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Review: ‘Rogue One’ is Star Wars comfort food

Posted by Jason Davis

22-12-2016 6:02 CST

Topics: product review

Last week, after movie critics got their first look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The New York Times noticed a disturbance in the Force. While the majority of the resulting reviews were positive, there were exceptions—words like "mediocre" and "overcooked" crept into some articles. Since then, similar sentiments have appeared on Twitter, and though the film review website Rotten Tomatoes tallies critics' overall assessments as 84 percent fresh, there are detractors. 

While I sympathize with these dissenting reviewers' takes, I thought Rogue One was great. But that may be because I didn't go into the theater expecting an expansive new addition to the Star Wars franchise. Instead, I embraced it as comfort food—a story line that fits into a larger sequence of Star Wars events I know quite well.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Rogue One has to operate within a lot of constraints. First and foremost, it exists within the same Star Wars universe established by the first seven movies. In a galaxy far, far away, a collection of Earthlike planets host various intelligent humanoid, mammalian and avian species of all shapes and sizes. Travel between these worlds takes place in faster-than-light starships. There are anthropomorphic droids possessing impressive strength and mental capacity while ultimately remaining subservient to their creators. The planets form governments and alliances derivative of those from our history books, and most of the series' conflicts involve struggles between democratic and authoritarian regimes.

Not only is Rogue One set in a predefined universe, it also has to conform to a specific time period. The film takes place just before Episode IV: A New Hope, the original Star Wars film released in 1977. To summarize Grand Moff Tarkin from A New Hope, the setting is a galaxy in which the remnants of an old republic are being swept away by a classic evil empire, where fear—particularly, fear of a moon-sized superweapon called the Death Star—keeps the local systems in line.

If you've seen the other Star Wars films, it isn't hard to guess what Rogue One is all about: You're going to learn how the fledgling rebel alliance steals the blueprints to the Death Star. Those plans become the entire focal point of A New Hope, in which the rebels use the plans to exploit a weakness in the Death Star's defenses.

The Death Star moves into position

Lucasfilm, Ltd.

The Death Star moves into position

All of this makes Rogue One the most constrained Star Wars film to date. To tell the story properly, the creators had to tick off a number of milestones: We needed to find out how the rebels got wind of the Death Star in the first place, why there was such a glaring weakness in its defenses, how the plot to steal the plans was hatched, how the plans were stolen, and how they eventually found their way to Princess Leia, who is a passenger aboard an outgunned starship fleeing an Imperial destroyer in the opening scene of A New Hope.

The fact that the filmmakers accomplish all of this while presenting a cohesive, new narrative is impressive. The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (played superbly by Felicity Jones), whose father is a brilliant engineer forced to build the Death Star for the Empire. Erso's father is taken from her when she is a child. Years later, she joins a band of rebels hoping to track her father down to collect intelligence on the Death Star. They learn he intentionally built a vulnerability into the Death Star that can be exploited, if the rebels are able to steal a copy of the superweapon's blueprints.

Director Gareth Edwards is able to breathe some significant life into the story by placing the action in some stunningly expansive settings. A scene in which Erso is still a child takes place among thick, green grass planted on what looks like volcanic ash, under foreboding dark skies. The Death Star's plans are held at a facility located on a tropical beach that seems more suited for a resort than an Imperial stronghold. We also get to see the Death Star like never before, rising through the edge of a planetary atmosphere, and orienting itself upside-down to properly aim its firepower.

Many of Rogue One's negative reviews seize on the fact that the film blatantly panders to Star Wars fans with nostalgic cues, which, to borrow a word I've seen used elsewhere, tend to elicit a Pavlonian response: Look—a quick cameo from C-3PO and R2-D2! The two ruffians from A New Hope's Cantina scene! A physical version of the Millenium Falcon's chess game! 

I submit that the only real problem with all this nostalgia may be its timing. Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which was released last year, dips generously into this same pot of wistfulness. The crew currently making Episode VIII would be well-advised to keep the throwback references to a minimum. (May I recommend: No more climaxes involving one-in-a-million torpedo shots, the disabling of shield generators, or both?)

Tropical battle

Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Tropical battle

The New York Times' own review says "Millions of people will sit through this thoroughly mediocre movie [...] and convince themselves that it’s perfectly delightful."

While I think "mediocre" is a stretch, the film is certainly not without its flaws. I thought one of the main Darth Vader scenes was a bit of a miss, mostly because Vader utters the cringe-worthy zinger, "Don't choke on your ambitions." (Because he chokes people with the Force—get it?) I also felt Erso's transformation from apolitical bystander to rebel leader was a little rushed. The movie had to rely heavily on the power of The Big Motivational Speech, when some more nuance and uncertainty might have played better.

There's also a debate raging about the CGI inclusion of Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994. I can't quite decide how I feel about the ethics of this move, but I will say that I thought it was quite convincing. However, I did see the movie in 3D, where everything tends to look a bit distorted and larger than life. (Maybe I'll feel differently when I see Tarkin in my living room after the movie is digitally released.) Princess Leia, or rather, Carrie Fisher's 1977 Princess Leia, also makes a brief computerized appearance.

If you walk into Rogue One as an earnest Star Wars fan looking for a fun galactic romp, you'll leave happy. Enjoy the backstory of how the "rebel scum" that later orchestrate the Empire's downfall get their start. Gawk at seeing bleach-white Star Destroyers floating alongside the Death Star as its weapons dish is snapped into place. And let your heart leap when Princess Leia, hair in her classic cinnamon roll buns, takes possession of the stolen plans with a smile and declares the rebels now have hope.

Long live the rebellion.

See other posts from December 2016


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Squirreltape: 12/22/2016 09:21 CST

I've been waiting 38yrs for this movie (saw ep4 when I was seven) and boy did it deliver. The story was clever, the undertones of trust were well balanced and the filming locations were superbly chosen. Rogue One should be called ep3.9 as it led directly into A New Hope and for a movie tackling the single issue of 'Deathstar plans' it had a strong set of characters that fleshed out some of the lesser known ethos in the Star Wars Universe... including non Jedi 'force-sensitivity' and the darker side to the rebel struggle. The estate and family of Peter Cushing were behind this film as it was purely to convey his character Tarkin and it was tastefully done; I'm sure Ms Fisher was overjoyed with her character's transformation... both worked very well and the choice of both replacement-actors for those roles was well done indeed. I'm also all for the nostalgia bits... they weren't overplayed and didn't detract or damage the film or plot at all so a happy balance was met. Thumbs up from my family and I.

Squirreltape: 12/22/2016 09:27 CST

And the set-piece space battles and special effects in general... were amazing (that's how good ILM and having Mr Knoll more than just 'involved' really was)

Toby: 12/23/2016 04:11 CST

For me the latest Star Wars offering is by far the best film in the franchise. Although the originals are classic, they are dated. As for The Force Awakens, apart from some spectacular scenery and memorable scenes (in particular the death of Han Solo), I found the plot very contrived and unimaginative, and the characters weak. We had another cute robot almost identical to R2D2 and another Death Star. I know you are supposed to suspend disbelief with these things but a planet sucking up a star takes credulity too far. How did Hans Solo just show up the instant the Millennium Falcon reappeared? Hard to believe it if he arrived by himself but really - not one, but two bands of pirates finding him at the same instant? The galaxy must be very small indeed. For me, Rogue 1 is an incomparably better sci -fi film. We have great characters including the droid, a coherent and compelling plot, 'good' characters who aren't all good, the expected breathtaking CGI, and an incredibly undisney-like poignant and breathtaking ending. My only issue is that it rushes through scenes early on that should have been given more time to fill out the excellent cast of diverse mixed race characters. Overall it is a film that explores something of the horror of war and in so doing adds much greater depth to the Star Wars universe.

ldvcsaba: 12/24/2016 03:14 CST

I saw The Empire strikes back for the first time when I was 10 and it was love at first sight! Since than Star Wars is part of my life. Darth Vader is my hero, therefore I was very anxious to see this new SW story. And it was good as a story. But you can't expect a Star Wars movie without John Williams' original music. And no letters fading in the space. Darth Vader appears without his own music. Nobody realized that or at least disturbed by that? Instead of a Han Solo movie they should make a Darth Vader movie how he became the Dark Lord after he first wears his helmet, finds it difficult to move in and also to fight in it, hunting down more Jedi. Give us more SW movies each year, but don't forget its music, please! I believe I've written this in the name of ALL SW fans!

Karen: 12/30/2016 02:43 CST

I agreed; this movie was excellent. Re: "A scene in which Erso is still a child takes place among thick, green grass planted on what looks like volcanic ash". That location is Hjörleifshöfði and Hafursey. That's not "planted" grass, or CG for that matter; that's what south Iceland really looks like, with dark black volcanic sands contrasting with brilliant green moss and patches of grasses. Also, Starkiller Base in Ep. VII was the Krafla volcano on the other side of Iceland. We're a pretty popular place for filming movies, because of the broad variety of alien-looking landscapes, ease of access, and the fact that in the summer you can film 24-7. There's a map of some of the more popular filming locations and their associated movies/TV shows here, but it's far from complete: One thing I have to say that I love about the last two movies: they've finally gotten the physics of "big" right. Large-scale attacks/collisions used to look just like small ones scaled up. Now they act like they really should - events appearing to be in slow motion from a distance, and everything ultimately converting to heat. Starkiller Base's destruction, the tests of the Death Star laser... very satisfying from a physics perspective.

Karen: 12/30/2016 03:06 CST

@Toby - while the "sucking up a star" thing may be pretty extreme, I didn't find the containment of it to be. They live in a universe with controlled fusion reactors, and fusion gets easier the larger you scale it. I picture it as starting as a (proportionally) thin ellipsoid underground reactor in one location, expanded outward with progressive boreholes, and ultimately with increasing depth in accordance with the chord of the area covered. The outward pressure from the plasma could be controlled to match the mass of the crust over it. Even the technobabble about it being contained by "oscillators" isn't absurd; ion traps (for example, quadrupole traps) often use oscillating fields to control plasmas. Thermal management would seem to me the hardest aspect to control. The planet's geology might be supportive, however, if it tends to have broad, well capped aquifers that could be tapped for thermal power generation. It seems they'd have to keep the plasma in a high field / low fusion state most of the time, but when surging power for firing (by whatever "future tech" means for the plasma weapon) switching to a low field / high fusion state, so that the pressure on the crust remains the same. If the latter state were relatively brief, the heating could be soaked up by the thermal inertia of the crust. I'd expect one complication would be the iron that would end up in the plasma as it progressively eats through the mantle and then core. Although that could potentially be stripped from the plasma (and made use of). Conversely, in a well enough contained system they may well just accept heavy element nucleosynthesis in their plasma eating energy (and even potentially strip those for use). So long as the plasma is maintained in a state where light element fusion power exceeds heavy element power losses, it's workable.

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