Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – First Reactions

The following review is rated S for spoilery.  It is not the big official review that will stand as part of the project blog.  I’ll do one of each of the films in due time.  Right now, this one’s all about geek-level word vomit.

I will break this review into two parts, first covering as much as I can in non-spoiler territory, and then I’ll provide a visual break and a warning cue for the juicy bits.  It’s on you how far you want to tread into this.

As I sit down to write this, I have just seen Rogue One for the first time, letting it wash over me.  I’ll see it once more in the morning to pick it apart as dedication to the Star Wars legacy demands of all acolytes.  That’s not to say you can see everything there is to see on a couple of viewings.  In a film this dense, it’ll require thorough Blu-ray examination when the time comes.  Such is the case with any film bearing the Star Wars brand, after all.

First the basic, non-spoilery overview.

Let’s just get this out of the way up front.  Rogue One is AWESOME.  Hardcore fanboy approved.  This movie did exactly what it was supposed to do.  It enriched the Star Wars universe, and it made A New Hope even better.

The nuts and bolts are probably known to everyone by this point.  This is the story of how the Death Star plans made it into the hands of the Rebel Alliance before the opening of A New Hope.  Jyn Erso’s father, Galen Erso, built the Death Star‘s primary weapon because he was coerced into it, and because of his genius, he was able to build in that design flaw in the reactor that the Alliance would be able to exploit.  This story paints Jyn as the Joan of Arc of this galaxy, rallying the troops for an impossible mission that would completely turn the tide and cement the Rebellion as a symbol of hope and a bona fide threat to the Empire.  The acting is wonderful.  The visuals are eye-popping beyond description.  Story-wise, this is absolute perfection in terms of its placement within the saga and tying things together, both forward into A New Hope and backwards a bit, acknowledging the prequels in subtle ways.

This is not the Star Wars I remember.  In some ways, it very much is the same galaxy.  In a lot of ways, it’s better.  Certainly bigger.  Even more dangerous.

This is Star Wars as George Lucas always intended: faster, more intense.  There’s no wonder he heartily approved of it.   In terms of visual storytelling, it’s the kind of thing he wanted to do back in the day.  It pushes the envelope of both practical effects and CG technology in ways that pull you in, embrace you in a vice grip, shake you around a bit, and drop you to the floor.  And at the end of it, you’ll scream “Thank you, sir! May I have another?!”

Easter eggs?  There are crates full of easter eggs in this, most of them with actual world building purpose, with some very special ones that had me laughing, with tears of joy streaming down my face.

We barely get to know the new characters in this, and yet we know more about most of them them than we did our original heroes by the end of their first film.  I don’t really know how they did this, but it was effective.  Maybe I’m just seeing what isn’t there.  Hard to say at this point.

And now the promised visual break and spoiler warning for those who want to bail now.  Beyond this point, I hold nothing back.  If you don’t want to know, just gaze instead at this awesome still shot of Lord Vader and move on.  I’ll also say this is by far not the most impressive shot of him, and it’s far from being the greatest visuals this film has to offer.  Want to know more?  Read on.

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Still with me?  Good.  Time to properly geek out.  Full spoilers!

Ye gads, I don’t even quite know where to start.  I’m still processing it.

Let’s start with Vader, just because I can.  The first shot we get is the remnants of him in that bacta tank, just as I surmised the other day when I posted that production photo.  From there, we get very little of him.  The above photo of him is right after the bacta tank shot, so you can probably tell he’s just a ball of sunshine, oh so happy to see Director Krennic.

The finale… I’d heard straight from Kathleen Kennedy that Vader’s role was small but pivotal.  Oh yes.  I’d heard it was brutal.  Yes indeed!  This, my friends, is the Vader I always imagined, at the level of brutality only he is capable of dishing out.  It’s very obviously the Vader we know from the OT, but with the skills of Anakin as we’ve seen them develop throughout the prequels and The Clone Wars.   Fast.  Efficient.  Terrifying.  Think back to the scene in Revenge of the Sith when he and Kenobi take out an elevator full of battle droids in nothing flat.  Now magnify that by the power of Vader and unleash it on a ship full of Rebels.  When you see this unfold, it’ll bring a whole new level to the opening sequence of A New Hope.  “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time…”  Yeah, clearly.  Vader had her dead to rights, and his restraint is admirable.  Incidentally, the rumors about this ending about 10 minutes before that movie begins are absolutely true.  You’ll see it all lace together in front of you.

Speaking of that, let’s talk about the return of another favorite in the final shot.  Princess Leia.  It’s not her, but it absolutely is her in every way that matters.  My princess.  As she was in ’77.  I’ve heard some critics bemoan the effects shot that made this happen.  They’re full of bantha poodoo.  She’s beautiful!  The CG isn’t quite there, and your brain will fight you on the illusion you’re seeing, but it’s so freaking close.  It’s just so incredible to have her there, however briefly.

The kind of stuff they pulled in the end battle sequence is the stuff of pure legend.  I’ve only seen it one other place: in the RPGs I’ve run over the years.  This is the kind of thing me and my players do on weekends that ruins me for a lot of big screen blockbuster fiction and most television.  I’m just not going to spoil that because you absolutely have to see it to believe it.

Easter eggs.  I mentioned them.  I’ve talked Vader.  I’ve talked Leia.  C-3PO and R2-D2 make a brief return here.  Mon Mothma is back in charge, but now I want to know where the freak she went since she wasn’t on Yavin when Leia got there.  That’s virtually my only plot hole.  Red and Gold Leaders are back in the cockpits, and I’d swear these two are the original actors from A New Hope!  People, BLUE MILK makes a cameo return in this film.  Power droids, Death Star droids, Dr. Evazan, Ponda Baba, classic stormtroopers, classic TIE fighters.  Classic X-Wings and Y-Wings!  The walkers are definitely not as sturdy as they are by the time we get to Hoth, and that’s a bit unfortunate, but I respect the decision point on that.  You have never seen Star Destroyers be so menacing before in all your days.  Never!  They haven’t changed at all since ’77, and they are terrifying on a new level here just simply by being there.  And did I mention how amazing that last battle is?  OMG!  And there are a lot of new ships in there too, but they look like they belong, just like the new troopers look like they belong.  Yavin Base was real!  Honestly, all of the set pieces in this were beyond mind-blowing, and the way they were filmed, it was like being there.  I almost want to see this in 3D.  Almost.  That idea is still lost on me in the final analysis, but someday this movie is going to look fantastic in my home hologram projector.

I really need some numbers.  Revenge of the Sith opened with the largest space battle ever put on screen.  I don’t know that Rogue One beat it, but it certainly upped every factor that made it work, including the speed, ferocity, and sense of scale.

Before I talk about the really big easter egg, let’s talk about some of the main characters.  I read the book that ties into this film, Catalyst.  I declared Galen Erso to be the dumbest smart man in the galaxy.  He’s more than redeemed himself here.  Krennic, just as I’d hoped, is a scene-chewing wanna-be player with delusions of greatness.  He’s got big competition, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.  I love this villain.  More than that, I love what he’s up against.  More on that later.

Donnie Yen’s character Chirrit (?) is supposed to have some extended backstory.  I want that backstory.  This character… they described him as a Guardian of a Whills.  People, this goes all the way back to the very first draft of Star Wars.  It was originally labeled in George’s notebook, “From the journal of the Whills.”  We’ve always wondered what deuce the Whills of the Force were.  Whatever they are, they’re on Jedda.  Or… they were.  A lot’s happened, clearly, what with the Empire and all.

Forest Whittaker as Saw Gerrera… this lends a new level to the fight against the Empire.  To catch people up to speed, we first saw him in a season 4 arc of The Clone Wars.  He was trained by none other than Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano to do the kinds of things he’s rumored to do in this era.  The events of that arc explain a lot as to the level of extremism this guy has.  It’s very well done.  The prosthetics they’ve given him are just astounding.  You contrast this to Vader, and you can see the difference between Imperial emissary and freedom fighter in terms of medical care.  What I want to know now is, how in the hell did he survive what I saw in this film?  Seriously, he’s in the novel Bloodline, which takes place before The Force Awakens, and we all know these things are all canon now, so clearly he survived this film.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  They’re going to have to reboot it all again to clean house.  Novels, comics, and anything else that’s not TV or film cannot be canon.  It just can’t.  This movie proves it.  I’ll be glad to discuss it if need be after you see the film.

The cast all around in this is just fantastic.  It’s truly an ensemble performance.  Alan Tudyk as K-2SO would pretty much steal this film if they let him.  Most of the humor comes from him, and most of that is ad libbed.  He’ll be a fan favorite, I’m certain.  Cassian Andor is a lot of fun.  He and Jyn have some great screen chemistry.  Honestly, I have not one single thing bad to say about anyone in this cast, or the characters they portray.  It was just so well orchestrated on all levels.

The format for this movie is different.  There’s no opening crawl.  There are identifications on the planets so you know where you are.  There are no Kirosawa-esque wipes and fades.  As I say, it’s not Star Wars as I understand it in terms of the visual language.  But it works.  It sets the tone for the anthology films and separates them out from the numbered saga films.  Mission accomplished on that front.

The music is likewise different.  Michael Giacchino isn’t the first composer to step in for John Williams.  Kevin Kiner has done that across 6 seasons of The Clone Wars and working on season 3 of Rebels now.  Even so, Giacchino is no stranger to stepping into Williams’ waters.  He scored Jurassic World, and that was arguably the best thing about the film.  Dare I say the only good thing.  His work with Disney and Pixar has earned him some Oscar love.  He’s worthy.  If we can’t have John Williams, he’s a great go-to.

He’s so not John Williams.  Nobody could be.  I paid a great deal of attention to his score, and I like what I hear.  I’m not in love with it, but I enjoyed it.  It’s just hard to compare the man to Williams and call that a fair shake.  I’ll look forward to giving his score a proper consideration on its own terms.

Ok, time to talk about the elephant in the room that is pure fanboy-level sorcery.

People… Peter Cushing has returned from the dead.  Tarkin is here, in this movie.  He has more footage than Vader.  It’s more than a cameo.  His presence was needed in this story, and by the Force we got him.

As with the brief performance of Princess Leia, the CG on this is so close as to be spot on.  I’d heard back in August of 2014, perhaps before that, that they were looking to do a CG puppet with all of Cushing’s mannerisms and vocal inflections.  They were studying old Hammer footage to pull this off.  A lot of people bitched and moaned.  I was of two minds about it myself.

They got an actor and CG’d Cushing’s face and mannerisms.  The result is… well, like I said before, your mind will fight you on this illusion.  If you let go, it’s Tarkin.  You can see Peter Cushing in those eyes.  You can hear him in that voice.  The menace, the gravitas… it’s all there.  I wept.  It was like seeing an old friend.  I thought Vader would be the part of this I’d appreciate most.  And don’t get me wrong, I absolutely relished every moment I got of the Dark Lord.  But to have Tarkin along as well…  What else can you say?  Hello, old friend.  Welcome back.

Ok, that’s enough first time geeking for now.  Bottom line, this didn’t crack the top spot for my favorite Star Wars movie, but the third act alone made it come really close.  What it does do is makes me further appreciate what we’ve gotten before, and it gives me great hope for the future.  It’s far and away better than The Force Awakens.  Ironic since that movie used all of the visual language the original saga films did and much of the plot.  It had every advantage.  Well, almost.  It didn’t have Vader or Tarkin, that’s for sure, and you really can see what a difference it makes to have a real villain on the set.  To have two of the best with their foot on the neck of a third who wants to join their ranks?  Priceless.  TFA will have the luxury of going forward, so it could take its time.  Rogue One had only this one shot.  There will be no Rogue Two.  I will also say that this film is more for the adults, which also breaks the classic mold and feels wrong, but yet, it feels so right too.  Nothing’s sugar coated.  If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be in the trenches with the Rebellion against the full might of the Empire, this is the film for you.  It ticks off all the boxes and then some.

Not bad for a prequel, huh?

Round two commences tomorrow morning.  I’m looking forward to catching even more details, because there is a lot of details to be had.  This is one dense movie.  Haters and critics be damned.  This movie is overwhelming, it’s exciting, and it’s fun.  It’s Star Wars.

5 stars

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