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Rogue One Works

This was originally posted on my "Geek Dad" blog on 12/16/2016

Rogue One is being billed as the first “stand-alone” Star Wars movie. That is not entirely true. What it is is a two hour prologue to 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It is a wild ride that quite literally can replace the iconic opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie.

Spoiler alert: This is Rogue One

“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….”

Let’s be clear. It works. The very first reason why it works is because they didn’t retcon anything. We see the “Rebel spaceships striking from a hidden base,” and we witness “their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” We even get a payoff of my personal favorite line “Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Liea races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans…”

For these reasons, it is impossible to call this a “stand-alone film.” It nestles perfectly into the existing seven episodes. It is a movie version of something the Star Wars franchise has been doing for years, and that is providing a novelization of things that happened off screen.

When going into this film, I had a few concerns. One was that in 1977, data was stored on tapes and “beamed” to their destination. There are several references to the tapes in that film which in 2016 feels antiquated. How would they deal with it? They did it perfectly by showing the Imperial Data Center, the enormous (with pre-requisite seemingly bottomless pit seen in every Star Wars film) that held millions of data tapes. They beamed the data to a battleship that also had Princess Leia’s Tantive IV attached to it, made the transition and kept all the references from A New Hope in tact.

Another question I had was how were they going to explain the fact that Orson Krenic (one of the best characters in a Star Wars film - period) is never mentioned again in Star Wars lore. That’s what makes him more tragic. It is a stroke of brilliance to have him “erased” from the galaxy. Throughout the film he is trying to curry favor with the Empire’s top top top brass. He is seen with Vader and Tarkin separately trying to make sure he gets proper credit for his work. He goes to see Vader to gain an audience with the Emperor after telling Tarkin he thought Palpatine and Vader should have been present for the Death Star’s first test. When Tarkin sees that the Death Star works, he seizes command of the battle station and, for all intents and purposes, exiles Krenic. And then, in a moment of cinematic genius, Krenic is killed by his own weapon as the Imperial data center (and anything within 100 miles or so) is destroyed by the Death Star. He’s sniveling enough to be hated and sympathetic at the same time. To me, he is the best new addition to the Star Wars pantheon.

I wondered what role Vader would play and this is where I am most torn. I loved that Vader resided on Mustafar and it was super cool to see that planet make a brief return. I loved seeing him in the bacta tank and get a chance to rise again as the man in black. I didn’t like his Michael Bay-esque wise crack after force choking Krenic for a minute. His “Don’t choke on your ambitions” is so weak and unfitting compared to one of my favorite lines from Empire: “I’m altering the deal, pray I don’t alter it any further.”

The scene with Vader that will be discussed for a long time is when he comes ripping through the Rebel ship, fires up his lightsaber and massacres a dozen or so Rebels before watching the Tantive IV escape.

First, why I thought it was fantastic: Starting from the end of the scene: the fact that Vader sees Leia escape makes her capture in ANH that much more satisfying. It makes him more fearsome throughout the original trilogy because you just can’t slip away from him without knowing he’s gonna get you anyway. It was also important to see a nice connection between Sith Vader and Imperial Sinister Agent Vader. To see him whip out the lightsaber and push it through blast doors, slice up some Rebs, use some force action was exhilarating. You also get a sense that he’s still a little pissed off with all these damn Rebels when he comes through the door in ANH and physically chokes and throws the Rebel commander against the wall after killing him. It’s a direct call to “Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.”

As great as the end of Rogue One Vader scene is, it raises one question. Why was he so weak in his fighting skills in his duel with Obi-Wan on the Death Star? I am retconning it in my head that they are both older and still equally powerful. Force choking and throwing stuff against each other wouldn’t work mano y mano. He does get a little badass on Luke in Empire and Jedi and, let’s face it, he’s “more machine than man.”

I was amazed by the Tarkin CG. I mean, “amazed.” I went in expecting a cameo but he was a full-time supporting actor and was the perfect foe for both the Rebellion and Krenic. The Princess Leia cameo was less impressive. And I think it’s less because of the look but more because of the tone. She smiled and said, “Hope.” Now, I get the connection to A New Hope, but the smile is out of character. She is escaping from the biggest battle they’ve faced, she is under duress on her way to her home planet. This is the woman who, when was being given condolences about the loss of her ENTIRE PLANET, said famously, “we have no time for our sorrows , Commander.” I would have liked her to be a little more “urgent.”

There was one other miss that pulled me out of the film and I totally understand and love why they did it. During the big space battle Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope lead the charge. This is awesome. It’s great to show these guys lived to fight another day and continued the fight. It also had the power to make their deaths in the Battle of Yavin that much more meaningful. However, it was the laziest piece of editing in the whole film. They were direct lifts of footage from ANH (right down to seeing the Death Star Trench out the window on the Red Five check-in) and for someone who has seen the original Star Wars hundreds of times, it was jarring. With all the great work they did with Tarkin and Leia, they could’ve brought those guys to life in a more original way.

Enough of the old characters. What about the new ones? From the trailers, I expected Cassian Andor to be a pure good guy. I expected Jyn Erso to be the conflicted character who is swayed by the pure Captain Andor. Turns out, Cassian is a very deep character with a ton of conflict. It’s the hard decisions he’s made (you know, like killing a wounded fellow Rebel to ensure no one gets caught) that make his decision to see the missions through more real.

Jyn, on the other hand, is my least favorite character in the movie. Not because she is poorly acted, or because she’s unlikable, she’s just there. In a way, she is the Map from The Force Awakens or the Death Star Plans in A New Hope. She was committed to the mission, but I never really cared that much about her. To be honest, I didn’t care about any of the characters, other than Krenic. It is an ensemble movie, so I cared about their mission, but the only Rebel character I want to see more of is K2-S0. I would love to see a backstory with K2 and Cassian, actually.

Now, not caring about the characters is ok. They were all likable. They were all people you could root for and you wanted them to succeed.  But I didn’t gain any attachment to them. Cassian’s story is really the only one that closes. Through hints of a storied past that began as a 6 year old rebel who lost everything, you know that this mission (especially because we know it leads to the end of the Death Star) is his most important. And even though he doesn’t live to see the results, he succeeds and his struggles, decisions and sacrifices are not in vain.

The supporting Rebels are fun but, again, not that disappointed when they are killed off. What makes this all ok is that they don’t die just for the screen time, they sacrifice every time for the cause.

Droids are sort of the official comic relief in Star Wars (which may be a big part of why the Prequels were awful). K2-SO has this in spades. He delivers great classic lines without coming across as trying too hard or even silly. Jar Jar Binks was (a) unintelligible, (b) made jokes about poop and (c) was clownish. Droids, when needed, have proven appropriately funny. BB-8, R2 and even C-3PO in Episodes IV and V before he jumped the shark, are subtle and charming. K2 takes the best of the worried caretaker 3PO gave us and the devotion to the mission with a bit of “devil-may-care” humor that BB-8 and R2-D2 have shown. Kudos to the filmmakers for not over using K2-SO. They left me wanting more of him while somehow knowing it was just enough.

The lack of traditional Star Wars opening and white text identification of planets and locations did throw me for a loop and took me throughout the entire first act before I didn’t feel like I was watching a Star Trek movie. In fact, the name “Star Wars” never shows up at all. I get it and it was probably just the viewer’s history with how Star Wars stories are told that made it a little jarring.

Overall, this is the first Star Wars movie that I can’t find any gaping plot holes since Empire. It is a tight spy story that moves us quickly from location to location. I can’t wait until someone online creates an edit to make a “Lord of the Rings” style four hour Star Wars movie that combines Rogue One and A New Hope. Kathleen Kennedy and friends have successfully created a Star Wars movie without any Skywalkers in it (other than 30 seconds of pre-reveal Leia). It is not in any way a stand-alone film. It is a great place to enter the universe that will make you want to watch A New Hope immediately. This is not a deep movie – it is a theme park ride for Sci-Fi fans. Yes, sci-fi more than fantasy which is where I usually put Star Wars movies. It is a war movie with Star Wars settings, weapons and sensibility. It does something that most blockbuster/franchise movies cannot: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn’t make you create fan theories to fill in gaps. It is a pure experience that you want to see again and it works.

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