Box Office Democracy: Rogue One
It’s very clear that barring some sort of production-related catastrophe, we will get a Star Wars movie every December until they stop being profitable. For the foreseeable future it seems that on the even years we will get “Star Wars Stories”— little asides not directly connected to the main movies but providing some backstory or context or simply fleshing out the edges of a galactic civil war. Rogue One is the week or two directly before the original Star Wars and showcases the work that had to happen to get Luke Skywalker in position to fire a torpedo into an exhaust port. It isn’t as flashy or grandiose as what we’ve seen before, but they’ve made a grisly little space war film here. Well, as little a movie as you can make for $200 million anyway.
What we’re getting in Rogue One that we haven’t gotten before in Star Wars is a grittier look at the Rebellion war effort fighting against the Empire. In the seven films we’ve gotten so far, all of the characters are larger than life heroes who are largely above the fray of the day-to-day war. Han, Luke, and Leia are so far above the fray for 90% of the original trilogy they only operate at the highest levels. Rogue One gives us characters who operate at the lower levels of the war. Our main character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a fugitive/criminal sort of forcefully conscripted in to the Rebel Alliance to assist intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial assault droid (Alan Tudyk) on a rather convoluted mission (there are six steps and they probably could have gotten away with three) to get the plans to the Death Star. Along the way they pick up a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a wannabe Jedi (Donnie Yen), and his mercenary protector (Jiang Wen) to make up a ragtag band of resistance fighters. There are times when they feel a little bit like the assortment of Star Wars characters you would put together for a tabletop RPG, but the supporting characters absolutely work.
The main characters are a little rougher. Its hard to suss out what Cassian or Jyn really want out of the events of the movie besides a vague desire to do what the plot demands. Jyn wants to be reunited with her father but she doesn’t do very much to make it happen, nor does she react particularly emotionally when it doesn’t work out. Cassian is just a soldier who wants what a soldier wants and never has any time for deeper motivations. The most egregious example of poor character work comes in the form of Orson Krennic, the film’s primary antagonist. I believe that he’s evil and should be stopped based solely on the fact that he devoted his life to building the Death Star, but he doesn’t spend the movie doing anything particularly evil, rather he spends it trying to ensure he gets credit for his work from his superiors. That isn’t jump-off-the-screen evil, and it means he gets overshadowed by every other prominent Imperial in the film. These three principles just needed clearer goals and a bigger push.
There’s some stunning work being done in the visual effects department for this movie. The space battles seem more dynamic than anything I’ve seen on screen, better than The Force Awakens mostly because it’s trying to do something altogether different than anything I’ve seen in a Star Wars film before. The interplay between the war in orbit and the mission on the ground made everything feel a little more real, an odd thing too say about a movie about space battles and lasers that emulate atomic bombings. An effect that did not go over as well was the digital way they make actors look like actors from the older movies. They do it a few times and it never looked quite right— the attempt to recreate Peter Cushing failed completely for me. It was firmly in the uncanny valley, and I spent an entire scene featuring him just thinking about how oddly his upper lip was moving. George Lucas would have been endlessly trashed for a stunt like this, and it’s only that Disney hasn’t burned through all the good will yet that saves them from the same critique. Parts get recast all the time, they can do it here too.
I’m excited to see Star Wars “go wide” like this, to start exploring stories and ideas that would have been shuffled off in to the Expanded Universe a decade ago and putting them on the big screen. Rogue One feels a bit like a novel and there’s some good and bad with that (the main characters feel tailor-made to not ruffle any existing continuity) but it’s ambitious and different and that good far outweighs the occasional fit of mundanity. I want to see other kinds of movies in this setting; from this kind of war movie to perhaps more ambitious science fiction and quieter character pieces. We might never get any of that but right now it all seems possible— and Rogue One is lighting the way.