Now that the political season is over, I thought I’d concentrate a little more on the cultural side of things. That’s right, I have a few more belated movie reviews to throw your way. And so that I don’t sound like I’m way behind the curve, I thought I’d begin with a review last month’s anticipated offering from Lucasfilm/Disney, Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. If you haven’t seen this film by now, any reasonable expectation of not having anything ruined for you should be gone. So, read on at your own risk.
Rogue One is the story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the legendary Death Star plans, the McGuffin of the first Star Wars. The film focuses on the character of Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso, one of the Death Star’s less than willing progenitors. As the film progresses, Jyn transitions from a child fugitive of the Galactic Empire, to pawn of the Rebellion in an assassination attempt on her father, and from there to the leader of a suicidal effort to recover the Death Star plans from an Imperial data center. The data, once recovered, should reveal the Battle Station’s weakness, purposely manufactured into it by Galen, and provide the Rebels with one shot at destroying this ultimate weapon that before it destroys them.
The film is technically amazing, as one should expect from such an expensive big-studio space opera. I disagree with those who felt that the first half of the film was slow, finding the pacing pretty spot-on. The musical score was adequate, having a good enough balance between original material and reprises from John Williams. And while many of the characters seemed to be underdeveloped in the motivation department, there were many good performances, and the whole effect was satisfying. It will doubtless make a lot of money. However, I am a Star Wars fan, and as such am probably a little more gracious then I would be if Rogue One were a stand-alone film wholly unconnected to the power of nostalgia-vision.
To me, Rogue One felt like the greatest fan-made Star Wars movie ever filmed: a product created out of love for an existing property, but not necessarily an example of great story-telling. Beyond the inescapable problem that the film focuses on the quest to steal the plans to destroy the Death Star, rather than the quest to destroy the Death Star itself, the other obvious flaw is that the film is not very accessible to the casual viewer at times. Although this may not matter if you can get the gist of who these characters are and what they’re doing via context clues, at other times an audience may be a bit lost due to their probable lack of more esoteric Star Wars knowledge, info beyond knowing who Vader is. Think the original theatrical cut of Dune, and how it was received, and you’ll see what I mean. The way Rogue One dished out copious amounts of SW references and cameos had even me blushing at times! The combined effect of returning prequel actors, re-cast original trilogy characters, re-purposed SW footage, expensive CGI re-creations of long-dead thespians, or even walk-ons by new actors in familiar costumes somewhat took the film off the focus of advancing the plot and brought it into the dark valley of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?!” Don’t get me wrong, for the ten-year-old boy in me loved all of them! The Darth Vader scenes alone were worth the price of admission! Even the return of Grand Moff Tarkin as a functional character in the story (not that you forgot for a second you were looking at CGI) was very enjoyable. However, often the homecoming of all these characters, props, and vehicles to the Star Wars universe felt a bit too saturated, and was at best only partially useful in organically advancing the story.
Even though this film errs on the side of self-referencing sentimentality, there are still things to be grateful for. For instance, Rogue One doesn’t hit you over the head with some ham-fisted political message! Sure, it panders a bit in the ethnic diversity area, but who cares? Someone must play the characters, and it’s not as if having a multi-ethnic cast of new main characters in the Star Wars universe affects the story in any adverse way. Criticism aside, Star Wars has always featured some ethnic diversity (to earthly eyes), and so this film is not inconsistent nor distracting. After all, ethnicity among the human characters in Star Wars has no meaning; it’s alien/human relations that get attention. Free from an in-cam shot of a flashing arrow neon sign declaring “DIVERSITY,” people are free to draw as much or as little meaning from this as they please, like all good Sci-Fi.
Additionally, I’m quite happy that the final cut was spared the over the top “I rebel” line given by Jyn Erso in the film’s trailer. At the time, it looked like we were in for yet another cinematic example of the ascendancy of teenage-girl models as some kind of new super-human, effortlessly sliding into their roles without the need to gain new skills (or a man to help them) and accomplishing their tasks with ease! Lately, this has been the approach of Hollywood to women in fantasy films, making every would-be damsel in distress into a sword-wielding fighter with an attitude! That’s fine for the first 50 films, but after that, it starts to lose its novelty. Although, if you listened to the film-makers, you’d think they were the first one to try it! Applicability is one thing, propaganda is another. I don’t mind having a strong female leader in a film, even for pandering, but if it does so at the expense of the story telling, then no thanks. The problem with superwomen is the same as with supermen: invulnerability means no compelling story. No character is interesting without a struggle. However, Rogue One seems to narrowly escape this fate. Aside from incredulity of rough-and-tumble rebels choosing to disobey the Alliance and follow Jyn on a heist mission after her short yet less-than inspiring speech, I found that the presentation of the female protagonist wasn’t half as bad as it could have been. Although she could have been better developed, Jyn had weaknesses as well as strengths and made for a fairly good character.
Rogue One provides plenty of fun and excitement, in addition to a lengthy walk down memory lane. Even though my review may seem a bit brutal towards Rogue One’s nostalgia-goggles, I’m mostly satisfied with this newest offering, an experiment as Disney figures out how it will handle the Star Wars property. I for one would prefer that Disney go on making nostalgia films based on Star Wars (I can at least appreciate that) than either trying something new that destroys what the public already likes about this property or taking it into the realm of political advocacy. Once you start down that “dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” as it has with other revived and ruined beloved properties. Three out of five.