It is a dark time for Word Salad Spinner.
Ok, it was a dark time for this blog, but I’m back now! You know me; I can’t resist Star Wars, or even an irrelevant allusion. Which brings me to my two disclaimers before I complete the last segment of my blog’s brief detour into reviewing sci-fi movies:
- My love for this franchise extends beyond reoccurring characters with great recasting and even better makeup. Even obscure references like “force of others” and “Whills” cause my critical facilities to skip a beat. It’s folly to ask for “objective criticism” in art, and if you want an objective opinion from me on Star Wars, you might as well deck the halls with boughs of folly (Disclaimer 1.5: I’m excited to be writing again and I’m out of practice too!).
- I stand by all the negatives I brought up in my Star Wars Episode VII review. But you should know: I, from the depths of my still-healing soul, love that movie. My attitude in the review I wrote was “pretty good for a cash-in,” but every time I rewatched that movie, the new characters, old twists, and sheer beauty of it all turned me into a kid every time. It’s still better than the prequels and not as good as the originals, but the movie is not so middle-of-the-road in terms of quality.
So I’ve probably already spoiled in the disclaimer (and will spoil plot details after this paragraph, turn back now ye unworthy) that I really liked Rogue One. As good as The Force Awakens? In many ways better than Episode VII, and in many ways worse. But like Episode VII, its characters are both well developed and poorly planned, its fanservice wonderful and unnecessary, its action comprehensive and unclear. Despite all these contradictory comparisons, the movie remains an entirely different creature from The Force Awakens. If you disliked Episode VII, this movie will probably address a lot of your complaints. Overall, it’s an engaging, if occasionally frustrating and ultimately shallower, experience.
Yeah my views on… well, if you’ve read my work, you know my views on most things are complex. Is it any wonder I have to unpack an entire movie just to say how I feel?
Sightings of Vader and Tarkin in the trailers excited me, but do you know what really gave me confidence in this movie? The opening crawl. As in, there is none. In a way, that was my biggest hope for the movie. I’ve seen the open crawl in so many sub-par Star Wars video games, TV shows, and animated parodies that I only want to see it now for the big events. Yes, this is a different kind of Star Wars movie— a war film instead of a Flash Gordon soap opera. At least, it tries to be. If you don’t catch the new batch of weird names in this movie, you won’t refer to planets by their geography… you’ll call them “the refinery planet,” or “the database planet” or “It’s the Middle East, they didn’t even disguise it, I mean you’ve got guys in turbans throwing bombs at marching troops how blunt can you GET.”
Instead of straightforward heroes, Rogue One depicts a Rebel Alliance that’s fractured, morally compromised, and honestly not too different from the Empire in some respects. Some of the subtler nods to the originals are scenes with a similar set-up to an original trilogy counterpart, shot with different pacing and new emotional beats. The best of these is a scene where the Rebels use an octopus-alien on a prisoner to “discuss” the location of their hidden Imperial weapon. The shades of grey are welcome, in particular because it ends up showcasing a striking new look to this universe. The movie sums up the underbelly of this rebellion with a scene wherein the rebels capture the heroes and put bags over their heads… including on the head of the blind guy.
The new band of heroes, unlike the child-like trio in The Force Awakens, have much more depth, internal conflicts, and ideological maturity than almost anyone in any previous movie. Yes, they seem better than Rey, Poe, and Finn in almost every way… except for one crucial ingredient. I’m talking about motivation.
Oh, their general goals in the movie are clear— the Empire are still the bad guys, after all. But a lot of great scenes happen in this movie for reasons I’m not quite sure of. What did Jyn spend her teenage years doing, exactly? Why did the heroes get involved with the guerrilla ambush on Jedha? Why does Jyn become a factory for hopeful speeches at the midpoint? And why in the name of Revan does Saw Gerrera, otherwise wonderful, perform a self-sacrifice for no reason? This lack of understanding slithers into the actions scenes as well. Amidst some of this series’ best and most well-produced action, the movie will cut to battles where, even if the big picture is established, it’s unclear why those guys are shooting that way for what short-term end.
It’s part of the reason why, despite all the things I love about this movie, I ended up feeling a bit empty after it was over. Rogue One takes its time to build up towards explosive confrontations, yet little of the buildup adds to suspense. Despite all the talk about despair and hopelessness from the Rebels, there’s no reason to worry about these characters because not only are they in a Star Wars movie, their emotions betray that fact. They react to Stormtroopers the way all-powerful Jedi would to cheaply manufactured droids, despite the heroes in this new prequel being scrappy underdogs.
(BIG SPOILER FOR PEOPLE IN A FOLLY MOOD THIS SEASON) None of the people in the core cast die until the final battle, where they all die. And while you will still mourn for your favorites (in my case, K2SO and Chirrut Imwe), there’s nothing in the movie’s tone that suggests that the universe lost something, or that the audience learned anything. Characters don’t die for emotional impact; they die because their role in the story is over. All these characters are individually more complex than Han, but when Han died, no matter how obvious the set-up, it changed things. Rey’s life, and Kylo’s journey, are forever shaped by it. I know these characters better than I knew David Bowie, but David Bowie still had much to give to the world. Rogue One is like if in A Song of Ice and Fire, the major character deaths happened exclusively in the last 25 pages of each book. A thousand soliloquies can’t talk over the tone of the movie, which isn’t oppressive or threatening enough even in the final battle. It’s a tragic payoff, but the most I get from it is an “Oh. I guess that’s what happened.”
Rogue One aims higher than The Force Awakens, so it’s not so bad if the movie’s not also a bull’s-eye. All these criticisms I brought up did damper my experience, but it’s easy to become so wrapped up in the action that you don’t care. Ultimately, I talked a lot about the negatives because the positives boil down to “I had a blast!” I can write for a while about how pointless Vader’s inclusion in the movie is, but nothing I say will match how cool Vader is in the movie (and frightening too— the tonal problems could’ve been fixed if we had Vader face the band of heroes at least once). This Star Wars outing might not stick with me like all the other movies in the saga… but, as you’ve noticed, I’m just happy to be back.