Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Review

I was a big skeptic of this new Disney phase of the Star Wars franchise, but Rogue One has won me over. Here’s why…

(Note: this review is aimed to be as spoiler-free as possible, however it’s pretty hard to talk about this movie without spoiling at least parts of it, so if you’re intent on avoiding any and all details, I advise you skip reading this and just go watch it yourself.)

On a scale of “Casual Fan” to “Grandiose Star Wars Nerd”, I fall squarely into the second category.

Being an OCD completionist since childhood, I have an obsession with continuity, so when it came to Star Wars I’ve always felt compelled to know it all.

People like me live for the insider thrill of knowing the secret history of an alien in the background, and sneaky cameos were pretty much the only redeeming quality of the prequel trilogy for me.

So naturally, the child in me died a little when he found out that Disney was re-setting the entire millennia-spanning storyline surrounding the actual movies. But what about the First Sith Empire? The iconic blue-skinned Admiral Thrawn? Han and Leia’s twin Jedi children?? Poof, gone.

At least, gone in the sense that they no longer count towards any new films or franchise content. And that’s a deep blow to someone who can tell you who originally stole the Death Star plans. (It was Kyle Katarn, in case you were wondering.)

There’s a point to this self-aggrandizing, and it’s this: people like me are among Disney’s toughest customers when it comes to the Star Wars franchise. It was going to take a whole lot to get me on board with this “new” Star Wars universe, and The Force Awakens didn’t quite manage it. Episode VII felt like a recycle of A New Hope, right down to a force-sensitive orphan starting on a desert planet suspiciously like Tatooine and a quest to destroy another super weapon.

Rogue One finally offers a large-scale exploration of this ‘new’ universe without being tied to the Skywalker storyline, and it’s arguably the biggest departure from any previous movies. No Jedi here: just desperate soldiers in a fight for survival.

In particular, we get a really good look at the Rebel Alliance beyond the glossy do-gooder sheen of the original trilogy. This is an Alliance on the verge of internal collapse, full of infighting and radical factions that threaten to turn the whole uprising inside out. Even some of the ‘heroes’ have done a few things they aren’t proud of in the name of taking down the Empire.

The closest thing we even get to a Jedi is Chirrut Imwe (played by martial arts movie star Donnie Yen), once a protector of the ancient Jedi ruins on the planet Jedha, now cast adrift by the Imperial occupation. His lifetime devotion to the Jedi and his blindness offer him some access to the powers of the Force, but even those are very limited (think of it as a toned-down Daredevil ninja sense).

The characters in this story don’t have the benefit of ghostly Jedi appearing to give them clues or Force powers to open locked doors, either. They have to rely on their wits, luck, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to finish the job—even dying.

Speaking of which, the plot-armor of ‘destiny’ is not totally active on these characters; people die in this film, and not just extras. This adds a much-needed level of tension because we obviously know they’re going to find the Death Star plans, since we’ve all seen Episode IV. However, that certainty is overshadowed by the realization that yes, they do find the plans, but at what cost?

This film certainly has its flaws. The absence of any real planning before the final assault feels very unrealistic. The CGI face of Peter Cushing sits too deep in the uncanny valley (the place where things are just real enough to be creepy, but not convincing). There’s a whole lot of planet jumping, and yet we somehow still end up spending too much time on yet another desert planet. I could go on.

But, even with my inherent disappointment in the franchise handover, and even with all its flaws, I was willing to put aside all of my skepticism within the first 20 minutes because the loving care taken in world-building made me feel like I was getting another insider glimpse into the larger Star Wars world.

And, at the end of the day, that’s all fans like me really want.

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