Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review (SPOILERS)

I figured I've given it enough time that it's safe to dive into Rogue One spoilers. This month so far on this blog has been soft on the number of movie reviews that I've written. But in case you are wondering, I'm not behind on my movie watching. Just on my movie reviewing. I have plenty of reviews to get to you once life slows down a bit for me. It's been an eventful month to say the least. Before I get to all of the other movies, top priority needs to go to our new Star Wars movie, which is becoming a December tradition. If we get a new Star Wars movie every December before Christmas for the rest of my life, I won't be complaining. Unless the quality starts going to prequel quality. Then I might get upset. But with Disney now being in charge, they've realized that our galaxy far, far away is extremely large and so far with the seven episodic movies, we've mainly focused on the Skywalker family. What about everything else? I mean, there's about a thousand Star Wars books out there. Why not make a thousand Star Wars movies? Quite frankly that's a genius idea and I'm excited. With this endeavor, we start by telling in detail the story behind the opening crawl in A New Hope. A curious place to begin. Spoilers ahead, of course. But you've already all seen it, right?

In pondering how to approach this movie, I considered a few different options. Spoiler only. Spoiler and non-spoiler. Non-spoiler only. All three viable options. But I decided to follow what I did last year for The Force Awakens. Wait a few days and release a spoiler review. With this franchise, it's kinda hard to do a non-spoiler review without giving anything away. I'd have to be super vague with the whole review and thus I would only scratch the surface on what I want to talk about. In both cases with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I managed to go into the movie completely blind. I didn't read any reviews or research any spoilers. I even avoided the Rotten Tomatoes score for both. Honestly I think that's how you should experience a Star Wars movie if you're watching for the first time. If you want my non-spoiler review, this is a fun movie. Go see it. It's not as good as Episodes IV through VII, but it didn't need to be. Saying Rogue One is the fifth best Star Wars isn't an insult to Rogue One. It's a compliment to how well made the four above it are. I have a good number of nit-picks that I'll get into here in a second, but overall I had a blast with this. Both times I watched it. Boom. There's you're non-spoiler review. So now let's dive into the juicy details of this movie!

Beginning this Star Wars anthology journey with Star Wars: Episode 3.9, as I said above, is a curious choice. Out of all the stories that needed to be told in this galaxy, I don't know if this is one that really needed to be told. Certain events you can probably leave up to the imagination without having it explained to you in detail. The opening crawl of A New Hope states that we are in a period of civil war and that Rebel forces have won their first battle against the evil Galactic Empire by stealing the plans to the Death Star. Stating that in the opening crawl paints us a good picture for A New Hope, allowing us to dive right into the movie without spending a ton of time setting that up. Did we need a whole movie detailing that story when there's a plethora of Star Wars stories waiting to be told? No, we didn't. That doesn't make the movie inherently bad. It's just the economic principle of opportunity cost. By choosing to make Rogue One, you are choosing to not make any other stories that are waiting to be told. Is the opportunity worth the cost? In my opinion, not really. There's so many other stories that I probably would've rather started with and deemed more important. I would've been fine with leaving the opening crawl as the opening crawl. But hey, it is what it is. Nothing we can do.

The other problem with making this movie is that you know how it's going to end. The opening crawl of A New Hope spoils it for you. The Rebels win. They steal the plans for the Death Star. And, well, they're all probably going to die in the process. Mon Mothma's line in Return of the Jedi about many dying isn't even what clued me in on that. It's the fact that none of these characters exist in A New Hope, which starts like 10 minutes after this movie ends. So OK. We're going to have a movie where the Rebel forces steal the plans of the Death Star and all die in the process. Cool. Now I know the whole plot of the movie before they even started making it. All they needed to do was announce their plans and I knew how it was going to turn out. And guess what? There's no twists, no turns. No surprises. It plays out exactly how you would expect. To me that took just a little bit of magic out of this movie. That's the risk you take when you decide to do any sort of prequel. You have to be able to tell a good story and keep everyone's attention without having the element of surprise available to you. If you pull a Hitchcock and kill your main character, that's typically a shocking moment. When you know the character is going to die before the movie begins, there's no shock and thus you have a different cinematic experience. Thus you have to find other ways to make up for that.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I don't think Rogue One fully succeeds in pulling this off. Since there's no option of having an "I am your father" moment in this movie, what this movie needed to do instead was write some really good characters with a lot of depth that just makes us ache inside knowing what their fate is. There's a lot of disaster movies that successfully pull this off. Yes, when you go into a movie like Titanic, you know the final result of the movie. But the story told and the characters written are so good that the lack of shock value doesn't deter the movie at all. I know this is a contrary opinion, but I think this is where Rogue One severely lacks. We had a team of Rebel forces that we knew were all going to die, but there's only one of them that I actually cared about. Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso. Quite frankly, she's also the only main character whose name I even remembered after my first viewing. I have to train my mind to even remember the names of Cassian Andor, Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus, Saw Gerrera and Bodhi Rook. In fact, I had to go to IMDb just now to type all those up to make sure I got them right. When I don't feel like I have an established emotional connection to 90 percent of our main cast, that's a problem.

Now to contradict myself a bit and I'll do my best to make sense. Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Saw and Bodhi are all well-written, well-acted characters. There's a diversity among them that I appreciate. None of them are Jedi. They all fit very well as a team. There's a lot of good moments of character development and honest team building as themes trust, or the lack of it, is very prevalent. They have cool weapons, awesome outfits, fascinating personalities. They are good characters. I just didn't feel an established connection with anyone besides Jyn. We didn't know their story. We didn't know their motivations. We barely knew why they were there. Sure, you could argue that we don't have time to set up all their characters in depth. But my counter argument is that our Star Wars movie last year had an equal number of new characters to set up and successfully made me care about all of them. I didn't need to go to IMDb to look up the names of Rey, Finn, Poe or Kylo Ren. They were immediately ingrained in my mind as characters I loved because not only were they well-written characters, but they also had fascinating backstories that The Force Awakens took time to set up while remaining focused on the story happening in the present. There was a balance there that The Force Awakens nailed that I think Rogue One missed the mark on, which was disappointing.

Here's the thing. If you make me sit down and search my soul as to why I love Star Wars (which I did last year - I reviewed all six movies leading up to The Force Awakens), it's the characters and the story of what they go through that makes it so great. Luke, Han and Leia all have absolutely fantastic story arcs throughout the original trilogy. Darth Vader's arc is so good that he has become the most iconic villain in movie history. It's not Darth Vader's outfit or powers that make him stand so far above the rest. They are more or less just the frosting on the cake. Cool outfits don't equate to great villains. But great villains with cool outfits are even better. Then there's a whole host of amazing side characters in the original trilogy that garnish the movies even better. The Force Awakens also got this right as I absolute love the story of our new Skywalker cousins, Rey and Kylo Ren. Then we have so many interesting characters to supplement their story that it was beautiful. Those whining that it was a remake of A New Hope I think missed the mark with how amazing the characters and character arcs in the movie were. But I suppose that's a discussion for another day. The prequels missed the mark in part because of the lack of well-written, believable characters. It was style over substance for George Lucas there and 10+ years later, the style doesn't even hold up.

My point here is that when you make a Star Wars movie, I expect there to be a cast of great characters who I care about and I expect to be in love with the story that unfolds and the journey that the characters go on. Rogue One successfully pulls this off with Jyn Erso and her father Galen Erso. I thought that opening scene with Jyn as a child watching her mother get killed and her father get captured (or recaptured?) by the Empire. I love idea that Galen decided to give in and help them design the Death Star as if he was fully submitting to be on their side, although secretly adding in an element without the Empire's knowledge that makes it easy for the Death Star to get blown up, then setting up a way for those plans to be stolen. That answers the age old question of why in the heck would the Empire build this Death Star, yet make it easy to blow up. Well, they didn't. Galen Erso, an enemy of the Empire, put that in there. Genius. I love the journey Jyn goes on as an adult. This self-discovery and heroism amidst the conflicted Rebel alliance. Then watching her succeed and concluding her story with her on the beach with whose-his-face telling her that her father would be proud right before she gets blown up in a mission of self-sacrifice, shortly after tragically watching her father die, was beautiful. Watching her die was heartbreaking for me.

As far as characters go, though, that's all that this movie had going for it. We had one absolutely phenomenal character arc and a whole handful of replaceable sidekicks whose names I can't even remember. The great thing about the other Star Wars movies is that we have a phenomenal main arc with a lot of beautifully written side arcs woven in to make one giant masterpiece of a saga. Rogue One misses the mark a bit for me in those terms. On top of that, the stories of how almost half of this movie was reshot was well covered in the media. And it sadly kinda shows. Not just because almost all the major trailer shots and lines from the first two trailers are completely M.I.A., but the first half of the movie is fairly choppy and poorly paced in my opinion. I had a hard time staying awake, to be honest. Both times I saw it. Certain sequences felt patched together, other sequences felt like they were in there just for the sake of being in there. Like Darth Vader. Apparently one major reason for the reshoots was to add more Darth Vader. And his two scenes he was in, despite being completely awesome and boss, felt like it was added in as an afterthought because they needed Vader in. I guess for some reason they felt like they didn't need him in the movie but made the decision afterwards that they had to have him? I wanted Vader to be either an essential part of the story or not in the movie at all. I don't like how Vader was used only for the sake of fan service.

I feel like I've spent most of this review complaining. I suppose I do so because I keep hearing from people that this is heads and shoulders above The Force Awakens and is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. A few have even said that this is the best Star Wars movie ever made. I know everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that floors me and thus I now feel like defending Episodes IV through VII, explaining why I think they were all better than Rogue One. But hey, it's my philosophy that if we are going to have Star Wars movies for the rest of our lives because Disney now owns Star Wars, not all of them need to be epic masterpieces. It's OK if we have Star Wars movies that are simply good. And we don't need to paint this black and white line where if a Star Wars movie doesn't live up to our lofty expectations than it is automatically a bad movie. Rogue One is a good movie. It is not a great movie. But it's a good movie. Despite Jyn being the only character with a ton of depth, the other characters are still good characters that look cool and do awesome things. They hit a home run with the new droid K-2SO, who might be the second best character behind Jyn. And holy cow were the action sequences fantastic. It may be style over substance this time around, but that style was absolutely phenomenal. I loved the last act of this movie!

If you can't tell, I'm passionate about my Star Wars. I didn't even mean to make this a super long review. I was going to make it a normal review in terms of length. But I suppose when you get me talking about Star Wars, I get carried away and I have to dive deep into what I think. There's a lot more that could be said, but I think I've covered the gist of what I feel. I love Jyn Erso's arc. I think she has to be catalogued among the great Star Wars characters and major props to Felicity Jones for that. I think the first two acts of the movie were a bit slow and choppy, but I think we had a phenomenal third act that makes you want to go home and watch A New Hope because it literally runs right into A New Hope. I just didn't feel a strong connection to our other characters or our overall story. Thus I think this is the fifth best Star Wars movie. A few last-minute throw-ins real quick. Forest Whitaker's voice is Forest Whitaker's voice. I had no problem with that. I also had no problem with CGI Tarkin, although I don't think we should make a habit of doing that. This should remain the exception, not the rule. Michael Giacchino's score didn't hold a candle to John Williams' scores, but it wasn't bad. The cinematography and visual effects were phenomenal, making this look and feel like a Star Wars movie. I think that covers it? My grade for Rogue One is an 8/10.

Links to my other Star Wars reviews:

The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
The Revenge of the Sith
A New Hope
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
The Force Awakens

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