The first half of this review is going to be about my impressions of Rogue One without any spoilers. While I don’t mind them, I know a LOT of people do. The second half, however, will absolutely have spoilers… but don’t worry, I’ll have a GREAT BIG warning before I dig into the details, so nobody will have to put a price on my head so large, every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking for me.
Let me start by saying I believe Rogue One is the first pure Star Wars movie I’ve seen since The Empire Strikes Back. I spoke yesterday about the problems with Hollywood and Disney and corporatization, about how those external influences can dramatically affect the creation and execution of a creative endeavor. We got the first real taste of it with Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Up until that moment, the cutest thing we’d ever seen in the movies was that tiny, four-wheeled, mousy droid on the Death Star that Chewbacca scares away.
From the Ewoks on, there was either cute, or corporate, or just plain bad execution in large swaths in one form or another. And somewhere along the way, the movies had lost their harsh and gritty “this is a bad-ass galaxy” feel to them. And keep in mind, I say that as a fan of every single film except Episode VII, which, from a screenwriting perspective, is so close a replica of the Episode IV script in structure, beats, and general story line that it must have come out of a Spaarti cylinder.
Rogue One was distinct. It was gritty. It had that “bad-ass galaxy” feeling in spades, and it wove into its tapestry a feeling of legacy, of deep history that made us believe the Republic and the Jedi really had been around for thousands of years. There was depth to the setting that conveyed a vastness of both worlds and the Empire itself.
Having said all that, there were gaps in story, particularly at the beginning. I’ve often complained that movie studios need to forgo the notion of trimming movies simply for the sake of reducing run-time. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film could have used another 15 minutes of footage to tie the preamble together.
I suspect there’s a fair amount of valuable storytelling on an editing floor somewhere in Hollywood that would have done the beginning of the film a great deal of good. Granted, the audience could tie together the staccato feeling the scene-changes created as the movie opened, but there was both setting and expositional jolts that felt more like speed bumps than they did an opening sequence for a movie.
About characters…. I must admit, this band of rebels actually felt like a band of rebels. There was a sense of intrigue, internal political strife among the rebel factions, and insurmountable odds. They also did a good job with what I thought was well-achieved in Star Trek’s Deep Space 9 with regards to hating the things one must do in war for the cause. The heroes, Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and the others all have depth and make us care about the outcome, although there could have been a bit more development on that front in all quarters. However, I think that’s just me wanting a four-hour movie rather than the two hours and twenty minutes that it ran.
The villains felt like villains, and they felt like EMPIRICAL villians, as in tyrannical people fully committed to Palpatine’s Galactic Empire. I really have no complaints there at all.
I do, however, have a few generic complaints about some of the story telling. Most of that I’ll be dealing with in the spoiler alert section below, but in general I have a fairly strong complaint with the writers’ inability to keep track of combat resources on a battle field or to set up plausible battle operations on a starship scale across a galaxy. There are some pretty severe problems with their understand of small unit combat as well how hyperspace works in that universe. A few minor tweaks to the ending could have significantly improved both its impact and flow.
So, having said all that, I must reiterate that I deeply enjoyed this latest installment from the Star Wars franchise and consider it one of my favorites. It far surpasses Episodes I, II, III, and VII in character development, storytelling, and execution. And it resurrects the feeling of a gritty Star Wars galaxy that captivated me when I was a boy. Star Wars is back, and Rogue One made it possible.
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
Okay, so now I want to take a few pot shots at some specific areas of Rogue One. I’m a Star Wars fanatic (or at least I used to be), I’m a writer, and I have at least some knowledge of how to work with combat in fiction. So, hang on to your hats.
I had mixed feelings about the change in both the opening theme music and the lack of the scrolling text. I appreciate what the writers and directors wanted to do in differentiating this moving from the saga of episodes I through IX, but frankly, I think that, with the number of homages they have in the movie, it would have really sucked in real Star Wars from the first blare of those horns. I don’t fault them for what they did, I just would have stuck with the one thing that everyone loves about Star Wars movies.
The opening scene, where Orson Krennic and his group of black-clad storm troopers come for Galen Erso, was a bit hard for me to buy. If he was there to capture Galen’s family, why land his single transport a half-mile away and deploy only a handful of troops? Sure, it was a pretty scene, but the Empire is about overwhelming numbers and brute force. They should have come in hard and fast, scanners on high, and surrounded that compound with 100 troops, ensuring nobody would escape.
My second complaint, mentioned in general terms above, was the bumpy feel of the opening sequence. We go from Jyn’s back story to being interrogated on Yavin 4 over a very brief and exceedingly rough sequence of shots that lacks continuity and could use another 15 minutes of exposition. And I’m not just talking about “showing the car going along the highway” sorts of scenes to get the audience from point A to B. I’m talking about actual character and story development.
Jyn is a criminal and a very competent survivor, but we have to deduce this and then later be told in dialogue that this is the case. The writer’s adage “show me don’t tell me” applies heavily in this instance. At the tail end of the travel sequence, she is shown in a jail cell. Why she was there and how the Rebels knew to capture her in the prison transport later on were important details that absolutely would have benefited the story line. But we don’t get that. All we get is a “from-jail-cell-to-the-rebellion-needs-you” set of shots that feel like someone dropped the clutch on a pickup truck.
Props, by the way, to the scene of the star destroyer floating over the city. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean. Frankly, this is one of the best images in the entire franchise conveying the notion of an oppressive Galactic Empire. In a single frame, we get the sense that the Empire is overwhelming and unstoppable. What can civilians do against firepower of that magnitude hovering over their homes?
The middle three quarters of Rogue One is, by far, the most coherent and compelling part of the entire film. This is were we really feel like we’re back in the Star Wars Galaxy of old. Countless aliens, down-trodden people, distant planets, and even ancient sculptures capture our attention and carry us through Jyn’s adventure.
And then we get a taste of the power of the Death Star…
It’s EPIC. From this moment on, we know that the Rebellion is in dire straits, and it’s accomplished within the context of the already established canon (make of that what you will) of both the old and new Star Wars legend.
I have to take serious issue with whomever wrote the screenplay as well as the direction when it comes to the small unit interactions in the final battle sequence. They lose track of entire squads of enemy combat units, and many of them seem to only know how to fire when the Director tells them too. I must also add that they were a bit clumsy with when storm troopers are accurate and when they can’t hit the side of an AT-AT. It was ham-fisted, and I really had to suspend my disbelief to get through it.
And that doesn’t even take into account the starship and fighter battle that rages over the planetary shield gateway of Scarif, the Empirical records facility (it didn’t seem to have a power-source, by the way), which is established tech in Star Wars canon. First of all, the hyperspace jump by the rebels from Yavin 4 to Scarif is a matter of a couple minutes from the time they get the alert that Jyn and the others are going after the Death Star plans.
I call bullshit.
And finally, we have the whole “crashing a miraculously crippled Star Destroyer class ship into another one with a “hammer head” corvette. Okay… it was sort of a cool scene, and spectacular, but again, I call bullshit. It was gratuitous and meaningless, and missed perhaps the biggest opportunity of the film to adhere to canon.
AUTHOR’S NOTE ADDED AFTER INITIAL POSTING… You can disregard this whole bit about the Bothans. It’s a great piece, but it’s based upon bad data. The whole Bothans thing was relevant to Episode VI, not Episode IV. So, feel free to skip over it. I’m keeping it because I have an obligation to call bullshit on myself, especially when readers call me out on it. I will say that I would still have changed the ending and used the Calamari ship or one of the others. Just sayin’.
In Episode VI, Mon Mothma says, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” It’s a big deal. It’s a pivotal statement of self sacrifice on the part of many for the rebel cause….
This is a Bothan:
And this is a bothan:
And this is a Bothan:
No Bothans died to bring the Rebels the technical readouts of the Death Star.
At least not that we see.
So, here’s the writer in me telling you how they could have made the ending infinitely better. Have a single Star Destroyer on patrol over the Scarif sheild gateway. The rebels, who actually planned the operation rather than racing in at the last second, could then engage and get the stuffing beaten out of them. Star Destroyers are bad-ass ships and the reason the Imperial Navy is as dangerous as it is.
The rebels are then stuck behind the shield gateway while Jyn and her cohorts are getting clobbered down at the records facility. With the clock ticking and the rebels being notified that several more Star Destroyers are inbound from the other side of the planet, the commander of the Rebel fleet says, “We need someone to crash the shield gateway.”
At that point, the Bothans have a reinforced ship that acts as a blockade runner… and it has a crew of a few hundred or more. They volunteer, crash the barrier, and save the day. And in that moment, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”
That one is always going to stick in my craw.
I did have one, final complaint. At the end of the movie, Vader (excellent cameo, by the way) captures a Calamari frigate. And ALL of these rebels came from Yavin 4. It would have taken all of about five minutes for them to squeeze that information out of any one of the captured rebels. The writers really needed to either avoid Yavin 4 altogether (despite it being a really cool homage) or address in a few lines of dialogue establishing that the Empire could not have gotten the information.
Keep in mind that from the time when the Tantive IV Blockade Runner bolts out into hyperspace at the end of the movie, there are still days elapse until the end of Episode IV and the destruction of the Death Star and near annihilation of Yavin 4.
Even a marginally competent Galactic Empire would have dispatched an armada of Star Destroyers to wipe out Yavin 4 and slaughter any rebels found there.
So, there are serious problems with some of the elements within Rogue One, but that’s only if you’re a Star Wars technocrat like myself.
It’s still a really fun ride, and it is unequivocally Star Wars. If you haven’t seen it, then go do so.