Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Full disclosure: I’m a mad Star Wars fan like many, many others. So it’s safe to say that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was one of my most anticipated movies in 2016. Opposed to the episodic arc that has defined the mega-franchise, the film is a curious entity, a newcomer that either sweetens or sours the potential of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away to make sustainable bank. It needed to stand alone (a phrase now bludgeoned into cliché by critics) but it also had to stitch itself smoothly into Lucas’ original ’77 flick.
So maybe the biggest challenge facing Rogue One was the fatalistic flavor of the whole story. After all, the general synopsis was written in the opening crawl of the original film. Everyone knows how the story ends—it’s a superb movie called Episode IV: A New Hope. This film depends, then, almost entirely, upon the execution of details, on the how? How did a group of rebels, hitherto unknown, band together to steal the schematics of a secret planetary super-weapon from the Galactic Empire, which has terrorized the galaxy since the fall of the Old Republic and the Jedi Order?
Rogue One is an enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining ride that keeps viewers riveted to the adrenaline-soaked narrative. But it is unavoidably a dichotomized picture. It balances a number of tones and not always well. Realism and fantasy; war and fun; terror and excitement; individuals and armies—these are but some of the thematic battles occurring throughout the runtime. The film wants to contain multiple elements while still fitting into the frame of a two-hour motion picture. It also distracts from its intended effect, often wonderfully, by scattering its own exuberance in the form of call-backs, cameos and other self-referential tidbits that feed the fan in all us cinephiles.
Given the subject matter, Gareth Edwards was the best choice to direct by exclusion. His last picture Godzilla (2014)—a reboot of the titular kaiju—achieved infamy for teasing the titanic monster, as if the camera itself simultaneously revered and was frightened of the creature captured onscreen. Emphasizing scale and size is Edward’s strongest attribute as a director. So in a movie with the original Death Star, it seems tonally significant that the filmmaker capture the visual, Star Wars-y metaphors of oppression. One shot in particular highlights Edward’s success at this: a Star Destroyer hovering over a city like a boot resting on a throat.
The film is dedicated to telling its war story in an efficient but nonetheless stumbling manner. The beginning and middle acts are impaired by a lack of focus, and are instead linked with jarring jump-cuts that leap across swathes of space. As such there is minimal characterization due to the pace of the plot. The film either rushes through character development or implies it through a carefully placed line of dialogue or two. The team of rebels, whom we are supposed to root for, suffer the most from this —the actors must carry their characters to the finish line without much help from the script. For instance: Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) clearly have a history and perhaps a shared personal grievance against the Empire, but it is not explained visually or verbally in a memorable way; their sudden motivation to join the Rebellion is absent.
There is one exception. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the protagonist, has a personal stake to destroy the Death Star due to the involvement of her guilt-ridden father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), in its design. Their relationship sets up the emotional framework for the entire film. The other shout-out performances, in my opinion, were Ben Mendelsohn as the villainous Director Orson Krennic, whose overacting was simply delicious to watch, and Alan Tudyk as a wry reprogrammed service droid. Plus a shout-out to Riz Ahmed as Bodhi, the ‘Pilot’. (Unfortunately there were some, like Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, whose potential and talent were underused.)
In addition to telling its straightforward story, the film is also mandated by modern Hollywood to be full of fan service. Sometimes it’s motivated by the narrative, such as unseen footage from the original movie appearing in the climatic battle, or bringing back beloved characters via CGI whose actors have sadly passed (such as the comeback of Peter Cushing as one Grand Moff Tarkin). Other times it’s purely shoehorned in for the sake of proving that it is a Star Wars movie, like an abrupt shot of C-3PO and R2-D2. As a fan I honestly adored them all—as a film lover I was skeptical of their relevance to the actual story. All they essentially did was affirm that in a cinematic universe, everything needs to connect to everything else, however slight the connection. In this detail there is a danger of overexerting the narrative with the weight of the external world—but Rogue One, clearly stressed from hyped-up expectations, did not buckle.
This does not mean that the film is without any grievous flaw. Musically this film falls fast and hard. Composer Michael Giacchino had four weeks to score the movie, a painfully short amount of time for such a daunting task. Unlike the elegant handling of music in Lucas’ films or even in Abrams’ effort from last year, Edwards doesn’t allow Giacchino a chance to infuse life into the world that the VFX team labored to create. The necessity to push the plot forward results in a score that amps up the adrenaline but offers no emotive personality of its own. It doesn’t achieve the artistic height like those of John Williams. In fact the usage of Williams’ original leitmotifs, like “The Imperial March” or “The Force Theme”, are the best moments, sonically speaking, in the picture. While the talents of Giacchino shine once in a while, the result doesn’t compare to his own capability as a musician nor to the standard of previous Star Wars films. Overall the film feels like a space opera minus the opera.
But these easter-eggs, whether visual or aural, are in fact more than simple world-building—they act, within the film, as meta-symbols of genuine love for this franchise. Whenever an obscure yet somewhat familiar character appeared—or a phrase used, or a specific theme soared—it was as if Edwards and his team were behind the screen, whispering: ‘Hey! We love Star Wars too! We love Star Wars! Here’s the proof, here’s why, you gettit? By the way, George Lucas dug it as well!’ While it payed off with a cathartic ending, the numerous references always kept the film connected, in my mind, to the other beloved entries in the saga. If the film can be distilled into a single shot, it is one near the beginning: a Deathtrooper picks up a Stormtrooper doll, the future looks upon the past, holding onto it for survival, maybe even approval—a strange and rare moment of self-awareness in a Star Wars film.
Rogue One succeeds because it uses peripheral elements of Lucas’ mythology to tell a fresh story. It is a fan service movie—all Star Wars films going forward will have this description because they are no longer tied in any creative manner to George Lucas. It has also displayed a conundrum at the heart of these anthology films for the moment: that while they can veer from the central saga, they cannot entirely stray from the path tread by the Skywalkers.
(Speaking of a Skywalker, this film features one, in a manner of speaking, to terrifying effect. One scene alone is well worth the price of admission. I legitimately felt my heart punch my rib cage when that flash of red lit up that dark corridor.)
Image courtesy of theverge.com.