I typically don’t post reviews of current films, but as a long time Star Wars fan, I wanted to put down some thoughts on Gareth Edwards’s new entry in the film canon, and the first standalone film (assuming you don’t count the 2008 animated entry The Clone Wars): Rogue One. So here we are!
I read Steven Greydanus’s review for his site, Decent Films, prior to seeing the film, in which he persuasively argues that this new film, subtitled “A Star Wars Story,” is a major change in the mode of the storytelling from the numbered Episodes of the main Saga. There is a shift from the fairytale like quality of the original trilogy, into a slightly more mainline sci-fi style. Not only is the violence more visceral than in most of the films, but also the heroes and even possibly the Rebel cause itself, are tainted with war crimes and murders that are made a central part of the story. The mythic mode of storytelling has had the bright lines between the “good guys” and “bad guys” smudged. For some, this is a welcome change, a more “realistic” look at the horror of war. For Greydanus, it’s basically a dealbreaker, in that he feels this form of storytelling betrays what is essential about the original Star Wars fantasy, with its archetypal presentation of the story of the triumph of purity and idealism over the evil forces of mechanical domination.
I found myself in neither camp, really. Years of dipping into the well of the now-defunct Expanded Universe off and on has primed me for an incredible variety of storytelling modes set in this universe that, God help me, I can’t help but love. Greydanus’s argument that the core, canonical (film) stories are betrayed by Rogue One in a way that wasn’t the case with the peripheral books and comics is legitimate—and nagged at me—but I still found more to appreciate than he did.
The change in storytelling mode is signaled through a change in film grammar in a number of ways that separate the ongoing Saga films from this standalone. The obvious one that’s often been remarked on is the lack of the opening crawl. The film begins instead with a sort of “cold opening” prologue that is itself a structural departure from how the other films are built. No other entry in the Star Wars canon has that sort of narrative leap forward. There are a few flashbacks in Rogue One as well, the closest parallel to which is probably Anakin’s dream in Episode III. The signature Kurosawa-style wipes that mark the change of scene in Saga films are gone, and there are onscreen titles labeling the names of the various planetary locations that are visited throughout the film.
Along with these fairly subtle changes in the filmic narrative presentation, there is an extensive use of handheld cameras, rendering a more subjective and less storylike visual style. The editing seems conventional if briskly paced. All of it adds up to a fairly conventional action film, albeit one with Star Wars trappings. There is far too much exposition, which leads to a lot of talking scenes for such an action packed film. As many reviewers have noted, there are too many characters for any of them to be developed beyond a couple of cursory broad strokes. Yes, the droid is the best character. Yes, the CG resurrections are pretty bad.
But worse than these for the story is that the rewrite process apparently changed Forrest Whittaker’s character Saw Gerrera, reducing or altering his role from what was hinted at in the trailers. He becomes, sadly, a glorified plot speed bump, whose performance and appearance make him seem like he was spliced in from the deleted scenes of David Lynch’s Dune. He, like a couple other characters, really serves no purpose in the film that couldn’t have been accomplished with more efficiency, perhaps allowing for some run time to be devoted to some of the breathing room of a reflective moment like the famous twin sunset on Tatooine from the original Star Wars.
On first listen, I thought Michael Giacchino’s score was very good. John Williams can never be replaced, but I have said that Giacchino should be his successor since the days of THE INCREDIBLES and especially, his score for the TV series LOST. I didn’t take away any newly memorable themes, but frankly that was the case for me with Williams’s score for The Force Awakens, as well. Similarly, it was a more subtle score than any Williams had written for a Star Wars film since the original in 1977.
Since this is a new release movie, I will be kind (contra my usual policy) and warn that there are some mild spoilers below:
Though some of the cameos and callbacks, like Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba were a bit hokey, I did enjoy them (CG resurrections excepted). Some of them were deep cuts for fans not only of the original films, but also of their production history. References to the Whills, and the “Force of Others,” in the person of Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, reflect not only the first evidence of the Force being an actual practiced religion (as it was called by Tarkin in Star Wars) but also some of the early Star Wars scripts by Lucas, where the story was said to have been taken from the “Journal of the Whills.” Vader’s castle was in an early script for The Empire Strikes Back, and there’s an evocative Ralph McQuarrie concept painting of the Emperor’s lava-filled throne room that’s similar to what ended up in Rogue One. Blue Squadron was the original name for Star Wars’s X-wing squadron that Luke Skywalker joins, but it was changed when they realized that blue markings on the ships would not work with the bluescreen backgrounds in the effects shots. The fate of Red Five in Rogue One is another little connection when you think of who took over that call sign in Star Wars.
Here endeth the Spoilers.
Overall, I really enjoyed ROGUE ONE, but I have to admit that if it wasn’t a Star Wars film, it would rate a lot lower. But that’s not really fair, as it is a Star Wars film. I was also more accepting of the moral dilemmas presented than Steven Greydanus, because I think ultimately the characters are shown growing beyond simple revenge, and make decisions that show that they have progressed to an understanding that it is wrong to meet the Empire on their own terms. They ultimately disavow a willingness to defeat evil at any cost or by any means. The characters are admirable in their self-sacrifice and care for each other, but more importantly in their growth beyond simple adherence to orders and utilitarian morality in wartime. Though it is buried in the excessively convoluted plot, overwhelmed by the constant motion of the violence and pacing, and lacks emotional resonance due to the thin characterizations, this film stays true in the end to the moral vision of redemption that is the heart of the Star Wars saga.
Please comment below; spoilers are welcome in the comment section!