ROGUE ONE: An FOTS Roundtable

Manu, David, and Brian go in-depth on the new Star Wars spinoff, and their hopes for the future of the franchise. (Spoilers ahoy, obviously.)

MANU: As is now tradition, the holiday season brings with it a new installment in the Star Wars mythos. 2017’s entry, Rogue One (directed by Gareth Edwards), is a daring departure from its Episodic predecessors. Without the lens of Skywalkers and Siths and Jedis, audiences get a fresh look at that galaxy far, far away. Rogue One is not without its faults, but it overcomes them with charming performances and a visceral climax that leaves Star Wars fans with their mouth agape.

I want to start by discussing the characters, as the main saga’s successes rest heavily on robust, empathetic protagonists as seen in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. When Star Wars is at its best, we are joyously following the adventures of Luke and Rey and Leia and Finn while being captivated by the roguish charms of Han Solo and Poe Dameron. And the lack of this sort of development in young Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala is a critical factor in why many find the prequel trilogy unmoving.

Rogue One breaks from this mold in many respects. While Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are endearing in their turns as Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, their characters’ arcs do not track as well as previous galactic heroes. In the case of Jyn, the character beats from child to prisoner to Rebel hero are all there, but the narrative stumbles through them at times, making Jyn’s transformation into inspiring leader jarring. This flaw is more apparent in Cassian, as his character doesn’t even benefit from any significant backstory. Cassian is depicted as a much darker protagonist, seen early in the movie killing an informant in cold blood. But he too has a sudden turn from assassin-for-hire to empathetic soldier during the mission to assassinate Jyn’s father on Eadu (unbeknownst to Jyn at the time). This caused the second act to be perhaps the weakest part of the film.

What makes all this so remarkable then is how perfectly the film’s climax sticks the landing on these characters, even with these trouble spots. The last fifteen minutes are littered with payoffs for all the characters, making it perhaps the strongest finish to a Star Wars movie this side of Episode V.

How about you guys? Did the characters work for you, and do any performances stand out in your minds?

This shot: not in the film.
DAVID: This is a great place to start because the major criticisms of Rogue One are an inversion of The Force Awakens. While Episode VII gave us crackerjack new characters in a derivative plot (I disagree, but that’s the line), Rogue One gives us a new crop of thinly-drawn rebels in a gritty, sensationally staged war film.

I’m interested to eventually learn how much changed in the much-publicized reshoot process, when Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) was brought in to punch up the script and, judging from the amount of trailer footage not in the film, substantially change the third act. It’s hard to deny that the final 20 minutes or so is the most audacious sustained action sequence of the entire series (though the original trench run of A New Hope is still groundbreaking and iconic), and the fact that we care about these characters at all and grieve their deaths signals that the film was able to overcome its problems in its first third.

I dug Felicity Jones as Jyn; as a cynic, she’s a vastly different character from Daisy Ridley’s Rey. (I look forward to asking my wife whether it’s a “one bun” or “three bun” day, depending on her mood.) That there are huge pieces of her backstory missing doesn’t diminish the job she does as Rogue One’s anchor point. Luna was good. Donnie Yen was magnificent, and my favorite character. Alan Tudyk was delightful. As the film’s ostensible heavy, however, I kept waiting for Ben Mendelsohn to really cut loose, and he never really had the chance after his terrific first scene. Krennic had to be too deferential, both to Vader and to Uncanny Valley Tarkin.

I suppose the biggest “what the heck?” was Forest Whitaker, with another bizarre accent (if you’ve seen Arrival, you know this is a trend), as a character who had very little reason to exist except as a temporary obstacle. Though, I WILL say that I appreciated how Rogue One went in hard on showing how the Rebel “Alliance,” prior to Scarif, was barely an Alliance at all. If Saw Gerrera was the Che Guevara of this world, that’s an idea I can get behind, but as presented here it’s a missed opportunity.

Why, Forest Whitaker?
BRIAN: The thing with Saw Gerrera is that he’s supposed to be a returning character from the second Clone Wars show (you know, the one not made by Genndy Tartakovsky). Conceptually, he tracks with that show’s portrayal of Saw as a hardened extremist, but again the bizarre accent and mystical bearing just don’t work. He’s the worst part of the movie, I think. As for the other characters, I was more into Captain Andor than I think Manu was, though I agree his backstory went unexplored. Part of it I think is how closely he hews to the ORIGINAL and CORRECT portrayal of Han Solo, the guy who shoots first and breaks into Imperial strongholds later. I think his motivations for not killing Galen Erso are just as apparent as Han’s were for coming back during the Trench Run: he’s into a girl. Pretty much as soon as they land on Yavin (which was chock-full of great easter eggs), he’s all doe-eyed, like he thinks NOT killing her father is a romantic gesture.

The other characters I agree are less fully drawn, with Jyn being the biggest culprit, but they all work well enough. Baze (Jiang Wen) and the aforementioned Chirrut I think have the most potential to be used elsewhere in prequel material, but K-2SO and Bodhi are both the right kind of comic relief, and even a seemingly drugged Mads Mikkelsen can still be interesting. I’ll also agree that Director Krennic sort of fizzles out as far as villains go, but I did think he had an interesting dynamic with Jyn’s father and his oscillations between preening warlord and scheming underling depending on who he was sharing a scene with were solid enough.

I’m more conflicted on Uncanny Valley Peter Cushing, though. I think the effect was about as good as one could hope for, and I appreciate not even trying to recast the role, because that’s PETER CUSHING (he’s not the most replaceable person), but I think the overall effect was jarring enough to harm the film. He looked just off enough that it started to get to me. The less said about the 1977 Carrie Fisher cameo the better. That one was just bizarre. Thankfully, the other returning characters were all well-utilized. R2 and 3PO made their requisite appearance (though the timing seemed a little off); Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) shows up for a couple of scenes where he speaks almost entirely in code, which was odd.

Then there’s the BIG ONE. Darth Fuckin Vader, and this film I can happily say completes the character rehabilitation the recent comics have started in helping us forget that there’s a shitty teen underneath that suit. There are few scenes in recent movie history more affecting than the final moments of Rogue One, where Vader rampages through a squad of Rebels trying to escape with the stolen Death Star plans. The way they used his red lightsaber as the scene’s only light source just bathed the whole thing in blood, and really helped restore that same sense of awe that Vader so famously inspired in Star Wars (and more importantly, Empire). James Earl Jones’s voice does sound older, but he’s older, so I’m not really complaining. Combine that with his earlier appearance in a castle on Mustafar (obviously inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s concepts for his stronghold at Bast), and he’s back to being someone worthy of having the Imperial March played whenever he’s on screen.

What did you guys think of the third act?

Vader’s got jokes!
MANU: Rogue One goes full Red Wedding in its final act, killing off every last member of Rogue Squadron (an inevitable finish so as to not explain where these characters are during the Rebellion). For me, every one of these deaths are executed to maximum gut-wrenching effect. K-2SO’s may have hit me hardest, being blasted apart while fighting and protecting Jyn and Cassian to the very last. And the visual imagery of Jyn and Cassian on the beach as the Death Star blasts closes in evoked memories of 1950’s nuclear post-apocalyptic stories like “On the Beach” as our heroes watch their impending doom roll in shoreside. The movie doesn’t pull its punches on any of these scenes, leaving the audience pummeled by the series of deaths.

And man, THAT Darth Vader scene is something audiences have always desired; Vader going full berserker mode without a single line of dialogue, cutting through humans left and right and showing complete mastery of the Force as blasters and bodies fly all over. Most impressive (heh) is how well Vader’s murder walk leads into A New Hope; when Vader first appears in Episode IV, he is as enraged as we see him at any point in the films. Now knowing how close he came to getting back the plans, that anger tracks incredibly well from film to film.

To be honest, I come down so positively on this movie because of this ending; the feeling of satisfaction when the end credits hit might be the most I’ve felt at a movie all year. For all its missteps, that final act checked every box (and then some) that I could ever want in a Star Wars climax.

What are your thoughts on the climax, Dave? And as this is the first Star Wars film without John Williams, how did you feel the score held up under Michael Giacchino?

David wants to know: Are they a couple?
DAVID: Yep, as we’ve all said, the film sticks the landing so hard all the other quibbles look like…well, quibbles. I’ll tell you what, though — the scene that will stay with me the most isn’t the violent end of any of the major characters (though like Manu said, the final shot of Jyn and Andor is a stunner), but the never-ending line of nameless rebel red shirts, lateraling the drive to the next man, getting sliced down, tossing it again. Just the simple idea, so common in war films from the Revolution to WWII to deep space, of the anonymous legions that sacrifice themselves to keep the ball moving down the field, often as part of a plan they don’t fully understand, and with no way of ever knowing if their efforts won’t be in vain. I don’t know why, and I didn’t expect this from a Star Wars film, but it got that little thing poignantly right.

It got a lot of little things right. The fallen Ozymandias Jedi statue. The rundown uniforms and ships. Sweet-ass handheld shots of people firing space bazookas at AT-ATs. A few good wisecracks. (“Are you kidding me? I’m blind!”) From a production standpoint, I don’t know what more you can ask for. Giacchino’s score didn’t hit it out of the park for me (considering Giacchino is my favorite composer of his generation, that’s asking a lot), but the dude only had four and a half weeks to write it, so I’ll settle for a rock-solid double that incorporates just enough of the old themes while also providing better action underscore than Williams himself did in The Force Awakens.

So with Rogue One such a success, Disney is hopefully feeling confidence that this is a sandbox big enough for a lot of filmmakers to play in, and there are opportunities for bold choices in pretty much any genre you like (Western? Musical?). With a Han Solo film and another mysterious spinoff on the way, what stories would you want to see brought to life? I don’t want to limit it just to characters and events we know, but I’m down for bringing Ewan McGregor back as Obi-Wan, bridging the gap to “Old Ben” the hermit. I can see him dodging Stormtroopers on different backwater planets, trying to keep a low profile but inevitably getting mixed up in some Jedi shit. That’s just one idea that’s already out there. How about you guys?

BRIAN: As soon as we heard about what, exactly, the anthology films would be, the FIRST one I wanted to see was a Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan film. His presence is one of the few truly good things about the prequels, and he’s just about the right age for the part (though I’m still not entirely sure if he actually ages). So that’s first, but the Han Solo and Bounty Hunter(?) movies both sound good. I’m definitely into maybe branching away from the events of the original trilogy before too long. Give me a Knights of Ren movie, or better yet, a movie about something we don’t know about yet. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good template for this sort of thing, especially if Disney is going to give their directors more autonomy. We’re getting a Taika Waititi MCU movie soon enough, so why not someone even stranger for Star Wars?

If there’s one thing I’ve said before, it’s that the storytelling possibilities for this universe are incredibly vast. Some of the very best Star Wars content of all lies in the games, books and comics Disney left behind in 2014, and while some vestiges of those things still remain (Kylo Ren’s design and backstory in particular), the spirit of expansion and appropriation shouldn’t be too hard to replicate. If nothing else, Rogue One is at least encouraging on that front, as it really is different from each of the trilogies, and in interesting ways. Just give me a Kyle Katarn movie.

Art by Ashley Clapperton
Art by Ashley Clapperton
MANU: I’ll have to echo the Obi-Wan series; the Marvel comics have dipped into his backstory  (both his time training Anakin and events between Episodes III and IV) and it definitely leaves me wanting more. That aside, I loved Shadows of the Empire growing up (which tells the story between V and VI), and though it has been retconned out of the official canon, I’d love to see how those Bothans died as well as introducing Legends characters like Prince Xizor and Dash Rendar back into the saga.

The other story I want is the early days of the Jedi and Sith; there’s a long history there that the new films have started to scratch (Luke’s location in The Force Awakens and Jedha in this movie) that I’d love to explore. One of the great failings of the prequels was that characters discussed prophecies and the Chosen One, but it was never developed. Who made this prophecy? When? Were there “false prophets” before Anakin? This would not only be great story fodder, but also tie up some hanging threads and missed opportunities in the prequel trilogy.

All right, that should wrap it up. Rogue One is a valiant first entry as an anthology story in the Star Wars universe, and despite some soft parts in the middle act, the movie overwhelmingly delivers something altogether new in a very familiar galaxy. The end of this movie will forever be the takeaway, as the final fifteen minutes are nothing but emotion and spectacle. Fun, beautiful, and compelling.

Until next time…May the Force be with you.

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