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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

"I am one with the Force and the Force is with me"



So there’s a new STAR WARS movie in town.

Yup, we finally saw Rogue One, on the day after New Year’s. This was not due to any lack of enthusiasm, mind you, but simply the travails and tribulations of trying to find large blocks of time for seeing movies around the Holiday season. Rogue One thus turns out to be the first Star Wars movie that I did not see in its opening weekend since The Empire Strikes Back.

No, none of that matters or has any bearing on what I thought about the movie. So, what did I think of the movie?

Short version: I liked it, quite a bit. I had some complaints and quibbles along the way, but there was nothing in this movie that I found disturbing or annoying (well, almost nothing). So I liked it a lot more than I liked The Force Awakens.

Nothing in this movie is necessary, which an interesting place to start. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and Star Wars with it, the lay of the land very quickly became clear. Disney was not going to be content with the six existing movies, and they immediately greenlit Episode VII. They soon thereafter made clear that they weren’t going to be content with the old model, either, wherein the new Star Wars movies were spaced three years apart. No, they wanted at least a movie a year, in order to make the Star Wars “cinematic universe” almost as much a going concern as the Marvel one. Now, I’m not sure we’ll ever get to multiple Star Wars movies a year, but until these things stop making money, we’re getting at least one a year.

However, Disney knew that they couldn’t get Episode VIII done that quickly, so they announced a series of stand-alone films that would alternate with the “Saga episode” films. Rogue One is the first of these, and we learned very early what it would be about. Remember back to the opening crawl of the very first Star Wars movie ever? Episode IV: A New Hope (once known, quaintly enough, simply as Star Wars) starts off by giving us this bit of background:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....

Rogue One is the story of those Rebel spies, the ones who manage to steal the secret Death Star plans while the Rebel ships are busy winning their first victory against the Empire.

In all honesty, when I heard that this was what Disney was doing with this movie, I wasn’t terribly thrilled. This is simply not a story that anyone has ever wanted to hear, is it? Has anyone ever wondered about those spies and how they stole the Death Star plans? I certainly haven’t. It’s like wondering why no one has ever made a movie telling the story of those ill-fated German couriers with the letters of transit in Casablanca, the ones whose murder by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is reported in that film’s first minute. We don’t need a movie about how a single scientist on the planet Krypton diagnosed that world’s doom; what matters is that world’s single survivor, the baby Kal-el. Nobody needs to see the tale of how Ben and May Parker came to be the guardians for young Peter.

But someone decided that the theft of the Death Star schematics was a story that needed telling, so tell it, they have.

In truth, I still wonder about that. I wonder if this film isn’t partly an attempt by Disney to have the cake and also eat it, by making a standalone Star Wars film that is nevertheless pretty safe. The Star Wars story is so well-known by this point that not much background needs established in Rogue One, and indeed the film gets started and off to the races pretty quickly. There is apparently some technical problem with building the Death Star, and the Empire needs the services of one of its geniuses to fix it. The genius, however – a guy named Galen Erso – is living in seclusion on some planet someplace – hiding, in fact – and the Empire goes to get him, sending Director Krennic himself to fetch the genius. Krennic is the officer who is actually in charge of building the Death Star. After some stuff in which Galen’s wife is killed and his daughter Jyn goes into hiding, Galen is taken anyway.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, when young adult Jyn finds herself targeted by the newly forming Rebel Alliance, because of her father’s position as designer of this new “giant weapon” that they’ve heard the Empire is building. The rest of the film is mostly about that: the coming together of a team of ragtag rebels, each with a different specialty or skill, as they set out to steal the plans for this new super weapon, called “the Death Star”. Somehow Galen has coded a message to Jyn, and when she plays it, he tells her that he has built a weakness into the armored space station.

So basically Rogue One is a kind-of The Guns of Navarone in space, with all the various trappings of Star Wars. For the most part, the film is gripping and entertaining. It’s on the long side – maybe a little too long, especially during the ending sequence which pretty much abandons the main story in favor of some straight-up fanservice, but more on that in a bit. And somehow, despite maybe being a little too long, I felt like we never really got a good feel for the characters aside from Jyn and the droid K-2SO. Even Cassian Andor, the Rebel agent who gets the whole thing rolling by busting Jyn out of Imperial prison, is something of a cypher.

We learn even less about the rest of our ad-hoc strike team. There’s an Imperial pilot who has defected, although we never really learn why. We likewise don’t learn a whole lot at all about our blind warrior-monk or his mercenary friend, aside from the fact that we need some bit of mysticism in a Star Wars movie, and these two provide it. This is actually interesting: Chrrit Imwe, the blind monk, is nevertheless apparently a Force-user of some sort – or at least, he is someone whose life evidences a certain devotion to the Force. He keeps saying “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me,” almost as a mantra, and it’s hard to make the case that he’s not using the Force at points. Again, we have a broadening of the idea of Force-users – begun in The Force Awakens (although it may have begun earlier, in the cartoon shows that I haven’t watched) – who don’t fall into the Jedi-Sith dichotomy.

I don’t think it’s entirely a flaw that the characters in this film are generally fairly broadly sketched. This is a long story, with a lot of moving parts, and there’s not really a great deal of extra time to be dealing with characters backgrounds. A little more would have been helpful, though. There’s a reason why these kinds of movies, like The Guns of Navarone, tend to run on the long side. You need to establish the characters so that when they inevitably start dying, it matters. And I did feel something when some of the characters began expiring during the final battle, so there’s that. I don’t think Rogue One is fatally flawed by inattention to character, at all. I just would have liked a little more.

I was concerned during the film’s production about the tone that was promised. The filmmakers, in various statements, seemed to be indicating a very dark and gritty film was in the offing, so much so that I was worried about the Battlestar Galactification of Star Wars. This hasn’t really happened. The film is substantially darker in tone than most of the Star Wars entries – although it’s nowhere near as grim as Revenge of the Sith – but there is still heroism and even fun to be had along the way. For the most part, the movie earns its emotional beats. In fact, the film earns its emotional beats much more satisfactorally than did The Force Awakens. While I don’t think we get to know the characters as well as we should have, we do still get to know them better than we did in TFA, so when the price for victory starts getting paid, there is real emotion there.

More broadly, the film is darker than many of its predecessors, and it's dark in a pretty interesting way. There are more shades of gray here than usual in a Star Wars movie, and the shades of gray that we see are those presented to desperate people who are presented with awful choices, as opposed to the shades of ever-increasing darkness we see in people who are moving from the Light Side toward the Dark. Rogue One gives us characters who aren't in it for the goodness of the cause, but who aren't motivated by money or power either.

My biggest complaint with Rogue One lies not with the heroes but with the villains. I’ve read a lot of praise for the film in this department, so maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the movie is entirely successful with the villains. Director Krennic, who is supervising the building of the Death Star, is pretty uneven. At times he is a technocrat, seemingly interested only in what he’s building as an intellectual exercise. This is the most interesting version of him: the man who wants to build this appalling weapon mainly to see if he can do it at all. He doesn’t seem terribly interested in the Empire itself, or vested with any special loyalty to the Emperor. However, at other times he is presented as mustache-twirlingly as every other Star Wars villain, most notably in the film’s opening scenes when he visits ruin about Galen Erso’s family in order to secure his assistance in his project.

Krennic is at times a fearsome commander, and at other times a fearful lackey himself. We meet Governor Tarkin who bosses Krennic around left-and-right, and we also have Krennic visiting Darth Vader himself on what I assume to be Vader’s “home” (a castle-like fortress built over a literal river of molten lava on what looks kind of like Mustafar). A lot of people were thrilled to see Vader in this movie, but in none of his scenes did he seem necessary to me. Vader’s inclusion felt like it was stuffed into the movie almost as a means of “rehabilitating” the image of Vader. The most common trope I’ve heard is that Rogue One made Vader “scary again”, and that it was finally cool to see Darth Vader cut loose with a lightsaber and do evil shit. I point out that we saw exactly that in Revenge of the Sith, just that back then it was his pre-black suit days. A lot of fans don’t seem to consider Vader Vader until he’s ensconced in the black armor and the iron lung, which seems wrong to me.

Likewise, the film’s last few minutes don’t work for me. Again, lots of people love those last few minutes, but for me they feel wrong somehow. Vader chasing Rebels through the corridor with his lightsaber, while they are doing a relay-race thing to get the Death Star plans onto the Tantive IV, was kind of a reach. Likewise, Princess Leia’s appearance in the very last scene didn’t work for me at all. In fact, it pretty much kicked me out of the movie entirely. Part of that, I’m sure, was the jolt of having had Carrie Fisher die just a week or two earlier, which cast a pall over the scene that there’s no way the filmmakers could have predicted.

But in terms of story, that bit doesn’t work for me either. This implies that the beginning of A New Hope takes place literally minutes after the ending of this movie, for one thing. For another, it doesn’t fit with what’s established at that film’s beginning. When Vader takes over the blockade runner at the beginning of A New Hope, Princess Leia protests that she is a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan. Vader knows that he claim is bullshit – “If this is a consular ship, where is the ambassador?” – but Leia wouldn’t even be able to make that claim with a straight face if she has just literally fled the scene of the Battle of Scarif. Likewise, Vader’s lines to Leia – “Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies” – doesn’t work at all if the plans weren’t transmitted but rather somehow run by a series of heroic-but-doomed Rebel soldiers who just manage to hand it through the blast door before it seals.

There is also too much Tarkin in this movie. I have to admit that I lost some interest in the various political machinations between Tarkin and Krennic as the film progressed. A little of this stuff went a long way, and Rogue One has too much of it. It takes focus off Krennic a bit, and worse, it lessens him. Krennic becomes something of a pathetic figure by the film’s end, not a fearful one, and in honesty, he’s not even essential, is he? We have him on Scarif at the end, giving us the confrontation that it seems we have to have – villain and hero in a mutually precarious spot – but I have to admit, by the time we got the Battle of Scarif really rolling, I’d lost interest in Krennic. His worst moment has to be the way it takes him a very odd length of time to realize that the Rebels are here to steal the Death Star plans, and this ends up feeling to me like Die Hard’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson: “I think they’re goin’ after the lights!”

I don’t want to rip on this stuff too much, but I do think this points up a certain structural flaw with this story as it’s conceived. It’s The Guns of Navarone in Star Wars, but we can’t end with the destruction of the guns, can we? Our big victory here is the acquisition of the plans, which we know happens during a big battle. For me, everything that comes after our heroes have won – after Jyn and Cassian die, having beamed the plans out – is pretty much filler.

I also don’t want to be too hard on the movie for its big action climax, because aside from the very last moments, it’s a fantastic battle. I love that the stakes keep rising as more and more ships get involved, until the Death Star itself shows up. The “limited power blast” from the Death Star’s superlaser is a good touch. I did find the digital re-use of battle footage from A New Hope distracting, but...well, when you’ve seen a movie as many times as I’ve seen A New Hope, there’s not really a way to avoid that, is there? This battle is hectic and violent and thrilling, it’s edited together beautifully, and I like that there are real objectives, not just The Force Awakens’s final battle which boils down to “Hit it as hard as you can!”

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that Rogue One fixes a major plot hole in A New Hope – or at least, that’s what a lot of people say it does. Luke Skywalker is able to destroy the Death Star by taking advantage of a tiny weakness in the battle station, and this film gives us an explanation as to why the Empire was dumb enough to leave that weakness in there (it was actually planned sabotage by Galen Erso). It’s ridiculous, the idea seems to be, that the Empire’s ultimate weapon can be destroyed so easily, by firing a torpedo down a thermal exhaust port.

Here’s my problem with this line of thinking: This is not a plot hole and it never has been.

The complaint always seems to be along the lines of, “Why would the Empire build such a huge weapon with such an obvious design flaw?” Or, “Why is the Death Star so easy to destroy?”

Well, in the first place, let’s consider the kind of story that Star Wars is. For all its spaceships and planets and rockets and laser guns and whatnot, it’s a mythic story, and most of its tropes come from mythic fantasy, not from science fiction. And in mythic fantasy, the trope of the Immense Villain with the Tiny Weakness is a very, very old one. We’re talking David-and-Goliath here, or Beowulf-and-Grendel. Odysseus versus the Cyclops. Bard versus Smaug.

The Death Star’s weakness, small and unnoticed, is perfectly in keeping with these kinds of stories. Complaining about it years later is to misunderstand the whole nature of the tale.

But here’s the other thing: the Death Star is not easily destroyed! Consider the Battle of Yavin. General Dodonna briefs the pilots:

The Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station.

The approach will not be easy.

You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two meters wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station.

Only a precise hit will set up a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes.

Remember all that? And remember the room full of pilots murmuring at the inherent difficulty of the task? Remember Wedge protesting that it was “impossible, even for a computer”?

No, the Death Star was not easily destroyed. Thirty ships made up the attack force. Only three end up returning. Of the thirty that flew, only two actually got to take a shot at the exhaust port, and only one actually hit it, and that was because that pilot had decided to use the Force instead of his computer when making the shot, and he only got to do that much because of the timely intervention of a particular space pirate.

Destroying the first Death Star was not “easy” at all, and when people imply (or state outright) that it was, it seems to me that they’re cheapening one of the great action sequences in all of movies. And that, I cannot abide.

(No, this isn’t just me defending the honor of my favorite movie, either. I can admit flaws in my favorite movies. See the Fixing the Prequels posts, or note my admission that my love of Casablanca aside, the letters of transit really are complete bullshit.)

I also think that there was probably a bit too much fanservice in Rogue One. We have Darth Vader, of course, and Governor Tarkin shows up (more than I expected, to be honest). But there are walkers in battle, and a Mon Calamari commander of the Rebel fleet. Bail Organa shows up very briefly, referring to his need to enlist an old friend of his (Obi Wan Kenobi, we assume) before saying that he has to get back to Alderaan. (We, of course, know that he will never leave.)

Some fanservice is fine, but there does get to be too much. An unnamed Rebel pilot with the Red Five call sign is shown dying, explaining how Luke Skywalker gets to have that same call sign at Yavin. Footage from A New Hope shows us Red and Blue Leaders. A land battle involves Imperial walkers. Earlier in the film, Jyn Erso bumps into someone on a crowded street, who turns out to be the very ruffians that Luke Skywalker bumped into in the cantina in A New Hope. I found a number of the callbacks distracting, and I do hope that future Star Wars films have less of that, moving forward. (The Force Awakens also had way too much fanservice for my taste.)

What does all this mean for Rogue One, then? Well, I’m not sure that the movie really needed to address the “weakness” in the Death Star at all. It really only serves to give Galen Erso a more sympathetic nature, I suppose. If not for that whole business, I wonder if audiences would have been nearly as invested in Jyn’s search for her father. I’m not sure, because the movie would be different without it. How to make Galen sympathetic if he goes along with building the Death Star? I’m honestly not sure. But anyway....

I don’t want to seem like I’m being too negative on Rogue One, because it really is an engaging movie, and probably the most directly satisfying trip to the galaxy far, far away in some time. I do wish the villains had been a bit more even, and I’m not at all sure that we needed Darth Vader at all. Those are not major complaints, though, because the movie mostly gets the story with its heroes right. It's a long movie, but I really wasn't much conscious of the running time, and as the final battle unfolded, seeing the fates of the characters unfold was still highly effecting. (None of this can possibly be a surprise, can it? In this subgenre of the war movie, it's gotta be a given that most of the heroes are going to die.)

It will be interesting to see how the future “standalone” Star Wars movies fare. The next one is the Han Solo movie, which I maintain still must be titled, Never Tell Me The Odds.



(First image credit)

2 comments:

T Laubacher said...

Different kinds of 'force sensitives' have been around for decades. West End Games's Star Wars RPG had rules for force users other than Jedi. A lot of that material made it into expanded universe books and comics as canon.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I'm not really an EU person. I tend to stick to the movies only (and maybe the teevee shows, if I ever get around to watching them), and in those, the Force has really been limited to Jedi and Sith, until fairly recently.