Mild spoiler warnings here. I won’t reveal any deaths. Other than that, I cannot think of much in this film that might be regarded as a twist in the narrative you wouldn’t expect on walking into the theater.
Ever since Return of the Jedi, any subsequent Star Wars™ product has been judged by the fans on whether it got some element right or not. Rogue One certainly gets certain things very right about conveying the feel of the original trilogy. The “lived-in” look of the universe, wherein everything look dented, dirty, and used, was right-on. My inner nit-picking nerd was delighted. As far as sci-fi-based action goes, I would say that the battle scenes were as visually enthralling and competently directed as anyone would have hoped for. The mix of CGI and practical effects has never looked better. The ships and crafts all were seamlessly rendered beautifully. Good work has been done in the past, but this is a triumphant passing of the hat from the model-based stop-motion of the original to CGI.
So, on technical aspects, R1 is definitely a Star Wars™ movie, trademark and all. If you sense I preface the rest of this review with my praise before effecting a deep inhale before announcing my ominous “but…” then the Force is indeed strong with you.
The technical expertise on display could have been put into any space opera setting. What makes me love Star Wars more than the look of any particular special effect are the characters and the rich mythology evident in the story. Rogue One was not a movie that went that route.
Rich Evans of Redlettermedia.com made a brilliant observation in their review of Rogue One. He noted that the Star Wars universe isn’t really all that vast. In fact, it’s actually pretty limited. Fans don’t want new things. They demand variations on the old things: light sabers, Imperial walkers, Tie Fighters, X-Wings, etc.
Let us consider Imperial Walkers.
When the Imperial Walkers first appear for the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, they reinforce the movie’s title and overall theme. Their terrifying size visually relayed the power discrepancy between the Empire and the Rebels.** This establishes right away that the ending of the original Star Wars did not end the war. In the second chapter of the saga, we see the Rebels are back on their heels and are literally in danger of being crushed by the Empire’s wrath.
**This continues the brilliant design details from the first movie. As was similarly observed, the very opening scene of Star Wars juxtaposes the size of the Star Destroyer and the much smaller Rebel ship. The downward angle implies dominance. As Mr. Plinkett taught us, this visual detail tells you everything that you need to know at the beginning of the story: the Empire is dominant, has a long reach, and the Rebels are a precarious disadvantage.
The Rebels find that their snowspeeder aircraft can’t stop the Walkers, and they have very little ability to fight back against them with their standard projectile weapons. Luke, like the classical hero archetype, goes up against the impossible foe armed with his sword, and against all odds, comes away victorious.
The Imperial Walkers were not designed as if they would be practical war machines. To actually contemplate how they might work is besides the point. They are mythical monsters, and that is the purpose they serve in the story for which they were created. They were created as obstacles on the way for the wider journey in the story.
If we really stop to contemplate why Godzilla doesn’t act like more of an actual lizard — asking why he takes the time to punch down buildings and stomp on cars or how he could possibly breath fire — we’re missing the point. Godzilla is not supposed to be a real animal. Godzilla is a monster, and to get all Jungian here, monsters in stories convey palpable fears not literally, but on different levels.
The Walkers are an iconic design of the SW universe. They succeed so well as archetypical monsters by also invoking the mechanized cruelty of World War 2 tank warfare as well as classical motifs of mounted warriors. They accomplished their purpose by evoking something that was a tangible horror within living memory. So, just in terms of design, they’re popular as iconic mementos. The toys were coveted by my generation, and even as I’m going gray like Galen Erso, I can cast a wanting eye to the awesome Lego version.
But when we see them entering into a gritty battle against the Rebels in R1, and we also discover — who knew? — that X-Wing fighters have the firepower to cut them in half, then they become part of the practical landscape, and are no longer monsters.
In this movie, the Walkers become objects added to the background. Each ship or machine seemingly has a set amount of hit points and firepower and armor, and we get to see them set off against one another. To me, this makes the Walkers utterly pointless for being in the movie. Any nostalgic thrill I had in seeing them was quickly dissipated in a series of expected explosions and dogfights.
In the Empire Strikes Back, the chase at the center of the narrative is the structure that frames the plot. Han Solo and company flee across the galaxy, dodging Imperial ships, space slugs, and ending up on the planet Bespin for the denouement of Luke versus Vader. The story structure is enriched by each step of the way by having the characters experience new locations and fantastic elements of the universe while expanding their relationship with one another, (Han and Leia), and with the Force (Luke). The pacing and plotting are virtually perfect, and it’s become the standard to which other sci-fi dramas are often compared.
Plot-wise, R1 suffers from the same problems as Return of the Jedi and every subsequent movie. The story progression only makes sense in that things happen in a way that they have to happen to fit the story.
In R1, the story serves the locations and elements, rather than the other way around. This is a typical progression in something like a modern game. In games, the purpose of the story structure is to get the character to navigate different environments and undergo different challenges. The overall story can be thin because it only serves to deliver the player to the different experiences. This kind of storytelling is familiar to modern viewers. I would argue that it would be better experienced through gameplay storytelling, but is not the same thing when experienced as a movie.
The hologram message from Galen to Jyn solves a plothole from the original movie: the Death Star designer only reluctantly built the station. The vulnerability was thus baked in so the Death Star will self-destruct. Galen’s hologram message with this fact starts the main story in motion, with Jyn desperate to follow up and find the secret, find the plans, and to get them to the Rebels so they can stop the Death Star.
Which left me wondering why Galen doesn’t shout in the hologram: “Exhaust port! Hit it with a torpedo! Toss a grenade down the shaft! It’s the EXHAUST PORT!” This certainly would have saved a lot of trouble for the Rebels having to steal the blueprints of the thing to find out where the vulnerability Galen talked about could be found. This would have cut down the running time of the movie by 80 minutes or so.
Also, is there a reason Krennic has to visit Vader in person? Well, we get to see Vader be intimidating, which is the only point of the scene. It seems like a waste of time and fuel there for a brief meeting that could be done by hologram.
R1 unfortunately spends a lot of time zipping from planet to planet for scenes that seemed rushed and unnecessary to the story.
Stray observation 1:
So much effort was made for intricate details of this movie to mimic the feel of the universe from the original movie, that I am yet the squealing fanboy marveling at the work of the original creators all that much more. So many of the elements of the aliens, planets, costumes, ships, straps, guns, hair, noises, sounds, colors, and lighting, all look fantastic.
It’s still more to Rich Evans’ point that we as fans are our own worst enemies when we don’t want to see too much that is new. It started to grate on me that every familiar element Easter Egg that showed up seemed calculated to get the audience to clap with eager recognition. Luckily, my showing was mostly devoid of that response.
Stray observation 2:
There was a lot that was a bummer about this movie. The war scenes were serious enough that I felt a bit of war fatigue. Did we need to see the Stormtroopers in a situation not unlike, say, American forces fighting insurgents in Iraq? As well as the Saving Private Ryan style bummers of seeing rows of Stormtroopers machine gunned?
Stray observation 3:
Something that I also noticed from The Force Awakens: since when do ships in Star Wars have the ability to jump to/from light-speed from inside the atmosphere of a planet? It was a major plot device in the first few films that there was a degree of difficulty and imprecision in making the jump to and from light speed. Malfunctioning hyperdrives were a major source of tension. The imprecision of where a fleet would land even in the emptiness of space was another element. All that was gone in the new stories.
I am not a fan of seeing wheeled vehicles in Star Wars, either. I’d prefer seeing either floating vehicles or mounted creatures. The pedestrian “in between” of wheels sort of spoils the feeling of immersion in this fantasy universe. For a movie that was so intense about getting things “right,” I think this is an oversight of the world building.
Stray observation 4:
For my taste, far too much attention was paid to make R1 close up any gap of events up until the start of the original movie.
As for the original characters that appeared in this movie, I thought they mostly seemed kind of off. The digital versions of Moff Tarkin and Leia seemed waxy and deep in the uncanny valley. I was immediately distracted. I could have understood their characters being in the shadows or reflections rather than full on, but I’m not sold on the digital puppetry.
They could have recast Moff Tarkin with someone like Charles Dance or David Bowie. (He was still alive at the time.) This would have been distracting, true, but more or less than the digital creations? I’m not sure.
Darth Vader seemed off. The costume just didn’t look quite like it did in the first movie to me. It seemed like the actor was shorter and of less stature than David Prowse, and the helmet didn’t quite look right around the neck. Also, sadly, while James Earl Jones reprises his role, his age is showing (or sounding), and Vader didn’t sound right to me.
Stray observation 5:
One other note about Vader and his last scene of whup-ass on the Rebels: for all the care to make this movie snap seamlessly to the original, there were some things here are very different from the source.
Vader didn’t lead attacks into boarded ships himself and start kicking ass. The opening scene of Star Wars is effective as it is with Vader coming in after the slaughter brought on by the Stormtroopers, stepping so nonchalantly and intimidatingly over the bodies as he does with his hands neatly behind his back.
The first movie is very, very low-key on what exactly the Force is. Mostly, the Force users have meditative, trance-like powers to sense things in their minds’ eye, and this is the transcendental nature of the Force as it’s explained in the story. Most of the use of the Force is very constrained, with Kenobi using it to persuade stormtroopers, throw sounds, and most effectively seeming to disembody himself into it altogether. Telekinesis is only used once with Vader underlining a point by choking an Imperial Officer.
This is all amped up, as it should be, in the Empire Strikes Back, where the stakes are vastly increased, as are the abilities of Luke and Vader to toss objects around with the Force, and even deflect blaster shots.
By the time we get to Vader in Rogue One, Jedi powers in all the subsequent movies, games, cartoons, and movies are less like religion or martial arts, but are full-on super powers. Characters can be tossed around at will, shots deflected, and we already expect Jedi to be invulnerable when the plot requires it.
If I were to make the argument that the prequels damaged Star Wars mythos permanently, I would base it on how they changed the perception of the Jedi and the use of the Force as more super-power and less mystical. (I’m not even going to bring up the “m” word.)
The characters in R1 are fairly flat in this heavily plot-driven story. They’re potentially interesting in their own right, but they just aren’t developed. There isn’t as much of the witty banter as in the first movie that was as important to the feel as the set design. The inherent darkness inevitable in the story of R1 doesn’t make for much uplift. There is nothing as charmingly fun as scenes of the Jawas capturing R2-D2.
The constraint of the running time is my biggest regret with the movie. I had a thought that all of this would have been much more enjoyable if it had been a 10-part series on cable/streaming. Game of Thrones gets a much better 10-hour season from a storyline than they likely would with a 2-hour movie.
As much as the CGI looked good when it was used, the practical sets were also quietly excellent. I could have watched the characters spend more time interacting in the practical environments with more dialogue and intrigue. All the same amount of special effects could easily have been padded out with more story content which would have introduced us more to the characters and their journey. An episodic structure would have given us more room to breathe and ponder the universe in between story beats. This could have given us more of the heart and mythos I felt was lacking.
We could have actually seen a proper love story, perhaps. The tragedies would have had greater weight than seeing the death of a character we only met an hour earlier. Saw Gererra’s character might have made sense. I definitely could sit through hours more scenes with K2-SO, who was the single part of the movie I enjoyed the most.
Maybe the makers of the movie might even agree with me, and would have enjoyed having more room to play in this wonderful sandbox and flesh out the stories. I’m sure the expenses involved with that approach meant that this never was a possibility. Even if it would have been a better story this way, Disney™ needed to see this movie return their multi-billion dollar investment. That meant that they aimed for a blockbuster with this over all other considerations. Too bad.