Rogue One: A Fan-Film Story

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.

26200797002_95a305038a_bRogue 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.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

 

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Does the Force Awaken or Hit the Snooze Bar?

After over 30 years of waiting, at last there is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. Finally, we have a movie that will drive out the bad taste of all those prequels that we endured, right? Well, not so fast. The following is my brief review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There was a lot riding on this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was supposed to be the movie that not only made fists-full of cash (which it is doing quite well), but also served as a springboard for an entire new Star Wars cinematic universe that would include a whole slew of money-making side films complementing  the primary films of Episode VII, Episode VIII, etc.  If such a strategy was successful, it would justify all of the billions of dollars invested by Disney in order to acquire Lucasfilm in the first place. But perhaps more importantly (at least to the movie-going public), SWTFA was going to be a magical film that would thrill millions of fans and bring us all back to a simpler period where we experienced Star Wars for the first time. But let’s be honest, there’s no going home. There are no nostalgia-goggles big enough to recreate the almost perfect circumstance of uniqueness in the cinematic market, the original creative approach to the material, and a Jimmy Carter depression climate (although B.O. is trying) that all add up to equal the same youthful escapism at the theater that we found in watching the original Star Wars. Unrealistic expectations aside, SWTFA is a pretty good film. It’s nice to see the old characters and familiar elements again, the new characters seem O.K. and at least have humanity to them, and the film has pretty good moments of humor. On top of that,  SWTFA has excellent production values, a reluctance to be too political in an overtly and trendy way (I wonder how long that will last?), and quite a few schmaltzy moments that make you remember an earlier age where you lost yourself in a tale of a farm-boy with dreams of adventure.

Now, it’s time for gripes, and I have a few krayt dragon bones to pick with this film in which I will be revealing a few mild, general spoilers. I won’t talk about anything major that will ruin the film for you, but if you want to be completely surprised, you might want to skip to the last paragraph.  I will begin with my biggest issue in that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in many ways, felt like a reboot/remake of the original Star Wars. That is not to say that there wasn’t any original material in it, there was, but what you had was not just another Star Wars movie, but an almost retelling of that same story of a callow youth from a remote world who goes on a dire mission, and together with new friends, defeats the bad-guys and their planet-destroying thing, all while discovering the power within. Now, some might say that’s just because Star Wars is part of the quest trope, and Joseph Campbell, and blah, blah, blah, and that maybe right, but it was a little disappointing.

Another issue that I had with SWTFA is in its approach to the death of some of its characters. Sometimes a character, played by a distinguished actor, will be introduced only to be abruptly eliminated soon after that introduction, leaving you scratching your head as to why they wasted such talent. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where they had to introduce us to new-old-friends for Indy because the original actors had passed on the project or had passed away. In Indy, it didn’t really work, for lack of a good script, but in the case of SWTFA, these new-old-friends were killed off in short order before we had any time to assess if they added to the story or not. Additionally, the film pretends to kill off some of its characters, only to reveal a little later that they hadn’t perished at all. I’m not a fan of “I’m still alive, bro (high-five)!” type storytelling, especially when the death of the characters might have given some graver meaning to the future perils awaiting them. Please understand that I’m not trying to have it both ways (e.g. if you kill them, I’m unhappy, but if you don’t kill them, I’m unhappy). What I believe is that in drama, the death of a character, or the surprise return of a character, should have meaning. Kill them or don’t, but don’t needlessly off them or bring them back in such a way that doesn’t add anything to the story more than offering an easy road to plot complication C.

Furthermore, I got the impression that the script was a bit lazy and predictable. Character development occasionally happened because it was necessary to advance the plot, but didn’t feel very motivated. This is especially true where the force is concerned, with one of the characters discovering their powers because it was required to get them out of a sticky point, but made little sense for it to happen like it did. Additionally, a big deal is made out of the inclusion of a new female enemy, but in the end the character and their gender serve little purpose in the story. That character could have been anyone under that armor; nothing they did was so important that any nameless Stormtrooper couldn’t have done as well. Although the villain looked cool and appeared like she could do some serious damage if given half a chance, ultimately she did almost nothing to justify her existence, nor her unique look. The dramatist A. P. Chekhov observed, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” * I think this female villain was a needlessly-hung pistol. And lest I forget to mention, in a bit of a disappointment, the emotional climax of the whole movie, that part that everyone’s going to talk about, could have been seen from miles away. And while it may have been fated to happen because of story reasons and actor’s wishes, I really think more of an effort should have been made to make it more of a surprise.

So, that’s my take on what is likely to be the first of many, many films set in the Star Wars universe. Of all the possible measures you can use in determining the value of it, the one real testament of whether a movie of this sort (episodic) is good or not is inherent in the question: “Would you see another one?” As for me, I’m ready for Episode Eight. While in the case of the prequels, I was looking forward to the next one knowing that I was likely to be disappointed, in this case I measuredly foresee good things. My previous gripes notwithstanding, the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pretty good, containing a good amount of warmth, wonder, and excitement. It wasn’t a perfect movie, nor one that sold my childhood back to me in a bottle, but it was well done. Bravo, J. J. Abrams. I rate it a three out of five.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

 

Why is the Evil Empire “EVIL”?

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Not all change is good change!

As of writing this, it is December 17, 2015, and that means preview night for The Force Awakens! And much like many of you, later today I will be at a local theater watching the latest Star Wars movie! Eventually I will do a non-spoiler review on it, but first I thought I’d dust off an essay that I wrote a few years ago that examines the moral ambiguity forced on the original films with the addition of the ill-famed prequel trilogy. And so if you’re game (warning: it’s a bit dry), in celebration of the release of The Force Awakens, and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek, I give you a unique moral/political treatise on Star Wars in, Why is the Evil Empire “Evil”?

(Click on the link below.)

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