I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.
I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.
About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The
lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.
As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.
Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.
So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.