While it is difficult to get to the theater as often as we would like, my wife and I made sure we took the time to go and see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story when we could. It was the first film I've seen in theaters since Deadpool, as shortly thereafter my son was born and the regular rhythms of my life were thrown into a nearly constant state of change. However, now that things are finding their own routine once more, I can now provide you with a SPOILER FREE review of Rogue One. Enjoy!
Expectations & Nostalgia
I often write about the power of nostalgia and how it has taken over pop-culture lately. With soft reboots like Jurassic World, Star Trek, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, we're seeing film franchises of old getting the fan service treatment. Star Wars is no different, with Episode VII: The Force Awakens being a love letter to the original Star Wars film, with some extra bits added to it here and there. Rogue One follows this same path, reminding us, the audience, of our love for the original trilogy and that era of awe-inspiring science-fantasy. The classic stormtroopers are back, the walkers are back, the X-Wings and Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, they're all back to tickle the backs of our brains and say "remember when...?"
But is that a good thing?
I went into Rogue One hearing from numerous people that it was their favorite Star Wars film to date, including the original trilogy. This is a mighty tall order. How can someone claim that? My brain couldn't handle the thought of a Star Wars film, made and released after the prequels, as being better than Star Wars, or The Empire Strikes Back. Those were two testaments to film-making, stretching the limits of what we expected from adventure films and science fiction, showing us what we didn't know we wanted. Thanks to those films, now we know what we want, and we, as the audience, become displeased when it isn't given to us.
Hence the prequel trilogy and its inability to grasp imagination and excitement like the original trilogy.
But I digress. After hearing such powerful praise of this new Star Wars film, I was growing skeptical. The last time I had heard praise such as this, it was for Michael Bay's original Transformers film, from which people I knew who didn't even enjoy science-fiction said it was their favorite film of all time. While Transformers was entertaining, those statements were hyperbolic, to say the least (or else those people have incredibly base film preferences. And there's nothing wrong with that). Yet how could Rogue One be THAT good? Already I was making judgments about its quality, and I hadn't even seen the opening scrawl yet.
Oh, wait, there is no opening scrawl. That already sets off a strange feeling. One of excitement and intrigue, of uncertainty and curiosity. So this isn't supposed to be a mainline Star Wars movie. Okay, fair enough.
Now, I've said it before, but I suffer from terrible theater-shock. That is, if I see a film in theaters, I will generally feel about 50% better about that film than I will later on. I a sucker for big screens, loud noises, and the whole theater experience. Once I get home and digest the film on my own, I'm more likely to make some sound, level-headed judgments on it. That being said, I loved Rogue One when I left the theaters, but I will be honest and say that my views have slightly changed since then.
What I Liked: It Looked Like Star Wars
I know how that sounds. Well, duh, Nick, of course it did. But let me explain.
This film had in it all of the ingredients that I felt made Star Wars so special. The force was there, but it wasn't a prevailing presence that every story element hinged upon. The starships were there, and the big naval confrontation was strategically exciting and beautifully choreographed. The fights felt like Star Wars fights, such as from The Empire Strikes Back. The walkers made a brief appearance, and in larger numbers than ever before, and the sense of scope and scale of the film was never lost, especially when the Death Star was shown off.
Act Three of the film was particularly strong, with the entire rest of the film simply being a set up for the culmination of this great heist. Seeing the fleet warp in from hyperspace made my heart race, and watching the battle above the shield gate of Scariff was something I could do for hours on end. The lasers, the explosions, the dogfights, and the crazy space tactics were wondrous, and it made me as happy as an eight year old to see those on screen again.
Darth Vader had a great moment at the very end, and his is the only lightsaber we see (much to my relief, honestly). And this film goes to certain lengths to realistically and adequately explain the single, dumbest thing about Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, finally making us realize why the Death Star has such a seemingly obvious and exploitable weakness.
The performances were strong with the material they were given. Felicity Jones felt like she belonged in the Star Wars universe. Donnie Yen belongs in every action movie ever. Everyone else was satisfyingly cast and portrayed well. It's no question, when watching this film, that everyone involved, from cast to crew, believed in the film's direction, its message, and how it fit into the greater Star Wars timeline. What it did well, it did among the best of the entire franchise, undoubtedly.
But now let me start to explain some of my problems with it, and why they are bigger than they may seem.
What I Didn't Like: It Didn't Feel Like Star Wars
I get it, all of the ingredients were there. Every piece was in place, and the crew of Rogue One showed us that it is possible to have a good Star Wars story that isn't centered around the Skywalker family.
But we knew that already.
Thanks to the Legends that came before it, we knew the Skywalker family was only the tip of the Star Wars iceberg. And while it was refreshing to not be watching the Skywalkers continue to mess up and then try to fix the galaxy time and again, it also made Rogue One lack a certain level of Star Wars that is present in all of the other films (to a lesser extent The Force Awakens). Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing for more family drama. I'm simply saying that it was part of what made the film feel less Star Wars-y than the others we've seen already. It made Rogue One feel like a Star Wars comic. Granted, it was the best Star Wars comic I'd ever read, but it lacked that level of import that the other, mainline films had. Couple that with the fact that we already knew the outcome of Rogue One thanks to the very first Star Wars film ever made, and it just sort of gave the entire film this vignette of superfluousness that I couldn't shake.
Beyond the non-quantifiable "feeling" of the film, there were other issues I had with it, and I'm sure I'm in the minority when it comes to these. Act One of the film felt incredibly flat, which is interesting because that's arguably where there's the most emotion. But it all failed to resonate with me on any level, other than my brain telling me "this is a Star Wars movie, so you'd better like it!" Felicity Jones's character is the only one developed at all. Other than her, there's the roguish male side-kick, the funny droid, the force-attuned protector and the gunman. Aside from that short description, I'd argue that there's little going on for any of the other characters outside of those attributes.
The CGI actors were done well, for the most part, though I don't remember Peter Cushing being so tall. I said to my wife at one point "he looks like they just stretched plastic over Peter Cushing's skull." To which she replied "he always looked like that." And that was enough to make me see that it actually looked better than I was afraid it was going to. Darth Vader's lines were cheesy in a way that I don't know if I liked or not, and of course we first find him on a lava planet. I mean, he's a Sith Lord, so he likes lava and burning and all that, right? (Although, one would think that Darth Vader would have a special aversion to such a planet, considering how and where he shed his humanity at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). Red Leader and Gold Leader were done well also, especially since they were just short cuts as they piloted their fighters throughout the battle of Scariff. And Carrie Fischer was CG'd to damn near perfection, as she looked and sounded 100% like her old self. Seeing that as the stinger image at the end, especially after the recent news of her death, literally brought me to tears.
Even while lauding its strengths, it still falls short of what I would expect, what I would hope, from a Star Wars film. It's a fun watch, once you hit about the 40% mark. It really picks up once the heroes get to Eadu and certain events start propelling them towards the conclusion. But all in all it truly is a film that is made by its third act alone, as everything else is just telling you "this is going to end with a bang, just you wait!"
Should You See It?
Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is it worth seeing in the theaters? Well, chances are you've already made up your mind and saw it. If you haven't by now, then I'd say just wait for it to come out for rental or streaming. It's well-made and entertaining, and I'm sure it will feel like a better experience in my living room, where expectations are lower and the critical eye is more tired. The opening and first act are so formulaic that they're nearly boring, right down to the scene where they recruit the rest of the main characters. One friend of mine said "[Rogue One] felt like an adventure right out of [the tabletop RPG] Star Wars: Edge of the Empire." I would agree with him 100% on this assessment, to which I would add the clause "which wasn't exactly what I wanted in a Star Wars film."