Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Note: I'm going to refrain from spoiling what I consider the movie's significant points, but what you consider a spoiler could differ greatly. If you haven't seen Rogue One and want to watch it untainted, now would be a good time to stop reading.

The original Star Wars opens in medias res with the implication that there was a chapter just beforehand culminating in Vader hunting down Leia's ship. The opening scroll crawl was basically lifted from Flash Gordon - it was supposed to deliver the sensation of picking up a serial mid-story, implying a vast universe of context and depth to the setting.

I'd argue Lucas made a strategic mistake when he retroactively numbered the movies. Sure, starting with Episode IV gave him the option of going back and producing a few prequels, but the larger concept was lost in the shuffle. The crawl to each movie starts in the middle of a cliffhanger that's implied to have closed the last installment, even when that installment never existed. Specifying Empire immediately follows Jedi, for example, glosses over the implied events that took place between movies, even while the movies themselves allude to ongoing serialized adventures.

Either numbering them in the hundreds with a jump between films or skipping the numbers altogether (as they did in The Clone Wars animated series) would have been a more faithful tribute to the pulp tradition, and it would have left them in a better position to open Rogue One correctly.

Because, for the first time in a Star Wars movie, we're actually seeing a real "prior installment." This takes place directly before A New Hope, and - as a result - the missing crawl feels like a missed opportunity.

If this seems like an exceptionally nerdy way to start a review, rest assured that Rogue One is an exceptionally nerdy film, even for Star Wars. The movie drops bits of lore into casual conversations, referencing minutiae about weapons and vehicles. You'll be able to understand the movie without a background in this stuff, but if you don't know what a T-16 is, you'll probably wonder why all the nerds start chuckling.

Oh, also Rogue One is an absolutely brilliant, kick-ass entry into the series. Maybe I should have opened with that.

Setting the movie directly before A New Hope means, among other things, no Jedi appear in the picture. While that does severely limit the lightsaber combat we get to enjoy, it also means the filmmakers are finally free of the burden of the mystical side of Star Wars. That's still in here, largely thanks to Donnie Yen's character, but it's no longer the central point of the movie. In other words, they finally get to do something other than rehash The Hero's Journey.

This is especially fortunate, because there's a vastly unexplored aspect to the Star Wars movies: namely, the "wars" part. The Clone Wars series did a good job with this, but the films have always steered clear of anything resembling a war movie. Until now, that is. At last, we get a taste of a soldier's eye-view of battles on distant worlds. We get a sense of what's at stake when there aren't wizards wielding energy swords there to bail everyone out, and it's extremely refreshing.

For once, we get a little nuance to the heroic rebels and sinister empire narrative we've seen until now. Well... at least we get some nuance to the rebellion - the Empire remains pretty unambiguously evil. But the "good guys" do bad things in this movie. They make mistakes, act out of fear, and even kill innocent people. There are finally shades of grey presented to the conflict.

The cast is terrific, and the new characters are fantastic additions to the series. It's hard to pick favorites, but K-2SO was absolutely wonderful as a very different droid than the ones we're used to. In addition, Yen's Chirrut Îmwe stood out as the closest thing they had to a Jedi.

The movie's weak points mostly show up when it lets nostalgia get the better of it. Some of the new Vader stuff is cool, but there was something off about his outfit. Also - and it seriously pains me to type this - they could have found a better voice actor. James Earl Jones sounds very different today than he did four decades ago, and it's jarring. Not as jarring as the CG-recreated Tarkin, though - they either needed to put in more time and effort or find another way to recreate him (or, hell, only shoot him reflected in glass windows - those shots were fine).

Likewise, the movie should have skipped the big space battle at the end and resolved everything on ground level. The X-Wings were cool when they showed up mid-film, but the giant space battle felt out of place and a touch redundant.

Those are minor issues, though - overall, this was a fantastic genre film that expanded the Star Wars universe and hopefully opened the door for them to explore other sub-genres and different types of stories. There's room in that setting for spy movies, horror, gangster flicks, love stories, giant monster movies, and just about anything else you can think of - I'd watch them all.

But for now, this was a really, really good start. It's nice to finally have a Star Wars prequel worth watching.

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