Very SPOILER-y thoughts on Rogue One:
1. Fantasy movies provide one important service for viewers: the movies take viewers’ imagined worlds seriously. Fans can find grandeur, drama, excitement and emotional resonance in fictional worlds that may otherwise be completely absent from the world in which they live. Humor and cleverness are welcome, but laughs alone do not account for the depth of feeling stirred by these fantastic tales.
When struggling to explain their disappointment in the prequels, some viewers said the films “took themselves too seriously”. In my view, these statements were simply wrong, even for those who expressed them: in multiple ways, the prequels did not take themselves seriously enough. An excess of commitment to the demands of the fictional world was not the problem. Every viewer would have enjoyed the prequels more if the movies had followed their own rules.
Rogue One takes itself seriously. I liked that.
2. As others have observed: Rogue One is a war movie – violent and grim. Some shots seemed to have been borrowed from Apocalypse Now.
Every toy store on Earth has a selection of Star Wars toys. That fact alone demands that Star Wars movies seek a careful balance of action and restraint, higher stakes and lower impact. The drama can be conveyed without the killings taking place onscreen.
Star Wars was violent in its own more remote way, of course. George Lucas spoiled his own movies by trying to erase some violence from the original trilogy. Cinema evolves from each generation to the next, so there is no precise, ‘correct’ level of violence required to raise the stakes and drive the action without draining the joy and meaning from the story.
Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies, but the entertainment in a war movie is found in very different places than in a good mythical sci-fi action movie. Action movies balance the heroism and weakness inside each of us – but war movies balance the heroism and weakness inside each of us with the futility and ugliness shaping the world in which we live.
3. When horror movies run out of inspired scares, they turn to arbitrary gore. When comedians run out of inspired laughs, they turn to arbitrary fart jokes. When action movies run out of inspired thrills, they turn to arbitrary violence. The trick isn’t simply to avoid the violence, but to identify what it’s expected to convey – and when possible, find better ways to put that conflict into motion.
4. Rogue One assembled a team of rebel heroes – but at no point could I say who every character was, why they were there, and what they wanted to accomplish. The personalities onscreen were as compelling as the numbers on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Some backstory was mentioned for each character, but there was no sense of multiple storylines weaving together and gathering momentum in the process.
I haven’t slept seven hours in a row since the prequels were released, so it’s possible that more nimble minds than mine watched our band of heroes gather with a greater level of narrative comprehension than I did. Nevertheless, Rogue One felt to me like a 1990s James Bond movie, in which impressive action sequences were loosely connected by a bare-bones story.
5. I loved the point this story found in the Star Wars canon. The Force Awakens found most of its substance in details borrowed directly from the original trilogy (the appearance of Luke’s lightsaber was more exciting than the introduction of any new character), but Rogue One found a story to tell that could direct the original trilogy’s momentum into a compelling new story.
6. Until the connections to the original trilogy became clear, I imagined that every new Star Wars movie was going to be about The Empire developing some new weapon “…with the ability to destroy an entire planet”. Episode 9: “The Empire is developing a combination espresso maker and reactor weapon with the ability to destroy an entire planet”. Episode 10: “The Empire is producing a new line of jams and jellies, each of which have the ability to destroy an entire planet.” Episode 11: “The technical readouts in this R2 unit show how to knit a holiday sweater so ugly, it will have the ability to destroy an entire planet.”
7. As in The Force Awakens, nobody connected to Rogue One knows how to play high status. Imperial officers fidgeted; Chirrut Imwe (the blind monk), repeating his mantra aloud, sounded like a desperate fanatic instead of a powerful cleric. Darth Vader moved like an angry twelve-year-old in a big body – which was cool in a monstrous kind of way, but it made Vader seem more like a gladiator and less like an ominous ruler.
Not every character needs a commanding presence; fear and concern humanize characters. But the stakes of a battle seem lower when neither side seems relaxed and physically confident. Dignified characters reach beyond the concerns of the moment and make every scene about something greater than the immediate conflict.
8. The CGI resurrection of Moff Tarkin and young Princess Leia was about 15% thrilling and 85% creepy. As still images, the faces looked terrific, but the animation was thoroughly unconvincing. (Tarkin was also made to look very tall, which seemed unnecessary and pretty silly to me.) In part, this was a forgivable test of new technology – and yes, “it’s only a movie”. But there’s also an element of arrogance in the attempt. The scenes don’t play like dramatic moments between characters: the tension is between the audience’s affection for the characters and their response to the technology.
9. Instead of bringing familiar characters to life, the animation transformed Tarkin and Leia into one of Star Wars’ alien species, with their own unreal movements and emotions. Jar Jar Binks was annoying in part because he behaved less like a character than a parlor trick. Now Tarkin and Leia have joined that club.
10. After seeing The Force Awakens in 2015, I was pretty disappointed by the movie’s inability to add new meaning to the story. All the emotional resonance was borrowed directly from the original trilogy. In my view, Rogue One didn’t trip over J.J. Abrams’ ‘Mystery Box’ strategy like TFA did – but I also didn’t feel like Rogue One reached any new territory.