I Watched Rogue One So You Don’t Have to
It’s Way Better than The Force Awakens
My dad really wanted to see Rogue One. We’d decided on the Thursday between Christmas and New Year because it’s half-price day down at the old Cineplex and there’s nothing like getting daytime matinee tickets for $4.50. I tell you this because on Wednesday I saw an unexpected uptick in interest in an article I wrote last week called “I’m Tired of Star Wars.” When I woke up on Thursday morning I knew the damn thing was going viral.
The upshot is that I got to live through the delightfully ironic experience of watching a movie while feeling my phone vibrate with notifications and knowing it was most likely internet fanboys telling me to eat a dick.
By the way, I need to get something out of the way right now: internet fanboy butthurt is just one of the most delightful things in the world. The tears of fanboys are delicious and I am nourished by them. So, please, keep leaving me comments in which you inform me that if I don’t like Star Wars I can just not watch Star Wars. Because the irony of some random guy on the internet finding my article, reading it, and then going on a long tirade in the comments telling me how if I disagree with something and then write about it I’m wasting everyone’s time never, ever gets old. Never.
It is an endless garden of delights watered by the delicious tears of butthurt fanboys.
And so but anyway, I wrote that original piece in a fit of ennui while I was trying to figure out why I just didn’t give a damn about going to see Rogue One. It wasn’t intended to be a review of the movie. It wasn’t intended to be a dismissal of that particular movie, either. It was an attempt to feel out the edges of a phenomenon and, as writers so often do, share it in written form. I’ve actually found that the various bits of internet butthurt have allowed me to sharpen the focus of what was a bit of a meandering original post.
Before I talk about Rogue One, then, I need to go back and contextualize my pre-Rogue One opinion of the franchise itself. Star Wars isn’t just a bunch of movies, after all. It’s a cultural phenomenon that reached out into the real world and the Cold War politics of the 1980s.
Star Wars, to put it simply, is important.
All of its initial importance is tied to the three original movies. Had Star Wars been something different and run by someone different it probably would have been left alone after that. George Lucas didn’t want to just leave one great, one really good, and one good movie to posterity and then move on. He wanted to make all the money.
This is where we have to give Lucas the real credit as a true movie visionary. He knew the money wasn’t in ticket sales. The real money was in merchandising. Star Wars was, in some respects, the first viral hit. It exploded into the center of pop culture and in that moment it ceased to be a movie or even a series of movies. Star Wars became a brand.
George Lucas exploited the hell out of that brand. For those of us who came of age as nerds and geeks during the dark days of Generation X it was a brand that we could identify with. Lucas slapped Star Wars on toys. The Star Wars movies stretched into publishing as the Extended Universe. They made their way to a whole new platform as video games. The early Star Wars games sucked but everyone kinda forgave them because Star Wars. Then the N64 launched and we got Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron and all was forgiven.
Then the news broke. There were new Star Wars movies coming. This was a crucial time, as those of us who grew up watching worn-out VHS copies of the movies and playing the video games were edging into adulthood, where we could either leave Star Wars behind as child’s play or feed our adult money into the franchise forever and bring the next generation into the universe while we were at it.
What did we get at the end of all of the hype? The suckiest suck movie that ever did suck. Had The Phantom Menace come out in 2012 we would have been inundated with blog posts demanding to know why George Lucas was working so hard to rape our collective childhoods because self-absorbed, pseudo-clever internet fanboys have an over-inflated sense of how important their tender feelings are and think that sexual violence is just goddamn hilarious.
Star Wars was okay, though. First of all, even though the prequels all basically sucked those of us who had grown up with the movies and the video games dutifully trudged to watch all three, hoping against hope that this time would be better. I remember dragging a friend to see the second one after telling him that, no, it was so much better than The Phantom Menace, trust me. We walked out of the movie and he asked me why I’d dragged him to see such a shit movie. Second, Star Wars was no longer a movie franchise. It was a brand. There were books galore. Idiots rushed to the toy stores to buy all of the toys because they thought they would be able to retire on their Star Wars toys collections. George Lucas looked at all of the people who were mad about Jar Jar Binks and laughed quietly to himself while he counted his money, approved a new video game, and signed the Star Wars name over to Kellogg’s so they could slap it on a box of Rice Krispies and put Snap, Crackle, and Pop in Stormtrooper helmets.
Then he sold the franchise to the House of Mouse for billions and Disney announced their intentions to put out Star Wars movies all the time in a blatant attempt to make all the money that the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t hoover up. This is where it gets utterly bizarre to me. When the announcements for new Transformers and TMNT movies came out the internet just lost their shit. When news of an all-female Ghostbusters came out it was the goddamn internet apocalypse. Those toy commercials we all watched as kids were somehow sacred. That movie that came out thirty years ago and then turned into a bad sequel and toys and cartoons was somehow untouchable. Star Wars, though? Sure, let’s make all the Star Warses and then line up around the block for the toys the day they come out.
I’m not going to belabor what came next because I wrote about it last December. The Force Awakens sucked. Disney picked a terrible director whose name sells tickets for reasons I do not comprehend. That director then put out the hackiest, laziest movie he possibly could because he knew that all he had to do was make a movie that was better than the prequels and everyone would fall all over themselves telling him it was fucking great.
The day Return of the Jedi came out we had one great Star Wars movie, one really good Star Wars movie, and one halfway good Star Wars movie. The day The Force Awakens came out we still had one great Star Wars movie, one really good Star Wars movie, and one halfway good Star Wars movie. And we had Rogue One on the horizon.
So now that I’m some fifteen hundred words into the review, here’s my review of Rogue One: it’s not bad, actually. The first half is meh. The second half brings all of the Star Wars that you can possibly want. It’s also extremely troubling for the future of the franchise, especially with the awful news that we received this week.
Let’s start with the bad. There are probably spoilers down here, so, um, tread carefully?
Rogue One was supposed to be the not-Star Wars Star Wars movie to launch the off-year “please give us money for Star Wars” films. It utterly fails to be not-Star Wars. On the one level this is obvious. They can’t just completely give it up. There are parts where they do genuinely seem to be trying to make a not-Star Wars. The locations are more real, more lived-in than most. The scenes on Jedhu do seem to be trying to show a side of life in the galaxy that we’ve never seen before. They bookended that sequence with overreliance on the Star Wars prequel sequences of hopping between random planets with no context and no real transition and managed to strangle any and all goodwill.
The soundtrack is also a negative. I think this is the first time that I’ve ever found myself contemplating a movie soundtrack and whether it’s a positive or negative. Soundtracks are an undeniable part of the Star Wars experience. Who doesn’t feel their heart swell the first time John Williams’ score swells between “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” and the start of the crawl? This time around the score felt like it kept signaling, “This isn’t a Star Wars movie…but it is.” I don’t really know how to describe it. It was like they wanted to try to do something different with the score but they were afraid that if they did something different then everyone would forget that they were in a Star Wars movie so they just wrote Star Wars songs but changed the key. Then Darth Vader showed up and they were all, “Oh, hey, here’s Darth Vader, time to put the Imperial March in.” It was unexpectedly jarring.
The entire main cast was surprisingly underwhelming. I don’t actually know most of the characters’ names. I remember Jyn Erso because that name was said a lot. I remember that her Rebel intelligence buddy was something Andor because I kept expecting him to have blue skin, white hair, and antennae. I remember that the droid was a K-something. That’s about it. After that I need to break it down into three sub-categories.
First, Felicity Jones was, um, not great. I’m not really sure what the deal is with Star Wars as a whole but it has this odd tendency to turn the leads, especially the women in the leading roles, into robots. Felicity Jones had one facial expression the entire time. So did Daisy Ridley. So did Natalie Portman. Carrie Fisher was the only person who ever managed to bring emotional range to a Star Wars female lead. Ten years ago we all collectively decided to blame this quirk on George Lucas being really bad at stuff. The George Lucas films were at least 1 for 2 on a female lead having emotions. The post-George Lucas films are 0 for 2. Goddamn it I’m going to miss Carrie Fisher.
Second, well, the best way I can say it is this: I’m glad to know that lazy Chinese stereotypes also existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I mean, Jesus Christ, people. We get to the first two Asian people to appear in the Star Wars universe and one of them is a blind man who sees things, speaks in Zen koans, and can do stuff because of space magic or whatever. It was, um, it was distracting. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
Third, we absolutely have to talk about Grand Moff Tarkin. I knew going in that there was a CGI Peter Cushing in the movie. I was not at all prepared for two hours of the rictus grin of anime-tronic Peter Cushing. It was okay in still shots but as soon as Tarkin started talking he found a whole new section of the uncanny valley. That was not okay. It was not okay at all. They really should have re-cast Tarkin. Hell, look at the imdb page of the stand in. That guy is, like, 90% of the way to Peter Cushing without makeup already. They didn’t need to CGI Peter Cushing. The decision to do so was, quite frankly, disgusting and distracting.
The elephant in the room for the entire Star Wars universe going forward is Carrie Fisher’s tragic death this week. I’ve read that her work for Episode VIII is already in the can and that’s fine. I do want to see Leia’s last curtain call. I can’t imagine that she wasn’t supposed to be in Episode IX. It is my deepest hope that Disney decides not to CGI Leia into more movies.
So that’s the bad. Let’s move to the good.
This was the first truly inclusive Star Wars. The Asian actors who appear on-screen are ridiculously stereotyped but it’s the first Star Wars that’s made it a point to shoot for a truly colorblind cast and make sure various alien races get a reasonable amount of screen time. Star Wars has always been something of an allegory for European imperialism and this movie is the first to try to show the implications of that particular allegory.
On a related note, while one of my cons is that Felicity Jones is underwhelming at best I do appreciate the dedication to gender equality. Mon Mothma gets a lot of screen time in this one and we get a fourth action hero woman in a leading role.
Act 3 was the Star Warsiest thing that ever did Star Wars. There was a giant space fight between X-Wings and TIE fighters. There were Star Destroyers. It was all the stuff that made Return of the Jedi worth watching minus the laser swords.
Speaking of, Darth Vader was just awesome. One of the biggest limitations of the original Star Wars was that they never actually made Darth Vader do anything. They told us that Darth Vader was scary. They signaled that he was scary. He was never actually scary onscreen. Intimidating, yes. Rogue One finally and definitively showed exactly why Darth Vader is scary as fuck.
It actually does justify itself as a prequel to Episode IV. The end wraps up in exactly the place where A New Hope should be. If there’s anything truly brilliant about Rogue One it’s that. It sticks the landing perfectly.
So what’s my final analysis?
Rogue One feels unnecessary. It has its good moments and it has its bad. All of the characters are unmemorable and disposable. It’s entirely possible that’s the point, given everything we know that comes afterwards.
But the thing is this: before Rogue One came out did it really feel like we needed a two hour explanation for what was going on in Episode IV? The beginning of that first Star Wars movie is this perfect piece of cinematography. We get the crawl telling us what’s going on and then we get the little ship and the massive form of the Imperial Star Destroyer.
I guess it’s boring to say this, but I walked out of the movie feeling exactly as I had before. The first Star Wars movie doesn’t need a backstory. Rogue One tells a story that no one really needs to hear.
On a totally off topic note, I’m actually starting to actually understand why feminists get so pissed off about mansplaining. I intellectually know it’s an annoying thing. I still think the word itself is stupid and it probably gets overused because, well, everything gets overused and misapplied on the internet. But the simple, visceral annoyance of seeing someone who doesn’t know me get up on a high horse to tell me how I feel about things, psychoanalyze me, and blatantly misrepresent my knowledge and expertise so they can belittle my opinion? That’s really fucking annoying.
I have to intellectualize the rest of the way, as I’ve never had that done to me in an office environment and no one has ever called me overly emotional just to cut me off at the knees and take credit for my work, but I have had a tiny taste of being mansplained to and while it amused me today I can see it getting really old rather quickly.
If you learn anything from this article today learn this: anything that’s sold as a “collector’s item” is functionally worthless. If it’s something you want because it’s cool then buy it. Take it out of its packaging. Play with it. True collector’s items are that because they’re rare. Only a thousand were made and of those only one hundred remain and there are now one hundred thousand people who want them. If it already has “Collector’s Edition” printed on the goddamn box that means that they’ve made a million of them and charged ten bucks more than the regular version and twenty years from now there will still be a half a million out there in pristine condition in the original packaging because marketers know that there are a lot of people who think that if it has the word “collector” on it that means it has intrinsic value. This is micro economics 101.