SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE

 

 

 

 

There’s a moment in Rogue One where K-2SO, the converted Imperial droid, starts to say, “I have a bad-“ but he gets cut off before he finishes, and another character tells him he needs to stay quiet. This moment worked, and I thought it was amusing. If Rogue One had been one of the numbered Saga Star Wars episodes, it would have bothered me though that nobody in the movie gets to say the complete line, “I have a bad feeling about this…”

There are just certain rules, certain things like that line that happen in each Star Wars episode. If the movie doesn’t abide by these format rules, it isn’t quite Star Wars. The Force Awakens broke a few of them, and I found it irritating. For Rogue One, though, I had an open mind. This wasn’t like the other episodes, these new standalone movies are supposed to explore new terrain within Star Wars… They’re in the same universe, but they’re telling new types of stories, doing new things.

The thing is, if you’re going to throw out the old, you have to come up with something new to replace it. Rogue One sort of does that… once in a while… Not nearly as much as it needed to.

You can sense Disney cautiously, timidly sticking their toe into these new waters. They want to expand this Star Wars thing as much as they can, because they’ve got four billion dollars they’re working to make back. But they’re also very cautious about protecting that four billion, and they’re not quite sure yet just how far they can go and still have people accept it. So, last year we got TFA, which was a virtual remake of A New Hope, wherein their marketing research has surely informed them that the nexus of Star Wars nostalgia resides, and now we get Rogue One, which isn’t so much a prequel to ANH as it is a reenactment. It’s an exercise something like Wicked, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an attempt to re-explore a story that has already been told, and see if maybe you can slip some new stuff into the cracks of the original.

The difference is that while something like Wicked reimagines the source material and gives you a new way to look at it, creates a new separate entity, Rogue One just serves you up more of the same.

Which can be enjoyable if you liked what they’re recreating, don’t get me wrong.

There’s a little joke in Rogue One that made me laugh. Two Stormtroopers are chatting and one says that they’ve finally declared the VT-15 obsolete, and the other one says, “It’s about time…” Now, this isn’t even a joke on its own. It relies on you remembering a line of dialog from ANH that’s barely even audible… When Obi-Wan is sneaking around the Death Star, two Stormtroopers in the background are chatting and one says, “You seen that new VT-16?” and his friend replies, “Yeah, some of the other guys were telling me about it. They say it’s… it’s quite a thing to see.”

Of course, in ancillary materials there are explanations for what a VT-16 is and so on, but in the original movie it’s just background chat, it’s a sound effect, I don’t think the number originally meant anything. But Rogue One has a joke where you’re not only supposed to have paid attention to this, you’re supposed to remember the number 16, so you catch that it’s funny that they’re talking about retiring the 15.

Easter eggs like that are fun, and of course many Star Wars fans, myself included, are obsessive enough to get them. But Rogue One is an entire movie of this!

You see an Imperial protocol droid, and it’s not just any protocol droid… It’s RA-7. I have the action figure they made of his appearance in ANH. It’s hardly an appearance, though, he’s in two shots when Luke and Han are walking to the elevator while they’re pretending Chewie is their prisoner. And when RA-7 shows up in this movie, he makes the exact same sound that he did when he was in ANH. 3B6-RA-7, the gold version that is on the Jawa Sandcrawler, also pops up for a shot in Rogue One, and also makes the exact same sound he made in that other scene. That spark of recognition is fun at first! But then you start to wonder, do these droids only say one thing each? Why would they sound exactly like that each time? It starts to make the universe feel awfully limited…

During the big final battle sequence when the Rebel fleet shows up, I got a huge rush as we got shots of the pilots in their cockpits and they all said their call signs, just like the sequence before the trench run in ANH. Then Red Leader shows up, and it’s actually him! It’s Garven Dreis, the Red Leader from the original Death Star battle, and he’s showing up to help these guys! It’s not a recreation or some other actor playing the part, they’ve inserted unused takes from the original movie into this sequence, three that I could see for sure, so it’s like you hopped in a time machine and they’re actually back inside of that movie that was made 40 years ago. I’m not gonna lie, I got chills when that happened. It’s a crazy thing. Possibly a unique thing. The combining of the old footage into this sequence is pretty seamless.

As much as people like to piss on George Lucas, I think this movie is a pretty powerful testament to his genius, and Ralph McQuarrie’s, that this low budget sci-fi movie he made 40 years ago is so powerful and so stacked with iconic imagery that they can keep making entire new movies with those images, reading between the lines. There’s as much great stuff and powerful imagery in that first Star Wars movie as there is in 50 movies by lesser filmmakers, and it’s so ingrained in our culture now that people take that for granted. Things that were little toss-off images in the original film, like the sentry in his little pod on Yavin IV watching the ships take off over the forest, or the gunners on the Death Star manning their stations and powering up the laser, are strong enough that this movie not only quotes them, it quotes them two and three times.

This movie recreates the sets, the ‘70s-era computer displays and control panels, everything, in such loving detail, that it’s surprising that the one thing they kind of fuck up is Darth Vader. His costume is wrong. Not drastically wrong, but wrong enough that if you happen to be an obsessive you would notice. The base of his helmet seems too wide, the fabric on his arms is too puffy, and his codpiece is oddly oversized and looks like it’s made out of styrofoam instead of hard plastic. Maybe the actor in the suit wasn’t quite the same proportions as David Prowse and it sits on him funny, I’m not sure.

But Vader’s scenes aren’t that great, either. He’s got a pretty cringe-worthy pun in his first appearance, and I’m not sure why he’s on Mustafar still. Or has he chosen another lava planet? They don’t specify that it’s Mustafar, but if not it would be odd that it looks exactly like Mustafar. The impetus of course is classic McQuarrie concept paintings that show Vader’s castle, his holiday retreat I guess, that’s over a lavafall. This didn’t get used in the original movies, but Lucas always liked the lava planet idea, and the Hell imagery of it, and it ended up on screen as Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith. It got changed somewhat, though, and as it’s the place of Vader’s downfall and the destruction of his body, it makes it kind of an odd choice for a home base for him. But I guess symbolically it can make sense that he’s never left Mustafar, so I can deal with it. I digress.

His second scene I’m sure people will love. We get to see Vader go berserker and murder a bunch of innocent people. So, cool, I guess? I’m not sure I see what the attraction of this is, but I spoke to two different bro-ish dudes over the last couple weeks and, when I asked them what they were excited to see in Rogue One, they both said they wanted to see Vader murdering people. I guess this is a thing for a lot of people. Disney obviously realized that, if they had Vader in the film, these people were going to be upset if their inner bloodthirsty 12-year-old wasn’t appeased. If I had to guess, I would say that the second Vader scene was added in reshoots and was a studio suggestion.

And that’s it. There are two Vader scenes. I think they’re kinda silly and pointless, but if they get people all excited, it’s less than five minutes of the movie, so I can deal with it.

So that’s all the pandering and appeasement. But the whole point of this thing was for Star Wars to stretch its legs, right? These standalone films were supposed to show us brave new frontiers for the Star Wars films, whole new types of movies you could make within the Star Wars milieu. As it was explained originally, Rogue One was supposed to be a heist movie, a war movie, that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe.

So beyond the Easter eggs and homages, what about the story this film offers on its own?

Well… It’s basically just… Oh, we need this hologram message, let’s go get it… battle scene ensues on the way. Now we need these data files, let’s go get ‘em… battle scene ensues on the way. The whole last 45 minutes or so is composed entirely of: “Oh there’s this thing, it’s on this thing, we have to climb a ladder to get it…” “Oh, there’s this switch, it’s over there, across the dangerous thing, we’ve gotta go switch it…”

“Oh, there’s this other thing, it’s on this thing.”

“You mean the thing that’s over there, past the next action set piece?”

“Yes, that thing.”

“Well, that action set piece looks dangerous!”

“I know, but it’s important we get the thing!”

Really, that’s it. They run from one notion somebody had for an action sequence to the next notion somebody had for an action sequence. I really didn’t care. The only goal is that they have to get the Death Star plans to the Rebels, which you already know they will. If you’re supposed to be concerned for the individual characters, which there are too many of and about which we don’t know enough to really care, then you’re in for a shock, as the movie makes the odd choice for a crowd-pleasing action adventure of killing everybody.

Now, that part I can kind of get with. It’s unnecessary, because there’s no need for an explanation of why these characters weren’t around anymore in ANH. It’s a big galaxy, they could have been doing something else, there’s no reason they would need to brush up against the ANH characters. But you know, it’s an oddly atypical and bold choice to kill all the heroes, and I guess you could find a message about them willing to die for what they believe in, and it also adds a nice note to the story to think that, for all the heroes we saw triumphant in the original movies, there were also all these unsung heroes that had to sacrifice themselves to make the victory possible.

The also like the idea that there was somebody working on the Death Star who deliberately added the design flaw that the Rebels exploited to destroy it in ANH. That’s a nice touch, and it makes the Empire look less incompetent because there’s now a good reason that their giant space station could be destroyed with a single torpedo. Of course, explaining that here then makes The Force Awakens look even stupider when the Resistance is able to do the exact same thing to an even larger space station. There’s a reason for it here, in TFA it’s just kind of because, sure, if you shoot a small torpedo at a space station the size of a planet, of course it’ll blow up!

In Return of the Jedi, they’re able to blow up the second Death Star because it wasn’t finished yet, and they were able to take down the shields in a way that Palpatine thought wouldn’t be possible. In Rogue One, they make a big deal out of their shields around the Imperial base again, and the process that the Rebels have to go through to take them down. In TFA? Well, Han just kind of goes through the shields. Because they don’t work if you’re traveling lightspeed or something. So, he approaches the planet at lightspeed, and at some point between the shield and the planet’s surface, a distance of a couple miles, he is able to manually press a button and take them out of lightspeed before they crash into the planet. Now, let’s forget that, at speeds like that, within the time it would take for the information of their position to reach his eye and for his finger to then react and press a button, they would have flown through the planet already. But hey, it’s Star Wars, not a science lesson. Honestly though, the idea is that you can just fly through the shields if you do it fast enough? Why are any of them ever stopped by shields anyway, then?

TFA is kinda stupid if you take the time to look at it closely, have you noticed that? There are actually dozens of things like this in the movie. But I digress again.

My point was, I do like some of the ideas in Rogue One, and there were some clever bits. Are those bits really enough to create a whole story of its own that has any reason to exist beyond strip-mining another movie from 40 years ago? No, not even close.

If I thought that TFA had a more clever script than it does, I would have taken Kylo Ren as a kind of witty piece of meta-commentary on the whole thing. He’s not Darth Vader- he’s a Darth Vader FAN. He’s a wannabe. Darth Vader’s story was over 30 years ago, but Kylo just can’t move on. He’s still got his Darth Vader collectables in his bedroom. Darth Vader had a reason for his mask, there was a story there. Kylo Ren wears a mask because Darth Vader had one, and he hasn’t come up with a new story of his own.

Tarkin in this movie seemed an equally apt metaphor for the movie itself. They recreated Tarkin using some combination of a new voice actor, a stand-In, and CGI to make his face match Peter Cushing’s. It works pretty well, they do a decent enough job of it, but there are moments where it’s not quite right and his eyes or some little detail look a little freaky and your brain is saying, hey, that’s not how eyes work in a human head… He looks a little plastic from time to time. Peter Cushing has been dead for a while now, and it gets a little freaky to watch this odd puppet version of him.

That’s kind of what this whole movie feels like at times. It’s something that was done already a while back, and yet there’s money to be made, so we’re watching a corporation use all its technology and resources to make this odd, plastic Weekend at Bernie’s version of it. It’s pretty entertaining if you don’t think about it too much, but it can get kind of creepy, also.

I know a lot of people love the original Star Wars. I do, too. But if that movie was just left alone, isn’t it enough? Why would we rather just see it strip-mined endlessly than see something new? The entire reason it was a success in the first place was that it was weird, it was surprising, it was unique. I’m a sucker like most of you, and I’ll probably keep going to these new Star Wars movies for a while yet. But I don’t know how much longer they can keep going without having a new vision of their own, and how many times we’ll pay to see a walking corpse.