Whether the downplaying of the formidable cast’s charismatic energies is an intentional downplaying of the potential risk to the characters that they play—whether it’s a matter of not actually allowing viewers to get too attached to characters or actors, not allowing viewers to be bummed out by bad news but rather breezing past it in a spirit of fealty not to these characters or performers but to the franchise—is the kind of corporate Kremlinology that would rightly take the place of criticism in assessing the substance and tone of the movie.
That’s culled from Richard Brody’s review of Rogue One in The New Yorker, and holy crap. I mean, holy crap. That’s one sentence. One. I challenge you to read that sentence without going glassy-eyed.
But let me circle back to that review in a minute.
I saw Rogue One this weekend. It’s good. Overhyped, I felt, but then, what in the recent Star Wars universe isn’t a little bit overhyped?
The film sort of paints itself into a corner, though. It’s branded as a stand-alone chapter in the Star Wars Universe, not part of the saga, but just a story living in that particular story world. Which … kind of … okay, I guess? It was important that we learn how the rebellion got hold of the Death Star plans, maybe? I dunno. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information” was a bit too glib for some, I guess, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to tell the particular story of how they came by the plans.
Except, the story’s a bit too flat, a bit too pat, a bit too much rehashing of old tropes with not enough of the Star Wars sweeping grandiosity and magic for me. I know, I know. Rogue One‘s selling point is: no Jedi, no magic, no Skywalkers, no soup for you. Still. For me, it’s a bit of a miss, but one that still hits some targets — like aiming for that one stormtrooper that’s running right at you, but missing him and hitting the big crane behind him that dumps a big load of space rocks and crushes, like, five stormtroopers instead. Except then, you get shot down by that one stormtrooper, which is totally demoralizing, not just because you got blasted, but because you got blasted by a stormtrooper.
So let me explain (and here’s where I flash the big red SPOILER sign).
The best thing about the movie is Jyn.
Wait, scratch that. The best thing about the movie is Alan Tudyk’s K2S0, but if you’ve read any other reviews, you know that already. He’s Marvin, the Paranoid Android, of HHG2G renown, but with a healthy dose of ass-kickery thrown in for good measure, and he’s an absolute delight.
But yes, Jyn.
She’s the second heroine of the Star Wars Universe under the Disney regime, which is nice. Orphaned, scrappy, disillusioned, all par for the course; possessed of a convenient-but-not-gamebreaking skillset that will allow her to go far, but not without the help of some well-placed allies. Look, as a character, she’s fine. You’ll get no argument from me on Jyn, just like you’ll get no argument from me on Rey from TFA.
And I’ll go ahead and insert here the obligatory: the cast is diverse, which is a good thing. Female lead? Non-white males in major roles? Villains portrayed by the white dudes who would otherwise be excluded? Check, check, and check. Disney is making sure to show us that there are other things besides white guys in the galaxy. Some people might call that pandering, but for my money, there’s nothing forced about it. And that’s a welcome change.
The problem comes in, not with the actors playing the parts, but the characterization of everybody else in the movie. I’ll be honest: I’ve entirely forgotten their names, and that’s not just because it’s two days after the fact and I’m up way past a martini. It’s because the characters are entirely forgettable.
There’s the captain of the ship, who’s tasked with bringing Jyn to a rebel leader for some help. He’s about as bland as they come, with hints of a dark past, but don’t go looking for any fleshing out of that dark past, because this is a stand-alone movie.
There’s the comedy-relief rock ’em sock ’em duo of Donnie Yen and another scraggly guy with a big heavy blaster. Yen is a blind monk who desperately wants to be in touch with the Force, and he kind of is, but not really? And his buddy is … well, he’s along for the ride, but we don’t particularly know why, and we won’t be finding out, because again, this is a stand-alone movie.
And there’s a defected Imperial pilot, who of course helps the ragtag band of adventurers sneak into the heart of the Empire to do the thing, and while it might be nice to find out why he defected or what he hopes to accomplish outside of suddenly-coming-to-his-senses-and-laying-down-his-life-for-the-good-guys, we won’t be finding that out either, because, as has been established, this is a stand-alone movie.
Look, it’s serious-spoilers-for-real time again, but remember how we established earlier that this movie painted itself into a corner? By dint of its placement (before episode IV, but after the prequels, which will not be mentioned) it practically shouts at you that none of these characters will have relevance outside of this movie. Which is shorthand for saying that they aren’t gonna make it out alive. I know, right? It’s a shock, except that it isn’t, because if Jyn and whoever the rest of these scrubs were actually played a role in the events that followed Rogue One, then where were they and why have we not heard of them in episodes IV through VI?
And therein lies the problem. We know from the start that they won’t be making it out of this — or even if they do, they retire to the edge of the galaxy and sip on blue milk for the rest of their lives — and so their stake outside of this movie is nil. Which means that, as far as an audience is invested in them, we have to make it count right away, right now, in this movie, in this moment.
But it doesn’t count. There’s no backstory for any of these guys except the standard Empire is evil, let’s band up and take them out because this is a movie and hey why not. Donnie Yen’s blind kung-fu master is awesome for a few fight scenes, but he gets himself killed because of course he does; he’s a blind man in the midst of a nutty laser battle. Then his buddy gets himself killed avenging Yen because what else is he gonna do? Imperial defector plays his role, too, and so does Captain NoName, and the bodies keep piling up.
Jyn, at least, has a lovely character arc established, and damn, if we don’t feel something when she goes. Problem is, what we feel is frustration, because we’ve been made to care about this heroine who then gets wiped off the table with all the ceremony of swatting a gnat.
So, Rogue One kinda sucks.
Except it doesn’t. It’s fantastically paced, visually striking (the overall drabness of the film as a whole contrasted with the final battle on a tropical beach planet? Superb), and witty — if mostly in the guise of the humble droid. It’s firing on many of the same cylinders as TFA, which, given it’s the second iteration of the franchise under Disney rule, isn’t surprising.
But TFA has something that Rogue One doesn’t, and that’s the give-a-fargo factor.
Rey and Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Luke and Leia, Kylo Ren and Snoke? Yeah, I may be missing some backstory on some of them (*glares hard at Rey and her deliberately mysterious past*), but I know those details will be given to me in future chapters. These characters are woven from a larger tapestry, they expand beyond TFA, and that means I don’t mind being strung along a little in TFA because there’s a payoff coming. Jyn and captain guy, kung-fu dude and heavy blasters, K2s0 and imperial defector pilot? This is all we’re getting of them. There’s no more to come, so I’m not nearly as invested.
So, Rogue One, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t measure up to The Force Awakens. It just doesn’t. It’s a good Star Wars movie — I might even say it’s a decent movie in general — but TFA, for all its recycled tropes and paper-thin homages to the original films, is better in every phase of the game.
Still, Rogue One is way better than the prequels. Which isn’t much of a yardstick, but anyway.
Which brings me back to the review I quoted at the top.
The review is subtitled “Is It Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise,” and I know that the hotness these days is provocative, clickbait-y titles, but holy shark. Maybe The New Yorker‘s target demographic is a bit more intelligent than the average bear, but just try re-reading that sentence. Try it. That single sentence has more tentacles of dangling modifiers and criss-crossed clauses than Cthulhu, and more self-important verbal masturbation than Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
“Corporate Kremlinology”? “Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise”? Did I just watch another bit of fluff in the Star Wars Universe or a goldfingered treatise on socioeconomics in the alternate realities of a fascistic puppet regime?
Star Wars, for all that it’s a product of our times, and as such, has meaning beyond itself, and everything is symbolic, and yadda-yadda-English-teacher-babble blah blah blah. Fine and good. But sometimes? Sometimes we go to the movies to watch the rebels stick it to the Empire, whether the narrative is “perfect” or not, whether the movie delivers in all respects or not.
So can we maybe cool it on the microscopic overanalysis of a film which is, at its heart and core, just a bit of fluff and filler? A plate of cheesesticks and mozarella, delivered to us to keep Star Wars in our hearts in anticipation of ep VIII next year? THINGS DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO MEAN THINGS.
TFA is a more perfect piece of the Star Wars Universe than Rogue One. It handles its characters better, it plays on the motifs of the saga and panders to its audience better. It’s a bloody fantastic aperitif for the banquet that looks to be in the making. (I watched it again this afternoon. It’s still awesome. When Ren freezes that laser blast in the beginning? The literal darkness overtaking Ren before he kills his father? Rey summoning Luke’s lightsaber right past Ren before their climactic duel? I STILL GET CHILLS.)
But that doesn’t mean that Rogue One is part of the prequel dumpster fire. It isn’t. It’s savvy and sharp and compelling like TFA, it’s got shout-outs and nods to the old, grizzled fans like myself while delivering enough of its own punch to stand outside of the saga as a whole, albeit less strongly than I’d like.
All of which is to say, it’s not a perfect film, by any stretch. But it’s a damned good time, a thrilling bit of escapism. And given the 2016 we’ve all been having, a bit of escapism is exactly what we need, no matter how flawed.
I give it three out of four Imperial AT-AT Walkers in smoldering ruin.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN OLLEY / WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES / LUCASFILM LTD. / EVERETT
Anyway. I know some people out there (including my dad!) think that Rogue One is basically the best thing to come out of Star Wars, but it didn’t do it for me. Your thoughts?