“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” movie review

rogueoneJust when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.

With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has  its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.

Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).

For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.

Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.

“Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” movie review

Star Wars VIIThe force awakens…then realizes it’s done this all before and should’ve stayed in bed. Return to that time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Relive that first moment you saw Star Wars IV and fell in love with the franchise, because you are pretty much getting a plot so similar that you may wonder if the rest of this new trilogy will just continue to rehash and polish what’s all been said and done before. A more appropriate title for this visually stunning film would have been Star Wars: DejaVu or Star Wars: Revisited. No doubt that this film will indeed perform well this weekend; but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many people will view this film through an augmented reality and perceive it to be better than it actually is. The Big D can do no wrong, right??? All that being said, J.J. Abrams once again proves that he is a master at visual storytelling and his films are of a high caliber from a technical achievement perspective. The cinematography and editing are nearly flawless and really help to mesmerize the audience and impress even those who are generally not impressed by visual graphics and sound design. Watching the screen as familiar faces reprise the roles that cemented them in cinema history is nostalgic and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the writers should have spent more time developing a NEW story versus relying upon nostalgia.

With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hiding, the Resistance, which has birthed out of the old rebellion, needs to find him in order to defeat the The First Order, a new world empire developed out of the ashes of the old Empire. In an effort to avoid capture, BB8 meets Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through a series of events, this small band of rebels encounters the legendary general and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Form). Working together, they need to get the information in this BB unit to the resistance so that The First Order may be stopped. Leading The First Order is Kylo Ren, a masked, dark, and menacing Sith under the direction of the Supreme Leader. Follow familiar and new faces on a journey through the galaxies to stop this new empire from destroying all that is good.

Put simply, this film relies too heavily on the previous movies, thus prohibiting a new story to “awaken.” It was made known early on that Abrams desired to create a new old-school Star Wars sequel to the original trilogy. And in many ways, he did just that. The problem is that it is way too old school and forgets that this movie was also responsible for relaunching the dormant (as far as theatrically released movies) franchise and introducing something truly new. He was so concerned with pleasing everyone–old fans and new ones alike–that he ended up not pleasing anyone who is willing to step back and actually examine the film as a film. All this film did was reuse past plots and forget to give the eager audience and fanbase something legitimately new after waiting so long. The overall plot, locations, and characters lack anything newly appealing. The movie even begins on a desert planet and ends with the destruction of a “not” Death Star–but it basically is–just larger.

With more than half of the movie consisting of space travel and battle sequences, you will wonder if you are actually playing Star Wars: Battlefront. Why? Because it looks and feels very similar to a highly developed video game that includes film sequences to transition to the different chapters or levels. Just pick one of the characters in the film and you can almost feel yourself moving them with your controller. One of the most memorable elements to the original trilogy is the nearly unparalleled cinematic villain–and the one who many try to be but fail–Darth Vader. Don’t worry, “there is another” as Yoda put it in Empire Strikes Back. However, this new “Vader” will leave you wondering how the writers thought he (Kylo Ren) could even come close to filling Vader’s boots and mask. From the mask to the red lightsaber, Kylo Ren appears to be just as menacing as Lord Vader. And there was some promise there. Unfortunately, the writers took any potential of a comparable sinister villain and essentially emasculated him when he removes his mask to reveal a guy in his 30s with luscious wavy hair. After that, it is impossible to take Kylo Ren seriously as a villain for the remainder of the movie.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the writing in general was poorly developed and executed, just wait a moment. Actually, the writing includes some comedic relief, moderately intense moments, with some pretty decent rushed character development, and sufficient exposition. The problem with the writing lies in the overly used plot elements and past Star Wars tropes. The script essentially lives in the past even though there are parts of it that want to live in the present. Leaving the audience thinking that they’ve seen this all before, the writers fail to include anything new and interesting. Instead of coming across as a much-needed sequel or revival, the film plays out as a reboot. There isn’t anything innately wrong with reboots of old, beloved franchises; but Disney and Abrams indirectly promised the sequel that never was but should have been after Return of the Jedi. Sequels are required to advance the story, introduce significantly new material, and move the plot along. The Force Awakens can easily be interpreted as 3/4 reboot and 1/4 sequel.

Visually, the film is cinematically brilliant! The sound design is also incredibly well executed. Even the score is beautiful. What one can appreciate about the score is that there is familiar music wrapped in a completely new score. Too bad the plot didn’t takes notes from John Williams on how to include the old but advance the new. There is no doubt that this movie will be nominated, if not win the Academy Awards in the technical achievement areas–and it deserves them. Honestly, I think some of the editing and graphics team from this movie should work on improving the graphics in the next Jurassic installment. Abrams promised that he would go back to practical effects and merely enhance them with digital effects, and he did just that. The combination played out very well and impressed me. He may not have delivered the movie that Star Wars fans wanted to see, but he did keep his promise to not rely on cheap digital effects as a large part of the design.

If you want to relive the first time you saw A New Hope, then here is your opportunity. It’s basically the same movie, but looks way more impressive. For those who wanted an actual sequel to resurrect this piece of Americana, then you may be disappointed. I really hope the next installment will give me something new. At the end of the day, the movie is certainly entertaining; and seeing Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, C3PO, and R2D2 on screen again, in their most iconic roles, is just plain cool and heartwarming. The nostalgia will certainly bring some to tears. And I also want to point out that this IS a fantastic film for a family, whether diehard fans or not, to spend some time together over the holidays at the movies.