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21 Feb 2017

Review: Rogue One – Sticking with the film theme from my last entry, I thought I would share my thoughts on the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. This is something I have been meaning to do for a while now, since it’s been over a month since I’ve seen it. To be perfectly honest, I’m not really that interested in doing a proper review of the film anymore (although I don’t know if what I do here is ever really proper film review). I’m more interested in musing on how Rogue One fits into the greater Star Wars filmiverse. (The usual spoiler warnings are in effect.)

“For as much as I enjoyed Rogue One as a stand-alone film, in the greater scheme of things did I really need it?”

I don’t remember exactly when we saw this. I do know that it was when we were staying at my parents’ place in January, and we all decided to go out and see it at an Alamo Drafthouse (relatively) nearby. It sounded like an interesting idea—have dinner and drinks while watching a film—but in practice I’m not sure if it really gelled for me. I generally like to see what I’m eating and drinking, and at the Alamo that is very hard to do. This may not seem like a big deal, but for the better part of an hour I was convinced that a pickle spear was in fact a drenched, limp french fry, and I studiously avoided eating it. In addition, I ordered a mushroom and Swiss cheese hamburger that ended up being smothered with horseradish aioli that I couldn’t taste anything else—and I couldn’t see the burger to tell if I had been given the wrong menu item, or if someone had just screwed up big time (who puts horseradish aioli on a mushroom and Swiss cheese burger?). Anyway, none of that has anything to do with the film. I was just a little disappointed with the experience overall.

Unlike my hamburger, though, I enjoyed the film. I should note that I went into it completely blind, though—that is, I had no idea what the film was about, who was in it, when it was set, etc. I had assumed that it would pick up where The Force Awakens left off, so I was a little surprised when the film started off by introducing completely new characters. I kept waiting for some familiar faces to appear, but none did. Or, rather, when they did, I found myself disoriented. Grand Moff Tarkin? But... didn’t he die? Darth Vader? What the.... It was then that I realized I was not watching a sequel to The Force Awakens but a prequel that took place between the prequels and the original trilogy—a tweequel, if you will (imagine my disappointment to discover that I did not just invent that term).

I said above that I enjoyed the film, and I did. I thought the story was very well put together, and the characters had compelling motivations. Some of those characters I enjoyed quite a bit; sarcastic droids are nothing new at this point (cf. Interstellar), but K-2So took the trope to a new level (and also reminded me a bit of the Iron Giant). And the action, of course, was what we have come to expect. Put it all together, and you have a good film that I enjoyed watching. Once I figured out that it was a direct prequel to A New Hope (as in, it ends literally minutes before A New Hope begins), though, I realized that none of the characters would survive. I knew that I was watching the last heroic stand of a doomed band of rebels. This did make everything more poignant, and all of the main characters got good death scenes, but it also made it all feel a little... fatalistic? I don’t know. You feel differently when you know you are watching a bunch of characters who are not going to make it.

This is part of the problem with prequels in general: You can’t introduce any new main characters without killing them off before the end, otherwise you have to explain where they went in the interim, before the original film begins. I suppose another part of the problem with prequels is that they are essentially origin stories; you already know the “what,” you just want to figure out the “how.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, and an origin story done well can be very powerful. An origin story done poorly, though—as in the case of Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy—can rob the hero or anti-hero of much of his or her power. In Rogue One, of course, we are not dealing with the origin story of a hero, but of an important moment in (galactic) history. Yet I find myself asking a question similar to the one I asked after watching the prequel trilogy, namely: Did I need to know this?

Much of what made Darth Vader such a terrifying villain was his mysterious nature and past. We got hints of that past (“Darth Vader killed your father”) imparted to the hero by the wise old mentor, but later we learn that those hints are but half-truths, if not lies, setting up one of the greatest reveals in modern cinema (“No, I am your father!”). We never see his face, hidden as it was behind that black mask, until the very moment of redemption. Whenever I watch Return of the Jedi I marvel at how such a blank mask can convey such emotion as Darth Vader looks back and forth between his son and his master, locked in mortal conflict. But in truth the mask does not convey anything—the emotion is projected by me onto the mask, and the fact that it looks like the mask is conveying that emotion is a testament to how successfully I connected with Vader as a character.

But then you tell me that Darth Vader was once this whiny little kid who built and raced pods, and then he grew up into a whiny adolescent who complained about how he doesn’t like sand because it gets everywhere? And that he just suddenly snapped one day and murdered an entire clan of nomads, and later massacred a temple full of children (not “younglings,” for crying out loud, children)? Yeah, I know, he was supposed to have a character arc that led up to and through these beats, but they didn’t feel earned at all. Everyone knows that Anakin’s telos is to become Darth Vader, and it felt like we were being pushed toward that end rather than being led to it.

OK, so this entry is not about the prequels—suffice it to say that I was very frustrated and annoyed with the prequel trilogy. I was not nearly as annoyed by Rogue One, but I still found myself asking the same question: Why do I need to experience this story? I know the end result—that the rebels get the plans to the Death Star, allowing Luke to make that one-in-a-million shot to destroy the battle station and save the rebellion. For as much as I enjoyed Rogue One as a stand-alone film, in the greater scheme of things did I really need it? I want to know what happens to Rey, and Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker; this feels like a placeholder until we can get back to what really matters. Granted, it is a very entertaining placeholder, but a placeholder it remains.

So I’m not really sure how to evaluate Rogue One. I enjoyed it as an individual work, but was a little frustrated with the departure from the new story that we just started. A friend of mine, after seeing the film, said he had trouble getting invested in the characters. He ascribed this to them being “flat,” but I disagree—I don’t think the characters were flat at all. I just think that getting invested in an entirely new cast of characters that wasn’t going to be around for more than a single film was a little too much to ask.

I wonder how much of my disappointment stems from the fact that I went into Rogue One having no idea what it was about. I deliberately avoided all discussion of the film online because I didn’t want to stumble across any spoilers. But had I known going in that I was going to be seeing the story of how the rebels got the plans to the Death Star in the first place, would I have felt any different? It is an impossible question to answer, of course, because it is impossible to return to previous states of knowledge (barring the use of Men in Black technology). Still, I can’t help wondering. I suspect that I might have been less critical of the fact that it was a tweequel.

Anyway, those are my disjointed thoughts on Rogue One (and a few other things). I’m still waiting to see if this new Star Wars has legs, to be honest. I was expecting Rogue One to tell me, but it looks like I’m going to have to wait a little longer to find out.

Send me your thoughts.

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