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Rogue One: A Star Wars story poster

I don't think that Disney's writers take Star Wars' universe very seriously. I'm not talking about story or continuity; I'm talking about the actual, physical space in which the stories take place. They've created a major problem. It's the same problem that frustrated me about The Force Awakens: there is no sense of scale to this universe anymore. I was really hoping that it was just J.J. Abrams and his writing crew being lazy in Force Awakens because his Star Trek movies suffered from the same problem. I had hoped that a new writing crew would improve the material (just like Star Trek Beyond fixed another of my biggest complaints about the reboots of that franchise after J.J. left the helm). But that laziness seems to not only be contagious, but has actually gotten worse in Rogue One. This movie takes something that was only a nagging annoyance in Force Awakens, and blows it up to almost movie-breaking proportions.

In the original Star Wars movies, the time-frames for hyperspace travel was always ambiguous. There were cuts between scenes, and the amount of time that it took for ships to travel was left to the individual viewer's imagination. But now, we see interstellar travel and communications happen instantaneously, in real time! It happens when the fighter crashes on Eado, and the rebel base on Yavin immediately loses contact and sends a squad of fighters to assault the base. It happens again when Rogue One infiltrates the Imperial data warehouse on Scarif, a transmission is intercepted, and a rebel fleet immediately gets rerouted to the planet.

This isn't just bad science; it's also bad writing. The hyperdrive has become a narrative crutch. For the entire second half of the movie, I felt no tension at all because I knew that if the heroes ever got in a jam, a rebel fleet (or reinforcements) could just appear out of nowhere to save the day. This is a prequel, so I already knew how it was going to end. This lazy script contrivance (and all-around dull characters) also made the journey to get there completely uninteresting.

But it goes deeper. How far apart are these places? Is the entire galaxy that accessible?

Basic elements of the overarching Star Wars storyline just completely break down when travel and communication is instantaneous. There's no distinction between the tightly-controlled "core", and the supposedly-lawless "outter rim" planets if a whole fleet of Star Destroyers can literally FTL to any planet in a matter of seconds. There's no need for anyone to make a hard-copy of the Death Star plans to physically transport it if they can transmit the data instantly. And there's no point in pursuing or intercepting ships (such as Leia's Blockade Runner) if hyperspace travel takes the ship to its destination in a mere moment. The empire's holdings become completely indefensible if entire rebel fleets can appear out of nowhere with no warning. Their installations are publicly visible, but the rebels are hidden. The rebels know where all the imperial bases are, and there's nothing stopping them from just jumping to random bases and blowing them up with no recourse from the empire. This universe has lost the believable, lived-in quality and sense of breadth and variety that the original trilogy so expertly executed. The Star Wars universe is broken.

Rogue One - hyperspace
Rogue One shows us instantaneous communication and travel between planets in real time.

"Just turn off your brain and enjoy it", people tell me.

No. I won't turn off my brain. There is no reason why our movies can't be both entertaining and smartly-written. Why aren't we holding our movies to that standard anymore? It's not a tall bar. "Not as bad as the prequels" is not good enough, and I'm not going to pretend that it is when dealing with entries of a series that contains - not one - but two - landmark cinematic masterpieces.

Even if every new movie were as likable as The Force Awakens, these little missteps add up. Each new movie that comes out chips away at the integrity of the franchise (and universe) in which all the movies (including the good ones) exist. We can hand-wave away our complaints about the prequels, or we can ignore them entirely, but we're now at the point at which the original Star Wars trilogy is a minority of the Star Wars film franchise, and it's only getting more diluted.

Tonally conflicted

So yea, I didn't like the movie. Rogue One just didn't work tonally for me. A gritty, grounded war movie set in the Star Wars universe sounds like a great idea - I just don't think that this was the right story for that. This story would probably have been more fitting for a spy thriller-type movie, but whatever. The action scenes that are presented in the style of a grounded war movie are the strength of this film, and some of the set pieces that they're built upon are genuinely creative and visually fascinating. These ideas are great. Throwing in a comic-relief robot and a blind Kung Fu master (in order to pander to children and the Chinese market, respectively) were not great ideas. Probing a man's mind with a telepathic tentacle monster that is supposed to leave him insane, and then never following-through on that, was not a great idea. But most importantly, having a bunch of forgettable characters with very little development or charisma was not a great idea, especially since we're supposed to care enough about them to be sad when they all get themselves killed in the name of the rebellion.

So instead, Disney settled for nostalgia bait: Hey, here's that guy who gets his arm chopped off by Obi Wan in the cantina; hey, here's a cut to R2-D2 and C-3PO (on another friggin' planet) for no reason; hey, here's an overweight X-Wing pilot getting blown up, remember that from the original? and an AT walker; and here's Darth Vader living in the Eye of Sauron at Mt. Doom, for some reason...?

The CG recreations of characters was also off-putting. I would much prefer if Tarkin's face had just been left concealed during his scenes. Early in the movie, he's standing with his back turned to the camera, facing out a window. There's a cut to an overhead shot, and we can see his face vaguely reflected in the window. I think the director should have left it at that. Leave him in profile, or in shadow, or in reflection only. But hey, he still managed to be less distracting than Michael Giacchino's utterly disappointing musical score.

Captain America: Civil War - young Tony Stark
Yeah, Disney, you got away with it in Civil War, and everyone thought it was cute. But please, no more.

But how many times can we watch AT Walkers march against rebels holding a base or position? How many times can we watch X-Wings dogfighting with TIE Fighters? How many convoluted ways can writers figure out to destroy / incapacitate / avoid Star Destroyers? Rogue One throws all this stuff at you, and it's only a matter of time until it all gets stale. Remember, we're going to be getting one or two of these things every year.

And just to be clear: I'm not saying that taking a different, darker tone for Star Wars can't work. I think it definitely can work! The worthwhile parts of this movie are a testament to that. But Disney couldn't commit to crossing that line, and so the gritty war stuff is held back by the corny adventure stuff, but the movie takes itself a little bit too seriously to just be a fun adventure movie. There's a tonal conflict, and that's the problem.

Why not add in some scenes of people actually suffering under the hand of the empire, so that the audience can actually feel like the empire is actually a bad thing, instead of just the organization that the villain happens to work for? Or alternatively, why not flip the script entirely and depict the rebels as outright terrorists and make us re-think our preconceived notions about who the actual good guys and bad guys are? Maybe humanize these stormtroopers that we murder in droves? But no. Everything just felt so stale and uninteresting, with the added weight of being a prequel in which we already know how it's going to end.

Rogue One deliberately styles ts aesthetic after the first Star Wars movie - with mixed results.

Tonal conflicts extend to the visuals as well. There's a commendable effort to make the movie look like the first Star Wars film. In some places it works; in other places, it doesn't. Star Destroyers are white instead of gray (and look like they're made of marble instead of metal), which makes them look cleaner to symbolize how new and powerful the Empire is. Darth Vader's costume is also modeled after the first movie instead of the later ones and just doesn't look quite right with modern movie-filming techniques.

I have a feeling that I'm going to be in a minority here, but Rogue One makes The Force Awakens look muuuuuuuch better in retrospect. And that mostly comes from the fact that I actually liked that movie's characters. Even though I complained about shallow arcs and Rey being a Mary Sue, I still think that Rey was a more likable character and Daisy Ridley offered a much better performance. Felicity Jones' performance just felt stale and flat to me. Rogue One also gives me a new appreciation for how well the Marvel movies have held up over the years, because after just one Star Wars spin-off, it feels old and I want to take it behind the barn and put it down before it starts to suffer.

Rogue One - walker attack
This is only going to be cool so many times.

Comments (4) -

12/31/2016 11:05:21 #

I disagree with your point about the comic relief robot and kung fu master. You're frankly not allowed to call films in the original trilogy masterpieces and then call foul on a comedic relief robot, considering the originals had two of them. And what's wrong with a blind kung fu master? The character was well-acted and made for great action and comic relief scenes, as well as a big tie to the Force in a film that otherwise makes little mention of it. It feels pretty racist for you to claim that the kung fu master is only there to please the Chinese market, as if other nations don't love a good kung fu master character. Star Wars films have always, since the original, had a mix of lighthearted adventure and serious drama, and this film is no different. I'm not sure why you feel that this film is so thrown off by its mix of dark and light tones. I do entirely agree about the Imperial defector being handled horribly, how he was supposed to lose his mind and gains it back very simply by being asked if he was the pilot. That was contrived as hell. And Tarkin's face was incredibly unsettling, I agree there, too. The rest of the film I had no problem with and found it enthralling.

12/31/2016 14:57:58 #

Ah, and of course I do agree with hyperspace being overused and too convenient as a deus ex machina whenever they want one, though. I hope that trend does not continue moving forward.

01/01/2017 13:14:08 #

I definitely didn't intend to come off as racist. I have no problem with the character's ethnicity, and I like Donnie Yen as an actor. In fact, his performance is one of the better ones in this movie. My issue is that (for me) it created a tonal conflict in the movie and just felt out of place and unnecessary. The whole point of a grounded war movie (I would have thought) would be to show how the non-space-wizard crowd operates in this universe. Throwing in a force-sensitive blind martial arts master just (to me) subverted that.

Same issue with the robot: it felt tonally out of place for me. The original movies had a much lighter tone overall, and so comic relief wasn't as much of a problem. I also feel that the overall better characters and more charismatic performances meant that C-3P0 and Han Solo played off of each other a lot better than K-S20 and Jyn. Though I'll also admit that the original movies also had some cringe-worthy moments with the droids - not to mention the Ewoks...

I like both characters; I just didn't think either worked in this movie. If they'd been in ep 7 or 8 instead, I probably would have liked them.

01/08/2017 12:04:25 #

On the contrary, the film needed some lightheartedness to balance it out from being too dark. Criminy, can you imagine how suffocating the atmosphere of Empire would've been without the occasional comic relief? And a Star Wars movie without the Force isn't much of a Star Wars movie, if you ask me. I'm glad they had a character so heavily tied to the Force in order to bring some balance to the otherwise heavy shooty-splodey nature of the film. It sounds like you wanted this film to take itself far more seriously than it did, and I don't think that's what people go to a Star Wars film to see. It's always been a balance of dark and light, just like the Force itself, and a film too dark without light to balance it out comes off suffocating, and a film too light without dark to balance it out comes off as cartoony and ridiculous, such as The Phantom Menace. I think the tone served the film well, and I don't think going darker would've made the film better; I feel that it would've made the film insufferable. Some friends of mine even had trouble staying awake through the film because of its darker, slower nature, and that problem would've only been magnified without some lighter characters to mix it up.

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