Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

rogue-one-posterRogue One is a different kind of Star Wars movie. While its predecessors felt almost mythic or fable-like, a kind of Arthurian legend set in outer space, Rogue One feels grittier, more “real”, almost revisionist. While the previous films are each part of a series, with characters and story-arcs following over from one film to the next, Rogue One is in many regards more self-contained, though obviously the events of the film lead directly to the events of New Hope. It’s different, and in a franchise which has always followed a similar MO with its live-action films, that counts for a lot. We’ve never seen a Star Wars film like this, and that makes it exciting. Exciting enough to make up for the films flaws? Perhaps. Because as exciting and fresh as Rogue One is, it’s also at times disjointed and rushed, perhaps a product of the re-shoots and alterations that happened during production. When it works the way it’s supposed to, it’s fantastic, with visuals and action that feel somehow more weighty, more tactile than anything seen in the franchise thus far. But there are flaws that keep it from the perfection it often flirts with, from being that Star Wars movie that always existed in your head as a kid.

Rogue One takes place in between Revenge of the Sith and New Hope, telling the story of the theft of the Death Star plans, the macguffin that drove New Hope‘s story. Our heroes are a scrappy band of Rebel Alliance fighters and misfits: Jyn Erso, the daughter of one of the Death Star’s lead designers, Cassian Andor, a rebel intelligence operative, Chirrute Imwe and Baze Malbus, a blind mystic and his gun-toting friend, and of course our droid du jour K-2SO.

The film makes a very conscious effort to take us away from the most recognizable elements of Star Wars, namely the Jedi and their whole scene, and focus instead on the folks who would normally be relegated to supporting or background roles. Rogue One‘s heroes are pilots, commandos and whatever passes for average joes in the struggle against the Empire. Obviously The Force is still a major part of the world, but none of our protagonists is a mystical chosen one with the power to levitate rocks this time around. This makes the film feel…..well, “realistic” isn’t the word, but perhaps “human” would do in a pinch. The Star Wars films up till this point have leaned heavily into a kind of legendary or mythic narrative, the sense that what we’re seeing is a story passed down through generations as folklore. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad (except for when the time comes for last-minute redemption), and everything feels suitably epic and operatic way.

Rogue One takes a different track, painting the Star Wars universe as a shade more nuanced and complex. A good place to start in discussing this is the film’s visuals.

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There’s an almost indescribable way that Rogue One makes the Star Wars universe feel more “real”. Objects and locations have a pronounced sense of the tactile to them, with layers of dirt, grime and wear. Locations feel lived-in and alive, full of story and history. You could spend hours going through the film frame-by-frame and picking out familiar props and costume bits that call back to previous films, and it makes everything feel comfortably familiar and the universe consistent and storied. Everything feels tactile and textured, in a way that’s very hard to articulate but you’ll recognize it when you see it.

If there’s one thing that director Gareth Edwards brought over from Godzilla, it’s a fantastic and well maintained sense of scale to everything. When we first see the Death Star, Edwards makes sure to position Star Destroyers close by, and then later we see a Star Destroyer hovering over the walled city of Jedha, low enough to properly convey the massive size of the ship, and by extension the station that we just saw dwarfing it. When AT-ATs attack in the film’s massive finale, we often see them from ground level, with figures in the foreground, giving us a better sense than ever of just how huge and terrifying the Imperial war machines are. And of course, when things start blowing up as they inevitably do, it’s with an almost pornographic attention to detail and a wonderful sense of weight and mass.

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There are some problems we’ll touch on later, but the action in Rogue One is largely fantastic. The big show-stopping battle sequence at the end easily tops the Force Awakens finale, and sequences like a rebel ambush on Jedha and Vader’s Big Scene are a joy to watch. Rogue One also has the good grace to actually let the martial artist it hired do some martial arts (Not still bitter about the Raid guys being wasted in Force Awakens, why do you ask?)

Rogue One gains a lot of good will by going to some darker places than other Star Wars films. Rather than the unequivocally righteous band of underdogs, the Rebel Alliance often show themselves to be prone to in-fighting and internal disagreement, as well as willing to do bad things in order to accomplish their goals. The film also doesn’t shy away from the cold, hard fact that the Rebel Alliance meets many of the definitions of a terrorist organization. Or at least, certain factions of it do.

There’s also the ending, which we can’t discuss in depth without going into massive spoiler territory. But suffice to say, it goes to some bleak places.

But sadly, all is not perfect.

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As anyone who’s followed the production knows, Rogue One apparently went through some re-shoots and re-workings during its filming and production. These changes may have ultimately been for the better, we’ll probably never now, but if you look close you can absolutely tell that this is a film that’s been under the knife a few times.

The first half hour or so is lightning-paced, taking us from planet to planet and event to event with almost head-spinning speed. When it finally slows down around act two, there’s still the occasional sense that there are bits missing here and there. A story beat, a character beat, even just an action beat. Something will happen that feels like it’s meant to be the second half of a sequence, but you never saw the first, or vice-versa.

Some times it will even just be the feeling that a shot was somewhat truncated, like when an important or impressive action beat happens and the film immediately moves on without sparing even the second or two of extra time it would take to add some extra impact or reaction. It moves at a mile a minute pace at times, and in a way that often detracts from its impact in very subtle but definite ways. The mere second or two it takes you to go “woah” at something awesome happening can mean all the difference between a truly memorable moment and one that gets lost in the rush. There’s a flow and rhythm to not just storytelling, and Rogue One‘s rhythm feels very subtly off, in large and small-scale ways.

What’s also a shame is that a lot of the shots that were most striking from the trailers and promotional materials are apparently the ones that got left on the cutting room floor when the film was re-worked. That shot of stormtroopers wading through knee-high waters? The one that featured in around 90% of the film’s marketing? It’s nowhere to be found, along with a lot of other striking visuals that the trailers teased us with. Which isn’t to say the finished film doesn’t have a lot of beautiful visuals, but it feels lie we were robbed of one too many epic shots.

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Rogue One‘s rushed pace also means it has precious little time to spare to let us get to know a lot of our cast. It doesn’t help that it’s a big ensemble piece. We get a basic sense of who everyone is and what role they fill, but it feels as though we don’t get as much chance to connect with them as say, Force Awakens. It also should be said that while everyone performs well, few of them can quite match the chemistry and on-screen presence of the leads from Force Awakens. That immediate sense of camaraderie and friendship from Poe and Finn from practically their first scene together isn’t something you’ll see much of in Rogue One. They seem less like characters you’d want to spend a lot of time with, which also makes the film’s bloodbath of an ending less impactful than it could have been.

Except for K-2SO. K-2SO is the best. He’s like if you threw Chewbacca and Threepio in a blender and poured the results all over one of the robots from Laputa, then turned the passive-aggressive sass up to eleven. Plus his eyes move, and the odds are that you only just now realized that he’s probably the first humanoid Star Wars droid EVER to have animate eyes, and that goes a TON of distance to making you connect with him.

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But hey, speaking of connecting with animated things, let’s talk about the one thing Rogue One spends entirely too much time on, namely its dead-eyed CGI stand-ins for Peter Cushing and young Carrie Fisher. Simply put, the technology just isn’t there yet, and it should be used as little as possible until it is. Rogue One‘s Tarkin is an eerie, discomforting sight to behold, far too animate in his facial expressions and with skin that looks too shiny and rubbery.

It wouldn’t be such a problem if the film kept his presence to a minimum, but they keep trotting the damn thing out, often for scenes that feel perfunctory or even unnecessary. The young Carrie Fisher stand-in only appears for one shot, but the weird, too-smooth look to it is just plain creepy. And again, it isn’t necessary. When the rebels board the Blockade Runner at the end and hand the plans to a white-clad figure, everyone in the audience knew exactly who it was before her face was visible. Forcing us to look at their creepy CGI stand-in in was entirely unneeded, and arguably detracted from what could have been a more powerful scene.

But in the same way that Force Awakens managed to overcome a sizeable number of flaws, still managing to be a fun and eminently watchable movie in spite of a number of shortcomings, Rogue One manages to overcome its faults. A large part of this could admittedly come from the sheer novelty of seeing a Star Wars movie that’s on a somewhat different wavelength than what we’ve seen before in terms of intent and look. As discussed earlier, it’s a new angle on the Star Wars universe, and the excitement of that is hard to look past. But when you do manage to peer past the issues with pacing and flow, that horrid CGI Tarkin and the novelty of a Star Wars film that plays by some different rules, you’re still greeted with a fun, visually engrossing and hugely entertaining film.

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