Kevin: It’s not uncommon for your first impression of a movie to drastically change by the time you give it a second viewing, whether it’s one you initially liked but now find wanting, or one you were lukewarm about but feel compelled to revisit. For every “Twister” that loses its impact when its effects are shrunken down on a TV, there’s a “Big Lebowski” that actually gets better on repeat viewings. For our first TGD Rewind – where we look back at a popular hit, or see if an initial disappointment deserves a re-evaluation – I’m giving a second look at a little film that came out around Christmastime, the “Star Wars” spin-off “Rogue One”:
Unless you’ve been in a coma the last few months (and if you were then welcome back; if you are trying to catch up with our past stuff I’d definitely recommend starting with our “Action Jackson” Round Table!), you are probably aware that “Rogue One” is a direct prequel to the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Remember as a kid watching the original movie and feeling like you really needed to see a feature-length depiction of how the rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans? Yeah me neither, anymore than I need to see an “Under Siege” prequel showing how Casey Ryback graduated cooking school, but Disney seems to enjoy making money, so here we are.
And “Rogue One” did exactly what a “Star Wars” property is supposed to do, making a ton of dough and generally seeming to give the fans what they wanted. I caught it in the theater and left feeling mixed/positive overall; I didn’t find the characters or the plot for the first half very compelling, but when the third-act battle begins, it’s hard not to feel a nostalgic sense of excitement seeing TIE fighters and AT-ATs coming at you on the big screen and hearing the familiar sound of laser blasts in surround sound.
Once again, “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards at least shows a keen eye for memorable visuals and well-staged spectacle, while the movie’s fearlessness in killing off important characters is bracing and gives the climax a sense of depth it otherwise would not have earned. And unlike the previous J.J. Abrams entry, I didn’t feel like this one was basically serving up a beat-for-beat remake of a previous “Star Wars” movie.
Unfortunately, while you could watch “Empire Strikes Back” on a flip phone and it would still be compelling, seeing “Rogue One” again on the small screen only highlights its weaknesses, the main one being that its assorted gallery of supposed “rogues” are not that interesting. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, who is tasked with helping track down her father whose work has been instrumental in getting the Death Star operational (by the way according to this movie it has apparently taken at least 15 years or more to build the first one, so whichever company got the second Death Star nearly completed in less than a few years in “Return of the Jedi” deserves a serious bonus).
The main problem is that I’m struggling to come up with other characteristics to describe Jyn Erso but am drawing a blank, although certainly “laugh riot” would not be one of them. Look I know we are in the “gritty and serious” era of blockbuster entertainments, but there’s a reason why little girls will still be dressing up as Princess Leia 30 years from now while the Jyn Erso costumes collect dust. Carrie Fisher was both feisty and serious, could be both a damsel in distress and a capable fighter, and if nothing else had at least some semblance of a personality, whereas if Felicity Jones actually cracked a smile during filming that footage must have bitten the dust during the infamous reshoots.
Seriously, it would already feel like Jyn Erso was just supposed to be a placeholder for a more interesting protagonist who never made it into the movie, but the fact that Jones maintains this EXACT SAME EXPRESSION for the entire movie really doesn’t help (although if this acting thing doesn’t work out she’d make a killing at the poker table):
Backing her up is Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, whose last name sounds like the Ewok planet, and whose accent sounds like Tijuana, Mexico. Once again I’m drawing a blank on how best to describe him other than “serious” and “determined.” One thing he’s not is consistent, as early in the movie he kills some poor guy who would have impeded his escape, but later disobeys orders to assassinate Erso’s father, a crisis of conscience that seems to be completely unmotivated from what we have seen so far.
Of course we also get the requisite robot sidekick, C-3PO … sorry, I mean K-2SO. You can forgive my confusion though, as K-2SO is also a blunt and sarcastic android who says “funny” things that he doesn’t realize are funny, and who likes to lay out the percentage likelihood of success in certain situations (I’d say the creators of “Star Wars” could sue for intellectual property theft if it wasn’t for the fact that they are doing the thieving). I remember people in the theater laughing a lot at everything K-2SO said, but I think that’s only because we’ve been conditioned to find this type of character funny even when the writing sucks.
Other characters like Donnie Yen’s blind martial artist at least look distinctive, but actually the most interesting person in the movie by far is Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the main driver of the Death Star’s creation. Even though he is a monster who’s helping facilitate global genocide, he’s also a guy who just wants acknowledgment from the higher-ups for how much he means to the company, while constantly having to deal with middle-managers trying to undermine and take credit for his work. That sounds like it could be any of us! Krennic may actually be the most sympathetic and relatable character in “Star Wars” history.
(Although special mention has to go to Forest Whitaker, who plays rebel leader Saw Gerrera, which sounds a lot like Che Guevara except his T-shirts don’t sell nearly as well to college hipsters. I have no idea if I’d call Whitaker’s bizarre creative choices when it comes to his character “good,” but at least they’re memorable.)
Now even with some bland protagonists there could still be an interesting version of this story to tell, but the one they went with is not really it. I could easily see an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist film where a rag-tag group of rebels con their way into Imperial HQ (and also into our hearts!), but I guess that would not provide enough opportunities to kill everyone at the end. At one point near the climax Jones and Luna do disguise themselves as officers to infiltrate an Imperial base (and Jones’ uniform fits very snugly on her despite previously being worn by a larger man), but if you think they’ll do anything fun or clever with this you obviously forgot what movie you are watching.
The movie at least saves its best for last, and the “Saving Private Ryan”-style climax is, even on the small screen, still well-executed (and it was nice seeing all those rebel pilots again who are going to die at the end of “A New Hope”!). However, considering the end of this movie leads directly into the beginning of “Episode IV,” a hypothetical person someday who’s watching these movies in chronological order will probably find it weird that they spent an entire film on the efforts of people who died in order to get these plans to the rebels, yet the next movie promptly forgets all that for a long time to follow some blonde kid whining about power converters. Meanwhile the folks who sacrificed themselves barely even get acknowledged (also do we have to digitally add all of their ghosts to the end of “Return of the Jedi” now too?):
Now if you love anything “Star Wars”-related and you like fan service (yes C-3PO and R2-D2 show up once again, making this the smallest universe in the world), then “Rogue One” is probably already in your DVD collection nestled between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” perhaps forcing you to remove your copy of “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” to make room. But if you are anything less than a “Star Wars” fanatic you may want to first rent this rather than buying and see if your finger doesn’t hit the Fast Forward button a few times in the first hour especially. As far as I’m concerned twice is good enough for me for this particular tale.
Post Script: One thing we kept hearing about this film is that it “answers” the nagging question from “A New Hope” about why the Death Star would have a hole that if hit correctly would cause the entire thing to blow up. Actually that’s never really kept me up at night, but apparently other people have. Anyway it turns out Jyn’s father intentionally placed that weakness in its design in a way so that it wouldn’t be detected. Great, that answers that! Although it doesn’t answer the question of, if no one else on the Death Star knew this one hole was a potentially fatal flaw, why did they have giant laser canons protecting it? Shit, guess we’ll have to make an entire movie about that now.