Rogue One: The Les Misérables of Star Wars

And having led off with that title, I’m going to try to stay pretty spoiler free and offer some general impressions.

Overall, I really liked the film, but I’m still processing how I responded to it. I came out of it with a strong sense that I need to see it again—not in the fannish sense of wanting the same cathartic kick all over but in the more pensive sense of wanting to reevaluate it on a second go-round, to see how my response to it might shift.

For those avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say it’s a heavy Star Wars movie, minus arguably Revenge of the Sith, the heaviest, quite a bit more so than Empire. (To me, it feels emotionally weightier than RotS just because it’s much better told.) And this heaviness was one source of my uncertainty about it. It seemed to have two tones: a classically Star Wars, storm troopers-aren’t-hitting-anything, Saturday action movie tone and a much more serious, gritty, psychologically hard-hitting tone. I’m not sure these two work ideally together. I’m not sure that they don’t. One could say Empire also walks these two tracks, and for my money Empire does it more cohesively. But that may be the voice of nostalgia. Or it may be that Empire profits from being part 2 of a very archetypically tried-and-true formula (the hero’s journey). Rogue One doesn’t aim for mythic territory. It’s much more a story about “real life”: i.e. the sorts of murky choices and difficult realities people fighting a powerful establishment actually face. I admire it for that.

What I came away liking most was the cast of characters—our core group of action heroes. The film juggled fully six new main characters (the main team), and with a small amount of screen time in which to develop each, developed all of them as individual, realistic people with strong backstories and character evolution. In some ways, it did as much character/relationship development in one movie as the original trilogy did in three—okay, maybe in two. But unlike The Force Awakens (which I also quite liked), it didn’t feel like it was trying to cram three movies into one. It worked very well as a standalone, all the more impressive in an age when everything seems set up for sequels. (Of course, Rogue One has a sequel in A New Hope, but not in the sense of carrying over the same main characters.)

Ironically, of all these characters, the one I felt to be most off kilter—just a little off kilter—was Jyn, our protagonist. Mostly, I really liked her: backstory, identity, acting, which succeeded in conveying someone emotionally low affect with a lot of emotional nuance. But she seemed a bit too much all things heroic. This especially hit me when she began to wax inspiring about hope and the need to fight. It felt forced (no pun), partly because the script was extremely heavy handed, along the lines of “You’re asking us to take risks based on nothing but hope, and I am going to say this so that you can quote the inspiring words you’ve heard about how rebellions are built on hope, and then Leia can say it again later and shout out to the title A New Hope.” But beyond that, I found it hard to swallow that this young woman who’s lived her life as a scrappy fighter, rejecting ties to idealistic movements, would suddenly turn into an inspiring revolutionary rhetorician. Yes, I know she was raised by an idealist rebel. Even so, the sudden shift in her tone felt about as realistic as if Han had given that speech. Still, overall, I liked Jyn a lot.

I was also pleased with the continuity the film had with the other films: very nice job matching the 1970s look of the rebels, very fun callbacks to the dog fights over the Death Star, nice set of references to the larger universe, good part for Mon Mothma, nice to see Bail Organa again and to see the cameos, not overblown, for See-Threepio and Artoo. Speaking of returning characters, however, this is a good segue-way to some niggles.

Niggles

CGI
I have mixed feelings about CGI Leia. It was very appropriate—necessary really—to feature Leia, and I think using CGI to achieve that is legitimate given the current, pretty impressive state of the technology. And it was a brief cameo, which was good. Yet the more I think about it, the more I feel trapped in the uncanny valley, and I can’t help but wish that… maybe they hadn’t shown her face full on… or maybe that they’d dug up some archival footage from the cutting room floor of ANH or the Christmas special to so they could composite in actual footage of Carrie Fisher (obviously without the camera on her face for dialogue).

I do not have mixed feelings about bringing Peter Cushing back to life as a CGI major character. It put me off. I landed squarely in the uncanny valley, and all I could think was: CGI Tarkin! Mind you, it was appropriate to have Tarkin in the story, and the voice acting for both him and Leia was excellent. But I would have preferred he be treated as a special guest star—as the Emperor often is—who wows you with his occasional presence, and I think seeing his reflection in the glass was much more convincingly “Tarkin.” I would have liked to see more reliance on techniques like that.

(There’s a piece of me, moreover, that feels such an approach would have been more respectful to the memory of Cushing—a sort of acknowledgement that he cannot be completely replaced by a computer—yes, I know there was actor behind that CGI and good voice work. Even so. But then, the other voice in me replies that I’m just being old fashioned. Tweaking actors with CGI is certainly the way of the future—and that’s not necessarily bad if it can, say, make historical figures look more like themselves or ease recasting hurdles. I liked young Tony Stark in The Civil War better than if they’d just found a younger actor. More uncertainties.)

Women
Another niggle—ironically—was the lack of female presence in the film. Yes, the protagonist is a woman, and a great character. Her mother, though having a small part, was well realized too. Mon Mothma got her biggest part ever and was excellent. Leia cameo. A few other women flying by. But one got the sense that the general population was about 80-90% male and no one found this strange. Not one non-Jyn woman in their landing team of maybe ten rebel fighters? Not one? I kept searching and searching those faces. Did I miss someone? Not one?

Now, there are a couple of defenses for this. On the side of the Empire, the explanation is they’re sexist. (This was, I believe, made explicit in the expanded universe: they just didn’t like to put women in military or important scientific positions.) And that’s fine… but it does raise the question of where Jyn gets, at one point, a perfectly tailored women’s imperial uniform and why she seems a good candidate for infiltrating an imperial base while obviously being a woman. And yes, she is obviously a woman, even with visor down. If you’re going to present the Empire as obviously sexist—to the point of not showing one single woman in any of its official positions—then you have a narrative obligation to mention that fact when it’s relevant.

It’s harder to explain away with the Rebels, whom, I guess, are not supposed to be sexist? And here’s the where the second explanation comes in: continuity with A New Hope: it was made the ’70s. Them’s the breaks. And I’ll buy that to a degree. I don’t mind the men predominating, but they predominated a lot. In universe, one might explain the predominance as bleed-over from imperial culture. The Rebels, of course, do come out of imperial society: their pilots probably include a lot of imperial defectors, perhaps all men. But again, if your demographics are like that, it bears a mention. It really ought not to be visually shown and rhetorically erased. That’s a textbook recipe for perpetuating inequalities, like the marginalization of women. (Side note: The Force Awakens did better here with palpably more significant female presence. Go TFA!)

Vader?
I found Vader okay in this film. He was used appropriately—sparingly, which was wise. He just wasn’t… quite on form? Perhaps Jones just sounds a little old: I say this with love; he’s about the same age as my dad. Perhaps Vader was too brightly lit? Perhaps the script just made him a bit too chatty? Perhaps I’ve just seen so much Vader he’s just not scary anymore.

Overall
Niggles aside, overall, I really liked it. It was thought provoking. It was moving. It’s a compliment to the film that I will need to see it again to fully process it. It will be with me increasingly deeply, I suspect, as I integrate it into my Star Wars canon.

Side note: I really liked the concept of Chirrut as a not-quite-Jedi, a true Force believer and at least slight Force sensitive, who never got Jedi training and possibly wouldn’t have been strong enough to qualify as a Jedi, but who nonetheless has a deep philosophical understanding of the Force and Jedi ways. Being a Jedi is at least as much about having a certain perspective as it is about being able to manipulate the Force, and Chirrut shows an interesting dimension of this.

Second side note: As to the question of whether we should read Chirrut and Baze as romantic partners, read it however you want, but I think the question misses the point a little. The fact is that they loved each other: well written and well acted. They might have been lovers, brothers, platonic friends, second cousins twice removed, who knows? What matters is they loved.

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