shortcomings that brought the charm to the original series were cleaned up with the mainstay of today's lazy digital manipulations.
I would like instead to highlight the positives, negative, and in-betweens of this movie to better illustrate how I feel about it. I will try to avoid spoilers, but to discuss at least ONE major issue I had with the film, it may get a little spoilery, so...
POSSIBLE SPOILERS ALERT!
POSITIVES of Rogue One:
* As a stand-alone film, it has some very entertaining and engaging parts. The last half of the movie is worth the ticket price alone, and is a treat for all audiences.
* Characters and The Force: With the plethora of new characters introduced into this world, Rogue One director Gareth Edwards does a nice job of allowing each character a small moment to let their personality shine through. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso with capable command. A reprogrammed Empire droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) brings the majority of the humor to the film. Donnie Yen is my favorite of the new characters as a blind martial artist named Chirrut Îmwe who treats the Force like a religion, and not as a scientific abnormality that George Lucas tried to flop into our laps with The Phantom Menace. Here, the film makers rightfully put the Force as a mystical power that can be "believed" in, as is evident with Yen's religious-level chanting and belief that the Force is a power that will protect you even if you don't wield the powers as a Jedi would.
* There were only a couple nostalgic throwbacks, with no unnecessary character inclusions. The ones that did show up made sense to be there. If George Lucas had directed it, somehow he would have found a way to shoehorn Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan, Luke and Yoda for the fucking sake of reasons and toys.
* Michael Giacchino's score was serviceable and was John Williams-light in feel. The themes were not altogether memorable (other than the obvious Star Wars theme over the end credits), but the score fit well into the overall film, and helped make Rogue One feel more like it belongs in the universe without being directly part of the Skywalker saga.
* James Earl Jones returning as the voice of Darth Vader was one of the most pleasant sounding things these ears have heard since Return of the Jedi.
* The few minutes we see with Darth Vader in action are more engaging than any amount of screen time spent with him in the abysmal prequel trilogy. He's legitimately frightening as he was in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and this film introduces him back to us as that foreboding force to be reckoned with (pun intended).
NEGATIVES of Rogue One:
* Characters and Places: There were too many. Too many characters to get fully get involved with (save a few), a trait that befell another team-up movie earlier this year, The Magnificent Seven. The film also jumps from location to location so many times that subtitles had to appear on screen to let us know which of the half-dozen planets and characters we were visiting.
* Characters, Part 2: For the life of me I can barely remember any of their names. Just to type in what character Donnie Yen played, I had to do an IMDB search. The Force Awakens did a fine job of introducing us to the new series' characters, and I remembered their names much easier than I can anyone from Rogue One. Considering this is a one-off movie, that's not a HUGE problem, but if you want characters that stick in your mind, you want names that are more easily remembered, or spoken from actors who are a little stronger with their dialogue delivery.
* Technicals: The cinematography from Greig Fraser and his insistence on standard medium close-up on nearly every dialogue exchange. I wanted the camera to pull back more often than not so we can see more than one person and background action in the scene at a time. I want to feel the environment more, not study every contour of a character's upper torso. I'm also not sure if he was the best choice to shoot a film in the colorful fantasy world of Star Wars, given that his history of work involves dreary, washed out visuals (Foxcatcher and Zero Dark Thirty are examples).
* The Rebel Alliance felt like a bunch of pussies that only got their butts into gear when a couple "rogue" people spoke a few choice sentences that made sense. Before that moment, it felt like all the rebels stood around complaining, and waiting for someone to walk them by the hand over to their ships and says, "Fucking fight or you'll die!" Oh yeah, we're at war against a regime that has a machine strong enough to destroy fucking planets, maybe we should risk a little and try to stop it, especially when someone comes forward with a legitimate plan to take them down. I didn't buy the rebel leaders' resistance to Jyn Erso's plan to steal the Death Star's...plans.
* Darth Vader's temple on the volcano planet felt more in place behind the black gates of Mordor than it did in the fantasy universe of Star Wars.
ON-THE-FENCE points of Rogue One:
* Despite the heavy Star Wars action, I was a little taken aback at how dark this film (and film makers behind it) felt it needed to be. The film had some humorous and fun moments, but watching it back-to-back with 1977s A New Hope will feel significantly - tonally - out of contrast.
* The first half of the film is rather slow, while the end picks up significantly with some really nice visual moments of battle and carnage. The slow pace of the first two acts may throw some younger viewers out of commission for moments at a time, but it was necessary in order for the slew of new characters to get introduced to the audience.
* Digitally inserting Peter Cushing's face onto another actor in order to have the look of the original Grand Moff Tarkin, while mostly impressive, felt a little creepy. While the "uncanny valley" and bringing life to a digital character's eyes has been significantly improved since The Polar Express days, the mouth movement when speaking still needs a little more work. Ethically, I'm still on the fence about bringing a deceased actor back from the dead just for the sake of looking similar. I understand why the film makers and the digital wizards at Industrial Light & Magic did it and I can appreciate the continuity, but I'm still on the fence about the use of the tactic, and hope it doesn't start a new trend of having CGI performances of deceased actors to have new movies starring John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart.
* The main villain, Director Krennic (played by Ben Mendelsohn) was evil enough, but was back-staged any time he shared screen time with Vader or digital Peter Cushing, which was a shame because I wanted a new villain to shine without being overshadowed by nostalgia.
* Technicals: The hand held camera didn't work for me in the slower first half of the movie, but worked well enough during the prolonged battle scenes in the second half. If you've read my reviews, you know how I feel about the overuse of hand held camera without the context of artistic visual narration to support its implementation. When two characters are having a standard conversation, you might do justice to your actors to put the fucking camera on a tripod. When Stormtroopers are being blasted to bits, you can be a little more action-y with the camera movement, so in those moments it worked.
* Technicals, Part 2: The film's action is edited quite well and lets us see what's happening and to whom it is happening to, though it would have been nice to stay more away from the medium shots and closeups for us to see the full force of the action and allow our eyes to train more on the characters as they do cool shit.
* Rogue One mostly feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, but not as a precursor to the 1977 original. The cinematography, set design, and abundance of digital effects make it feel like it takes place more in this new trilogy kicked off by last year's Force Awakens.
In conclusion, to answer the original question of whether Rogue One was a story that needed to be told, the answer truly is yes and no. I'm glad the movie was made mainly because the filmmakers behind it were capable craftsmen, and they were able to make an impressive and entertaining spin-off film that stands on its own merit without relying too much on anybody's predisposition or knowledge of the Star Wars universe. Yet the story itself doesn't add anything new to the development of the films we already know and love, and may very well usher in "Star Wars fatigue" - a new syndrome where having a backstory to every little detail to the main Skywalker saga films will tire out the audience, and take a little fun out of imagining what may (or may not) have happened for some characters to become who they are.
While there may be some issues and little nitpicky details I had with Rogue One, I was still surprised it came out as good as it did. The first half of the film was pretty small scale which helped amplify the large scale of the second half (which I thoroughly enjoyed). Some of the new characters stuck with me and I found at least one I truly loved, and the small dose of Vader nostalgia went a looooong way. And nothing beats hearing the sound of blasters, the engagement of light speed, and dogfights between X-Wings and TIE Fighters in a large movie auditorium with a great sound system.
"I am one with the Force; the Force is with me."