Last Gen X American Theater Review: Star Wars: Rogue One
And oh, my, spoilers!
I don’t mean to review only Star Wars movies, but here we are. The question Rogue One raises is: Is it better than Return of the Jedi? As I write this I can’t answer, but to be clear, Rogue One is certainly better than its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. At the risk of digressing, that film belonged more to the J.J. Abrams nostalgia subgenre, and its relevant comparators are 8mm or the Star Trek movies. I wasn’t a fan of those, nor the subgenre at all, really, but Force Awakens is Abrams’ best contribution to it thus far. Aside from its execution, it also may have done what was necessary to resuscitate Star Wars after the odious yet painfully quotable prequels.
Yet when I saw it, I thought The Force Awakens calcified the franchise. Star Wars would never amount to more than anxious Jedi, lightsaber fights, Death Star-ers, and sidestepping the ethical question of whether the galaxy would be better off if it summarily executed the entire Skywalker hero/war-criminal family. Take that, midichlorians!!
Rogue One, though, resists the decline. It’s the first contribution since Phantom Menace to feature a novel plot—and yes, all the prequels had plots, just the same one: Palpatine manipulates people to get what he wants. He just wasn’t the central character, which is one of many reasons those movies were so awful. None of this is to say that Rogue One‘s plot is remarkably different from the original’s: “A group of galactic outcasts combines to steal the Death Star’s plans and martyrs itself while doing so” isn’t far from the same crew rescuing the princess and blowing up the Death Star. Unfortunately, I struggle to give Rogue One a final assessment, so I’ll trudge through the bits I liked, didn’t like, or noticed.
In its third act, Rogue One becomes a heist movie. Unlike a good heist movie, however, it neglects the genre’s most memorable trope: the walkthrough montage. Just after the scene where the main characters case the target, your Ocean’s Elevenses of the world invariably contain a scene where the crack team of specialists learn the exact sequence of breaking into the target and stealing the MacGuffin. Usually the montage uses a model mixed with shots of the actual location.
The walkthrough montage performs a few narrative tasks. One, it sets up the audience’s expectations of how the heist will go with the tacit promise that the story will throw a wrench into the protagonists’ plans, forcing them to adapt. The heist characters’ (or at least their leaders’) stand-out qualities are not their thievery but their resilience or their ability to see n moves ahead of the antagonists. Without the walkthrough montage, the story can capriciously throw any obstacle it wants at the characters, and their success doesn’t feel earned. This is exactly what happens in Rogue One when Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and K-2SO enter the Imperial data storage center on Scarif. In typical Star Wars droid fashion K-2SO gives the odds of their success, but without a reference point, it doesn’t mean anything to the audience.
The absence of a walkthrough montage also, I suspect, relates to criticisms of the Star Wars universe’s data formats. Superficially, I’m less persuaded that it’s a problem: Star Wars straddles the digital revolution, so it’s saddled with a legacy of computer anachronisms. Asking for consistency in formats is like asking why the characters in Seinfeld don’t avoid all their follies with cell phones. I’m more impressed that Rogue One manages to be a Star Wars prequel without looking outdated in the ways the original subtly does. Thus, we’re left with a sequence where the characters make it to a weird-looking data tower without facing much resistance until later. It’s only after their claw crane busts that they must adapt—and that’s also when they start switching data formats.
Two, the walkthrough montage also summarizes the characters’ special skills, and while I liked the characters in Rogue One quite a bit, they weren’t all suited to breaking into secure Imperial installations. The movie could have done more to explain their motivations for participating in what appeared to be a suicide mission—since that was the point of the movie—similar to The Magnificent Seven. Instead, the final act of the movie devolves to action fare: Each character must perform some trivial mechanical task to complete the mission. One of them is even the Back to the Future cable-caught-on-a-stick gimmick. As with most Star Wars movies, multiple subplots converged at the ending, but they weren’t too interesting on their own until the characters died. It worked, but once I noticed the action gimmicks were happening, I felt a little bored.
Indeed, The Magnificent Seven comparison is apt because my favorite character was Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, who was essentially Zatoichi in a Star Wars movie. On top of that, he did what I thought Disney was too timid to do: Broaden the Force beyond monotone Jedis and lightsaber fights. Îmwe devoutly believes in the Force, but he fights with … something other than a lightsaber. He doesn’t telekinetically chuck people around, and in his bespoke action sequence he must walk to a switch and pull it by hand. Wow! Îmwe lives in a Star Wars universe where doubting the Force is possible—a point I hammered in my review of the original. It’s not hard to believe in the Force when it makes you obviously superhuman.
Beyond Îmwe, I appreciated the cast’s diversity. Rogue One made it seem so normal that I didn’t really ponder it until after it ended. I was like, “Cassian has an accent. Eh. That’s Star Wars for you. At least he’s not another Imperial officer from Britain.” I also note that the other movie to address non-whiteness this winter was Hidden Figures, two films from very different genres. (I liked that one too, but I have nothing to say about it that others can’t better.)
Martyrdom, Not Marveldom
It’s said that Disney sees Star Wars as a money-maker like the Marvel-verse. The Marvel-verse, though, is pretty conventional, even if another 2016 movie, Dr. Strange, was tons of fun. The plots are driven by earth-hungry monsters and a bunch of ancient, supernatural MacGuffins. I don’t see it breaking its mold ever. Rogue One, by contrast, does. The Star Wars universe is sufficiently established to give us heroic characters and then kill them dead. These are the martyrs of the rebellion, we recite their names after Luke Skywalker gets his medal a short time later.
My hope is that Disney explores the Star Wars universe with more narrative experiments like Rogue One. I’m not asking for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Jedi, but Rogue One took risks that show there’s more to explore in Star Wars than lightsaber fights.
Other Good Stuff
Rogue One also delivers a few nuggets that don’t fit in the above. One is the Death Star. I liked how the movie subtly explained that its world-destroying weapon is essentially a bunch of lightsabers strung together. The Empire scientifically explores the faith of the Jedi, only to weaponize it. It’s a good parallel to the Oppenheimer-nuclear-bomb commentary the movie makes. I delighted to see Tarkin again, CGIed as he was, and voiced with appropriate rolling r’s. But boy do I wish they hired Wayne Pygram like in the prequels. What a waste. Tarkin’s line about not using the Death Star to make a manifesto is an excellent contrast to later blowing up Alderaan as “an effective demonstration.” Speaking of Alderaan, Jimmy Smits was similarly a welcome sight, even if it normalizes the prequels. “I must go to Alderaan (to get blown up).” (Hey, it’s not like he saw it coming.)
Other Not-So-Good Stuff
How big is the Star Wars galaxy? It’s like Jeddah, Eadu, Scarif, Yavin IV, Alderaan, and Tatooine, are all only several hours from one another. It’s a J.J. Abrams-ish flaw in a non-Abrams movie. A little down time for the characters helps extend the scope of the universe and make it more realistic. Secondly, the admiral in charge of the rebels was another Mon Calamari. Was this supposed to be a riff on Return of the Jedi, or are we really too stupid to follow a Star Wars space battle if it’s not exposited by an Admiral Akbar lookalike?
So Why Not Return of the Jedi?
As I wrote upfront, I’m weighing Rogue One against Return of the Jedi, which has until now kept its place as the third best Star Wars movie. Here’s a brief synopsis of why that movie deserves a bumping. One, Jedi‘s second Death Star is a cop out. Totally uninspired. Two, “A certain point of view?” shamelessly retcons the first movie’s insistence that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father to rationalize the reveal in Empire Strikes Back that I don’t find that interesting. Three, the case against the Ewoks has long been established. It’s also the beginning of the end of George Lucas as a serious storyteller and not a panderer to children. Want to know why the prequels suck? Look into Wicket’s eyes and tell me you don’t see Jar Jar Binks’ zygote.
The scenes with Luke, Vader, and the emperor shoulder Jedi‘s ending. (The space battle and Endor scenes don’t do much.) Its lesson is that all crimes against humanity (or sentient beings or whatever) can be forgiven if you really, really, love daddy and he’s an evil Jedi. I do like how the lightsaber fight contrasts with the one at the end of Empire Strikes Back. There, Vader was in control, testing Luke. In Jedi, Luke was in control (mostly), baffling Vader by refusing to fight. Although there isn’t much that could be done to fix those scenes, at least the movie could have ended with a political victory over the Empire than another military one. There isn’t a point where the masses of the core planets rise up on their own and dismantle the Empire.
Rogue One is rough around the edges, and it frustrates me because I grew up with Return of the Jedi and if it is to be supplanted, I want it to be an easy call. Rogue One has a scattered start, and the middle scene on Eadu doesn’t make much sense other than to deepen the characters. It picks up in the last act on Scarif and ends better than it begins. I’m not sure the Death Star-Manhattan Project relationship works well because Galen Erso isn’t a major character and is killed at the halfway point anyway. It’s either an overexpanded theme or an underexpanded plotline. Finally, while I’ve praised Rogue One for taking risks, I don’t enjoy martyrdom parables. The ending was a bit intense for me.
So … Rogue One wins. It gives me hope about the Star Wars franchise. I recognize that we still have this new Rey-Darth Emo plot arc that doesn’t inspire me much, and Rogue One‘s risks might be misunderstood and squandered by future Star Wars filmmakers, but at least we know they can make Star Wars films that are on par with the originals.
Let’s hope they do so.