PROCEED WITH CAUTION. SPOILERS AHEAD.
...Seriously, I can't review and critique this film without spoiling several important things. Very important things. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Spoilers are fair game past this point.
A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY...
It's a very minor thing, but they didn't use the iconic "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" text, or the scrolling prologue. I know it's a bit annoying to have to read as soon as you walk into a movie, but I was expecting it. And it seemed for a second that they had thought about doing it, and even had a place to put said text -- but decided to cut it at the last second.
It would have been kind of nice to have that bit of context. Since Rogue One is tied far more to the original trilogy -- stylistically, chronologically, thematically, and character-wise -- than any of the other auxiliary Star Wars spin-offs, I felt the lack of text was a design failure in a movie that otherwise linked itself to the OT across the board.
Back in 1977...
This film made an effort to evoke the classic Star Wars style, from costume designs to hairstyles. Some people even had 70's sideburns. Since the end of Rogue One bookends the beginning of A New Hope, it makes sense that they tried to keep it stylistically consistent with the original trilogy.
I'm not sure how many practical effects vs. CGI effects were used. One of the best things about the original trilogy was its creative use of practical effects, mask and cosmetic work, and puppetry. The CGI of Rogue One was present, notably in recreating faces of characters like Tarkin and Leia. But explosions, aliens, and other effects appeared to be done with "practical magic." I think they struck a happy medium with this film.
Speaking of 1977: The Mission and the Death Stars
The goal of this movie is for Jyn, Cassian, and their friends and allies to steal the plans to the Death Star. Jyn's mission is personal: her father is the Imperial scientist who designed the Death Star. Her father sent her to live with a rebel after Imperials killed her mother and took him captive. Jyn learns that her father agreed to build the Death Star so that he could sabotage the project, building in a critical design flaw that would allow it to be destroyed. Jyn must steal the plans so that the rebels can destroy the Death Star, redeem her father, and put an end to Imperial tyranny.
To state the obvious: Rogue One answered the question that fans have been raging about for years. Why does the Death Star have such a critical flaw? It was intentional. The killer is inside the house.
To dig into this a bit: Another thing fans tend to complain about is the fact that A New Hope, The Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens all involve trying to destroy a Death Star (or, in the case of TFA, a Death Planet). People like to complain that it's overused.
Allegory Things and Other Parallels
I'd like to remind those people that Star Wars was created in 1977 in the middle of the Cold War, when the fear of nuclear annihilation was constant. The Death Star has the ability to destroy planets. Its "test runs" in Rogue One are akin to the destruction caused by atomic bombs. Since the creation of the atom bomb in the 1940's, the technology has only grown more destructive; today's nuclear bombs are several orders of magnitude more powerful than those dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. As the Star Wars movies have gone on, the Death Stars have also become more powerful.
Rogue One repeatedly states that such a powerful weapon should not be in the hands of anyone, especially not the Empire. It rejects the notion of peace through fear. Like in history, the scientist who creates a planet-destroying weapon regrets doing so. Unlike in history, this fictional Oppenheimer works in a key to destroy his own creation. Strip away the sci-fi setting and you'll find a powerful commentary on nuclear proliferation.
You may recognize "peace through fear" as the principle behind Mutually Assured Destruction. You may also realize that MAD only works if nuclear weapons are in the hands of people wise, stable, or informed enough not to use them. You may also realize that we just elected Trump.
In short, I'm glad this movie was made now, and I'm glad it came out in December, because despite its many throwbacks to the 1970's it is still a very important movie for this place and time.
Another thing that struck me was the portrayal of the ancient Jedi city: a sacred city in a desert/arid landscape, fought over by multiple groups. I'm not saying it's a direct Jerusalem allegory, but the parallels are there if you want to make them.
Rogue One also featured several disturbing sequences of urban warfare in said city. Imperial tanks and troops battled robed and turbaned extremists, both groups wearing masks or coverings that hid their faces. Civilians, whose humanity was emphasized by their visible faces, died in alarming numbers. This film was being created as the conflict in Syria raged, and I saw it shortly after the fall of Aleppo. I'm not sure whether the urban warfare and the eventual destruction of the city were meant to reference or comment on Syria, but in light of recent events it was impossible for me not to notice those parallels.
Many Bothans Died
|Game of Thrones? That's cute.|
The sacrifice of so many greatly raises the stakes for A New Hope. You get the sense that Jyn and the others' stories aren't over; even after they die, their mission to destroy the Death Star continues.
But I'm going to critique this movie even though everyone dies. Because everyone dies, it's important to look at how and when and particularly why they die.
For example, Jyn's orphaning is a little too convenient. Her father is confronted by Imperials as she and her mother run. Her mother sends her on to the hiding place and, for reasons unknown, goes back to her father. There, she pulls a blaster and attempts to kill the director of the Death Star project. This gets her shot.
It felt like she was killed off so early, and so pointlessly, just so that young Jyn could watch her mother die in her father's arms. It also made me think less of her for abandoning her young daughter. Until she fired, I seriously believed she would try to shoot her husband (because, you know, that would actually make sense and stop the Death Star project). Instead she came off as selfish and foolish.
So much of Star Wars is about fatherhood that emphasizing the father-daughter bond makes sense in the world. Jyn's quest to redeem her father by destroying his invention also parallels Luke's quest to redeem Darth Vader. But at the same time, these tropes are rather predictably gendered. For instance, the mother could just as easily have been the scientist, while the father was killed early on. If one of the hero's parents has to die, it's usually the mother.
Rogue One's handling of disability was more cringe-worthy. We meet Cassian as he's talking to an informant -- a man with a damaged or amputated arm. When the alarm goes off, the informant panics, saying that there's no way he'll be able to climb out and escape because of his disabled arm. So Cassian kills him.
He is the figurative puppy that Cassian kicks to establish that he's Not Very Nice. Much like how the mother is fridged five minutes in, a marginalized minority character acts as a prop to another character's story.
Later, Rogue One kills off another disabled person in the exact same way for the exact same reasons: so that the abled people can escape. Jyn's adoptive father is a rebel extremist who uses oxygen like Darth Vader and has had both legs amputated. He uses prosthetic legs to walk, and they look pretty advanced. Yet, when the shock wave from the destroyed city threatens to kill them all, they leave him behind because of the assumption that he won't be able to keep up. Jyn grabs his hand and doesn't want to leave him, but otherwise no one else even fucking tries to help him.
Everyone is expendable in this movie, but the disabled people are even more expendable. They're killed so that the able-bodied people have time to escape -- so that they don't drag on them or slow them down.
I don't care that the rebel guy urged them to run on: that only reinforces the notion that the lives of disabled people are inherently less valuable or worth saving, and even we know it. It lets the heroes feel ok about doing something shitty, and the audience feel ok about watching them do the shitty thing.
If it had been just one instance of this, I'd wince and move on. But the first act kills off two disabled guys in the same way.
This is baffling to me because Star Wars has always treated disability better than this. Darth Vader is a FUCKING QUADRUPLE AMPUTEE with lava-gas-seared lungs covered in burn scars who needs a mask to breathe and he's a cyborg AND HE KICKS REBEL SCUM ASS. The asthmatic hiss of his breathing -- the thing that signals to us that he is, in fact, disabled and that the suit is a life support device -- is one of the most iconic things in the entire franchise.
|Pictured: A disabled badass.|
Luke, THE HERO, has his hand cut off. Prosthetics are readily available to him even with the rebels' presumably less advanced or less-funded medical centers. Hell, even Han is temporarily blinded. And while this is played mostly for comedy, he still plays an important role in the fight over the Sarlacc pit. But my point is: We have canon science fiction technology in this universe and this movie still chose to kill off these characters in this bullshit way.
|Pictured: A disabled hero.|
These brief shots show that the hand isn't just a magical "fix" which erases his disability; it still affects him even if it's not the focus of the films. At the climax, it's the sight of Vader's own prosthetic hand which recalls Luke to his better self and reminds him to have compassion for his father.
Star Wars has also done a decent job of conveying details about Vader's disability without catering to the abled gaze. The shots of Vader's assistive tech maintenance are brief, conveying information without being voyeuristic. They remind us that under the scary black suit and billowing cape, he is just a man, and it's that man Luke seeks to redeem.
With Rogue One, there has been an obscene amount of fan clamoring for more shots of Vader in his tank. With absolutely no due respect: fuck off. Seeing that would convey no more information about Vader and his routine and his humanity than we already know, and the motive for this fan outcry is all too easy to discern. It's all about the visual. It reflects the morbid fascination of the abled with disabled bodies: as grotesque things to gawk at. It's voyeuristic and gross.
ANYWAY, getting back to Rogue One: The other disabled guy in the film is a blind warrior monk. He dies being shot after transmitting the plans to the rebels. But "blind warrior monk" is basically its own category with its own set of tropes. Particularly "blind Asian warrior monk/Kung Fu master." It's one of those disability tropes that people consider "not a real disability because he's so badass," so it doesn't tend to be treated like other disabilities in fiction. And predictably, he had more agency over his fate and his death had more meaning in the narrative than the other two.
OK So I Cried
I'll admit getting teared up a bit at several points. I will say that I was already emotionally "warmed up" by Moana and the short beforehand. But I didn't actually burst into tears until Chirrut walked across the field chanting "I am one with the Force the Force is with me."
The Music Was Good
I did miss the classic soundtrack, even while I appreciated the musical quotes and nods to the source material. We got the March and a smidge of the heroic theme. The soundtrack also sounded like classic Williams even while being different from what I expected. It made me want to go listen to all the movie soundtracks -- even those from the godawful prequels, because the music is their only redeeming quality.
|Well, one of the only redeeming qualities.|
It's got "war" in the title, but there were lots more bombs and grenades and shooting and shouting and such than in most Star Wars movies. Maybe avoid seeing it in theaters if loud noises and war/battle scenes upset you.
Also I do not know that I would take a kid to see this movie. Actually, I definitely wouldn't take small kids to see Rogue One. Teens? I'm not sure. I'm of half a mind that this ought to have been rated R. Not only is it extraordinarily violent, but the characters, themes, scenes, and other elements are far grimmer than what PG-13 suggests.
I AM UNCOMFORTABLE
There's a scene involving an octopus-alien-thing. And tentacles. And tentacle mind-rape. And I WAS UNCOMFORTABLE. I've spent way too much time on the internet. But it would have helped my discomfort if the actor had NOT been making an O-face. Gah.
Conclusion: IT'S A PREQUEL THAT DOESN'T SUCK!!! OUR PRAYERS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED! MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!