We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.
My two favorite films in the series are Star Wars (which I refuse to call “A New Hope”, as that’s not what it was called when it was released, and I think that’s a dumb name anyway) and The Empire Strikes Back, and these two films follow a common pattern in sequential storytelling: The first one shows more inspiration and feels fresh, but the second one is better made and the story is better told. Overall I think that Star Wars is the better film, because Empire has three big strikes against it:
- There’s basically no way you can top the freakin’ Death Star as a threat;
- It doesn’t have a satisfying ending, inasmuch as it’s the first of a two-part story, and
- It introduces the notion of Darth Vader as Luke’s father, which I think is where the series’ story goes off the rails.
This is not to say that either film is perfect (a subject I could go on about at some length – maybe someday), but once you forgive all the silliness on which the films are based, Star Wars is just a more satisfying and fun film than Empire.
The Force Awakens and Rogue One are not connected in the same way, but they both feel a lot like those earlier two films: Force (which I reviewed last year) very consciously apes Star Wars and so it doesn’t feel fresh, though it is still fun. Rogue One is a much better told story, much better produced, and its darker tone (and even color palette) feel very similar to Empire. And Rogue One even feels fresher, with a more distinct cast of characters, visually more interesting planets, and just more stuff going on. Despite its somewhat downer ending (since all of our heroes end up dying in accomplishing their mission), it’s more satisfying as well, with more cheer-worthy moments.
And the production and staging are phenomenal. The destruction of the city on Jedha is an outstanding effect (even if to my mind the pacing seems like one of those pieces of silliness you need to ignore, as I think the shock wave from the blast would have annihilated our heroes within seconds, not minutes), and the fight on Scarif is basically the fight we’ve always wanted to see in Star Wars: Lots going on, Imperial Walkers everywhere, X-Wings flying around, our heroes trying to eke out their pyrrhic victory amidst it all.
And okay, when one of the characters asked how much the force field around the planet can take, I leaned over to Debbi and said, “I don’t know, why don’t you try throwing a Star Destroyer at it?” So I felt a tad smug about that.
One of the complaints raised about the film is that there’s not much character development in it. And that’s true, but it’s also true that one doesn’t come to Star Wars for character development. Really, excluding the prequels (which are, at best, clunky and manipulative in this department, so I have no guilt in excluding them), how much of this is there in the franchise? Luke’s journey in the original trilogy, and to a much lesser extent Han’s redemption in the first film. And Finn’s arc in Force. And… that’s about it. Leia doesn’t change a whole lot in the first series, and Rey is still a cipher at the end of Force (though I expect she’ll come into her own in future films, but Force was fundamentally Finn’s story). And no one else equals any of those characters.
In Rogue One, the main characters are Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, and their arcs are intertwined, but Cassian’s is the stronger, as they hint at him having done horrible things in the past in the cause of the Rebellion, and we see him almost do it here, but turn away from assassinating Jyn’s father Galen. It’s implied that Jyn has a similar backstory in the name of survival, but we never see any of it, and her arc is more one of “I hate everyone” changing to “I see that you people can do something for me” and finally to “I must complete my father’s life’s work to save everyone”. Her speech to the Rebel council is inspiring, but I don’t think they quite managed to nail her character because her background was left so murky. Indeed, the main effect on her speech is to persuade Cassian to listen to her impassioned delivery of what he’d somewhat cynically told her earlier (“Rebellions are based on hope”), and realizing that one more seemingly-awful thing he can do to help the Rebellion is to go against what its leaders want. Jyn does this too, of course, but as the Rebellion is a big part of Cassian’s identity, it potentially costs him more than it does her. Ultimately I think Cassian’s story is at least as effective as Han Solo’s in Star Wars was.
In these regards the film is pretty ambitious, but they would have needed another 15-30 minutes to really establish these characters to provide a truly satisfying payoff to all of this, and that would have made it a somewhat different film (likely with a smaller cast and compressed battle scenes, two things I doubt the director or Disney would have been willing to compromise on). But I think if you’re coming to the franchise looking for more character development than that, then you’re coming to the wrong franchise.
Some other bits:
Some people said they got tired of the nods to the original films, but I didn’t find them too jarring. I thought the handling of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin worked well; it was farther on the other side of the uncanny valley than I’d expected, which makes me think we might only be 10 or so years away from fully-rendered, almost-utterly-lifelike big-budget films.
I also enjoyed the middle-to-upper-management bickering within the Empire; Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennec was both effectively creepy and threatening towards Galen Urso at the beginning, and appropriately craven and pathetic when facing Darth Vader.
The supporting cast was quite good. Most of the plaudits seem to be going to K-2SO, and while I enjoyed him I basically found him to be C-3PO with attitude (I wonder how much attention K-2SO has gotten just because he’s voiced by Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk). I much preferred the blind Chirrut Îmwe. I also appreciated the pilot, Rook, who was a little similar to Finn in Force in that he wasn’t a heroic figure, but unlike Finn he set out on a mission to do some good, and I appreciated that he seemed to be constantly working to overcome his fears, without being portrayed as a coward.
Overall, a really good and exciting film. I rank it about on par with The Empire Strikes Back as probably the two best-written films in the franchise. My guess is that people who are mainly into the mythology of Star Wars will prefer The Force Awakens. But if you’re more like me, then you probably prefer Rogue One.