Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)


I’ve mentioned before that back in the 1990s I was a hard-core Star Wars fan. Yeah the prequels ended up killing some of that enthusiasm, but I still enjoy movies and shows set in the universe. There are plenty of stories to tell. What is interesting is that back in the mid 90s there was an experiment by Lucasfilm to see if folks were interested in non-film Star Wars events. Shadows of the Empire turned out to be a moderate success, and we were promised more (that idea got scuttled when the prequels were announced). I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these turned into the script for Rogue One.


Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of a famed Imperial scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). When she was a child the Empire abducted her father after he tried to escape their clutches. Jyn’s mother was killed and Jyn was found and raised by revolutionary Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump forward a few years and Jyn is a convict on an Imperial work moon. Luckily her life is about to take a different path.

The rebellion springs Jyn in the hopes that they can meet with the notoriously paranoid Gerrera and find out if the rumors of an Imperial super weapon are true. Gerrera has obtained a defecting imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who says Galen sent him. And so the adventure begins with Jyn joining forces with a motley crew. There is Cassian (Deigo Luna) a cynical battle hardened Rebel agent. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a reprogrammed Imperial droid with a chip on his shoulder. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) a Guardian of the Whills, a type of monastic order that treat the Jedi teachings as a sort of religion. There is also his protector the world weary Baze (Wen Jiang) who’s heavy weapon skills will no doubt come in handy. They will find themselves facing the might of the Empire lead by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) a man out to prove to Darth Vader that he is worthy of praise. But will the Rogue One mission be a success, or a dismal failure.

Good Points:
  • The last half of the film is top-notch Star Wars style action and adventure
  • Alan Tudyk makes K-2SO the best character in the film
  • Really liked seeing this a return to this era of the universe

Bad Points:
  • The script is a mess
  • Most of the characters are not very compelling
  • The pacing in the first half is really off


Well here we have a completely middle of the road Star Wars film. When it comes to action and immersion in the universe the film hits all the right moments. Some solid acting also helps carry us past the fairly flat characters. Unfortunately the film feels messy with uneven pacing in the first half and some odd character motivations that don’t feel earned. It is solid entertainment as it is, but I see a much better film buried inside it and that is a disappointment.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Beach Party, Star Wars style.
When Disney announced that they were going to explore other facets of the Star Wars universe in films, I was curious about the idea. There were so many avenues to take the concept. Then they told us a little about Rogue One and I was really interested.

First off, before Disney declared the old expanded universe no longer cannon to the Star Wars saga, there was a hero who had obtained the Death Star plans and got them to the rebellion. In the video game Dark Forces you play as Kyle Katarn a rebel spy who infiltrates an Imperial base and steals the Death Star plans, beaming them to Princess Leia’s ship during Operation Skyhook. The operation was mentioned in the Star Wars radio drama. All that was out the window.

These two just blew their stealth roll.
Secondly, the idea of a band of rebels sneaking into an Imperial base and mixing it up with the Empire while having some of the main characters of the original trilogy lurking in the background – well that sounded just like the adventures you would create in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games. This actually got me really excited, because I’ve been visualizing this since the 1990s. I envisioned a whole television series featuring these heroic rebel characters going on missions and attempting to find out more about the Jedi. This seemed like a film that was finally bringing that concept to life.

I think someone is ready for some beach volleyball.
But the specter of The Phantom Menace looms large over all things Star Wars related. So while I was very curious, I tried to keep my anticipation for Rogue One in check. Sure The Force Awakens was entertaining, but I kept hearing about many behind the scenes problems during the filming of Rogue One including a serious amount of reshoots. That rarely bodes well for a film.

The result is a film that feels messy. One of the best things about The Force Awakens was the nearly breathless pacing and constant feel of forward momentum. Rogue One feels sluggish and fitful for the nearly the entire first half of the story. Once the mission to steal the Death Star plans actually kicks in, the film generates suspense and builds action set pieces with great skill. Gareth Edwards is known for his action sequences and his expertise come through. But getting to that point is a bit of a chore.

Let’s focus on the good elements first. When it comes to immersing the viewer into the Star Wars universe prior to the events of A New Hope, Rogue One nails it. This movie looks like a natural progression toward the 1977 film. Everything from the tech, the uniforms, and down to the way the movie looks gives you the feel of a genuine predecessor to the series we are so familiar with.

A high tech game of Defender.
This is not an easy task, and great care was taken to ensure it felt natural. While there are a couple nods to the prequels, this film feels far enough removed from that shiny reality and are entrenched in the grittier dirty world of the original trilogy. It is great to see the rebels relying on the classic starships, including the X-wings and the Y-wings. Even the Imperial ships fall in the same boat. Vader does not arrive in the massive Super Star Destroyer from Empire Strikes Back, but on his regular sized juggernaut The Devastator.

The visual effects look pretty darn good for the most part. The starship battle at the end of the film is one of the best we’ve seen in the entire saga. It is framed well, easy to follow and intense as all hell. Alien creatures are pretty solid, there aren’t a lot of them featured in the film, our cast is all human. The strange tentacle beast that Gerrera uses against Bodhi is perhaps the most CG looking of all the creatures.

Speaking of CG there is one thing I can’t avoid talking about. Because of the film’s setting, we have some familiar faces in the movie. Darth Vader’s costume is actually a wonderful replica of the one from A New Hope (which is slightly different from the ones used in Empire and Jedi). He makes out fine. But we also have Grand Moff Tarkin (who was played by Peter Cushing in 1977) and Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher).

There is something uncanny bout seeing Tarkin again.
Tarkin plays a key role in Rogue One. The decision was made to have Guy Henry play the part with a CG replica of Cushing’s face placed on him in postproduction. The result is a mixed bag. When he is not speaking, he looks pretty darn convincing. Henry even has Cushing’s mannerisms down. But when he speaks, although the voice is nearly perfect, the face just hits that uncanny valley way too many times. And they were obviously proud of the work, because he gets some really long close ups. The result kept pulling me out of the film and being distracted by how disturbing he looked and not listening to his actual dialogue. Faring worse, with even less screen time is Princess Leia. She has about 30 seconds of screen time, but once again they have her walk right up to the camera and with her uncanny valley CG face right there, it just looks wrong. It actually soured the ending a bit for me.

Disney has pulled this before with Tron Legacy by having some really close up moments of Jeff Bridges youth enhanced face filling the screen. Rogue One suffers from the same issue. Recasting would have been fine, or keeping the stand ins backs to the camera would have worked too. But this was just a misstep and one that I think will age really poorly over time. Since it impacted my engagement in the film, I had to knock the visuals down a grade.

Is it just me or does he look like he could be
related to Dengar?
Sound effects work was top notch though. The movie is filled to bursting with classic Star Wars sound effects, it really added to the immersion factor of this film. Little touches only fans would notice, like the bass rumble when Vader uses his Force powers, or the chattering of the silver instectoid droids were fun audio Easter eggs for fans.

When it came to music we had a first for the Star Wars film saga. John Williams has scored every live action Star Wars theatrical film. But for Rogue One a new composer was asked to step up. Originally French composer Alexandre Desplat was working on the score. But after all the reshoots Desplat was unable to continue working on the project because of other commitments. Disney turned to one of their most dependable composers who had already scored the revamped version of Star Tours, Michael Giacchino.

Giacchino is a huge Star Wars fan, and he was one of the candidates to score The Force Awakens if John Williams was unavailable. This time Giacchino had a real test on his hands. He had to score a massive wall-to-wall orchestral work based on his favorite franchise (with all the fan expectations along with it) and do it in four weeks. It was an insane request, and Giacchino had already had a packed year scoring films like Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. But he stepped up to this challenge and did his best.

"How did I let them talk me into this?"
The result is a score that captures the feel of John Williams 1977 score in tone and style, but is also clearly built by Giacchino. His voice comes through in the new themes and the application of all the thematic moments. It was a tricky balancing act, where Giacchino picks up motifs and ideas that were used by Williams only in A New Hope, but fleshes them out a bit for Rogue One. Other times he has his new material from Director Krennic play in counterpoint to the Imperial March or the Death Star motif. You can tell that Giacchino spent as much time and care as he could crafting this score. With the accelerated schedule and immense pressure we got a fine bit of film music.

There are a few moments where the score falters a bit. The use of his Hope theme during the opening title is a little too on the nose and almost sounds like a parody moment. There are also times where the Giacchino’s style that he established for the Abrams Star Trek films bleeds through into the Rogue One score. I think that time crunch he was under probably forced Giacchino to use some style shortcuts that people are familiar with. I know it is an issue when YouTube reviewers mentioned that some of the music made them wonder if Captain Kirk was going to show up and save Jyn at the end.

I think the droid is looking down on her.
The acting in Rogue One is solid all the way around. The fact that I’m not all too invested in the characters has less to do with the actual acting and more to do with the messy script. The cast does the best with the material they are given, and in some cases it is very little. Felicity Jones does an admirable job with a flat character. The script wants us to be invested in Jyn’s journey, but she is given little to do but react to events around her. We don’t see what really motivates her, or what fuels her actions. Jones is often left observing events and reacting to them. She has a few good scenes dealing with her father, but that is about it.

Faring a bit better is Luna as the jaded and cynical Cassian. Here is a character that feels like he sprung from a full back-story. Luna makes Cassian’s dedication to the Rebellion feel real and his actions have weight. Again, not much is given in the script, but Luna takes the small nuggets and runs with them. He feels like the most fleshed out of the main characters and it is due to his excellent performance.

These Stormtroopers have never heard of the blind
swordsman before.
For as little screen time as Yen and Jiang have, they actually create enough camaraderie between their characters. You feel like these two have been together for quite a while. They have some amusing banter and Yen in particular invests his character with some interesting moments. You could have almost had him play a larger role in the film and it would have been much more interesting. There is a story behind Chirrut, but sadly we just get hints of it.

Alan Tudyk is always great in pretty much anything he is in. He imbued Wash in Firefly with a lot of charisma. Playing the droid K-2SO doesn’t hinder him in the slightest. He makes the most of his limited screen time. And by the end of the movie, he was the hero I was most invested in when it came to their fate.

He has no problem blowing up your planet.
On the villainous side I will say that I liked Mendelsohn’s performance. He plays the ambitious and deadly Imperial officer perfectly. I love his arrogance and the way he has no problem talking back to Tarkin, and even a little bit to Vader (although he looks appropriately cowed after that encounter). He makes for a solid antagonist and again, I wish we had gotten just a little more time with him. It felt like there was more of story behind him, but it just didn’t make it to the screen.

Whitaker, Mikkelsen and Smits all do fine jobs with their small moments. But when you have guys like these why waste them in such small moments. I know that Whitaker had a lot of his scenes reworked, and his eccentric performance here feels a little off in some ways. But at the same time it added this uncertainty to his scenes. You never knew just what he was going to end up doing. If the script had served him a bit better, it would have been a great character. I will also say that Genevieve O’Reilly makes a perfect Mon Mothma. See Disney, you can recast a part and still make it work.

Jyn is finally ready to take action.
While most of the parts are in place to give us a movie that should work, it is the structure of Rogue One that just falls apart. I think the writers were hoping that giving Jyn a backstory with her parents and tying her directly to the Death Star in some way would raise the stakes. The problem is that Jyn never feels like she is motivated to really act for any reason. She is pretty much shuttled from location to location and only when her father dies does she really make up her mind about doing something. But this moment comes across so limp that it just doesn’t resonate. If we had more time with Jyn, seeing her yearning for her past, seeing her interaction with Gerrera it might have helped. But what we get is so sparse it just doesn’t have the impact it should. So for the bulk of the first half of the film you end up with character building moments that just don’t deliver.

Trying to make heads or tails of the rewrites.
This same thing happens with Director Krennic. Instead of building him as a threat, the movie spends time showing his struggles with Tarkin and Vader. It starts to fee like more scenes built around fan service than actual service to the story. His story has an ironic twist, but again, it feels limp and doesn’t really do much for the overall impact of the tale. And speaking of fan service, the film goes a bit overboard in that department with C-3PO and R2-D2 not to mention the thugs that harass Luke in the cantina showing up for no other reason than to make fans smile.

What really needed to happen was for the creators to pick a direction and stick with it. Instead we get a film that feels like it is trying to do too many things at once. It wants to turn Jyn into a variant of Rey from The Force Awakens. They wanted to create a mission impossible type film or a full-blown Dirty Dozen type movie. But those films focused more on building up to the mission than trying to create limp character moments. They knew they were building suspense and action set pieces. And we get that in spades in the second half of the film. That is what the whole movie should have been.

Darth getting a little dramatic.
In my mind Rogue One could have used fewer characters, a simpler narrative and the guts to go for something straightforward and intense from the first scene forward. We should have had this elite team of rebels, maybe see them in action during the pre-credit sequence James Bond style. Then have them receiving their mission to steal the plans. The rest of the film could be them coming up with a strategy to get the plans, maybe a small adventure getting a secret code or something to sneak into the base. Then the rest of the film with them attempting to get Skyhook pulled off. They should have picked a single villain as the main antagonist. Could be Tarkin or Krennic, but not both. Keep Vader for the big surprise at the end, that whole sequence works great. But those scenes with Gerrera and finding Galen could be dropped.

In the end, you get a muddled movie. I’ll admit, I was really hoping for something like a film version of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. And I was really disappointed during my first viewing. But seeing it a second time, I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a flawed movies set in the Star Wars universe. It hits the sweet spots for fan service and action. But beyond that it feels like a disappointment. There is a really good (and maybe even great) movie somewhere in there. It’s a shame we didn’t get that.

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  1. I haven't seen it yet, but I will eventually. There are some things I see simply because they are part of the culture and I like to be able to talk about them over dinner, and this qualifies. Sometimes (e.g. The Hunger Games) I like the movies I see just for this reason. The cgi of real actors can be truly impressive these days. I often don't know what throws the illusion off, but commonly something does. Disney actually was good for the franchise. Who'd have thunk?

    1. Yeah this one is worth checking out at least once. I'm a bit surprised that some folks think this is best film with "star Wars" in the title. To me it is much more flawed than "The Force Awakens". It does get a bit gritty at times, which does appeal to a lot of folks. But in my mind they never really committed to the idea of a gritty war film in the Star Wars universe - which is how this film was originally described.

      Yeah so far Disney has done some great things with the franchise. I just wish they didn't crank these out once a year. I does keep them from feeling all that special. But if they can keep the quality high, then it might all work out in the end.

  2. I didn't mind Rogue One. I actually kind of liked it. I don't know how I would feel upon re-watching it, but I will some day. I don't know if you've ever read Dark Horse comics series, Star Wars Tales, but they were a compilation of different writers and artist who put together stories about other characters and concepts from the universe. Some of the stories were funny, some about other battles, the was a Mara Jade story, and so forth. They were pretty entertaining and a direction I thought the cannon should go into to maintain freshness, which might be where Disney goes with some of the newer Star Wars mythos.

    1. I never read the "Star Wars Tales", but I did read the "Dark Empire" series from the 1990s. It was actually an interesting concept. Luke embraces the dark side of the force so he can truly master it. Leia has to take up Jedi training to stop him. At the same time the Emperor had a clone of himself waiting in the wings and this young and deadly clone reinvigorates the crumbling Empire.

      The art was pretty good. They stuck pretty close to the characters personalities in the movies. And there was some really good Boba Fett vs Han Solo moments (yes Fett survived the Sarlacc in this version). But it also had the Empire building another super weapon. And some of the story arcs were essentially repeats of the original trilogy. But seeing Leia dueling Luke with a lightsaber was pretty darn cool.

  3. I watch online this movie. And seriously love to watch this movie. I am big fan of marvels and sci-fi movie.