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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story movie review: the high price of hope

Rogue One A Star Wars Story green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
There’s genuine fun here, but the humor is cynical, the heroics are tinged with regret, and it’s all delivered with a cold smack of — yes — political relevance.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): massive Star Wars fan, don’t even get me started
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Damn.

Did we think, at the end of the very first Star Wars movie, that Luke Skywalker was a hero? He was nothing. Nothing.

Did we think Luke Skywalker was a hero? What he did was nothing to what we see here.
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Okay, not nothing. But, as Rogue One reveals with brutal clarity, Luke’s lucky Force-assisted like–bulls-eying–womprats bombing run at the Death Star was only the final link in a very long chain of people doing way more brave and way more daring things. Everything we see here is happening immediately prior to the events of A New Hope. What happens here is what is alluded to in the first movie’s opening crawl: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon…” That sounds awesome, doesn’t it, and kinda like no big deal? “Pfft, no sweat, here are those plans you wanted.” But that’s not how it was at all. The Rebellion’s “new hope” came at a very high price in pain and blood.tweet

I was initially worried when we first heard the news that director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) was doing reshoots on Rogue One to lighten the tone. If this is the lighter version… *phew.*

Don’t judge Stormtrooper Kevin. He’s away from home for the first time and being a soldier is stressful.

Don’t judge Stormtrooper Kevin. He’s away from home for the first time and being a soldier is stressful.tweet

Now, there is genuine geeky Star Wars fun here.tweet One key element of Rogue One’s plot is a brilliant retcon of something that felt like a niggling but fundamental problem at the very heart of A New Hope: Oh, really, there’s a very convenient flaw in the Death Star design? How lucky for the Rebellion! (Turns out it was not a matter either of convenience or of luck.) We visit planet after planet of beautiful landscapes. (Can’t quite call ’em “alien,” though, because this was all shot on Earth. The most dramatic planet here? It’s just Iceland. Which, granted, does not have those gorgeous planetary rings hanging in the sky.) We visit city after city teeming with populations of creatures so strange and wonderful that you’ve barely taken in the strangeness and the wonderfulness of one of them before a dozen more catch your attention. (I am reminded of Arthur Dent marveling at the dining room at Milliway’s in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “The things… the people…” And Ford Prefect reminds him that “the things are also people.”) The antiseptic cleanliness and digital perfection of Coruscant and Naboo of the second trilogy is gone, and Rogue One takes us back to the rough-and-tumble jury-rigged aesthetic of the original filmstweet: this is a lived-in universe where things fall apart and get put back together, where even amidst theoretically infinite natural resources stuff gets reused and recycled. There are tons of throwbacks to the original trilogy, sometimes in how Edwards uses one of the franchise’s familiar visual tropes to trick you into thinking you’re seeing something that turns into another thing entirely. There are appeances from characters we’ve met before (though there are minor issues in how some of those were pulled off). Some throwbacks are completely undisguised and wholly reveled in, like everything about the Rebel base on the moon of Yavin (a major setting for the film), from the 70s-esque hairstyles to the gritty functionality of the Rebels’ equipment (nothing is shiny, like the Empire’s stuff). Absolutely everything up on the screen is thrilling to the eye and to the nerd gland. You want to linger everywhere forever.

Rogue One brilliantly retcons a niggling but fundamental problem at the heart of the original Star Wars.
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Still… there is no comic relief here, no goofy sidekicks, no Laurel-and-Hardy droids. The only humor at all comes via K-2SO (the voice of Alan Tudyk: Moana, Zootopia), the reprogrammed Imperial droid who serves as a sort of Chewbacca to Rebel scoundrel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna: Blood Father, The Book of Life)… and K2 is all cynical snark, pure sarcasm on metal legs. (As for Cassian, he always shoots first. Including sometimes when he maybe shouldn’t. There’s certainly nothing jokey in his behavior, like how we might have sniggered at Han shooting Greedo.) It’s only a very bitter brand of humor to be found in Rogue One.

The Star Destroyer hung over Jedha City in much the same way that bricks don’t.

The Star Destroyer hung over Jedha City in much the same way that bricks don’t.tweet

And then we have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones: Inferno, True Story). She is no privileged princess. She is no naive farmboy. We first meet her, very briefly, as a small child, but our introduction to her as an adult comes as she is being transferred from an Imperial prison to an Imperial workcamp (the horrors of which we are left to imagine, thank the Maker). We have no idea what she did to end up in such places, and we never learn. Her closest analogue to the characters we already know and love is more Han Solo than anyone else: she is, at first, only very reluctantly drawn into Rebel intrigue, and only because the Rebels will dump her right back into Imperial custody (from which they sprang her) if she doesn’t help them. Anyway, they need her for a brief, specific task along the road to defeating the Empire, and then she can be on her way. Of course she never gets on her way, because everything about her experience changes her, transforms her from someone only looking out for herself to a woman who suddenly sees a bigger — much bigger — picture, one that she can help change for the better.

It astonishes me that anyone — such as, ahem, Disney head Bob Iger — can say that Star Wars isn’t political, because it always has been. But even if it hadn’t been before, the entire ethos of Rogue One is overtly political. People talk about politics here, and all of the key decisions they make are reactions to the political situation in which they are living. The machinations of its plot are a foregone conclusion: we are in no suspense whatsoever that Jyn and Cassian and their team will succeed in retrieving those Death Star plans. So what’s at stake here, from our perspectives as outsiders looking in on a larger story on which we have a much wider view than its characters do, is personal. (Rogue One really is fan fiction like no other movie in any franchise ever has been.tweet) How will these characters play the cards they are dealt, and what will that mean for them, never mind for the Galaxy? (We already know the Galaxy will be fine.) For Cassian, it’s about being so far gone down the rabbit hole of his cause, having done things he’s not proud of, that not to see it through and ensure the right ending would render his own bad behavior moot. For Jyn, it’s about simply starting to care about politics in the first place: she thinks that if you keep your head down, it doesn’t matter. And then she discovers that it’s impossible to keep your head down. She thinks you can avoid caring about politics: but you can’t when it is in your face like this.

Jyn Erso is no privileged princess, and she is no naive farmboy.
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Watching Rogue One, I had a similar feeling to what it was like to watch the first Lord of the Rings movie a few months after 9/11: Frodo lamenting that he wished the Ring had never come to him, and Gandalf reminding him that’s how everyone feels when the shit hits the fan but ya gotta buck up and figure out how to handle it… that was like a smack in the face, in a bracing way, like a cold wind that wakes you up and stiffens your resolve (as it would later do for Frodo). Of course Peter Jackson could never have imagined that a wholly invented magical fantasy would have such resonance in the 21st century. And Rogue One director Gareth Edwards (and screenwriters Chris Weitz [Cinderella, The Golden Compass], Tony Gilroy [The Bourne Legacy, State of Play], John Knoll [a visual FX artist making his writing debut], and Gary Whitta [The Book of Eli]) could not have imagined that their little sci-fi fanfic would feel like it is speaking specifically to us today. Such resonances say less about these movies, however, than they do about the state of the world today. Are we up against Mordor and the Empire? If the jackboot fits…

“I’m Orson Krennic, and I buy all my capes at Evil Supply Unlimited. Only on the Death Star, level 14, section 3. Closed on Sundays.”

“I’m Orson Krennic, and I buy all my capes at Evil Supply Unlimited. Only on the Death Star, level 14, section 3. Closed on Sundays.”tweet

Rogue One reminded me too, oddly enough, of Miss Sloane: maybe even the good guys need to consider fighting dirty sometimes.tweet Even among the Rebellion, Jyn and Cassian and the small team they gather around them are outsiders, a ragtag group even in the ragtag Rebellion, and includes a defector Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed: Jason Bourne, Nightcrawler), whom almost no one trusts, as well Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen: Shanghai Knights, Highlander: Endgame), who isn’t a Jedi but more sort of warrior monk and “fool” for the Force, and his protector and sidekick, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who are the most irregular of irregular soldiers. And nothing of importance here would have happened if they’d obeyed orders: it’s only when they strike off on their own while the leadership of the Rebellion is squabbling among itself that shit starts to get done in a big way. When even the forces of light and hope are fractured, and cannot agree on what to do… that’s when the rogues and scoundrels need to step up.

And of course Rogue One is political in a meta sense, with its wonderful diversity in casting. Of course that is political. It wouldn’t be if the world — including Hollywood — treated everyone who isn’t white and male with the same courtesy and benefit of the doubt that white men get, but it doesn’t. The heroes of this story are women (mostly white, alas) and nonwhite men; the villains are white men, like Imperial science officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn: Mississippi Grind, Slow West), who is overseeing the completion of the Death Star. (Note to alt-right dudes: If you don’t want the powerful villains to always be white men, work to support women and nonwhite men getting to positions of power where they can do evil, too.) It’s really, really obvious in a way that it wouldn’t be in another similar movie that when Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen: Doctor Strange, The Salvation) — the engineering genius behind the Death Star, and also Jyn’s father — shows up with his team of Death Star engineers, they are all middle-aged and old white men. It’s such a blinding contrast to the Rebellion, and even beyond the Rebellion to the “militant” “extremist” Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker: Arrival, Southpaw) and his very diverse gang, whom Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly: The Legend of Tarzan, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) shudders to think about having to work with. And while the Rebellion may be pretty diverse, the white men among the Rebel characters are never more than support for the heroes. This is astonishing, and delightful.

Of course Rogue One’s diverse casting is political. Of course it is.
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(The film is pretty speciesist, though: all the main characters are human, with no nonhuman meatbag people among them, though plenty in supporting roles. And there’s even only just one token droid among the central characters, in K-2SO, a step back from the original films, which at least nodded at robot diversity with its two radically different machine intelligences in R2-D2 and C-3PO. Still, baby steps.)

George Lucas’s taxation of trade routes and freedom dying to thunderous applause of the second Star Wars trilogy, while clearly political, wasn’t like this: personal, and immediate, and even intimate. Rogue One may be happening a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it feels a lot more like here and now than its trappings would suggest. And that only makes it even more potent. This may be the best Star Wars movie ever, maybe because the fantasy of it doesn’t seem as remote as it once did.


green light 5 stars

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) | directed by Gareth Edwards
US/Can release: Dec 16 2016
UK/Ire release: Dec 15 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Matt Clayton

    I enjoyed the film, but I thought the pacing was cumbersome in the first hour — but it was needed for plot clarity and for Jyn’s backstory. It definitely picks up in the second hour and really hits its stride in the final 15 minutes. Very good review BTW, especially about the politics of the film.

    As for the reshoots, I thought they were due to improve the ending and not make the film lighter. Whatever they needed it for, it was really well-done. Really love how it leads right into the original film, while subtly acknowledging the events of the PT trilogy.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I think there’s going to be a high pitched whine emitting from me until I get to see this.

  • Danielm80

    Jyn Erson is an odd sort of action hero. She seems to be a good shot and a skilled fighter. She has lots of smart, pragmatic ideas. And yet, when it comes to actual combat, she does surprisingly little fighting. Someone else almost always takes over.

    I’m trying to imagine the original trilogy filmed the same way: Darth Vader raises his lightsaber and says, “You dare to challenge me, Luke?” Suddenly, Chewbacca pops out from behind a pillar and shoots Vader in the back.

    I kind of wish they had gone even farther and followed the Doctor Who model, so that she solved the problems through intelligence and wit instead of through violence, but that would be a very different story.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I Haven’t seen this on the internet, so you can say you saw it here first:

    Star Wars Into Darkness

    Now, I’m not saying Rogue One suffers from the same kinds of scripting and directorial issues as Star Trek Into Darkness. (Or, rather, Rogue One has scripting and directorial issues all its own). What I’m saying is this:

    Rogue One is dark as fuck.

    Rogue One laughs at your childhood Empire Strikes Back-related trauma.

    Rogue One saw the “younglings” scene from Revenge of the Sith and thought it was a cute start.

    I haven’t decided if I like it or not yet.

    It’s also dark photographically, as well as thematically. I remember feeling the same way Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. I can’t see what the hell is going on on the screen. Even the daylight scenes are shrouded in shadows. I also thought there might be something wrong the sound system in the theater I saw this in, but looking at my comments on Godzilla, I think it’s just Edwards again.

    I also think this is a strange cut to go with for the theatrical release. I’m well aware that trailers often use footage that gets cut from the final film. But some of the best things from the trailers, lines and images that seemed destined to become iconic parts of the Star Wars canon, didn’t make the cut. Like, “I rebel.” They’re selling t-shirts with that shit! I bought two for my teenage daughters!!

  • Matt Clayton

    Some of the scenes in the first teaser were clearly from the tail end of the film (like Krennic walking to the Scarif base at sunset) — which Disney reshot and re-edited for clarity.

  • Bluejay

    This felt like the Star Wars movie I needed to see right now. Our cause is worth fighting for, even if we’re not sure we’ll be the ones who see it fulfilled. We need to keep hope alive, if not for ourselves, then for those who can take that hope and carry it further — whether in four or eight years, or in some far-off time and place where our perhaps-doomed struggle inspires the ones who’ll build a more humane civilization.

    We will take the next chance, and the next, until we win, or all the chances are spent.

  • Danielm80

    I hated the movie, and I still found that comment moving.

  • I felt very similar while watching this movie.

  • Pure fan fiction joy.
    This felt like something cooked up by fans
    who truly love everything Star Wars. It provides so much context and
    real weight to what’s going on at the beginning of New Hope. No one had
    any idea how much heroism and sacrifice it took to get those plans.
    It’s not a perfect movie. There are a few scenes that felt off, and a few characters feel a bit shoehorned in.
    For the most part, though, I was all in. It felt so much like classic, FUN, Star Wars.
    The action throughout the movie was spectacular. Really, the space battles we’re intense and so well done.
    We meet lots of new characters and see lots of amazing locales. I want to visit these places!

    It’s a surprisingly dark and emotional movie for a “side” story. This
    is really no side story. This is a prequel to A New Hope.
    If this movie sets the bar for how the rest of the non Main movies are going to be, I’m excited to see what they do next.

  • Jonathan Roth

    Really enjoyed it. Definitely near the top of my favorite Star Wars properties. Bad guys need to win in movies once in a while, or else the sense of threat is lost. The ability to destroy a planet is horrific, but the threat of the Death Star is even more effective when you see the ability to simply jump into a system and casually wipe a city off the face of the planet.

    I’m not entirely sure that the CGI replacements for young Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were worth the time and effort, compared to just using the actors they used as the base/voices. The audience knows they aren’t the same actors, the question is whether the CGI or actor swap is harder on the suspension of disbelief.

  • Dent

    My only gripe is that the events of this film make Lea’s “diplomatic mission” cover seem just a little bit pathetic. It makes sense why Vader is having none of it, he literally watched them fly away from a war zone. Diplomatic mission my durasteel ass.

  • Bluejay

    – spoilers – It’s not made clear *exactly* how much time passes before the end of Rogue One and the beginning of Episode IV. It’s possible that Leia’s ship temporarily gets away (don’t they have to pick up C3PO and R2D2 from Yavin?) and Vader catches up with them later. Vader doesn’t necessarily know that Leia was on the ship he saw escape; the Tantive IV could be a common model, so Leia could plausibly argue that it’s a different ship with a different mission. Or she knows full well that Vader isn’t buying, it, but is just stalling for time to help the droids get away.

  • Jyn Erso is an odd sort of action hero.

    Maybe we shouldn’t think of her as an action hero. :-)

  • RogerBW

    Looking forward to seeing this; it sounds as though Edwards went back to Lucas’s roots and used those war films from the 1950s/1960s, written by (or at least technically advised by) people who had actually been there for the non-fun bits as well as the tea and medals.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    So was there a version where it seemed like there were more survivors? What kind of clarity were they looking for?

  • Matt Clayton

    I’m not exactly sure (Felicity Jones was vague on details), but I don’t think Edwards planned to have survivors in either version. My feeling is that at least part of the ending didn’t feel logical or well mapped out, and so that’s why Tony Gilroy was brought in to rewrite it and help Edwards out in post-production. At least part of the battle on Scarif is reshot (another teaser scene had Jyn and her crew running along the shoreline as AT-AT walkers fire at them), probably to help give the secondary characters better focus and keep the plot focused.

    Whatever needed to be fixed in the ending — it worked.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Hard to gauge without seeing the other version. The last act is better constructed than the rest of the film, though.

  • LA Julian

    She’s not an action hero, she’s Rincewind.

  • LA Julian

    ‘It’s not a problem if you don’t look up’ was so on-point, a collective perceptible flinch went through our audience.

  • LA Julian

    Only disagreement I have is that Jackson certainly SHOULD have known, even if he didn’t, since the original trilogy was written during WW2 and run up thereto, with a backstory profoundly informed by the author’s Great War experiences. Tolkien’s famous essay/expanded Lang Society talk ‘On Fairy-Stories’ explictly addresses the value of fantasy in providing people with models of resistance against fascism and other forms of tyranny, summing up with – Who hates ‘escapism’ most? Ans: Jailers.

  • LA Julian

    And there wasn’t any of the shoehorned-in corniness that spoiled so much of ROTJ, and to a lesser extent, even ESB. The jokes were indeed all bitter ones, and they fit.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I’ve seen some people gripe about Vader’s pun after choking Krennik, but it doesn’t feel out of place when you consider his other not-so-veiled threats in Empire Strikes Back.

    (And K-2S0 was perfect.)

  • Jonathan Roth

    If they have time to pick up the droids, they have time to drop off the plans.

    But still, if anything that kind of makes me respect Leia more. They’ve been caught red-handed and she’s still trying to bluff her way out.

  • Bluejay

    People have a problem with Vader having some wit? They must have forgotten “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.”

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “Apology accepted, Captain Needa.”

  • Jonathan Roth

    Yeah, I guess some thought it was too much of a pun or a dad joke, but… dude nearly killed a guy and essentially told him he’d finish the job if he stepped out of line. It fits.

    “Appology accepted, Captain Needa.”

  • Danielm80

    If Vader is only going to make a joke once every decade or so, it really ought to be a good joke. Otherwise, he’s basically the guy who broke his vow of silence to say “Pass the salt.”

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I can’t get mys self too excited about K-2 because he’s HK-47 dialed down to like 6. (That or HK is K-2 cranked up to 11… billion)

  • Bluejay

    A guy who breaks his vow of silence merely to say “Pass the salt” IS a good joke. :-)

  • Jonathan Roth

    For me, it was as if C3P0 and Marvin the paranoid android from hhttg had a morose teenage son with HK-47 posters on the wall.

  • Apparently Edwards didn’t think Disney would allow him to ***SPOILER***

    .
    .
    .
    .

    kill everyone.

    So he didn’t even shoot that at first. It seems that despite the rumors about lightening the tone with the reshoots, the final movie actually ended up somewhat darker.

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