Everybody is talking about this movie. Freaking everyone. And it’s generally getting the reaction of, “Holy crap, this movie is so great,” and I’m honestly in that camp, though I think the movie did have its share of problems. I really enjoyed it. And there were more than a few moments that left me unable to eat my popcorn while certain scenes were going on.
There will be spoilers in this review. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, and plot-related ones will be hidden behind areas you have to highlight to read, but if you consider character names and mentions of events to be spoilers, then fair warning, you may not want to read this until after you’ve seen the movie for yourself.
The movie, by and large, is about how the Death Star plans — the ones that showed its improbable weakness in Episode IV — made it to the Rebel Alliance in the first place. Definitely an interesting idea, and one that clears up a fannish nitpick that’s been around since oh, before I was born. The story is told around Jyn Erso, daughter of a man who worked on the Death Star, and I say that it all takes place around her because she’s not exactly a driving force behind the plot. In fact, aside from an impassioned speech and a little half-hearted rebellion against the Rebels toward the end, she largely gets carried along with the story as other people push the plot forward. It’s one thing to have a reluctant hero, and I think that’s what they were going for with Jyn, but it comes off more like a passive figurehead that you’re supposed to root for because… personal reasons? She’s hardly the most compelling character in the mix.
I was already forewarned that Rogue One wasn’t going to have the strong female character that people expected, so while that did disappoint me, it wasn’t surprising. And part of the disappoint came from wondering why the writers, directors, et al, couldn’t have done better. Really, Jyn’s presence isn’t all that necessary for the story in Rogue One to take place. The Rebels need her to get close to Saw Gererra, an extremist who has information the rebels need. She becomes useful at the end when she figures out the codename of the Death Star plans. And that’s pretty much it. The rest of the story largely rests on the shoulders of Cassian, Bodhi, and a couple of other side characters whose names get mentioned (at least one of them does) but not so clearly that I could actually make out what they were called. One was pretty much a Blind Asian Monk archetype, and to be perfectly honest, I’d have watched a whole movie about that guy. That guy kicked some serious ass.
That and a reprogrammed droid K-2SO, but who I tended to call Sassy Droid because that about sums up the entirety of his character. But Sassy Droid was pretty awesome.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that, weirdly, the strength of Rogue One isn’t in its characters. It felt at times like too large a cast of characters being handled by people who weren’t sure how to, well, actually handle a large cast of characters. Development was uneven, with some characters having clear motivations for doing what they did, and others just getting swept along for the ride and generally not adding much to the plot. Some of the characters were needed to have plot points fall into place, but otherwise didn’t really contribute. Others, like Blind Asian Monk and his Pet Mercenary, seemed to exist largely to be awesome and competent and then sacrifice their lives for the greater good and so make us feel all the feels.
Don’t get me wrong. Feels were definitely felt. But one emotional scene doesn’t mean the character was important or strong, and I think somewhere along the way, that got forgotten.
So if the strength of the movie isn’t in its characters, where is it? Well, from where I stand, it’s in its overall themes and message. Because at its heart, Rogue One was a war movie. And a powerful one. It’s a story about how far people will go to take down an oppressive regime, of the sacrifices they will make and what they will risk. It’s a story that conveys much about tyranny in a short period of time. In that regard, it’s absolutely worth watching, and it was the strength of those themes that made me think that, despite its deficits, it was a damn good movie.
Take the scene very near the beginning, in an Imperial-occupied city, where people meet in secret and share information, however reluctantly. Knowing they could be killed if caught. When one oversteps and kills a Stormtrooper, the other panics, knowing that he won’t be able to escape due to either injury robotic arm or other disability (the movie isn’t entirely clear on that, only that one of his arms doesn’t function properly), that his life is pretty much over because he risked opposing the Empire in a tiny way. The tension of hiding, of keeping your head down, of knowing that other people can be and probably will be harmed in order to get to you. Take the attack on Jedha, where tensions come to a head and rebels attack Imperial forces who are abusing citizens, and plenty of citizens get caught in the crossfire. The scene is chaotic and terrible and emotional, and seeing this only days after the horrific attack in Aleppo, and knowing that there are probably people who care more about the details in the Jedha attack scene in Rogue One than the real attack in our real world struck me so deeply that I couldn’t move for the entirety of the scene.
Take the tests of power by the Death Star. Only a fraction of what we see in A New Hope, no planets are fully destroyed, but the smaller-scale destruction is so powerfully conveyed in Rogue One because unlike in A New Hope, there’s no distance between the attack and the victims. There’s no sudden disturbance in the Force, felt by somebody light years away. There are people, on the ground, facing an oncoming wave of destruction with no way to escape it. With imagery similar to the mushroom cloud of an atom bomb, it seemed to me a stark condemnation of those who would jump straight to idea of nuclear attack to destroy “our enemies,” without any idea of what that really entails for people caught in the blast. All most people have to go on these days are grainy pictures of test explosions to fuel their imaginations; they have this idea that a nuclear bomb is just some big version of a stick of dynamite. And though it’s a fictional representation, seeing Rebels and Imperials get destroyed by the same device, casualties of war, statistics on paper made flesh because we followed their stories, drives home the point that indiscriminate killing is utterly terrifying.
Take the scene of the Alliance discussing what to do after they discover what the Death Star is capable of. To retreat, or to stand and fight, or to scatter? The argument that fighting against oppression isn’t the same as signing a suicide pact, that even though you accept that some of your people will be lost to the cause, that’s not the same as deliberately throwing yourself into danger and not even knowing if you’ll accomplish anything. The clear presentation of the downsides to democracy — the opposite of tyranny, where nobody gets a voice — in that sometimes democracy means the majority vote resulting in not pushing for your freedom, because enough people say it’s not worth it.
It was this stuff that really did it for me. The movie’s characters are hit-or-miss, there’s some amusement in seeing cameos from old favourites (including a couple that I couldn’t see the sense of, but that’s neither here nor there), but Rogue One‘s greatest strength is in its portrayal of rebellion, of war and its cost, of sacrifice, or difficult decisions. The movie doesn’t say these things right out. It’s not so blatant. But the imagery seemed pretty clear to me, and there was a lot that was conveyed not so much in words but in tone and image. That was what got to me. Not the characters or their sketchy motivations, but in the way the movie talked about war and death and what it takes to do what needs to be done.
Though I will take a moment to mention one other thing that made the movie awesome for me: Vader. I could go into a litany of reasons why the prequels ruined Vader, but I won’t. Other people have done that far better than I could. But after years of seeing the man who will become Darth Vader essentially by a spoiled and easily misled brat, Rogue One brings us back to the utterly terrifying Sith lord that fans first saw. He’s an intimidating presence, mysterious and powerful and 100% somebody you don’t want paying too much attention to you. A scene toward the end has him mowing down people left and right, not pausing for a moment, human lives inconsequential to him in pursuit of his goals, and that‘s the Vader that people saw none of in the prequels! A man who wears brutality like a mantle. We know how we began, we know how he ended, nothing about this character’s life is a secret anymore. But to see him return to being the character many of us first knew felt like justice. This is the Vader we needed to see again. He needed to become a figure of menace once more, and Rogue One had him do just that. It was the movie’s greatest characterization moment, and granted, that’s not saying much when all they had to do was have him act like he did in the original trilogy, but still. It was fantastic to see.
Anyone who has watched the original Star Wars trilogy knows how the movie will end. The movie’s conclusion isn’t a secret. The plans get to the Rebels. The team in charge knew that the “will-they-or-won’t-they” tension would be utterly absent from the film, so they tried to make it all about how. How they did what they did. Who took part in the effort. In some ways they succeeded. In others, not so much. But I think the movie had more good moments than it did bad ones. If you’re someone who’s incredibly character-driven and needs strong and well-developed characters to enjoy a movie, then it may not hold up to your expectations. But if you can appreciate it for more than just that, if you can see what it’s trying to say rather than who’s trying to say it, then I think you’ll come out of the theatre with the same reaction that most of us have. Rogue One is a damn good movie, and an excellent addition to the Star Wars universe.