Rogue One: The Complete Review
I’m a huge Star Wars movie fan. And a writer. And a regular movie goer. And a mega-nerd fan of the Expanded Universe novels and comics and games. That’s a lot of different people with a lot of different angles.
Being an insane person, how could I properly spill my guts about this movie when I’m rocking so many conflicting opinions? Well, there’s only one way I can fairly unpack Rogue One – each version of me gets his say. This is the complete and total review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Beware: this essay contains an entire bag of Cool Ranch Spoilitos, so if you haven’t seen the flick turn back now.
Oh, and, if you’ll allow a small disclaimer: I loved the movie. When I get nitpicky or make mean-sounding jokes, know that I’m doing it with a smile and a wink, the same way you’d bust your best friend’s balls.
As a Movie Fan
Rogue One is incredible. Every time you buy a ticket to a theater, you’re hoping to see a movie like Rogue One, even if you’re not conscious of it. This is why we go to the movies. When you walk out of that theater after the credits roll, you are filled with wonder. Sadness. Pride. Excitement. Questions. Opinions. Tales. “Did you see when the droid – “ “Oh shit I can’t believe everybody – “ “And the dude is trying to close the door and – “ “When that Hammerhead Corvette – “
Rogue One is why we give a shit about movies. It’s why little kids play pretend war out on their front lawns. It’s why cosplayers break out the sewing machine. It’s why writers learn to write and painters learn to paint and D&D players play D&D. This is pure imagination and it works.
The characters are thinly drawn archetypes, but by the end of the movie you don’t notice it. The finale alone is worth the price of admission. This is not only a good Star Wars movie, it’s just a great action flick. Go see it.
As A Star Wars Fan
Rogue One is a great addition to the franchise, and walks a nice line between nostalgia and new. While The Force Awakens was (often fairly) tagged for relying too much on pre-existing tech and ships and ideas, Rogue One delivers plenty of new stuff to the world building.
New ships alongside old, new planets for the most part, and 90% spanking-new characters. Even the music is new, with Michael Giacchino doing a great job of providing compelling, epic, Star-Warsian music that somehow doesn’t feel like a John Williams clonejob.
Darth Vader is rad, of course, even if the new guy under the suit doesn’t quite move like Vader, especially in his talky scene with the KKK Kommander. The end scene where Vader goes beast mode is, of course, one of the coolest fucking sequences in movie history, so all is forgiven.
There are some definite (nerd-voice pushes glasses up face) departures from movie canon that probably rankle the big fans. For one: the Empire has never been more weak-looking. The Stormtroopers were always kind of a joke, but this movie implies that they might be recruiting solely from a hospital for partially-paralyzed, traumatic brain injury survivors. At one point Jyn Erso knocks a Stormtrooper off a cliff by gently poking his blaster and asking nicely.
The Star Destroyers are also hugely downgraded – in Empire Strikes Back it took a building-sized ground-based ion cannon to disable a Star Destroyer, and in this movie a pair of Y-Wings squirt a flew blasts of blue and the Star Destroyer rolls ass-over-teakettle. It absolutely creates the opportunity for one of the coolest visuals in the franchise – the Hammerhead combat-cuddling the Star Destroyers into an epic space crash – but it relies on some unnecessary wankery to make it happen.
Still, the movie more than makes up for the silly mistakes, and not only delivers epic Star Wars action but also a successful avenue for further stand-alone movies. That’s a win-win for any Star Wars fan. Combine that with a beautiful and organic tie-in with A New Hope, and you’ve got a double-barreled nerd shotgun firing point-blank into your heart.
As A Writer
Okay. Don’t get mad. This is the part where we talk about the script. It’s not about good or bad, or even about whether it was enjoyable or not (it was), it’s about how the story could have been improved. There are a few learning opportunities here, and I’m gonna dig into them.
Disclaimer #2: I’m not implying I’m somehow a better writer than Gary Whitta or anyone else involved in the screenplay. I am lucky to have the benefit of hindsight, which they (obviously) couldn’t have had while making the movie. The movie is great, everyone involved in making it is a rockstar, but I think it could bare some tweaks.
Anyway, on to me being an asshole.
The first half of this movie is a MESS. I mean truly, inescapably off. If it weren’t for the near-perfect last half, Rogue One would be a meh movie. And I really mean that. It isn’t as noticeable when you walk out of the theater because the climax is so beautiful, but the first half flirts aggressively with boredom.
Every character introduction is completely bungled, first off.
Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) childhood introduction doesn’t really do much for her (she’s a scared child who can’t make decisions). It serves as a decent intro for KKK Kommander (Ben Mendelsohn) and Space Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), but Jyn is a non-entity. From there, it gets way, way worse. Puss & Boots (Diego Luna) is introduced in a dark hallway with an unnecessarily tight and shaky camera for a fairly flat conversation, after which he murders a crippled man who seemed to be his friend.
Now, it’s not that the characters can’t do bad things – Puss & Boots is clearly a tortured guy whose done some bad stuff for the Rebellion – but there’s a difference between “shady” and “cold blooded murder.” For instance: Han Solo shoots a guy in cold blood during his intro, but the guy he shoots is also clearly a shady operator with intent to harm him. We learn Han Solo has a dark side, but we don’t recoil. Puss & Boots is actively unlikable from Jump Street. And, worse, it affects the entire story. Puss & Boots’ arc from friend-homicide to hero is a tough pill to swallow, especially when he’s not particularly likable at any point in the movie.
The Imperial pilot, who I think is named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), suffers an intro that is the least-effective and actively confusing. He isn’t seen piloting anything, and doesn’t seem to be wearing any super-obvious Imperial gear. And since he’s introduced with a vague conversation between factions we’ve never seen before, I could feel the disinterest and confusion in my theater. My wife, an extremely intelligent English major, turned toward me during these “scenes-in-a-blender,” “twelve planets in four minutes” sequence and asked me if I understood anything that was going on. I was like, “Not even a little bit.”
Now, a scene in the beginning of a movie can be confusing and out of place – we know as an audience that we’re not meant to understand it, and all will be made clear. The problem is, to use that technique, the scene has to be actively interesting or just good on its own. Like, the scene works, we just don’t understand the context. Bodhi’s intro just goes nowhere. Plus, he gets “driven insane” by a horrifying tentacle monster in a sequence that is shockingly un-Star Wars, but then he isn’t insane at all after Puss & Boots gives him a pep-talk. Which is nice.
Jyn Erso’s second introduction doesn’t serve her any better – she’s a prisoner (good so far), but then she beats the shit out of her rescuers for . . . some reason. So here’s what we learn about her character during her intro: She’s A) good at kicking and B) an ungrateful jerk. Okay, good start.
Then we meet Robot Alan Tudyk (Alan Tudyk), and he’s a jerk. Albeit a funny jerk, which helps. So, three jerks and a pilot guy. So far so good.
Churro (Donnie Yen) and Dole Whip (Jiang Wen) have the best introduction in the movie, if you include their fight scenes. Churro is established right away as a funny/quirky old kook with a spiritual side, with Dole Whip as his long-suffering best friend / maybe war buddy / maybe lover. Tiny nitpick: I’m not sure how Dole Whip was allowed to just kick it unmolested in a city under fascist Imperial occupation whilst wearing a fucking blaster cannon on his back, but c’est la vie.
There’s a few instances of “telling not showing” that could have been remedied.
We learn that Saul, Saw, Sam . . . Ghost Dog (Forrest Whittaker) was Jyn’s mentor. We learn this because he tells us this. Then tells us he abandoned her for some reason. Then tells us he misses her. This is all done in four lines of dialogue and then forgotten about. Why not have Jyn use some clever and noteworthy trick to pick a lock, set a bomb, flush coolant on a blaster, etc, and then show Ghost Dog do that later in the movie too. Or even a line of dialogue that they both parrot when they’re interrogating someone or being an asshole. Or a bracelet that they both wear, you get the idea.
There’s a few more instances of this, and I get it: the movie was already long, and this kind of stuff stretches the run time. I’d argue, however, that it’s better to cut something than do it half-assed – just drop the Jyn / Saw, Saul, Sam . . . Ghost Dog thing and be done with it. It doesn’t really add anything that the movie needed. One dead father figure is enough. Two is overkill.
Oh, while we’re talking about unnecessary bits in need of trimming: the Khyber crystal necklace around Jyn’s neck . . . why? It’s a Chekov’s gun that doesn’t get shot, or even referenced past the movie’s halfway point. Why was that there?
Also, how did Puss & Boots know that Jyn’s dad would be out on the balcony in the rain planet? The robot even says that he set his rifle for sniper mode. The only reason Jyn’s dad, Space Le Chiffre, was out on the landing pad was because KKK Kommander had a surprise inspection. I mean, it was raining. There’s no other way they’d just be out there. Did Puss & Boots read the script?
The CGI Horror Show
This isn’t really a writer thing, but it is about mechanics, so I’m including it here. We absolutely, 100%, double-plus serious did not need the horrifying dead-eyed CGI corpses of Peter Cushing and young-Carrie Fisher. They don’t look remotely real, but they are intensely distracting. The only thing I could think or even hear during the Tarkin scenes was a sentence in my head that basically went like this with the occasional variation: “That’s not real that’s not real that looks awful that’s not real look at his mouth and his DEAD EYES AWWWWW.”
It almost works for Tarkin because he’s supposed to be creepy and off-putting, but it completely ruins the hopeful, uplifting scene where zombie-Leia turns around and smiles at the camera and I can see the plastic grin and the cold abyss of todash darkness in her eyes that have seen the falling of the Tower and the long eternal night that will one day digest us all.
Solution: it’s a movie. We’ve all seen movies before. We know sometimes shit happens and you have to hire a different actor. Just recast Tarkin with a gaunt, elderly British man. Or, as my dad said, “Literally any old, British man. They all look like that.” I would have played Leia more coy. Do the same scene: Her back is to the door with the hood of her robe up. She turns toward the officer, and the camera stays behind her. Maybe we get the nose and side-cheek of a look-alike actress, and she says her same line, and poof, end of the movie.
Or, if you absolutely needed to have the close-up, just cast a look-alike. It’s okay, really. You’re overthinking this stuff.
The technology isn’t ready for what they want. It looks good “for a video game,” it does not look good or real next to real people. We’re too wired to see faces, as a species. We know faces, and those are not faces, and it’s going to give children Polar Express PTSD flashbacks.
The Dank, Moe, the Dank
Also not a writing issue. Maybe this section should be “as a production-nerd?” Whatever, this is a short one, and not a real complaint, but holy crap was the first half of this movie dark.
I don’t mean “get addicted to heroin and sell your kids” dark, I mean “I cannot see the screen” dark. Maybe this was trouble with the projector in my theater (I suspect not, because the daylight scenes were fine), but it felt like I was watching an experimental film where they’d filmed on a movie set lit only by cellphone screens turn vaguely in the direction of the actors from maybe 15 feet away.
It’s tough from a legibility standpoint, but it’s also kind of exhausting to have “gloomy farm planet,” “gloomy city planet,” “gloomy prison planet,” “gloomy rock planet,” “gloomy rain planet,” all interspersed with “gloomy cargo hold” with absolutely no break in between. Combine that with extreme-use of handheld shaky calm at all times and I was rocking a dull headache throughout most of the flick.
I think it’s partially why the second half feels so amazing – it’s not only, you know, visible, but a beach planet is such a delightful contrast to the dark sack the characters had been stuffed into at that point.
Just Because You Have Character, Doesn’t Mean You Are a Character
Another problem is that we don’t learn much about any of the characters, and I’m not talking backstory. To borrow a litmus-test question from Red Letter Media’s “Mr. Plinkett,” describe Jyn Erso’s personality without referring to her job, appearance, or circumstances.
To quote my wife: “They’re over-correcting. They want to do strong female characters, but they forgot to add flaws or a personality.”
Another deeply-entrenched problem is character consistency. Jyn Erso’s parents were killed/abducted by Imperials. She was trained from childhood to be a rebel/terrorist. And yet, she doesn’t seem to really care about the Empire. Even Puss & Boots calls her out on it, which would be fine if we got an explanation or some insight into character as to why she was checked out from galactic politics and just wanted to be left alone in prison. It’s a contradiction that merits exploration, but we don’t get any of it. She’s just been waiting to save her father for . . . reasons. But she’s cynical, sometimes. But then at the Rebel meeting she gives a speech about hope? I guess? She seems to serve whatever function the scene requires rather than being any kind of consistent character.
Puss & Boots is established as a cold-blooded murderer, but hesitates to kill an Imperial scientist. Also, even if he absolutely believes Jyn and thinks he shouldn’t kill Space Le Chiffre, why not kill KKK Kommander who’s standing on the platform right next to him?
Then, at the end of the movie, Puss & Boots refuses to kill KKK Kommander, and doesn’t even let Jyn Erso kill him either, even though the dude seems pretty comfortable with murder. I can only assume Puss & Boots read the script and knew that KKK Komander was going to be killed in a fit of irony by his own Death Star laser and didn’t want to mess with the scene.
In the middle of the movie Puss & Boots implied he lost someone too, but no one asks him who and he doesn’t elaborate so the audience doesn’t really care. “Oh, you have a non-descript tragic backstory?” they yawned. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
Bodhi the Pilot might as well just be named “Guy Manguy,” as far as insight into his character is concerned. Churro and Dole Whip are interesting, of course, but even they could have used some elaboration. Dole Whip in particular needed some hint as to why he put up with Churro’s nonsense other than “good buddies.”
How could they have fixed the character problem? Easy. Take one of the four scenes where the group is standing quietly in a cargo hold travelling to planet “Next Plot Point” and have them play dice on an old cargo crate. Or have them bitch about the military rations they’re eating and have them share a few war stories. It wouldn’t have to be their origins or anything hacky, just some interaction that illuminated their characters.
Give us a reason to care.
Then Why Is the Second Half of the Movie So Good If We Don’t Care About the Characters?
There are two ways to engender sympathy for the protagonists.
One is the way they tried to do in the first half, but didn’t pull off – make you like the non-existent personalities and also feel bad about Jyn’s dad. The other way to make the audience care about your characters is what they achieved PERFECTLY in the second-half of the movie. It’s a great writer’s trick: the audience will care about anyone who is trying valiantly and failing spectacularly.
Which is why the second half of the movie works so well. They stopped trying to make you care about WHO the characters were and instead doubled-down on WHAT they were doing. We like when people are working their asses of to achieve a goal and the world is taking a dump on them. We cheer for them, we root for them. When Guy Manguy is risking his ass over and over again to connect that cable on the beach, to open the shield, to send the message, even as the odds stack up higher and higher, we LOVE Guy Manguy. It really doesn’t matter what his personality is, because we see how far he’ll go to achieve his goals and we like that.
Ditto Puss & Boots. Just an unlikable wank the entire movie, but when his droid friend dies, we feel bad for him. When he gets shot to pieces and hits every metal beam on the way down that shaft, we want him to come back. When he climbs his ragged ass back up to the top of the tower, we cheer for him. Not because of who he is, but because he’s got fucking gumption and we respect that.
Obviously Churro has the best moment in the movie, where the Force protects his righteous ass in the valley of darkness long enough to hit the master switch, and even if we hadn’t liked him until that moment (luckily we did), we STILL would have cheered then. Ditto Dole Whip’s final stand after Churro goes down.
Can We Fix It?
The first half tells me they couldn’t figure out how to do characterization with that many characters. Fine, drop it, don’t even try. Drop Jyn’s dad and backstory, drop Cyborg Ghost Dog, who seems to have no purpose in the movie and dies pointlessly because he read the script I guess and noticed that his character wasn’t in the film anymore. “Better die here,” he seemed to say. “I’d probably just crowd the movie.”
So, instead, do what you did in the second half. Doesn’t have to be as epic (obviously save that shit for the climax), but just do what Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career out of – don’t bother with characterization. Just put the colorful characters in a series of clever set pieces where they try and fail and try and fail and we’ll like them. I’m not even being sarcastic. That would have absolutely improved the flick.
Make Jyn just a dirty street-urchin mercenary, drop all the baggage. The rebels hire her for her skills, she needs money, done. They pair her with Puss and Boots to kidnap an imperial pilot who’s been blabbing around (to impress chicks) about some big Imperial crystal mine he’s been working at. They do, after some hijinks, and head over to Jedha with semi-cooperative pilot in their trunk. Introduce Churro and Dole Whip, the Death Star fires, stakes are raised, Jyn realizes how serious things are, off we go. Have them fail a couple of mini-heists, get knocked around, then transition to the second half of the flick as-is. Done. A mercenary-Jyn sacrificing herself to save millions of people works fine to me, hell, it’s a neat character arc. Basically – don’t overthink it. We don’t need every character story to be about their dead parents, especially when there’s simply no time in an ensemble movie like this to establish an effective emotional connection.
Just give us archetypes and then kick their asses. That’s why you loved the third act. That’s why everyone loved the movie. We went out of the theater high on the climax and forgot everything else. You loved Guy Manguy. So did I! And not because he looked sad in a prison cell or he defected or whatever he was supposed to be, but because that dude would not quit.
So this is totally unrelated to anything, and it’s not even a complaint, just something I noticed and thought was weird: every single named hero character who dies is killed by an explosion. No one is shot to death, no one is stabbed, no one is crushed or falls off a high place.
Jyn’s Dad: Proton torpedo explosion
Ghost Dog: Death star explosion
Jyn: Death Star explosion
Puss & Boots: Death Star explosion
K2SO: Console explosion
Churro: Console explosion
Dole Whip: Grenade
Guy Manguy: Grenade
Bail Organa: Implied Alderaan explosion
It’s weird, right? It’s so consistent it almost feels like a mandate. Are they not allowed to have a hero get shot to death? Again, it’s not a complaint or anything, it’s just noteworthy.
As a Star Wars EU Fan
Fine, Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade don’t exist. FUCK YOU, NERDS.
Holy shit this article is long. Anyway, Star Wars is great, Rogue One is flawed but makes up for it with a perfect second half that delivers what might be one of the finest finales in the franchise, and my fingers hurt from typing.
And remember: I’m one with the Force, the Force is with me.
I’m one with the Force, the Force is with me.
I’m one with the Force, the Force is with me.