Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Writing movie reviews for a living isn't the toughest job in the world. It's quite fun, has a lot of fringe benefits and gives me the excuse to talk with a lot of like-minded geeky people online. However it can be a little difficult at times, especially when it comes to talking about a franchise like Star Wars.
The tendency with most things people are passionate about is to paint ever interaction or reaction in binary, which leads to a lot of “This is the best thing ever” or “this is the worst thing ever!” type of exchanges.
When I say I liked but didn't head over heels love Rogue One: A Star Wars Story some people will either say I hated it and am just looking for excuses to not paint it as a crap film and some will say I'm being a nitpicking hater who isn't a true Star Wars fan if I don't love every second of the movie.
Below I'll do my best to lay out my feelings after 1 and 1/3 viewings of the film (the 1/3 was the huge chunk of footage I saw at Skywalker Ranch before doing my interviews with Alan Tudyk, Diego Luna and Gareth Edwards) and I'll do my best to make my mixed-positive nuanced case for you lovely people.
Since this is Star Wars and some people don't want to be spoiled, I'll be starting talking in vague, non-spoilery terms, but I do want to talk some specifics, so I'll put a very clear warning in when I'm out of the vague territory and into the more juicy stuff.
My biggest problem with Rogue One is that it ultimately felt pretty slight to me. All the pieces were there: great cast, amazing attention to Star Wars (or A New Hope if you wanna be wrong about it) details, energetic action scenes, solid archetypes, small hints that further open up the official Star Wars universe in ways you're not necessarily expecting, flat out gorgeous cinematography that feels both in line with Star Wars yet modern and some absolutely killer imagery. The structure doesn't give it enough time for all of that to gel together, though.
At the end of the day, this is what we would categorize as a Men-On-A-Mission movie and those kinds of films live or die based on the group chemistry and complexity of the mission. We know that things likely aren't going to turn out too well for our core group and unlike most prequels there's still a question of who's going to make it because this isn't directly about people we already know. That means we get the tension we need, I just don't think the actual heist portion quite lives up to what I was hoping for. It's pretty straight forward and a surprisingly small chunk of the movie is devoted to it. The vast majority of the film is all in assembling the group.
That's not necessarily a bad thing and it's unquestionable that Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting team did a bang-up job making each member of the group someone memorable and iconic. I just kinda wish there'd been more to the actual plan to steal the valuable data at the heart of this story (and ultimately the beginning of the end of the Empire).
I'm curious to see if repeat viewings will soften me on the whole, but I'm pretty sure I'll always have issues with the structure decisions made in this final cut. The group dynamic isn't really given much time to build, opting instead to focus on smaller sub-groups, so when the quick final mission comes up I oddly felt like things should have been just getting started.
It's also quite possible I'm getting a little spoiled by longform storytelling on television these days, which lets characters grow for 6-12 hours each season. It's also quite possible that this particular critique is actually more of a compliment to the movie. I liked what I saw so much that I wanted more.
Okay, shifting gears to a little more detail, so fair warning! I'm not going to go into any real-deal plot ruination, but it's time to get a little more specific!
Turn back now if any little tidbit of knowledge is gonna ruin your experience!
The movie is at its best when it hints at the larger world around what we already know, whether it's Donnie Yen's not-quite-a-Jedi worshipper of the Force character, the lore around Jedha and its importance to the Jedi Order or the glimpse we see of the rather shaky ground the Rebellion's on before Luke appears on the scene.
The way this film adds to Star Wars lore is smart and not as heavy-handed as some of the more aggressive “Remember when you liked...” cameos that pop up.
I particularly like how they ground the age old geek critique of how a weapon as incredible as the Death Star has such a glaring and obvious weak point in real character and emotion. We don't see much of Mads Mikkelsen's Galen Erso in the movie, but he's forever going to be in my mind when I rewatch the original Star Wars, again a huge compliment.
I genuinely liked the majority of the movie and I suspect what I liked will be enhanced even more on repeat viewings. Right now it's just that structural decision to go on a few sub-missions only kinda sorta related to the big job that really sticks out to me. I never got that overwhelming “they're totally fucked” feeling I was hoping for and I think those sub-adventures added to that. Looking back on it, all the cool action that leads up to the final act makes the core team so powerful and seemingly untouchable that I was lulled into a “they got this” feeling instead of a sense of imposing dread, like the quiet before the storm moment with Tom Hanks and his shaking fingers before hitting the beaches of Normandy.
Any tension attached to it is wholly in knowing this scene's context in the history of Star Wars, not because the storytelling tells me this is going to be tough for this rag-tag group of heroes.
Once the action finally starts going down it's appropriately epic in scope and the geography is firmly established, a huge plus when you're cutting back and forth between three different parts of the mission going on at the same time, another knowing nod to one of the more subtle things that makes Star Wars feel like Star Wars, even though it's really only Return of the Jedi that does that full out in the Original Trilogy.
There's so much meat on this movie for Star Wars fans it's not surprising to me that the initial reaction from most of the fan-blogger types is so positive. I join them in their celebration, I just like the deeper cut stuff more than the “Hey, remember when this character said this line in A New Hope? You liked that, so here it is again!”
This is really the only major reveal I'm going to hint at in this review and it'll only mean anything to those really obsessive people, but the thing that got me really giddy was how they went back to the original crazy-ass idea from Leigh Brackett about Darth Vader's home. And it's in this movie. The only thing missing are his living gargoyle watchdogs. Yeah, it kinda makes this thing feel a little fan fiction-y, but damn it if I'm going to watch a prequel I'm going to want some of these crazier ideas explored!
Michael Giacchino's score is bombastic and thematic and big and has the nerve to be its own score, relying very little on John Williams' established themes, using them only when you'd get the max boost out of it as a viewer. It takes a lot of guts to do that and I appreciate the bravery, even if it does make the movie feel a little less connected to Star Wars than its visuals are telling us it is.
I also dug the gray area this story paints in. Diego Luna's Cassian Andor is kind of the Han Solo of the movie, but even more cold-blooded. He'll do just about anything to complete his mission, even if it means sacrificing someone innocent or on his side. The Rebellion isn't shown as this wholly altruistic perfect entity. They plan assassination attempts. The counsel is in total disagreement on how to proceed. I called Diego Luna the Han Solo of the movie, but really it's the Rebel Alliance itself that's in the original Star Wars Han Solo mold. It's conflicted, unsure and a little desperate, so when it gets its shit together and steps up to the plate you get that rush you got when the Falcon showed up at the Death Star and saved Luke's ass.
To wrap it up, I like a great deal about this movie. Elements, characters and scenes are sticking with me. Some of the throwbacks are eye-rolling, but some of them are masterfully done and woven into the plot so well it would have felt like something was missing if they went out of their way to avoid including it.
All the key players are well-drawn and interact well within their little sub-groups (Jyn/Cassian/ K2S0, Chirrut/Baze and poor Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) kinda always on the periphery despite ultimately being one of my favorite members of the group), but I still feel like their interaction as a team was either gutted through the editing process or never given a real chance to form through the story.
And the key villain is also something fresh. Ben Mendelsohn's Krennic isn't a badass. He's a smarmy, jealous corporate stooge. He's more akin to Ellis than Hans Gruber if you catch my drift and I love that take. He's smart and ruthless, but in a much different way than we're used to in this universe.
So those are my mixed-positive thoughts. I did my best to avoid the real spoilery stuff... a whole conversation can be had on Jyn's arc (I have some thoughts) and the key Vader scenes, but that can wait until after the movie comes out.
I hope you guys got a sense of what I loved, liked and was iffy about in this film and I look forward to the many geeky hours of conversation this thing will spur.