Friday, December 16, 2016

A Beloved Franchise Goes Rogue

Twelve months ago, I entered a movie theater with anxious, but cautious, anticipation for the first installment in a new era of Star Wars films. JJ Abrams rewarded this anticipation with an exceptional piece of entertainment that also just so happens to be an excellent Star Wars flick.

Fast forward to this week, when I sat down for the first foray into a new realm of Star Wars entertainment, one the diverges from the episodic format of all the prior films, though still telling a story familiar to anyone who knows the universe even remotely. Reports of reshoots heightened the similarly cautious optimism that I felt and made me worry this may not live up to the example set the year before.

Was I wrong to worry?

(Here there be spoilers, matey.)

The answer is no, unfortunately. Because not only is Rogue One a bad Star Wars movie, it is an awful piece of filmmaking as well. This is what happens when talent and vision is lacking: you get people who have shown promise in past efforts failing to live up to said promise, and you get an ensemble cast lacking chemistry and chops whose best member is a voiced-over droid.

I walked out feeling like I did after the first viewing of Attack of the Clones: did I really just see something that awful? And while there will be an obligatory second viewing, there is no question in my mind of this being a bad movie. Though there is blame to go ‘round, I think there are three specific areas where this movie fell well short of any possible potential it may have had, and I’m choosing only the criticisms that have nothing to do with the Star Wars universe, so as not to seem like too much of a fanboy (like the glaring plot inconsistencies with A New Hope, the fact that rebels are apparently now completely unscrupulous and prone to infighting, or that after a silly cameo Walrus Man and his pal were somehow able to get off Jedha in short order before it was blown to dust).

Excessive Monologuing

Nothing kills the momentum of a good action thriller (not that this is one…) like a stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks monologue. This movie has at least three that I can think of, and all of them aren’t just shoehorned in there, they are also laughably inept. Whether it is Galen Urso prattling on during a hologram message while his daughter holds back tears, or the rebel captain talking about how every bad thing he has done needs to be worth something, the monologues are awkward, stilted, and poorly directed, focusing at length in reaction shots of people… not reacting. Gareth Edwards did well in his earlier film Monsters showing genuine emotions in the context of a sci-fi narrative, but he can’t make these formulaic speeches work here.

Bad (or Wasted) Casting

I’m seeing it already: “That Felicity Jones is really cute!” Yeah, but can she act? If this is Exhibit A, the answer is decidedly no. But the problem is, she is the only one given any scenes in which to really chew up some screen. Diego Luna gets some moments, but honestly, we’ve seen for years his utter inability to utter a convincing line of dialogue and here is no different. The visceral energy of Daisy Ridley a year ago is a stark contrast to the absence of anything close in these young actors.

That douchey photographer from
House of Cards does not make for
a rebel you'd root for.
But Ben Mendelsohn is quite frankly one of the best character actors working today , and has been brilliant in everything in which I’ve seen him – until now (fuck it, just watch Animal Kingdom already!!). Krennic is given nothing much to do except alternately act Imperial and like a petulant, tantrum-throwing child. Forrest Whitaker wheezes through scenes meant to be affecting which end up just being unbearable. And Mads Mikkelsen, who uttered almost no dialogue while driving the narrative of the superb Valhalla Rising gives a wooden and mawkish performance here. The young actors fail to carry their weight, but the accomplished ones are given short shrift.

The Whole Gawd-damn Plot

Everyone knew the premise going in: a ragtag group of rebels is going to steal the Death Star plans. But the plot itself? It takes over an hour to get within a sniff of that very premise. We get an opening expository pre-title sequence (by the way, the brief title sequence was a total misfire), then are launched from one world to another in quick succession to introduce us to the characters necessary to make the rest of the plot seem even half-functioning. But these characters are often throw-aways and in the context of any level of critical thinking, their presence feels forced.

The best example is the entire thread with Saw Gerrera and Bodhi. Saw is supposed to have protected Galen Urso’s daughter and this is the rationale for sending the defecting pilot to his lair. But then in the message Urso sends, he makes almost zero reference to Saw at all (see ‘Excessive Monologuing’ above), and spends a good deal of time saying that he figures his daughter is dead or in the hands of the Empire. Wait – so if Saw was to protect his daughter, and Galen worries she’s dead, this is the guy you send this critically important message to?

After this lumbering first hour, the movie shifts into an overblown action flick, with incomprehensible decisions made by nearly every character. The Rebel Council elects as a group not to send anyone to get the Death Star plans. Then they find out a small team has taken it upon themselves to do so, and Mon Mothma’s reaction? Send the whole fucking fleet with no plan. Where's Ackbar when you need him? At least this explains why Luke Skywalker was so quickly made a flight commander in Episode IV: they sent every good Starfighter pilot to get slaughtered on this mission.

Then, in the closing moments, we follow a Tie Fighter firing on the communications tower of an Imperial Base. Why? Could he actually see the person standing there while dodging X-Wings and hurtling about, and identify them as an enemy? And even if he could, does destroying part of your own base warrant firing on them from a fighter when you have no idea why they are up there? Apparently so, since Governor Tarkin takes the preposterous tactic of wiping out the entire base at the end of the film. The base that supposedly holds the archive of every Imperial technical document, just to kill a few rebels at a heavily armed and well-resourced facility. It doesn’t hold muster. Pretty much the entire plot here doesn’t.

In conclusion, the alarming thing here isn’t the poor product on the screen, it is the sheer number of areas in which this movie falls short of being a serviceable action thriller, never mind a launching pad for a new pantheon in cinema’s most lucrative franchise. I have to think that JJ Abrams’ absence from any role here is not coincidental to this, but I also hope that as a producer he is able to right the ship with next year’s awaited release. 

My wife did point out this movie's one saving grace: "At least everyone died, so we don't have to worry about seeing another movie with these characters."

NOTE: We saw this movie in IMAX 3D, and while I have been critical of IMAX’s commercialization push, this movie is a wholesale disaster in the format. The resolution was visibly below standard, with the lines being clearly observable in several scenes, and it was not filmed in any way with 3D in mind. I will never see another IMAX movie again outside of a traditional (i.e., not Lie-MAX) IMAX theater.


  1. Glad you wrote up the review, and on this page so that I don't have to discuss spoilers on facebook. Overall, I was surprised to find that I very much liked this movie. A few thoughts:

    1. Intentionally or not, this movie lacked the "epic" vibe of the main episodes. There were no jedi or other characters with a BIG place in the star wars historical narrative. That is, they all felt more like the everyman rebel who had something to contribute to a greater cause without the same kind of glory. So, none of them brought/exuded the kind of screen wattage as a Skywalker or Solo. I thought Felicity Jones was actually quite good. All business, not drawing much attention to herself, and clearly somewhat dark. Again, I think her character's story limited her wattage, not her acting. If you compare her to Rey, I don't think Rey was so superior as an actor -- she just had an aura about her because of her force sensitivity and massive potential as a future Jedi. It was telling that when Jyn was acting all woe-is-me about her life story, Cassian took her down a notch by saying, hey we all have lost everything -- but we've been fighting the empire all along. She was an everyman soldier, not an epic character.

    2. The beginning plot lines, which raced around from one planet to another were disorienting and I didn't like that so much. But it wasn't a deal breaker for me.

    3. I agree there wasn't such good character development. It was an ensemble cast that was plot/action heavy. But there was so much to like about many of the characters.

    - I really liked that Galen Erso committed himself to sabotaging the Death Star from the inside. It seemed plausible for a man that lost his wife and was marked for dead if he stepped out of line. Maybe he wanted to stay alive for his daughter, and he saw this as a viable path that allowed him to preserve his integrity. I agree that his transmission was weird. They clearly wrote it for maximum impact in that scene. But the main plot point of sending his message to Saw Gerrera seemed fine.
    - I found the dynamic between Jyn and Cassian limited but very compelling. I can't say I'm looking for romance in star wars, but damn if Han and Leia weren't convincing. Episodes 1-3 were notoriously bad at this, and Anakin/Padme were very hard to watch. Jyn/Cassian were able to form a strong, very credible connection in a short period of time, and seeing them die together will go down as a very memorable scene in the star wars canon.
    - Chirrut Imwe was cool as shit. The repetitive mantra was kind of weird and got a little annoying, but otherwise I loved this character and wouldn't change his role in any way.
    - There were no truly annoying characters in the whole movie. Kudos to that.

    1. On this comment, my only thoughts are on #3:

      A) While I agree this is plausible in the context of this one film, it doesn't really hold up within the SW narrative in general. In ANH, they 'discovered a weakness' which suggests that they didn't know there was one, despite the content in Rogue One. This is a fanboy quibble though. More difficult for me to swallow is how he delivers this message and I found the whole 'defecting pilot sent to Saw' along with the message itself just to be implausible.
      B) I found their relationship to be the weakest point of the movie, and in their eventual hand-holding moment, underscored by Giacchino's saccharine soundtrack, I actually laughed out loud in the theater.
      C) Again, I didn't like this character. It seemed like trying to force an earthbound archetype into the SW universe. The repetitive mantra was more than annoying, and I found no convincing reason why he and his pal ended up in tow with Jyn and her mission.
      D) I found Chirrut annoying by the end. The guy can hit a Tie Fighter with his weapon, beat down a patrol of Stormtroopers, yet can hardly find the 'master switch' on the panel?

  2. (cont'd -- hit a character limit)

    4. The main plot points were all much more believable to me than Ep VII. I really liked VII but man, flying the millennium falcon straight into a giant planet, convincing Phasma to lower the shields, and then figuring out how to blow the whole thing up without any time to form a detailed plan was a pretty big stretch. Here, every step seemed plausible. What was wrong with the rebel alliance lacking cohesiveness? All they had to go on was the daughter of a traitor who told them on her word that she knew what the death star was and where the plans were. Let's say they believed the Death Star was real; that doesn't mean the rebels would agree on how to fight and whether they shared any hope in the outcome. In the history of wars, rebellions are never absolute, and people sometimes waver in their commitment. But, once Erso et al. went to Scarif and were fighting (and dying) against the empire, I could see the rebel alliance saying, okay, Erso isn't lying, maybe the story about the death star and the plans is real. And this is our last chance to fight the empire before they kill all of us. So let's get in there. I dunno, once the Rogues left Yavin, I knew the rest would come around and that it felt like a natural outcome. As for a plan, it seemed straightforward to me. Provide cover for Rogue One. Seemed like more of a plan than Han and the whole resistance fleet had for Starkiller base.

    5. Both Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia were portrayed via a combination of actors plus CGI. The results were pretty damn impressive, and they were able to jump the "uncanny valley" with this approach. 'Tis a brave new world we just entered.

    7. I'm always torn about IMAX. First of all, brightness suffers, and that tradeoff bugs me. I didn't notice any visible lines, and I also didn't notice any film-making offenses that really bug me. (As a vision researcher who has dabbled in creating artificial stereo depth in my experiments, one thing that drives me crazy is when objects in different depth-planes are all in perfect focus. That is totally unnatural because the lenses in our eyes can only bring one depth plane into focus at a time. When you create artificial depth on a 2D screen, you need to intentionally blur some areas to match a real perceptual experience. Working around this problem requires some guessing about which depth plane the viewer is likely to be focused on, which is non-trivial but possible nonetheless. As far as I could tell, the production accomplished this reasonably well. I didn't get nauseated or have a headache, which is a plus. But did they make great use of 3D? I wasn't so convinced. There are some movies when I'm like, damn this is a cool use of 3D. This was not one of those movies.

    All in all, as a story outside the "epic" styling of the episodes, I really liked this one and will watch it again.

    1. And I just wrote a really long comment to respond to this and the application errored out. I'm not going through it again, the movie ain't worth it to me. ;)