TL;DR review – It’s ok. It’s short on wonder, long on grimness and bloodless combat. The Rebels are indeed revealed to be kind of scummy but the Empire is still bad, so it’s ok to sit on their corpses. More of a war movie than a space opera.
Longer, boy you have time on your hands, review:
I’m going to try something different from my ‘what worked, what didn’t formula from previous reviews.
Orson Scott Card came up with the acronym MICE for writing science fiction.
Milieu – The world or setting
Idea – A cool sci-fi concept
Character- Interesting characters you like and want to follow
Event – Or a plot-based story that hooks you based on the events of the story.
A knock out story has all four elements but you really only need to do one well to have a ‘good’ or at least ‘ok’ story. All are important, though and screwing one or more up usually results in bad or cheesy science fiction. This is a great tool to evaluate whether a story is objectively good*. So let’s talk about Rogue One in terms of MICE.
First of all, they nailed the Milieu. This movie feels like it’s part of the Star Wars universe. A gaggle of odd aliens and cultures all jumbled together with enough humans around to give you something to hang onto and identify with. You’ve got spaceships, blasters, the Empire, The Force…all the world stuff that Lucas helped create and that the good Star Wars movies feature. It’s right up there with Force Awakens in giving us the ‘lived in’ world that the first** trilogy created and we loved. I can’t praise the production design team enough, they made a Star Wars movie. Well done. And for a lot of fans, this is all you need to enjoy yourself. Tie Fighters, X-Wings, blasters, AT-ATs, Stormtroopers to kill by the hundred, they’re all here. And there are some folks who are knocking the movie for not introducing enough ‘new stuff’ in this movie (There’s one new armed troop transport that I wasn’t personally aware of, the U-Wing, it gets a lot of screen time), this is set in a specific time period in the films, just before Star Wars (1977), so TIE fighters and X-wings are to be expected. It’s like showing off Panzer IV-D tanks in a WW 2 film…it’s what was around and being used.
They did screw up some of the continuity of the first Star Wars, however. The Rebel Blockade Runner with Princess Leia in it didn’t seem like it was running FROM the Death Star. And C-3PO and R2D2 didn’t seem to know much about the Rebel alliance, far from being AT THE FRELLING REBEL BASE as the’re shown here in Rogue One. Likewise, Leia was supposed to be a Senator but she just seems to be hanging around a space battle in this Rogue One. The plans R2D2 had had to be analyzed by the Rebellion in Star Wars, they then discovered a vulnerability to exploit. In Rogue One, Jyn TELLS them what the vulnerability is and then they go looking for the plans. Huh??? Oh and apparently you can just push Star Destroyers into each other, causing massive damage to both and the ‘pushing’ ship somehow isn’t destroyed or shot to pieces. The scale of the Star Destroyers seems to have been lost. There are other small injustices to the Star Wars continuity but unless you’re a nit-picker like I am, you may not notice.
The Idea here is a little thin but it’s there. It’s the ‘how did the Rebels get the plans to the first Death Star?’ story. There isn’t really a clever idea here or concept. This isn’t a story about race relations in Star Wars or droid rights, or even how star drives have changed the galaxy. If you want to be very technical, Star Wars isn’t really Science Fiction. There’s very little science in here. This is Space Fantasy. And that’s ok. But the only other idea at work here is ‘war is messy and it can be vicious’ and ‘not all the Rebels were nice people’. It’s a baby step towards showing more complexity in the Star Wars universe and I applaud that at least.
Character is where the movie mostly falls on its face. The two main leads are neither likeable nor interesting. There’s very little character development. Jyn Erso makes Rey from The Force Awakens seem like a fireball of charisma. Jyn is sullen drifts through the movie until she’s inexplicably called upon to deliver speeches. Cassian Andor is a slimy, weasely little man who murders people who are on his side. He is also a black hole of charisma. It really does show how important casting and writing is in making good characters. Heck, good casting can almost make up for bad writing. Orson Crennic is almost interesting or could have been with a little more care given to his character. But it’s not all bad, the leads are terrible but there are two supporting characters that do have good writing and charisma: the blind Chirrit Imwe*** and the droid K-2SO. Honestly, the dialog isn’t bad here, though. There’s one groan-inducing line that’s inexplicably given to Darth Vader (Vader should not do one-liner’s folks, he’s not James Bond) and one Star Wars verbal cliché that gets cut off, but the rest of the movie felt like real people talking…except during the speechifying scenes. It’s not as bad as in Gods and Generals but it’s close. Mind you, I think if you’re going to have Darth Vader in your movie, USE him. Make him the building threat.
One of the many problems with Jyn is she lacks motivation and transformation. We aren’t given a chance to know the character, we don’t see her interact with anyone before the plot kicks off. We don’t know what her deal is, what she’s like so we can’t really get interested in her as a person. And we certainly can’t believe her transformation from skittish criminal to impassioned Rebellion true believer
Worse, what we see of Cassian Andor makes us like him even less, as he murders an informant who’s just trying to give him information and get away, alive (seriously, this is some Gestapo-level shit he pulls). Then later he shoots a rebel attacking imperial troops for no reason I could see on one viewing. He’s also ordered to kill Jyn’s Death Star-building father and if he’d done that, I’d at least given him the respect of being consistent. But they screw that up to. There’s no Peo Dameron here, no Han Solo, heck there’s no Kylo Ren here. I don’t know if it’s bad casting, bad writing or maybe bad direction. On the whole, I think Gareth Edwards did well here, so I don’t know what went wrong here. But it did go wrong in the character department.
Finally, the Event or Plot of Rogue One isn’t great. It might even bad. I’m tempted to just do a huge list of questions that this movie doesn’t answer but that might get boring. I do want to start with one huge flaw. There is an old saying that ‘Hope is not a plan’, when it comes to military operations. Yet, that’s EXACTLY what the Rebel plan to steal the Death Star data is. They just are going to sneak in and hope they can find the plans. This is such a huge screw up. Instead of a cool series of scenes where the Rebels find the plans and scheme to get them, they Rebels just go in, blow stuff up and sorta droid-hack their way to victory. There is no plan. None. The idea that trained Rebel soldiers would go along with this suicide mission makes zero sense. Basically it seems like the writers ran out of page count and decided to spend run time on space battles and gun fights that are supremely stupid. I…I can’t just let go of this, the ‘hope’ not-plan is SO bad. And it could have been so good.
That is terrible but the rest of the plot isn’t a whole lot better. It is fairly simple and linear, which fine. The Rebels break out Jyn so she can talk to a torturing terrorist-style Saw Gerrera whom she knew as a child, who has a pilot trying to defect, who has a message from someone building the Death Star. The message is from Jyn’s father so she tries to go find him and then she goes to a third planet to try to steal the plans. Not great, but it could be worse. There is some subtle complexities here, like the fact that Jyn is being sent to talk to Saw Gerrera because he might just kill any other Rebel who might try and meet with him. There’s in implication that the Rebels have tried to assassinate him before, he certainly thinks Jyn was sent so they could kill him. Again, that the REBELS might kill him, not the Empire.
And I might be alone here, but I’m starting to feel sorry for the Stormtroopers. They just line up and get shot like paper targets on a range. They never use tactics and never get to win. And they apparently have some sort of body armor that doesn’t actually protect them from anything, even punches and…sticks. Lame. Once again, your protagonist is only as good as their opponent. If the Rebels were up against tough, aggressive, dangers bad guys, their victor would mean more and so would their losses.
I think they tried to keep things fast-paced. The movie certainly didn’t feel like two hours +, but the downside of all the running and fighting is that we don’t really understand what’s going on and why and who. It’s basically trying to baffle us with bullshit instead of treating us like adults and giving us a clear plot we can understand and approve of. A clear plot takes time, set up and even some exposition here and there. If they’d tried to make a movie more like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, they might have had a really great war movie. Instead we get…Hope.
Hope is not a plan. And it’s not a plot.
So how could we fix it?
Well it wouldn’t have been hard to make this a very good movie instead of an OK one. I want to go over some ideas that I think would have made more sense. The more I write, the more it seems like I’d need to re-write the whole frelling movie, so let me try to focus on just a few key changes.
1. We meet Jyn and spend time with her. Give us 5 minutes of Jyn being angry, drifting, lacking anything to believe in. She’s a criminal, so show us her doing criminal things and getting caught by them empire.
2. Give Cassian a reason for being a murderous douche. If his informant is running to the Imperials blabbing his mouth off, he might deserve a blaster bolt to the back. Just wanting to live and get away doesn’t deserve death.
3. Either show Cassian having reservations about the killing he’s being told to do, or being forced to do, or make him a fucking soldier. He’s almost one, a guy who follows orders because if you don’t follow orders in wars, people get killed. You can even toss in a scene with Jyn not wanting to follow his orders and getting someone killed. There are consequences for acting without knowing all the facts. Grunts don’t know the big picture, so they have to trust their officers know more than they do. That doesn’t make them Stormtroopers, it makes them moral people who believe in fighting for a cause.
4. Make the Empire ‘human’. They can still be the black and white bad guys. But show a personal connection between Crennic and Jyn’s father. Maybe they’re friends. Maybe he’s been covering up for him because he’s a friend and not just because he’s super scientist man. Make Crennic’s problems greater. It shouldn’t be him going to Vader, it should be Tarkin. Tarkin is taking over the Death Star and he’s going to bring Vader along to make sure Crennic can’t do shit about it. Give Crennic a reason to go scurrying around trying to fix things. His life should be at stake, not just his career or his command. And see my note about the Stormtroopers, above.
5. Forget one of the locations. We jump from one world where Jyn’s father is at, to the tropical world. Pick one, all the action should take place there. Don’t waste screen time. Combine the events, the finding the plans and the assassination/reunion with Jyn’s father.
6. Finally, have a PLAN to steal the Death Star info, not just Hope.
*(I remain convinced that there are objectively good stories and objectively bad ones. That doesn’t mean one’s personal taste prevents you or forces you to like it. But quality is quality and deserves respect. Crap is crap and deserves jeers. Hey, I like Pepsi and it’s objectively crap, so not trying to be pulpit pounding here)
** There really is only one trilogy. The Prequels were terrible alternate history.
***Boy, these names…I’m sticking with character names here for consistency. Donnie Yen played the blind monk and he’s really, really, really good. Check out his other films. And, bad as these names are, they avoid the worst of Lucas’ excesses like Dexter Jetster or Kit Fisto.