(Review originally posted on Shawn Eastridge's blog Oh, How Spiffing!)
Missing Frames co-hosts Shawn Eastridge and Richie Pepio come together to extensively discuss and review ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. They also give their officially official series rankings.
FAIR WARNING: If you have not yet seen Rogue One, proceed no further. This review spoils EVERYTHING. I'm throwing up so many spoiler tags, you don't even know what to do with yourself. And now that we've got that out of the way, let's get to it, shall we?
RICHIE: Fan service is irritating. It's the shiny set of keys the studio dangles in our face to keep us from questioning why a sequel, prequel, threequel, or NyQuil exists. And this movie has more fan service than a nest full of gundarks - it’s a one-size-fits-all piece of wish fulfillment made for every type of fan, from the casual viewer to the red-eyed 3am commenter on a message board for TheForce.net. We don't even need this film. I mean, it's ironic that everyone's making a big deal out of this movie not having an opening crawl - because the introductory scroll in the original Star Wars basically summarizes what happens here. "It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." … There. That’s the entire plot of the movie - a logline written in 1977 that took nearly 40 years to get made. It's crazy George Lucas even "liked" this movie, according to Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, because the WHOLE point of the opening scroll in A New Hope is to keep this sequel/prequel from EVER happening! Come on!
So, considering all of this (fan service, cameos, winks, nods and all), I loved it. Why, Shawn, do I like Rogue One so much?
SHAWN: Richie, I'll tell you exactly why you like Rogue One so much. It's because Disney knows the way to your wallet. And mine too, for that matter. Really though, if there's one company that knows how to milk a product for all it’s worth, it's Disney. The downside is that they'll be churning out Star Wars and Marvel movies long past the point where they're any good; the upside is these franchise are currently in their 'golden age.' Not every movie is a home run, but, for the most part, they're solid base hits.
For its majority, Rogue One is one solid base hit after another. It has the advantage of not needing to be the first good Star Wars movie in over 30 years. The Force Awakens took the brunt of all that pressure and anticipation head-on and emerged victorious. Now that fans are on Disney's side, Rogue One gets a bit more wiggle room, though it never outsteps its bounds too much. Stunning visuals serve a script that never manages to fully shake the shackles of the many board room meetings that shaped it, but its clunky first two acts give way to a resounding, masterful finale that makes the whole thing worthwhile. I just wish the rest of Rogue One had lived up to those last 30 minutes. Did you get that vibe too?
RICHIE: Oh yeah, totally. I appreciated the changes it brought to the structure of Star Wars as we know it. The visual style took the gritty cinema verite-elements of A New Hope and went grittier. And they get a gold star (war) for trying to make an ensemble movie in the first half - I think Rogue One jumps too much between worlds in the beginning to be fully successful at it (and I was a little jarred by the use of text to name the planets - because Star Wars usually just assumes we know that information/will figure it out later; what is this: Guardians of the Galaxy?!?), but I thought it kept things interesting.
The movie opens on Jyn's story and then focuses on her over the other characters as the story progresses. But I appreciated a Star Wars movie that steered away from the same old hero's journey that we're used to. As you say, the clunky first two acts move onto something greater, and while The Force Awakens has better characters and stronger emotional beats, this movie has a more satisfying climax. I'd choose the Force Awakens' lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren over a lot of the action sequences in this film, but Rogue One used every moving part of the story in a more active and less derivative way. The X-Wing dogfights were more investing, the gunfights were better choreographed, and... Vader.
SHAWN: Yes!! I was nervous about Vader's inclusion here, that it wouldn't be anything more than a glorified cameo. And while it is certainly that, it felt less shameless than it could have. And his Sith Lord murder rampage near the end was worth every penny of my $15 ticket. All the cameos here were a lot of fun (Red Leader, Gold Leader) with the exception of Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin's face is 100% CG, and no matter how advanced face-capture technology becomes, I will never not notice it. I admired the filmmakers' commitment to having Tarkin play an active role - more so than I would have expected - but that doesn't make it any less creepy.
All that jumping around the galaxy at the beginning was a little off-putting, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way about the planet titles. It was almost as if the filmmakers realized they were jumping around too much and while the text helps orient the audience, it also calls attention to just how much we're jumping around.
I loved the ensemble cast element too, but I wish the characters had gotten more breathing room. There have been all kinds of rumors regarding Tony Gilroy's level of involvement with script rewrites and whatnot. I wonder how much of Rogue One's relentless, forward-moving plot is due to his involvement or if it's the miscellaneous character beats he contributed. Either way, I wish there was more of the latter and less of the former. I felt moderately interested in everything going on, and Rogue One is relatively entertaining, but I didn't feel truly engaged until the end. Part of that is Jyn as a character - she felt underdeveloped. The same goes for Captain Andor. It's like their character beats and growth were left on the cutting room floor in favor of the action. Nothing against Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, who are both solid actors. I just wish they'd been given more to play with.
I thought everyone else was great though: Donnie Yen's Zatoichi-inspired blind Force warrior; Jiang Wen and his awesome hair and giant gun; Riz Ahmed as the ex-Imperial pilot looking for redemption; and of course Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, the obligatory comic relief robot. All of their characterizations are stronger than the two characters we end up spending the most time with.
As for your comparison between The Force Awakens and this film, I couldn't agree more. The Force Awakens is a more successful storytelling venture overall, but I really wish I could have taken the fan-pleasing, emotionally satisfying conclusion of Rogue One and exchanged it with The Force Awakens' more generic ‘we have to destroy another Death Star’ climax. (Love that lightsaber battle though)
RICHIE: Yeah, the ensemble complemented each other really well. Although, in my opinion, Alan Tudyk's droid and Donnie Yen's blind monk were, by far, the standouts from the supporting cast. Everybody shines when they're given the chance, but there's not much room for the other actors to make their marks here and, to me, the Jyn/Cassian relationship was the anchor of the movie. I get that Rogue One is forcing us - almost manipulating us - to care about Jyn's character. They hit all of the stereotypical notes meant to tug at our heartstrings (missing parent, reluctant hero, shot at redemption), and I’m usually turned off by that manipulation when it feels assembly-line manufactured. Yet, because the whole film is rooted in this kind of agreement between fans and filmmakers that Lucasfilm is just going to give us a dream-casserole of all the leftover bits and unused ingredients from the Original Trilogy, I didn't mind. I was rooting for Jyn and Cassian to succeed and, while I wasn’t weeping at the end, I was still really invested in their cause and left wanting more (too bad that's not going to happen)...
SHAWN: Can we also talk a bit about Ben Mendelsohn and how awesome he is as Imperial Military Director Orson Krennic? I recognized him as one of the most unbearable bit players from The Dark Knight Rises - that guy with the lisp who whines all the time before Bane hugs him to death. I would never have guessed he could be so effective as a Star Wars villain. Well, I mean, he's an effective villain, but once Tarkin takes over, Krennic kind of fades into the background.
RICHIE: Holy crap - I didn't make the connection that Krennic's the hug-death guy from that Batman movie we love to hate. He's much better when he gets to wear the cape. I'll be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by his presence. I thought the performance was fine, but to me he ended up taking a backseat to Tarkin - which was a HUGE surprise for me. I had a feeling we were getting a Grand Moff Tarkin cameo (Lucas owns the life rights to every character actor from the 1970s), but I was shocked he had such a supporting role. It took some getting used to, but I actually didn't mind him being here, even if the facial-CGI technology isn’t convincing. It's leaps and bounds better than the prologue to X-Men 3 and Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy, but it still reads as incredibly fake. If Rogue One had the film quality of, say, a movie shot in the 1970s, it could probably sneak by unnoticed, but here his face sticks out like a sore-thumb (on a dead actor). I will say, if we compared the Rogue One-Tarkin to the computer generated characters in the prequels, the Rogue One-Peter Cushing effect wins.
(What are the ethics of using a deceased performer if you own the rights to these actors' likenesses? Isn't it a little weird? If I wanted Meryl Streep to be in the new Han Solo movie and she turned it down, could I just buy the rights to Death Becomes Her, CGI her into my movie, and call it a day?)
As for the other cameos, the Red Leader and Gold Leader footage in the X-Wing fight really worked for me, and the appearance at the end of a certain princess, while weird, was the icing on this photoshopped cake. Although, when the camera was leading us down the corridor of the Tantive IV (Princess Leia's ship from the beginning of A New Hope), I had this sinking feeling: "I hope that rebel soldier doesn't take those plans to the cockpit." Then we were in the cockpit. "I hope we don't see Princess Leia." Then we see her from behind. "I hope she doesn't turn around." And she does. But because it's just for a split second before jumping to the credits, it somehow didn't kill the moment. Sure, her face looks like she's on a heavy dose of computer-generated sedatives, but 1977 Carrie Fisher was weird in a good way. Fake animated faces make me more uncomfortable than, you know... a normal human face... yet for the sake of this movie, it works.
And Vader was successful overall. His intro in the lava palace was beautifully constructed (and speaking of lava palace - this is the same castle that George Lucas envisioned as Darth Vader's home back in the rough draft of Empire Strikes Back! The nods to the earlier versions of Star Wars scripts, with the references to Kybur Crystals, the ancient texts of "the Whills," and the original version of "may the Force be with you" - "May the Force OF OTHERS be with you" - were all amazing touches. But back to Vader...) We see him in a state of vulnerability, emerging from a bacta tank, life support systems working overtime, and it's creepy, hellish, and perfect. Once he's in the suit, it's a little odd adjusting to old Vader in this new environment. Maybe it's all the details and art direction invested in the newer characters of these new movies, or maybe it's the look of the old Sith Lord's costume under the scrutiny of 2016's high resolution cameras, but he seems a little less imposing in his conversation with Krennic than he was in the Original Trilogy. James Earl Jones' noticeably aged voice doesn't help. The guy's a legend and can still pack a punch behind those booming vowels and consonants but there were certain times when it seemed like he was fighting through a yawn. Give this guy another breathing apparatus! Or at least take some Imperial tax dollars and buy his facemask a new filter - FORCEDAMMIT!
... Ultimately, it's all nitpicking, because I was very happy to see him back in action. Especially the ending - the chase scene gave goosebumps and his relentless pursuit carried the momentum perfectly into the opening of the original Star Wars. Rogue One works overtime to undo the scars Revenge of the Sith left on this character and it redeems him for a new generation.
SHAWN: It's great that we can finally use the term 'Star Wars Prequel' in a positive light. While Rogue One can never fully undo the damage of Lucas's Prequel Trilogy, it still satisfies in all the ways we wish the Prequels had. And you're right about Jyn and Cassian. While I never felt fully invested in their characters for a good chunk of the runtime, by the film's conclusion I realized I really did care about them. Their final moments together are really beautiful and I have to give credit to Disney/Lucasfilm for allowing this story to reach its depressing, but necessary and satisfying conclusion.
It's funny you mention a 'sinking feeling' regarding the Rebel ship escaping and the Death Star plans 'baton toss' that takes place as Vader annihilates the Rebel soldiers. I felt exactly the opposite. I was so thrilled and excited by what I was seeing and that desperate attempt to get the plans away before Vader recovered them was sheer brilliance. Even though we know the Rebels succeed, I was still on the edge of my seat. And then when we discover we're on the Rebel ship from the opening of A New Hope, I just about lost my mind. And with all my talk about how off-putting Tarkin's CGI face was, I have to say, I loved seeing Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia. It just worked for me, and I'm sure part of it is because she's only on screen for a brief time. With the Prequels, every attempt to connect the new trilogy with the Original Trilogy made me roll my eyes; here, it really works because the filmmakers have treated the material with care and respect.
Speaking of filmmakers, how about that Gareth Edwards? I loved his film debut Monsters, which he wrote, directed, shot and did the special effects for, and I admired his Godzilla, though I'm not over the moon (or space station) for it. Here, he does such an excellent job with the visuals. He really has this impeccable sense of scale: everything feels BIG and EPIC. That space battle at the end will go down as one of the series' finest, if not the finest. It's got a lot to live up to, but the emotional stakes blend perfectly with the excitement of seeing the classic X-Wings taking on those Star Destroyers for the first(?) time.
It's all punctuated by Michael Giacchino's score. I know we're both big fans of the composer's work. How did you feel about the first Star Wars score that wasn't composed/conducted by John Williams?
RICHIE: Oh no, I didn't have a sinking feeling about the space battle, I was just worried we were about to end such an entertaining movie on a poorly imagined CGI face. And although I dreaded the last couple of seconds leading to the Princess Leia reveal, I thought she looked surprisingly good. Or at least, good enough to drive the point home.
Again, I actually loved the "baton toss.” Following Vader down that corridor was the highlight of the movie. I just worried that fake Carrie Fisher might take me out of it. Thankfully, I was invested through the end credits.
As for Gareth Edwards, I think he knocked it out of the park. We don't yet know how much the film changed during reshoots, and at this point we don't really need to know. I'm the kind of person who loves what-if scenarios, and if the movie sucked, then I probably would’ve complained that they ruined it in reshoots or something, but here, I'm sure it's a better movie because of the additional photography.
And let's talk about the cinematography for a second... they nailed it. In addition to the muted colors, the shots were perfectly focused during intimate moments, frenetic during battle scenes, and there wasn't a drab visual in the movie. My favorite location may be Jedha - it's an all too familiar war-torn desert city, and the atmosphere is depicted perfectly. The contrast between the rustic ancient city and the gleaming star destroyer hovering overhead is a striking edition to the album of classic Star Wars visuals.
And it's funny, I remember us having a conversation about the music sometime last year. Alexandre Desplat - great composer - was set to score the movie, and I was a little disappointed that Michael Giacchino wasn't attached because Star Wars seemed right up his alley. Through a weird turn of last minute events, he ended up leading the Star Wars orchestra, and although it doesn't have as many memorable themes, the music was engrossing from when it jolted us from the opening "A long time ago..." into the first shot in space.
What did you think of the visuals? And how did this compare to other movies?
SHAWN: Visually Rogue One is perhaps the most grounded and bleak a Star Wars movie has ever felt. The war-torn imagery carries an ever-present sense of impending doom - you really feel the overpowering might of the Empire in those beautiful shots of the Star Destroyer on the horizon of Jedha and the Death Star blotting out the sun during its approach. The sequence of the AT-AT's storming the beach against the Rebels is filled with one jaw-dropping shot after another; the execution regarding the combination of practical and computer effects is top-notch. And while I think the standalone shots here are more impressive than the overall visual style, I'm still mighty impressed with Edwards' direction and Greig Fraiser's cinematography. I wish the storytelling had been as compelling.
And you know, as bummed as I was about Desplat getting the boot, I have to admit I was excited about Giacchino's involvement. Rogue One's score isn't as immediately memorable as The Force Awakens', but it successfully serves this film's story in a satisfying way. I can't wait to revisit it.
FINAL THOUGHTS, RATINGS AND SERIES RANKINGS
SHAWN: So, we've come now to the end of our extensive discussion. What are you final thoughts and what should our ranking system be?
RICHIE: In a normal ranking, I would give it 4 out of 5. We could rank out of seven underwritten characters-- if so, I would give 5.5 out of 7 underwritten space rogues.
SHAWN: Okay, great. Personally, I enjoyed Rogue One overall, but I didn't find it to be the rousing success last year's The Force Awakens was. I just wasn't as invested in its characters and found the storytelling to be less involving and cohesive. But everything comes together for its final 30-40 minutes, which are some of the best in the entire Star Wars saga.
My final rating is 5 out of 7 underwritten space rogues; my normal rating is 3.5 out of 5. My series ranking is as follows:
1. The Empire Strikes Back
2. Star Wars
3. The Force Awakens
4. Return of the Jedi
5. Rogue One
And coming in at a DISTANT 6, 7 and 8…
6. The Phantom Menace
7. Revenge of the Sith
8. Attack of the Clones
RICHIE: Man, ranking the series is difficult... A New Hope and Empire are interchangeable to me, it just depends on my mood. And I loved Force Awakens, even though I was pretty disappointed that the second half of the film recycled much of the plot of the original. And unlike Force Awakens, my view of Rogue One keeps getting better in retrospect. It'll be interesting to see how our rankings evolve after Episode VIII next December... OK! Since I'm on a Rogue One high, and this movie ends where the original Star Wars begins, I'm going with the following:
1. Star Wars
2. Empire Strikes Back
3. The Force Awakens
4. Return of the Jedi
5. Rogue One
6. The Phantom Menace
7. Revenge of the Sith
8. Attack of the Clones
I'm adding Rogue One to my next Star Wars viewing marathon and I'll be watching in Machete Order. Start with Rogue One, follow it up with the original Star Wars and Empire, then take a machete to the prequel DVDs, and close out with The Force Awakens.