(This is my review of Rogue One. I promise, there are no spoilers.)
So there’s this new movie out, have you heard? It’s a movie. With this war…like… in the stars… kind of a Star War, if you will. Oh, you have heard? Well, good. But in case you haven’t there’s totally a Star War happening. And I know this, because I just saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and if I have one complaint, it’s that they reminded me that there was a Star War going on like every five minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie. I really did. If you enjoy seeing the Star Wars, then you’re going to enjoy this… because there was totally some Star Wars in it. If anything, there was too much Star Wars in it. Like there was wayyyyyy too much Star Wars in the Star Wars.
51 week ago, I wrote my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One of the first things I said when I walked out was “well, that was a movie.” In that review, I clarified that that’s not really as disappointing as it sounds couldn’t say that about the previous three Star Wars movies I saw in theaters. This was better than that. In fact, it was a lot better than that.
The thing I focused on in my review of Force Awakens on was Rey‘s MarySueness. The Internet was in a fervor over Max Landis‘s claims that she was a MarySue. You can go back and read my review, but short form is that I argued YES, she was. But I said that was really ok, because basically so is Luke. One of the nice refreshing things about this movie is that the protagonist, Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is totally NOT a MarySue. At all!
The nice thing about this movie is that it is divorced from the Skywalker saga. There is a very real feeling of consequence and danger. In Force Awakens, even though we don’t really know who Rey is, there is no point where I feel like things right not work out for her. She’s clearly the chosen one from the second you first see her. There’s no urgency to that movie. it relies on the nostalgia of being Star Wars and mixing that with modern CGI wizardry.
Rogue One doesn’t do that. At essence it’s not really a Star Wars movie at all, it’s a genuine war movie that happens to take place in the Star Wars universe. Director Gareth Edwards said that he wanted it to be kind of a Saving Private Ryan vibe. He got it. Well, I mean, its not Saving Private Ryan good (sorry geeks) but it does have that feel to it, and that makes it intense. It feels like a real world with real consequences in a way that the other films aren’t. The new characters are fleshed out and interesting. Even not knowing them ahead of time, the movie gives us just enough to be invested in them and their stories and want to know where their stories are going. In short, all the stuff that made it fun were the things that were new and different. I enjoyed it. A lot. For the first two acts I was MOSTLY able to get lost in the movie. Mostly…
More than anything else, what made this movie work was its ability to stand on it’s own. It really is a movie about a war. And it’s a pretty decent war movie. There is a mission that needs to be accomplished and interesting characters are pulled together to attempt it. That’s the story. It’s basic. It’s solid. Like many war movies about a mission, basically we have a ragtag team of soldiers assembled on a quest to play a deadly game of Capture the Flag. And it works… because that’s what I’m looking for in a good war movie.
I’m not really looking for franchising crossover. When I look at a movie like Saving Private Ryan, I am aware that is happening within the greater context of World War II. The setting is there. There are gestures to it. But I am not a World War II history buff. And I don’t need to be. I have a passing 10th grade education of US history and so I know the main beats. But that doesn’t even matter. Because in the context of Saving Private Ryan none of the rest of the war really matters. All that matters are the events that directly involve you know… saving this private… named Ryan. In effect, most, if not all historical dramas about World War II happen in a shared Universe. When Commander Miller and 2nd Ranger Battalion go off on their mission to find Private Ryan (and you know, save him), for all I know, somewhere off in this same universe Rick Blaine and Louis Renault are off looking for letters of transit… that may one day help people escape from Oskar Schindler who is making a list…. which may or may not include Zofia Zawistowski… all the while Indiana Jones is trying to keep Hitler from getting his hands on the mystical artifacts that may one day help him turn the tide against Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. Do you know that those things aren’t going on at the same time? No… and you don’t care. No one does.
And the brilliance of Rogue One is that Jyn Erso and her comrades don’t give a fuck about Skywalker family drama. They just don’t. They don’t know those people and they don’t care about those people. They have their own shit going on and to them, their issues are the most important thing in the world. Unlike Force Awakens, my wife Stephanie, who has seen every Star Wars film, but certainly isn’t a super fan, was able to follow this movie and enjoy it without wondering who so-and-so was and what their back story was. Everything she needed was spelled out for her in the context of this story and this story alone. And really she was better off for it. Because I loved that Rogue One didn’t care about the larger Star Wars universe. It was great…. except for all of the times that it did.
ALL… OF… THE… TIMES…..
And that’s where the problems were with this movie. You see it’s a Star Wars movie. And I know this because I am a Star Wars fan. As a Star Wars I would be able to watch this movie and say “Oh look those are Storm Troopers” or “Hey, check that out. There’s an AT-AT.” And that’s great because Storm Troopers and AT-ATs are ubiquitous enough in their universe, that a person living in that world would have a passing understanding of seeing them, the same way I know what a policeman or tank look like in real life. That is called diegesis. It is a sign of cohesive world building. It is a cue to someone who cares that these stories take place in the same universe. And for those who don’t know what an AT-AT or a Storm Trooper is, well who cares? It doesn’t matter. There’s bad guys with guns and giant robot dog things! It would have been great if the film had left it at that.
It didn’t. See, Rogue One thinks that the viewers are idiots. And so, it feels like it has to remind the fans that “Yo, just so you know this is a Star Wars movie.” Every five goddamn minutes. There is an endless array of cameos and call back lines and easter eggs and nostalgia that just comes up again and again and again. Really a lot. Way too much.
To their credit, its not overly blatant for the casual fan. Steph didn’t notice most of them (there are a couple that are super blatant). So they didn’t distract her. And I’m sure the Star Wars super fans will love it. For me, a fan who knows the lore well enough, but who would much rather just watch a really good movie, i got distracted and annoyed every time the movie had to pause just to show you “hey, here’s another one of those things you should recognize… you know, from the Star Wars? Cuz that’s what this is kids. It’s a Star War. You know… like a war… only in the stars!”
From the few reviews that I’ve seen so far, one of the biggest complaints is “I wanted to see more Darth Vader.” I expect I’m going to be hearing a lot more of that from fans as they see the movie. I’m not in that camp. I’m actually in the camp of “why the fuck is Darth Vader in this movie at all?” Way back when Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out, I got into an argument with someone who complained that when the big SHIELD battle happens in the movie, we don’t see a single person from the SHIELD TV series and we should because “they’re supposed to be in the same world.” But my retort is, I live in the same world as President Obama and I’ve never met the man. Not once since he became president or even before. He and I have been sharing this planet for over four decades and somehow we’ve just never run into each other. And that makes sense. I’ve never even met the president of the University I work at in person and we’re literally on the same campus within several hundred feet of each other several days a week. We just don’t have anything to do with each other. The neat thing about the TV show Daredevil (and the other Netflix shows) is that he doesn’t know the Avengers. Maybe he knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy that knows them. Hell, I’m certain I’m less than two handshakes away from the University president. And on some level, actions he or I take almost certainly have some non-zero level of effect on the other one. But on a daily basis our personal actions don’t directly effect each other. And that’s how it should be here. The entire point of this movie is that Jyn Erso and crew have this separate thing going on that has nothing to do with the Skywalker saga. So why the fuck is the Skywalker saga being shoehorned into their narrative. I get it. It’s a Star War. It’s in the title. I can connect the dots.
Oddly enough, the best way I can illustrate this is with a NON-spoiler… something that did NOT happen in the movie. There is a moment in the trailer when someone asks Jyn what she is doing and she says “I’m a rebel. I rebel.” It’s what I like to call the “Always bet on black” moment. It’s something that action trailer editors die for. That key phrase from the movie that the protagonist says that sums up their character. Something that will be that characters signature catch phrase. Something that kids who saw the movie can say on the playground when they’re pretending to be the characters. Sometimes, in the movie it ends up not working. Frankly, in Passenger 57, the movie that “Always bet on black” actually comes from, the moment is really stupid. It feels like something that was shoehorned into the story just to have something for the trailer. Other times you get “Yippie Ki-Yay, motherfucker” and a legend is born. When I saw the first trailer for Rogue One I realized “oh wow, this is that girl’s moment. That’s the crucial turning point for her character. That’s where the shit hits the fan and she becomes a hero!” And I was excited.
Only it’s not in the fucking movie!
It’s quite clear where it should be. In fact, I could tell exactly what scene it came from as I was watching it. I don’t know if it was edited out for time or for tone. But I knew it belonged there, and I felt like in that moment, this was a great place for Jyn to say something that would firmly establish her character. And she doesn’t. It just doesn’t happen.
However, what does happen is that at some point someone gets to say “I have a bad feeling about this.” Why? Because this is a Star War, you see. And in a Star War someone always has to have a bad feeling about something. They just do. It’s like a rule. So somehow, in the editing room, the protagonist of this movie LOST her defining catch phrase BUT we were sure to have Han Solo’s catch phrase in there even though he isn’t in the movie. Because… it’s a Star War… and you can’t have a war in the stars unless someone has a bad feeling about something.
And the movie was full of those. Some were inherent to the plot and I didn’t mind them.. if they were organic. Others were just blind fan service just hitting you over the head. This worked for me in Force Awakens. Force Awakens was a movie ABOUT nostalgia. The entire point of the film is to take what was old and make it new for a new generation. This film wasn’t about that. This film was an attempt to show us that there was more to the world than what we know… but it got so bogged down in trying to remind us of things we know that it sacrificed some of itself.
Even without the shoehorned nostalgia, there might have been a problem. For all of its newness, this isn’t really a side story. It’s a prequel. And in fact, it is actually a better prequel than any of the official prequels —which I don’t hate as much as the rest of the world, by the way. I actually find it fascinating that the Star Wars actually started because of a political argument over trade tariffs and campaign finance reform. Seriously. That was really fascinating. The acting was horrible, but I like the idea. But this is a better prequel than any of those. However, like the Episode III, the third act of this film suffers heavily from “prequelitis.” The thing that I love about Jyn and company is that none of them are named Skywalker (and even though Rey has no last name, she is essentially a Skywalker in spirt if nothing else) so all bets are off. There was a constant fear of failure in the film. There was tension, because as a viewer, I never necessarily knew what was going to happen. No one was safe. Anything could happen.
At least until the third act. Because in order to tie the storyline in with the rest of the stories about wars in the stars (Star Wars, if you will… because this is a Star War… really it is) the plot begins to dovetail into the plot of Episode IV. Once the story moves beyond Jyn’s personal narrative and into the larger one, certain things just have to happen, in order for Episode IV to begin. This removes any tension in the third act. Yes it was cool to look at. Yes, I had fun watching it. But now, instead “wow, what’s going to happen here,” as a viewer I was left with “I am at point A and I know that I will end up at point B by the end of this movie… so nothing really matters. Its just a question of how do we get there, because that’s obviously where we’re going.” It was fine. It was enjoyable to watch. But it stopped being it’s own movie at that point. It became filler for the Star Wars. Especially since the cameos and references just got kicked up into super high gear at that point. It was almost as though the filmmakers were saying to the audience “we hope you enjoyed this little excursion into Jyn Erso’s world… but we have some important Star Warring to get back to so we need to wrap this shit up quick.”
So I did enjoy Rogue One quite a lot. It avoided my biggest problems with Force Awakens entirely. For most of the movie it was really fun to watch. Even in the third act, with all of my problems with it, I was still into it. A lot of the the stuff was just really fun to see. And I recommend it. Especially to anyone who loves the franchise. I just know that I would have enjoyed it more if they had just cut down on all the Star Wars… just a bit.
Oh, also I had chicken fingers and fries for lunch during the movie. The fries sure were tasty! There wasn’t a single cameo in them at all.
★★★½☆(3.5 out of 5 stars – might have gone a little higher with a little less Star Wars)