Was it good? Was it great? Was it a Vader slash-fest? Yes! Yes! No! I won’t spoil more but I have lots more to say!
I went into this movie expecting very much and yet having little concrete expectations. My past 40 years of Star Wars experience have taught me that I like Star Wars films, as I like all of the 7 so far. So was Rogue One a Star Wars movie?
The first 25 minutes
The first 15 minutes of this film were very interesting. While you watch you see and hear many things that tell you this is not a Star Wars movie … and yet you also see and hear a plentiful basket of typical Star Wars characteristics. That is in part confusing and in part exciting, but for me that was exciting throughout. The introductions of the main characters are short, except Jyn’s and Krennic’s, maybe too short for some. But it fits the movie’s premise that here we are dealing with people who are jumbled together by fate to come to defining a common mission. There isn’t some ages long process at work, no chosen one’s, no family histories. I was not only perfectly happy with that. I thought it was spot on. After the first twenty-five minutes the game is on, we know our characters and we know the cracks in their fragile team.
The mission before the mission
We all know this film is about the mission to steal the Dearth Star plans. But that mission is the second half of the film. When the first quarter is filled by the character introductions and assembling the team, the second quarter is the first mission where the team finally becomes a team. It starts around the time where Vader gets involved in the story. Vader is a looming threat in the background for the Imperials. It is good his character is sued this way. Overall I am very happy with the way Vader was utilized. Darth Vader is always a risk as a character as his presence easily overwhelms a story and pushes anything else into the background. Rogue One tries to tell a story, not deliver a fan boy’s Vader slash-fest.
What I really love about this quarter is that the formation of this team is told as a visual story, not through dialogue. What I also really enjoyed is that these characters are not shown to display endless sequences of astonishing feats. No … each character surely has his or her moment, showing a measure of bravery, a measure of mystique and a measure of treachery. But none has enduringly so and this helps to keep them normal people.
The final hour
The final hour is essential the battle in, on and above Scariff. I think it is done extremely well and satisfyingly. There is a villainous moment where some will get to see what they have been hoping for ever since A New Hope. It is structured very well somewhat like a relay race. The final hour has plenty of scenes where the movie really grips you emotionally. For me much, much more so that The Force Awakens ever did. Rogue One is relentless in that way and it all serves and adds to the story. There is no room for false heroics in Rogue One, there is no room for heroes who walk away with a torn shirt from an age defining battle.
Some reviewers have, on Twitter, compared this to Apocalypse Now but I find that comparison very far from the film I saw. Actually it reminded me much more of parts of Saving Private Ryan. There isn’t the gore and the blood or the deafening (literally) horror of the Omaha Beach landing scene. But there are the ‘stupid deaths’ of troops standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, the helplessness of soldiers cornered in a tight spot. There definitely is that massive scale of war that seems to coldly suppress the individual soldier’s fate into the sand if it were not for the sharp eye of the camera man. I think these things are all very well done.
The final hour never allows you to catch your breath and it takes you from swallowing hard to swallowing even harder. I heard a few ‘Oh my god’s’ in the audience around me as the minutes went on and as it slowly dawned on us what we were watching. This is where Rogue One really deserves to be called a war movie. In the midst of that turmoil of the battle Rogue One does not forget its spiritual centre. Beautifully acted by Donnie Yen we get to see a beautiful and haunting sequence about what The Force means for ordinary folk in the galaxy who cannot move objects by their will, flash light sabres or commune with spirits. I think it is done masterfully measured and yet enough ‘in your face’ to make you doubt. And when for our heroic friends crucial moments come in this battle there are always small gestures that reveal that also in those moments this is a team effort. Because underneath the thundering barrage of warfare there is a second might more silent film.
In this final hour Vader gets another moment and I can only commend the filmmakers on how they executed it. It never throws the film of balance, never shifts the focus of the story to Vader nor does it in any way impinge on what has come immediately before. In it’s disconnect to Donnie Yen’s sequence mentioned earlier it is beautifully connected.
The Final Shot
I loved the film all the way up until that moment. Then came the final shot of the movie. It constitutes a hard ‘carriage-return’ relative to the preceding hour. My first thought was that I would have loved the movie more without it. But the longer I think about it the more I actually start to appreciate it. And the more I think about it, the more it strikes me that probably the Disney exec’s have left it is because they don’t understand it’s meaning. Let me explain that without spoiling anything.
American movies, especially American war movies, tend to have this disastrous appetite for a upbeat ending. Even Steven Spielberg is unable to resist this and I have spent many movie-ending grinding my teeth at the obligatory sweep unto a Stars ‘n Stripes. The last shot in Rogue One is, so I thought when leaving the theatre, the Star Wars analogue of that. But upon analysing the sting of discontent I felt at that moment I came to see it differently. Now 24 hours later what remains is not the impression I had last night. Rather it was the sting of realisation that for well over 40 years, ever since that opening scroll of A New Hope, we cared so little about the story of the heroes of Rogue One.
Many who looked forward to this cinematic realisation of the story that led up to the events of A New Hope will have been dreaming of an endless depiction of a badass Vader followed by a sweep to the US flag. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was written just as little to please that as the Prequel Trilogy was. In the opening shot of Saving Private Ryan we see a US soldier descend into regret for he knows a story about D-Day he hasn’t told his relatives, but that he should have told. Just like the Prequel Trilogy is the story of Anakin that hadn’t been told but should have been told, so Rogue One is the story of those ordinary rebels that stole the Death Star plans that should have been told but for forty years … wasn’t. You and me … we are the relatives of that aged Ryan standing at Arlington cemetery. And we need to hear this story!