Note: there are no real spoilers, just hints at them, but be advised.
It’s clear that the America of 2016 is a nation divided. After having seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend (in 3D, with, yes, my 69 year old mother) I only understand this more strongly. The fandom nation of Star Wars has also been deeply divided in its reaction to the film, which still grossed over $70 million in its first two days in theaters. You can follow a formula and create a blockbuster. But only time can tell us if Rogue One is indeed the franchise expander we’re looking for.
Let me be clear: we live in a nation that spends countless hours debating where the emails were, what the emails said, why the things were said on Twitter, and how much Putin is involved. Fans will likewise spend hours debating Grand Moff Tarkin’s heavy-handed appearance, and a million other tidbits about the new SW film. But I am interested in two things: Is this film the kind of cinema magic of the late-great originals? And as a piece of cinema, does it have something worthy to say? My answers to those questions, I hope, are not quite as convoluted as the story of Ms. Clinton’s email server in the basement or Mr. Trump’s reality-television style leadership.*
My short answer to “is it as good as the ‘real’ Star Wars films?” is, in short, no. It misses the magic because of a few key value choices on the part of the filmmakers. This is not to say the film is devoid of cinema magic. It’s a worthwhile film and I’ll probably buy the DVD. But instead of going back and seeing it in the theater again, with my limited time I’d rather go see La La Land. Why?
• They sacrifice of plot for effects. George Lucas, when he was still hiring good writers and before he turned to the dark side (which I think he’s come back from, btw), was famously noted as focusing on story above special effects. Jabba’s barge is only seen fully in a few shots of Return of the Jedi, yet they built the whole full-scale thing. Because: authenticity matters. It gives a film integrity. But the film’s integrity is only worth it if the story is worth it. It’s the same mistake Paul Fieg made with his reboot of Ghostbusters. Fieg’s genius is in working with female actors who are incredible and getting great performances out of them. Those performances are half on set, and half from the editing room. All performances are. But editing time on Ghostbusters was clearly spent on effects, not on getting the most out of actor performances (see the scene in the mayor’s office where Kate McKinnon clearly tries to add in a bit and the cut jumps away before the joke can land). Likewise, the first two thirds of this film didn’t have a clear enough plot goal and the last third turned into an effects showcase. Where in the original trilogy the audiences suffers some dated, piecemeal effects (and some still amazing ones) because they are invested in the story, in Rogue One we stay invested because of the dazzling, video-game like effects fighting for glimpses of the good story covered up by too many Easter eggs and explosions. No wonder the film tends to appeal more to video-game playing types.
• There’s also simply too much going on. This is doubtless deliberate, and since we live in the post Moulin Rouge! age of video games and ritalin it should come as no surprise, but I was on sensory overload often, and not in a good way. Subsequent viewings, which doubtless the film was made for, may prove me wrong in that I want more things to look at, but that doesn’t forgive the too-easy grabs for cameos of Dr. Evanzan and Ponda Baba, for instance. The plot wastes time grabbing at points that don’t need to be made, as if it is intentionally trying to lay ideas for spin-offs and fan fic. Which brings us to the CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin. A wholly unnecessary debate, as the presence of Tarkin was heavy handed and not needed—like several of the plot turns. And let’s not talk about CGI Princess Leia… …Ok fine, let’s talk about her. I was so so so hoping she wouldn’t turn around. Want to know how to make icons? Keep something off screen. Let our imaginations fill in. We knew who it was. Like Christ’s face in Ben Hur, the presence means more for not being fully on screen. Think Hitchcock. What’s outside the frame and beyond our vision can still affect us. The original trilogy was iconic. The real answer to “was it as good?” is “will it become iconic?” No. It won’t. It’s a good film. It’s worthwhile as a big budget sci-fi shoot ‘em up/blow ‘em up/emo adventure story. But it doesn’t really have the magic, because it gets one more element of the original magic completely backward.
• It relies on what Hollywood always relies on: a formula. While Rogue One is a step away from the ongoing Skywalker Saga, the film as a “Star Wars story” follows every. Plot. Convention. To the letter. They even sneak in a little lightsaber action (by a pun-speaking Darth Vader who is also wholly unnecessary to the story). The end battle, while video game-like in its construction and art, at least has a clear plot goal. And like THX-1138 reaching for the top of his man-made world, the heroes reach for a clear and highly important goal. It does try to reach from concrete to mythic by having the stolen Death Star plans be a metaphoric transmission of “hope.” But even this is too forced. The battle is an obligatory one, and like many things in the new Star Wars films it was put in because fans would expect it. There is no sense of the young George Lucas framing his mythic story on the work of Joseph Campbell (you’ve been able to go to L.A. workshops on using Campbell’s theories about myth as a storytelling formula for years). This is not a shot-in-the-dark film that takes chances and is completely foreign yet strangely familiar. This is something too familiar, with new faces in the same semantic elements of every “Star Wars story.” Added to this are the tropes of film in our age: forced intensity (I wanted to love Forrest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera but it was just too forced. And I don’t think it was his performance, I think he was this film’s Natalie Portman—a wonderful actor who wasn’t directed or edited well), and a sense of giving the audience a gluttonous amount of dazzle so that the fine ideas of the plot get drown out like too much ranch dressing on an otherwise tasty salad. A little ranch, yes, but only enough to make the salad balance well. This is no mythic plot told with sometimes forgivable tropes and puppets you can believe in. This is not a Saturday morning serial with a great plot and good filmmaking. This is expensive filmmaking designed to get a profit. Solid, but not magic. The magic in any storytelling is its seldom something that looks palatable or profitable. But when it captures something real and something necessary, like the original trilogy and films like E.T. did so beautifully, it is magic that becomes mythic.
These critiques said, does the film have some kind of resonance, something worthwhile to say? I think it does. Part of the original SW magic was a sense of clear good and evil in a time of great moral confusion. Rogue One deals with current zeitgeists in an interesting way, and only time can tell if these are enough to overcome the plot sacrificed for fan investment and special effects. What does it deal with well?
• Moral confusion and diversity. The American presidential race aside, we are in a world awash with moral quandaries. Americans really are divided on whom to trust and whom to vilify. The answers are indeed complicated, and the plot of Rogue One reflects that. The main characters Jyn (Felicity Jones) and Cassian (Diego Rivera) have checkered and painful pasts. They feel like real people, and we do invest in them (so, of course the film ends as we know it must). Likewise, the cast is diverse, a better picture of the world than many films, and passes the Bedschel test (but could have done better…maybe at least one more female in the Rogue Squadron?). The characters are flawed but likable, and bad things happen to them. But maybe a harsh reality is called for. We live in harsh times.
• Violence. I’ll be honest, I really struggled with this one. I think Americans are far too forgiving of violent movies. I think our films reflect and incite our own violent tendencies. There’s a reason the Greeks moved blood-spilling off stage. We probably shouldn’t see Medea with her kids. It’s disturbing without point. I’m all for narratively disturbing people, but my homegirl Flannery O’Connor was such a powerful writer she made the stealing of a wooden leg or an abandonment at a roadside diner as painful as any death scene. I kept thinking, “What do vets returning from war zones think of this film? What about refugees?” Is it cathartic? Is it helpful? Or does it negate their realities, or the realities of what is happening right now—this very minute as you and I sit in relative comfort and complicity—in Aleppo? It’s a shoot ‘em up. But it’s too real. Talk of uncanny valleys with half CGI characters and heroic droids, maybe the real uncanny valley is that we invest in a violent film but have a hard time investing in real wars around us. I still am not sure how I feel about this. Perhaps I am wrong. I live in relative peace and great comfort. I do not know what a refugee or soldier experiences in this film. My life is not violent, thank God, and I have no need for it to purge myself of violent tendencies, so perhaps I am too sensitive. I know the films are about star “wars” but they were really about good vs. evil. We all know Stormtroopers are terrible shots and we rarely saw blood. The world of Rogue One is dirty, and bloody. …But so is the real world. …But should this world be?
• Grown Up Fantasy. This film has been dubbed the Star Wars film for grown-ups, and as a grown-up, previous points aside, I enjoyed a lot about the film. My favorite character was Donny Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe. Alan Tudyk as aptly Disney-esque quirky sidekick K-2SO was also enjoyable. This was a great piece of fan-fic. I spent my youth reading Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina and this was a great version of one of those kinds of stories. It dwelled in a universe I have spent fantasy time in, and I liked this fantasy. The art was beautiful. The costumes and props were great. The worlds were visual feasts (again see the ranch dressing metaphor though, I was over-stuffed at the feast). But that brings us back to this film being made for fan appeal. It had it, but in targeting an audience it may have lost a larger one. Please don’t take your young ones to this film. It is for adults. I remember being eight or so and staying up because I “had to see if they blew up the Death Star.” It was a big moment for me. I got so invested I stayed invested the rest of my life. But it was palatable for all audiences. I don’t think this film was intended to be, or is. If you target an audience and find them, you have a hit, a standard blockbuster (see the 21st Century irony of that statement?). But really great movies are made by telling a good story and letting audiences find it (see the work of Jeff Nichols or, frankly, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for instance). You cannot create an iconic film with a formula. But you can give grown-ups a good time at the theater and ask some relevant questions.
Ultimately, Rogue One is not a true resonant for our troubled time. It divides instead of unifies, because it’s not meant for everyone. (Would that that could be said of elected officials, who, alas, have the job of appealing to us all.) It is, however, a decent side story. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but I’m a Star Wars fan, so I was going to. I was already watching the channel I like, listening to the news provider I trust. How mythic and memorable it will remain only time can tell, but for my part, it remains a high-production value version of side stories like The Ewok Adventure and the original Clone Wars cartoons.
*The very idea that our national presidential debate is televised and Twitterized says much about how Americans treat politics, as if we are selecting contestants on a reality game show called Who Wants To Be the Leader of the Free World? Americans treat politics the same way we treat television because what we really want is to be entertained. What we hear someone say once is what we believe, and popularity, which is more important than anything, can be bought with the right performance. What we want from our President is the same thing the British want from the royals: enough drama to make us feel morally superior for choosing the right people and the right side. But whether you side with Pr. Diana or QE2, it’s still more like an episode of Dynasty than all that boring stuff that happens on C-SPAN. We click channels and scan feeds for clickbait. It’s exactly what Neil Postman warned us about years ago.