Pete’s review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One may be simultaneously one of the most enjoyable Star Wars films I have seen and one of the easiest to nitpick. It is curious that on two viewings my mind is able to enjoy the film despite cataloging the incongruities. A darker, grittier film that puts the “war” in Star Wars is something that hits this older Star Wars fan like a one-reactor shot from the Death Star. 

I have seen the film in both RealD 3D and 2D and the obvious takeaway is that 3D is really unnecessary for this film as it does not play to that format in any meaningful way.

The film itself is beautifully shot, from great locations to great shot selection and photography. The use of classic lenses and modern cameras produces a great quality outcome. The score never hit the iconic notes of Williams for me after two viewings, but fits with the on-screen action and emotion and I have no complaints with Michael Giacchino’s work, especially if you consider the limited time he had to compose for the film.

With Rogue One they decided to break out of the cinematic rules that Lucas established for the saga films. The two biggest examples were that there was no opening crawl and there were location labels on-screen. Instead of the opening crawl we got the prologue on Lah’mu which was a good choice in my opinion. It allows us to see Lyra on-screen and understand Jyn’s relationship to Saw and more characterization for Galen and Krennic. The location labels were interesting since the planet names besides Jedha weren’t mentioned often in the film. However it was inconsistent and why they chose not to label Mustafar but confirm the location in published material was odd.

For a film set immediately before A New Hope and telling such a crucial story that by necessity involves some classic trilogy characters, Edwards and crew were faced with some tough and interesting choices on how to portray these characters. They attacked these challenges in a variety of ways. For certain characters this involved using prequel actors, with Jimmy Smitts reprising his role as Bail Organa and Genevieve O’Reilly (who was cast as Mon Mothma for Revenge of the Sith only to have her filmed scenes cut) reprising her role. In another instance they recast General Dodonna with Ian McElhinney, while with Vader we get James Earl Jones returning to voice the character and a new man under the armor.

In addition to these casting choices they relied on ILM for other cast members. They used footage originally shot for A New Hope to insert Red Leader and Gold Leader into the film. This effect works nearly seamlessly and I was shocked by the visual quality of the inserted shots. The other more controversial move is the insertion of Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Princess Leia into the movie. In each case new actors were used  (Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila, respectively) and then had their faces digitally replaced with the face of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. Tarkin is in a ton of scenes in the film and the effect worked very well to my eye. There was one instance when he turned his head while talking and it looked odd, but otherwise I was incredibly impressed. Princess Leia is only in one scene and the effect didn’t work as well for me; something just looked off about the appearance.

One of the real highlights of the film was the design work done by the art department. From planets, to costumes, to vehicles and technology, I love the look of almost everything in this film. We got the reuse of some classic imagery but we also got a look at new designs that fit seamlessly with what we saw in the classic trilogy. I am in love with the locations in this film, from Vader’s castle on Mustafar, to the holy city on Jedha to the asteroid-based Ring of Kafrene.

In terms of actors and their performances, this was an incredible ensemble cast that was assembled by Jina Jay, Edwards, and the team. Solid performances all around from the main cast. Both Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker make unique choices in their performances. Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic is territorial, insecure, and desperate climber of the Imperial hierarchy. Krennic is an odd character which may be off-putting for some, but Mendelsohn’s performance sells it for me. Whitaker’s performance as Saw Gerrera is borderline over the top. He goes big and unique in his choice of voice and cadence. I am not sure it totally lands, but Whitaker is a charismatic enough actor that he sells it even if it wasn’t the best choice.

Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor are the heart of the main cast. Both actors are solid and dynamic on-screen. Jyn’s character evolution from jaded loner to Rebel firebrand happens very quickly in the film. While it makes sense after seeing the hologram of her father and then Jedha City destroyed it feels like there should have been a little more time for her to transition between the two. In a relatively slow first two acts this was one thing that felt rushed to me.

Cassian Andor is an interesting character, and perhaps the first time we have seen the dark mirror version of the concept from Revenge of the Sith’s crawl, which states that there are “heroes on both sides.” Andor is not a good guy; he is a man who does bad things for a good cause. Edwards establishes this right up front with Andor’s killing of an informant. This is a bold choice and I love it. But Andor’s arc in the film has some issues if you reflect upon it. He countermanded his orders to assassinate Galen Erso because he met a pretty girl who was Erso’s daughter? I think we needed a more serious justification or longer time spend up front with Jyn and Cassian to pull him towards the change of heart that pushes Andor away from his Rebel commanders towards a rebellion-within-a-rebellion that Jyn leads later in the film.

Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus are a dynamic duo throughout the film. Yen steals almost every scene he is in. He also provides some great action and humor which helps balance the tone of the film. Wen’s performance is more one-note than Yen’s, as he is the epitome of the gruff enforcer. But I love the reveal that he was once even more devout than Chirrut as well as his bad-arse death scene. Baze may have a small arc in Rogue One but it was incredibly satisfying for me as a viewer.

Alan Tudyk’s work as K-2SO was terrific. Great humor and the digital effects work on the character ended up with a result that was empathetic and much more expressive than a droid like Threepio.

Riz Ahmed is a fine actor, but his character of Bodhi Rook is my least favorite of the cast. The hyper and nervous defector, who gets his brains scrambled and slowly returns to being an over-caffeinated turncoat. I think there is a better film with more screen time for the other characters and less or none for Bodhi.

There is ton to love about this film. wome of the things that really stick out to me  in addition to those discussed above are Admiral Raddus, Vader/Mustafar, the space battle, seeing Yavin IV again, references to Star Wars Rebels and the inclusion of Kyber crystals and Force/Jedi lore.

Raddus is just incredible. I love the blue Mon Calamari design. He is a vocal advocate for attacking to steal the plans, he has an awesome ship, and he displays great tactical thinking during the battle. He may not have a snappy catch phrase, but this is one Mon Calamari I wouldn’t throw back.

Vader and Mustafar may some of my favorite parts of the film. I love Vader and his castle and it is cool that we see it on Mustafar. The final scene with Vader is some of the most exciting seconds of Star Wars ever on film. I love berserker Vader, as this was much closer to Revenge of the Sith Vader than A New Hope Vader in behavior.

The space battle was very cool. I have small quibbles with the fact that it seemed to take forever for the Imperials to launch their fighters and one would assume that there would have been a stronger array of defensive batteries around the shield gate.

I loved returning to the Rebel Base on Yavin IV. I adore both the exterior and interior sets here. Just a great look and it brings back all kinds of Legends feels based on stories set there. It was also terrific to see Mon Mothma and Bail in that setting for the first time.

Inclusions of the Ghost, Chopper and an announcement for General Hera Syndulla are great little links to Star Wars Rebels. So we know at least two of the Ghost crew survive to this point in the Rebellion. Since seeing the film it has been further revealed that when Star Wars Rebels returns in January the first two episodes will feature the introduction of Saw Gerrera to that series, further linking the film and the animated show.

We get a ton of talk about Kyber crystals on Jedha and hints of the relationship of the guardians to the a faith that echoes the Jedi. The idea that there is a temple that is adorned by tons of Kyber crystals is very cool. The relationship between Jedha, the Jedi, and the Guardians of the Whills is something that must be explored in future storytelling. How this relates to the Church of the Force is also something we need to find out about.

Criticisms of the film have been some what muted from fan media and a little louder from more mainstream journalists. But two of the more common ones I have seen is that the first two-thirds of the film drags and doesn’t really get good until the third act. The other is the CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and of 1977’s Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

On the first count I don’t totally disagree. They cover a lot of ground and introduce a lot of characters to begin the film. Of course I would argue that the original Star Wars film has a similar pacing. Any pacing issues in the film are more than made up for in the final act where it all comes together in dynamic action on the beach, in space, and in the tower, echoing the three-part sequence to close Return of the Jedi.

In terms of the CGI resurrections, the Princess Leia scene looked bad in both 3D and 2D screenings. They should have just skipped the direct shot and either have her shot from behind or in reflection or some other creative angle. It just doesn’t look good despite the best efforts of the digital artists. Tarkin, on the other hand, totally worked for me. They tease us with a shot behind him and then in reflection before the full reveal. There was only a moment or two that the effect broke down for me despite Tarkin being in a much larger number of scenes than I expected. The bigger issue for me was the voice acting because I am so used to hearing Stephen Stanton in the role from The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels at this point. I think the Tarkin gamble paid off and makes this a better story that fits more rationally in continuity than if he was not in the film.

Another criticism that I have seen is that there are complaints about female representation in the film. The only point at which this struck me as a major problem was in the scientist scene were all of Galen’s subordinates were old white dudes. Given the real world focus on STEM and women, this seems particularly jarring and an obvious oversight from Edwards. The only rational in my book is if he was making a deliberate choice to make the Empire almost all white men to match the Original Trilogy. Of course this would be a rather silly decision as we only see a small fraction of Imperial officer corps in the original films. On the Rebel side I thought the gender representation was pretty good, between pilots and Rebel leadership this may have been the most highlighted women we have had. Some folks are upset that there were not more women in the spy/assassin/saboteur volunteer group that volunteered for the attack on Scarif. I can understand why some are bothered by this, but I wasn’t.

Finally that brings us to the reshoots, the trailers, and a cut of the film that was significantly different. There are enough shots on Scarif that do not appear in the film that it is clear a significant portion of the third act was reshot. To the credit of everyone involved on a film, this does not feel like a Frankenstein’s monster of a film that was hacked to pieces in editing after reshoots and reassembled into a disturbing cinematic monstrosity.

Five trailer shots stand out particularly from the third act: Vader on the Death Star,  Krennic in the shallows in the aftermath of a battle, Jyn running with K-2SO and Cassian through the Citadel base, Jyn running on the beach with K-2SO, Cassian, and other Rebels, and Jyn staring down a TIE fighter on the walkway between the communications dish and the dish alignment controls.

Vader on the Death Star is interesting and I almost wonder if it is part of shots they filmed in case they couldn’t get the Tarkin CGI to work to the quality they wanted it to. This could mean there are a handful of other Vader scenes and less Tarkin/Krennic rivalry in a different cut of the film.

The Krennic shot could mean that in the original cut he arrives on Scarif after the attack has already begun. Or it could be him walking away after the plans are stolen. It is a hard shot to place without more context. But it is a clear departure from what we saw on-screen.

The scenes with Jyn running with the plans on the beach in what appears to be a direction to the communication tower, then through the Citadel Tower hallways and alone on the communications catwalk suggest that in the original cut the data storage facility made have been in a different location than the communications tower. So they have to steal plans and then they had to make their way through the Imperial forces to the communications tower.  An alternative reading could be that Jyn steals the plans but the communications dish or adjustment control is destroyed by the TIE fighter and they are forced to flee the tower and look for another way to transmit the plans off world. Given the direction of the beach running and what appears to be the blowing up of the stolen Imperial shuttle at an earlier point in the ground battle makes the former story beats more likely than this reading. An even crazier option could be if the TIE fighter was commandeered by a friendly such as Cassian; they could pick up Jyn and the plans and try to fly the plans to Raddus’ flagship. But we don’t have enough in the trailer or in the final film justify this.

While I am speculating about reshoots, alternate cuts, and what might have been, I might as go all the way and talk about some story flaws that I saw in the film and changes I would have liked to seen made to the film

Problem #1: Galen’s Message

Galen recorded a fairly long holographic message that talked about a flaw he placed in the Death Star that was smuggled out by Bodhi. Galen could have saved a lot of lives, Rebellion material, and his daughter’s life by simply explaining the flaw and how to exploit it in the hologram. This is the biggest problem in the film’s story. He may not have been able to include a schematic, but should have been able to explain in enough detail to at least match a wire frame diagram and allow the Rebels to follow a trench to a thermal exhaust port.

Problem #2: Rebel Communications

How is it possible that Raddus’s flagship the Profundity was the only ship to receive the broadcast of the Death Star plans? Wouldn’t he have ordered all Rebel ships to attempt to receive any message from the surface? Clearly they did this to make the Vader chase, plan relay, and Tantive IV escape make sense. But if you stop and think about it, there is little reason more than one copy of the plans shouldn’t be in Rebel hands. The only way a single copy of the plans makes sense is if it a physical copy smuggled off planet not a broadcast.

Problem #3: The Senators’ Plan

The Rebel senators’ plan seems to be two-fold. They need to capture Galen Erso so that they can learn how to stop the superweapon. But they also plan to have him testify before the Senate to take down Palpatine. The former makes sense; the latter is crazy. Even during the Old Republic the Senate was neutered in power, and during the Empire even more so until the Senate was dissolved. To think they could use Erso as a witness against Palpatine and that Palpatine would allow that to threaten his power is ludicrous. The fact that one of the highest ranking Rebel officers, Alliance Intelligence General Draven, is actively working to undermine both of these plans is also something that isn’t really addressed in the film. Is he freelancing or is Mon Mothma winking and nodding him to give Cassian the assassination order?

Problem #4: Stardust

Galen’s nickname for his daughter is Stardust; it is cute and something that the use of it again in his death scene helps humanize the character. My problem is that I don’t buy that the Empire would change the Death Star’s design plans to codename “Stardust.” Galen was a Kyber crystal and energy researcher. Even if as the film states he kept himself important to the Death Star development, he didn’t and wouldn’t have designed a large portion of the station. I can see if the superlaser had a separate file and code name that it could be called “Stardust,” but the idea that the entire project would be renamed for Galen’s daughter is beyond far-fetched.

There are other smaller issues you could pick at if you really wanted to: Why does the Empire install a fast-pass code to ships to get through the shield gate when ships are stolen like every other day in Star Wars? Why do the Rebels have better data storage tech than the Empire? Why does it take Imperials so long to scramble defensive craft and where were the turbolaser barrages when the Rebels attack?

There are two major structural changes that I think would have made for a better and more powerful film.

Change #1: Expansion of Saw and Elimination of Bodhi

We needed two scenes in this film to build the Saw and Jyn relationship more, show how extreme Saw was, and show just how much of a bad-ass Jyn is. Scene one should be an early training/mission scene and scene two should have been the scene were Saw abandons Jyn on a mission.

To make room for these additions you need to excise Bodhi from a significant role in the film. Bodhi serves as a messenger that gets the plot rolling, but he is easily replaceable by a holo-transmission as Mon Mothma explains in the Japanese trailer: “We have intercepted a coded Imperial transmission. It indicates that a major weapons test is imminent. We need to know how to destroy it.”

Rebels can discover Galen’s involvement in the message and project and then approach Jyn, who subsequently recruits Saw, who could have maintained secret contact with Galen or found out where Galen is. This makes current-day Saw more relevant to the plot and instead of allowing himself to die on Jedha he could go with the crew and be the one that later stays behind on the shuttle on Scarif because of his physical limitations. You could replace Saw in almost all of Bodhi’s scenes in the film and I think you make room for a tighter story with richer characterization.

Change #2: Jyn’s Death and Vader’s Slaughter

As awesome as Vader’s hallway slaughter is, it is entirely nameless Rebel troopers who we have no emotional attachment to. The emotions of this scene would have been amplified immeasurably if he was pursuing a character from the main cast who was accompanied by Rebel fleet troopers.

Jyn and Cassian dying in each other’s arms on the beach as the Death Star’s shockwave hits them has a certain poetry to it. But it is so impersonal.

Jyn and probably Cassian should have been killed by Vader, either as they raced to transmit the data or in an alternate take on the ending as they physically escapes the planet to the Profundity, only to have the ship disabled and boarded by Vader and to have them chased through the halls , Cassian dies trying to buy Jyn time and then Jyn dies after handing off the plans to another Rebel trooper as Vader cuts her down.

So when Vader says  “there’ll be no one to stop us this time” in A New Hope, he is referring back to Cassian and Jyn.

In the end, flaws and my personal story preferences aside I really enjoyed Rogue One and I have a feeling it will be a Star Wars film that I revisit very often in the years to come.

A contributor to MakingStarWars.net, Pete is also the co-host of the Rebels Report Podcast and editor of RebelsReport.com. Pete has a midi-chlorian count roughly equivalent to Tallisibeth Enwandung-Esterhazy.