I had not set my expectations very high for Rogue One, nor had I planned to see it early in its theatrical run. But neighbor, son’s best friend, extra tickets, etc. So it turns out I am opening-weekend cool when it comes to Star Wars…quite by accident.
Is this a good movie? I am still not completely sure how to answer this. Perhaps I am paralyzed with old age. Let’s run down a few quick issues without rehashing the mainline reviews already out there.
I did not find the same problems with this one that the great SDG did over at his review (which I did read before going to the movie). I get that this movie’s release coincides with the atrocities in Aleppo (and scores more places besides–we trade in atrocities, this world of ours), but I did not think Rogue One was cashing in, glamorizing, or being cavalier about violence in the Middle East. Nor did I think that the movie plunged us into a universe of moral ambiguity with no white hats or black hats to be found. Like all Hollywood offerings, the ethics are pretty flawed–but there are no howler mistakes and only a few winces. Your mileage may vary.
But speaking of the Middle East Lite setting: STOP MAKING ME GO BACK TO TATOOINE! It fit the spaghetti western part of Lucas’s Sibylline Muse, and ok I get that “desert backwater” fits our expectations for resistance fighters and warfare these days, but come on. Enough of the same desert planet sets.
Story-telling Question 1: how much do we really need this part of the story to be told? We’ve fallen in love with “show, tell, then tell again” movie-making that can’t bear to leave a single hint unexplained or loose end…well, loose for the imagination to play with. I never felt a strong need to have this part of the Rebellion play out on the screen. Maybe I’m just tone deaf to the demands of the mob, but this feels more like a cross between a cash grab and a deliberate set-up for Episode 8. In that sense, there were shades of Marvel here. The good news is that Rogue One is not nearly as soulless as the Marvel offerings, nor is it held in captivity by endless crossover setups. But it was a bit of a distraction and it held me up from getting into the movie at first.
Story-telling Question 2: Yes, but is it well told? For the most part, yes. The beginning of the film is a bit jumpy and choppy, but it hits a stride early and hangs on through most of the film. The choice of war/spy movie that many others have commented on does indeed play well. This is not surprising, given the era and sensibilities of those movies also brought us the westerns that Lucas leaned on for his first go-round. There’s a nice stylistic complement as they try to tell us all about what else the Rebellion had to do so that Those Three could play the operatic heroes in Those Movies.
The end sequence is a rushed, inelegant hand-holding to make sure we “get it, get it? remember?” as far as connecting us to Star Wars. I don’t think any child will ever again need to see the story crawl at the start of Star Wars: ANH again. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Perhaps it just means it is more important than ever that parents raise their children well, in a God-fearing home, and never let them watch anything but ANH first. But this movie coulda-shoulda taken a cue from great movie-making of the past and ended at a certain very obvious point. Too much limping to the finish line.
The best news of all: Donnie Yen does not ruin the movie. The great Donnie Yen–current holder of the title of world’s greatest movie martial artist–seemed like a character poised to completely screw up the entire Star Wars feel and canon a la midichlorians. Good news: he’s a perfect fit, providing the dash of Jedi that this movie needs to wear the Star Wars crown without making it a Force movie. Whoever wrote this part–and Donnie himself, for how he played it–deserves great praise.
But now the dark side. Guess what: this movie, just as I said of the last one, is still just cashing in on all the video game story-telling that LucasArts has been doing for the last 20 years. This book has been written. This game has been played (more than once!). The fanboy payoff scene in the closing sequence is ripped straight out of The Force Unleashed with the hapless mooks being given a simple re-skin. You either need to be a complete Star Wars fanatic, or be unaware of the video game sources, not to be bothered by this. I dwell in my own uncanny valley, I suppose.
But on balance, the pros far outweigh the cons. I rarely see movies anymore, and when I do I never feel as if I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Some (see: The Hobbit) make me bemoan this fact aloud while I am watching the movie. But I would have paid to see this one. Not bad. Not bad at all.
P.S. turn off your physics-thinking for some of these scenes. Atmospheric space fighting is actually not the most insanely stupid-impossible part of this movie. You have been warned.