I’m beginning to run out of ways to say that The Last Jedi is almost here. In all likelihood, if you’re reading an article like this, you don’t need me telling you that it’s only 5 weeks away anyway, so I won’t waste anymore time. Moving on.
#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One hit a lot of different people in different ways. Many place it near the best of the best, while others have it in dead last. As for me, I believe it has too many flaws for the former, and too few for the latter, so I have it sitting comfortably in the middle. Let’s look at why.
Aside from some cameos, Rogue One features an entirely new and original cast. Of the new cast, some give standout performances, one of which is its star, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. While the script doesn’t give her quite as much to work with as we’d like, Jones is able to make the most of what she has and sells Jyn as someone who has yet to convince even herself that she has no stakes in this war. The film gives Jyn a couple of emotional moments, and those moments are where Jones’ acting ability is on display. Whether it’s seeing a holographic message from her father as he explains the pain he’s gone through without her, or holding him in her arms as he breathes his last, Jones conveys genuine, raw emotion. Her tears feel real and suddenly there seems to be a real father daughter dynamic between the two. Another small moment that leads me to believe Jones is a more mature and skilled actress than given credit for is when Cassian asks if she took the physical copy of her fathers message. Like a normal human, Jyn was overcome with emotion in that moment and didn’t think to retrieve the message, and her response is equally human. Her eyes get bigger, her lips quiver, and her head seems to ever so slightly shake almost involuntarily. It physically appears like she is hit with a wave of embarrassment and regret and we, as the audience, know the answer before she even speaks. Another great performance is that of Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Luna actually received criticism from some for being wooden, but I can’t imagine how anyone came to that conclusion. What this film was able to do primarily through the character of Cassian is add in a layer of moral complexity that was previously absent. The Rebels are still the good guys, but are far more willing to operate in gray areas than we might have previously thought. It is in moments like those where Luna shines. Early in the film, after killing Imperial Stormtroopers Cassian tells an informant unable to escape that everything will be alright. He then shoots him in the back, killing him. The camera then lingers on Cassian’s face as it conveys every emotional reaction one would expect a human go through after committing such an act. With no dialogue, Luna is able to telegraph to the audience his entire train of thought, from regret to justification and it’s a fantastic moment. There are numerous moments like this in which Luna is able to convince the audience that this is a war weary man growing tired and emotionally burdened by his mission. The character who ultimately stole the show, however, was Director Krennick played by Ben Mendelsohn. I’ve always enjoyed the bureaucracy of the villains of Star Wars and here is no different. What makes Krennick different is that, while he has the ambition his fellow peers have, he doesn’t exactly have the spine for it. He tries to hold his own in verbal sparring with Grand Moff Tarkin, brought to life through CGI and a vocal performance from Guy Henry, but is ultimately walked all over. As director of the Death Star, he is willing to declare it as his achievement and takes pride in it, but finds himself complaining to Darth Vader when it is seemingly taken away from him. The film features several other noteworthy performances, such as Alan Tudyk as the snarky reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, as well as Riz Ahmed who gives a legitimately great and grounded performance to a minor character, Bodhi Rook.
Something unique to this film is that it’s not exactly a new chapter in the franchise. It doesn’t exist so much to advance the story forward, but to give additional context to what we know. Because of this, it is able to spend more time contemplating aspects in a more meaningful way that have previously been glossed over, such as the nature of war. As I mentioned with the character of Cassian earlier, the film is far more willing to explore the more morally questionable actions taken in war, even by the good guys. Assassins and saboteurs are shown to exist among the ranks of the Rebellion, and we witness more questionable acts here than any of the other entries in the series. Of all the films in the series, this one takes most seriously the “war” in Star Wars. Apart from a fantastic scene with Vader that leads beautifully into A New Hope, there are no lightsabers or Jedi here. In their stead is the common soldier and the palpable levels of fear and dread of the battlefield. Acts of heroism and bravery that other films would celebrate are cut short here, with soldiers attempting to advance in territory being cut down left and right. The gritty and scrappy nature of the way war is presented here sheds new light on a conflict movie audiences are already quite familiar with.
One of the elements of the film that receives universal praise, and rightly so, is its look. The design and aesthetic of this film is exactly what Lucas had imagined Star Wars should look like years ago when he described it as a futuristic setting that looked lived in and aged. The look of places like Jedha City, Saw Gerrera’s encampment, and the Rebel base on Yavin 4 all look like they have a sense of history. Like these gritty, old locales have existed long before the cameras started rolling and will continue, with the exception of Jedha, to exist after the credits roll. This level of detail is carried over to things like the X-wings and Tie Fighters and all other Star Wars specific craft. Design alone wouldn’t be enough to bring these worlds and ships to life, and fortunately the effects team was ready to meet the challenge. This may in fact be the most realistic looking science fiction film ever. The blend of practical effects with CGI is breathtakingly perfect. Edwards, the films director, went practical as often as he could, making the film feel like it exists in a physical, grounded reality. From the prosthetics used to bring life to all the new alien creatures, to the enormous, entirely practical sets, the film didn’t have to work to make you believe this was real. Even the characters and crafts that were created entirely through cgi never contradict the look and feel of the practical effects. K-2SO appears as if he is reacting and living in the exact same environment as all of the live action performers, and there are multiple instances in which I find that I’m having to convince myself that things like the Death Star or the Star Destroyers aren’t models simply because of the tangible quality the visual effects team brought to them.
In addition to the visual effects, what also helps this film look as visually stunning as it is, is how those effects are put to use. In a franchise known for sci fi action, Rogue One may have set the new standard. Coming off of his previous film, Godzilla, Edwards knew how to film scale and with this ability he put to screen possibly the greatest, most layered action sequence of the series thus far. As the film reaches the third act, all things converge on Scarif, a planet home to an Imperical base housing data to various projects and operations, in this case the Death Star. Requiring the plans to the Death Star, the Rebels launch a full scale assault on the base, with battles on land and dog fights both in and outside of the atmosphere. Moments spent with the soldiers on the ground feel akin to some futuristic depiction of Saving Private Ryan. Orders a heard barked aloud with ships coming in and dropping off reinforcements left and right. Explosions shake the footing of the soldiers as they flee from the imposing AT-AT’s marching forward as an aerial battle is waged in the sky above. All this is happening concurrently with the most impressively shot space battle yet. The level of detail the effects team brought here, from the debris scattered from an explosion, to the explosion itself, all combined with Edwards’ exciting and dynamic cinematography work together so well to create a battle with an intensity that’s palpable. Regardless of any perceived flaws in the film, the Battle of Scarif makes it all worthwhile by itself.
Unfortunately, there are flaws in the film, though. Now we turn our attention toward those.
What doesn’t work:
One of the issues with the film is how it’s all structured. The pacing at times can seem a bit awkward, and the film can often feel directionless. Following what serves as the film’s prologue, covering the events that lead Jyn as a child into Saw Gerrera’s faction, we jump forward in time to what feels like a montage of several of the films new locations. We open to Jyn, now an adult, in an unnamed prison, then to Cassian on the Ring of Kafrene being informed of the Death Star, then to Jedha with the pilot Bodhi being apprehended by Saw’s faction, then to Wobani as Jyn is rescued from imprisonment by the Rebels, and finally to Yavin 4, where Jyn learns of the pilot sent from her father. All of this happens in under ten minutes and comes immediately after a prologue on another new planet, Lah’mu. Meaning, in under twenty minutes, eight of which comprise the prologue, our protagonist has already learned of the films plot and embarked on the quest. The film is too concerned with moving at a breakneck pace than it is allowing us time to get a feel for the characters and become emotionally invested in them and their plight. From this point, the film moves into the meat of its first act, which works well enough the first time through, but upon second viewing seems a bit fatty. All that is ultimately accomplished is the rescue of Bodhi and the information of a flaw in the Death Star. In the first act, we’re introduced to the character of Saw, a character that should’ve been memorable and meaningful. Sporting a look very distinct to him, and a voice to match, given the proper time he could’ve gone on to become iconic. However, given the minimal screen time he has, it all comes off as perhaps a bit silly. What’s especially curious is how the film handles his death. As he stands amidst his encampment as it comes crumbling down on him shouting “I will run no longer!” it feels as if the movie is asking us to care. Almost as if the film thinks we are seeing the inevitable conclusion to a character we’re familiar with, and that this is the end of a well established arc. Now while the television series, Star Wars Rebels, is working to make that the case, within the context of the film it feels like a very odd way to kill a character we barely know. The second act is where the film makes up for moving too fast at the outset, as the pacing screeches to a halt. It consists mostly of a trip to find Galen, a scene on the ground that leads to Galen’s death, then a trip back to the Rebel base. As before, it mostly works on initial viewing, but knowing that it’s entire purpose is to lead to Galen’s death then back to the base, it feels a bit tedious. It’s set entirely in the dark and, apart from a couple of well written exchanges between Jyn and Cassian, is devoid of meaningful dialogue. There is little to no enjoyment to be had in watching the dynamic of the group here. Fortunately, we finally reach the third act of the film, though it proves the film is back end loaded. I spend most of my time in the films first and seconds acts waiting to get to the final one. The film is often described as a cinematic adaptation of the first paragraph of A New Hope. I don’t see the film in its entirety as an adaptation of that so much as I see the films third act as that. This feels like what Edwards and crew really set out to film, and everything before was simply set up. And as good as I acknowledge the third act to be, the transition to it feels a bit jarring. Last we saw of the group together, Jyn and Cassian were at each others throats. Now, after Jyn’s brief meeting with the leaders of the Rebellion, Cassian shows up with his band of soldiers ready to rally around Jyn and go rogue, taking the battle to Scarif by themselves. I understand that when heads are cooled opinions can change, but the film takes Cassian and his attitude towards Jyn from one end of the extreme to the other entirely off camera. It feels like it diminishes all the tension between the two previously, making their opposition to each other feel pointless.
The biggest point of criticism against the film is in its handling of characters. While I very much enjoy characters like Cassian and Director Krennick, and find Jyn a mostly satisfactory protagonist, I can’t deny that the film doesn’t really work as an ensemble piece. The biggest reason for this is a lack of dynamic in the group, and a lack of personal stakes or investment for the side characters. We meet Bodhi at what feels like the tail end of an emotional arc that’s happened off screen. His inclusion makes sense to a certain extent, but the film feels like it keeps him around until the very end simply so they can have a named character at a certain place do a certain thing during the end. He shares almost zero dialogue with any character other than Jyn, and what exchanges he has with her aren’t memorable. Ahmed excels in the role, but honestly, it’s barely a role. What’s even more curious is the inclusion of Chirrut and Baze. These characters feel included for the sole purpose of creating an ensemble. Whereas Bodhi at least served a purpose by being the bearer of information as well as the team’s pilot, Chirrut and Baze add nothing to the plot. Their addition feels like the way a party expands in video games in the RPG genre. Often in these games the player will come across a side character who will join them for a mission that makes sense for their character. However, after completion of the mission, the character will remain in the players party until completion of the game, even though the reason for their inclusion has expired. Chirrut and Baze are captured with our protagonist, but have no real connection to them. Then, as our protagonists are forced to escape, Chirrut and Baze join them in their ship and remain with them to the very end without the film giving so much as a reason or discussion as to why they stick around. And like Bodhi, neither have any real meaningful dialogue with any of the crew, as they mostly just speak with each other. The film, however, is sure that a meaningful bond has been forged, as Baze refers to Jyn as his “little sister” just prior to the films climax, despite the two not having a single conversation with each other up to this point. As for K-2SO, he feels included so that the film can have humor without it coming at the cost of the seriousness of the other characters. Overall, it feels like an ensemble without any of the fun of an ensemble. With J.J. Abrams already giving a master class in how to inject energy and chemistry into a group of characters in a well established science fiction franchise with his two Star Trek films, there is a noticeable lack of it here. It all amounts to there being very little emotional resonance.
While it may disappoint in its attempt at introducing iconic new characters to a franchise full of them, it exceeds in introducing breathtaking action sequences and shedding light on an era of Star Wars previously thought fully explored and should be noted as a success in the book of any Star Wars fan.
We are now halfway through this series, meaning the best of the best is yet to come. I look forward to continuing my thoughts of the series as we eagerly await, together, the newest addition.