Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” did something to me I truly did not expect a Disney Star Wars film to do – it surprised me.

I found “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” likeable enough, though so much a retread of the original 1977 “Star Wars” that it felt ultimately inessential to me, what few original elements it had disappointingly underused. While I found the premise of “Rogue One” appealing, as it played into replicating the aesthetics from the original trilogy that I like so much, I expected it to also feel ultimately inessential. I did not expect it to add anything new to the franchise. I did not expect it to truly strike a chord with me. I did not expect it to make any kind of meaningful statement.

And yet, it did. It did all those things, with great style no less. I have my issues with the film, but they’re nearly entirely relegated to the visual effects and the music. The story worked tremendously well for me, and I find myself thinking of the future of the franchise with a new outlook now. I’ve always felt the original trilogy are more than enough, and that everything else (bar the “Knights of the Old Republic” video games, but that’s an entirely different conversation), even at its best, amounts to basically inessential cash-grabs. But Gareth Edwards managed to warm my cynical old heart when it comes to Star Wars, and I’m truly impressed by that.

I’ll get my critiques out of the way. The movie was not scored by John Williams and…it really, really shows. The score is bizarre. It uses the leitmotifs of the original trilogy less than “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” did, which is baffling since this there are a great deal more number of scenes in this film appropriate for those motifs than there were in Episode VII. Why is the “rebel fanfare” used in “The Force Awakens” so often, yet barely used at all in “Rogue One”, when the latter is literally about the rebels, and the rebels do not even exist as an organisation in the former? The new leitmotifs that Michael Giacchino came up with aren’t bad, but aren’t repeated enough to really sink in, and they’re often used at odd times. Scenes where old motifs would fit feature the new motifs, scenes where new motifs would fit feature the old. At least the Imperial March is used at the right times.

My biggest critique of the movie is difficult to describe  in detail without spoiling anything. To put it vaguely, it’s the visual effects. The film features depicts a few characters not through live action actor performances, but through CGI replicas of people, the same way “Tron: Legacy” did for Jeff Bridge’s character, “Ant-Man” did for Michael Douglas’ character in his youth, and so on. The effect does not look good. It looks very shiny, and almost like a video game cutscene. I think either just recasting the actors for these roles, or eliminating them entirely from the script (which would have been doable) would have been better. As it stands, these CGI characters are distracting, and are unfortunately quite a large part of the film. In a film with good performances (Felicity Jones emotes one scene around the end of the first act beautifully, Forest Whitaker does an excellent job, and the rest of the cast are generally strong), these dodgy CGI “performances” stand out terribly.

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Those are my two primary criticisms. I have other, smaller complaints – many characters feel underdeveloped (the strong performances help offset this, but can’t undo it entirely), the first two acts drag at times, the film gets too mired in fanservice at points (nowhere near as bad as “The Force Awakens” did though) – but they’re less of a big deal. I liked more than I disliked. Gareth Edwards has a fantastic sense of scale, and scale plays an enormous part of the movie. Like he did in his 2014 “Godzilla” film, he is excellent at communicating scale in dramatic and clear ways to the audience. In a film about the Death Star, a colossally sized weaponised space station mistaken by Han Solo for a moon in the first film of the franchise, scale really is important.

Scale isn’t just a visual aspect of the movie, though cinematographer Greig Fraser does a great job with that. The story itself is about scale. This film is lower stakes than the original trilogy. It’s about “less important” people. This is not about Jedis, the Emperor, or royalty. It is not a film where magical main characters can request a set of plans to be stolen from the enemy, have that happen off-screen, and receive those plans as if it was nothing. This is a movie about the people doing those jobs for the important people that can ask for them. It’s a movie about oppression and war at the ground level, rather than the godly, mythic level. At the level of the troops, instead of the commanders. Jedi or Sith are mythical, near-cosmic entities here, rather than commonplace, let alone main characters. The film doesn’t just follow the original trilogy in aesthetic, it understands the mythic quality of the storytelling present there too (which was so lacking in the prequel trilogy), except it intentionally operates vastly below those mythic levels, but in recognition of them.

The film’s third act is by far its best, and makes the clearest statements about sacrifice, motivation, and the nature of being lesser – less important, less vital, less known, less powerful, less cared for. The film absolutely has to be viewed with the context of the original trilogy (at the very least, the first film), because it’s a commentary on it. It repositions and recontextualises events and implications of what are truly children’s films in a fatalist perspective. While it’s inherently a “supplementary” film, in that it’s a comment on another film, it absolutely is a good, strong film in its own right, which I cannot say for most of the films in this franchise. I give it three and half kyber crystals, and a pinch of stardust.

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