Film criticism is generally held in contempt by the broader public despite it’s popularity. Everyone is a critic! The public declare, bemoaning the endless deconstruction of their beloved sentimental pop culture treasures. However, there is much utility to film criticism, not just as pertains to the artistic appraisal of films one has or might see, but also as pertains to films which one might make themselves. Indeed, the critique of a story – any story – given sufficient deftness, can prove most useful in aiding any storyteller, whether novelist, filmmaker, orator, or so on, in improving his or her work by finding out what narrative works for certain kinds of stories, what tropes are unbelievable/believable, what cliches have grown tiresome, the right way to build a coherent world and to make a story-line consistent, ect. One could go on for sometime but you get the idea. With this in mind let us turn our attention to the second newest Star Wars film, Rogue One.
Unlike the previously reviewed Star Wars reboot, The Force Awakens, Rogue One is a relatively compelling film with likable, three-dimensional characters, a (for the most part) interesting story and a depth of gravity and weight that the previous installment lacked. Whilst I had at first assumed Rogue One to be a sequel to The Force Awakens it is actually a prequel to the events of Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the original film in the franchise (though not the “first” chronologically speaking within the canon of the film series itself).
Rogue One follows the exploits of Jyn Erso, the daughter of a prominent Imperial scientist during the heyday of the Galactic Empire. Erso’s father, Galen Erso, who has left the Empire and taken up a life of idyllic splendor with Jyn and Lyra, his wife, on a lonely but peaceful little planet called Lah’mu. However, their peace is shattered when the sinister Orson Krennic, the Empire’s lead weapon’s developer, lands on the planet with a cortege of armed guards and attempts to court Galen back into service for the development of the Death Star, a weapon that can destroy whole planets. Galen refuses and his wife intervenes, pulling a weapon on Krennic; she is slain by Krennic’s guards and Galen is apprehended. Jyn, however, flees and is able to escape due to the help of the humorously named, Saw Gerrera, a former Rebellion fighter who broke off from the Alliance due to their lack of radicalism.
Many years later Jyn is rescued from a Imperial labor camp by the Rebel Alliance who want her to find her former savior Gerrera who alone is believed to know the location of Galen Erso. Jyn, though hesitant, acquiesces and joins the Rebel Alliance in their quest to find Gerrera, extract Galen and find a way to stop the Empire from deploying Krennic’s planet-killer. What Jyn doesn’t know is that the Rebel’s do not actually want to extract her father, rather, they want to kill him.
The plot of the film is slightly more layered than that but such is the essential plot-line. The first thing which struck me was the lack of ham-fisted political messaging throughout the film. The Force Awakens was something of a pulpit for gender politics, with Rey being the primary mouthpiece for their propaganda. Rey, embodied the Superman conundrum: when you have a character that is completely indomitable there can be no real conflict for that character. Furthermore, Rey did not earn her enormous power, neither through special lineage or training, rather she was gifted with invulnerable plot armor wherein any time she was placed in peril “the force” would come to the rescue and she would overcome the obstacle without explanation. Rey is a obvious by-product of third-wave feminism wherein the ideal conception of Womanhood is wholly removed from man (I’m a strong independent woman, I don’t need no man). She removes herself from nearly all male entanglements because she is believed to have “liberated” herself from “the patriarchy.” Yet this ideal is not liberating, but rather, isolating.
In stark contrast, the central protagonist of Rogue One, Jyn Erso is a rather believable heroine. She is tough, both mentally and physically, yet her skills, unlike Rey’s, are justified given that Jyn was raised as a child soldier by the dissident fanatic Saw Gerrera. Also, unlike Rey, Jyn is not, from the get-go, a moral paragon, she’s a liar, a criminal and is generally uncertain and suspicious about the moral validity of the rebel cause (there is a quite excellent scene where she confronts a Rebel assassin and accuses him of being no different than a Imperial Stormtrooper).
This moral uncertainty is also embodied by Cassian Andor, a pilot and talented intelligence officer for The Rebel Alliance. In a early scene in the film, Andor murders a informant by ruthlessly shooting him in the back after gaining his trust to tie up loose ends which shows that the Alliance was not so squeaky clean as one had been led to believe from the previous films. Then, later on in the film Andor expresses regret for such past actions but remains firm in his convictions, declaring that that he can not turn back from The Cause, for that would have made all the lies, destruction and death meaningless. A very evocative scene.
There is also a very exciting, and quite terrifying, scene featuring Darth Vader hunting down some hapless rebel fighters who he then mercilessly slaughters. Another high point in the film which will certainly stick in your mind after viewing.
One of the bigger and more glaring problems in the film is Gran Moff Tarkin. The problem lies not with Guy Henry, upon whom former Tarkin actor, Peter Cushing’s face has been CGI mapped but rather lies with the CGI itself. It is not that the CGI is bad so much that it is very obviously CGI. There is a peculiar fantasy French film called Immortal which features a bevvy of very low-budget, though highly detailed and aesthetically interesting CGI juxtaposed with real-life actors. Yet in Immortal the CGI/real-life juxtaposition never frays the visual nerves due to the fact that the computer created imagery – though obviously CGI – was, from the very beginning of the film, omnipresent. It was everywhere, for extended periods of time and due to this continual integration with the real life landscape that made the viewer accept the CGI as part of the world of the story. In Rogue One there is no shortage of CGI, but it is most prominently utilized as background or in brief flashes (such as laser fire, explosions, ect.) almost too quick to be perceived whereas Tarkin’s appearances take the viewer deep into the uncanny-valley.
Additionally, Saw Gerrera’s bizarre squid monster, which latches on to a living beings and forces the truth out of them at the expense of their sanity is very poorly explained. When Gerrera unleashes his beast on the turn-coat imperial pilot, Bohdi Rook, the creature drives him mad. He stutters and wanders about as if lobotomized; completely out of his wits. Yet a couple of scenes later, Rook is completely sound of mind. This is never at all explained and remains a jarring plot hole despite how trivial it was to the rest of the plot.
Second to last we come to the dialogue which is, on the whole, slick and solid (the robot, K2 has a bevvy of humorous lines) save for one particular scene involving Darth Vader and Director Krennic. Krennic, overjoyed that he is able to maintain control over the deathstar (his crowning achievement for the Empire), despite his past folly states the following:
So I’m still in command? You’ll speak to the emperor about this- [eyes bulge, choking he collapses to the floor]
To which Vader replies.
Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director. [Before releasing Krennic from his force-choke]
It seemed wholly misplaced coming from the stoic and brooding Vader, who, least as far as I can recall, never made a single pun or joke in his entire tenure throughout the series. Very out-of-character.
However, my greatest problem with the film, as with all Star Wars films, is that the motivations of the Empire at large are never explained. The Emperor himself, we know from previous films, is a sadistic, egoistic Machiavellian political string-puller and that Krennic and Vader are similarly corrupt and vile, but what of the rest of them? What indeed of those planets who align, willingly, with the Galactic Empire? What of those normal citizens who view the Rebel Alliance as a terrorist organization (which they, by definition, are)? This seems a rich area to explore in future films but given that Lucas had never delved into it before and Disney now has the reins on the franchise it is unlikely any kind of socio-political meat or real philosophical heft will be injected into the series at any point in the future.
All in all, the film is worth seeing, if only just.