Star Wars reviews: Rogue One

The new Star Wars movie Rogue One was enjoyable. While I liked The Force Awakens, I nevertheless felt that Disney played it very safe with their first installment since acquiring the franchise.  Rogue One, in contrast, does attempt to stretch out in different directions.

Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire. Despite the fact that it is set immediately before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, Rogue One successfully expands what previously felt like well-explored territory.

rogue-one-poster

1) Rogues Gallery

The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a woman in her early twenties who has spent most of her life on the run from the Empire. When she was only a child Jyn’s mother was killed, and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hauled off to work on the construction of the Death Star by the ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsen).  Jyn is recruited at gunpoint by the Rebel Alliance, which hopes she can lead them to her father.  Grim, brooding Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, the sarcastic K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are assigned to accompany Jyn in tracking down Galen.

2) Darkness Falls

Rogue One has been described as the darkest entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think some people are overlooking Revenge of the Sith, which was hardly a laugh-fest, the point is that Rogue One is a very gritty movie by the standards of the franchise.

Whereas the original trilogy focused on the main figures of the Rebel Alliance, this is the story of the men and women fighting in the trenches against the Empire. Yes, they are motivated by the idealism of the Alliance, but after long years of conflict they are also driven by ruthless pragmatism.

When we are introduced to Cassian Andor, he is meeting with an informant, who tells him of a defecting Imperial pilot in possession of a message from Galen Erso. Unfortunately Andor and his informant are discovered by Stormtroopers.  To prevent the Empire from learning about the existence of the defector, Cassian, showing little hesitation, shoots his informant in the back and flees.

As ruthless as Cassian can be, he is positively tame compared to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a militant member of the Rebel Alliance. Having spent nearly two decades fighting against the Empire, Gerrera is scarred, physically and mentally, consumed by paranoia.  His followers utilize guerilla tactics, launching attacks against Imperial forces in heavily populated areas.

rogue-one-jyn-and-cassian

3) Parallel Lives

Jyn Erso is, in a way, a reflection of Luke Skywalker. In the opening scene Jyn and her parents living on an isolated farm, in hiding from the Empire.  There are definite similarities between this and how we first met Luke in A New Hope.  We even see Jyn’s mother with a glass of blue milk!

Luke, of course, was bored by the uneventful life of a farmer, and yearned for adventure. He couldn’t wait to leave and explore the galaxy.  Jyn, in contrast, spent a decade and a half scrambling about the galaxy, afraid and alone.  Instead of craving excitement, she yearns for safety and normality.  Having seen her mother gunned down by Stormtroopers and her father dragged off in chains, she would no doubt give anything to regain the quiet life on the farm she once shared with her parents.

4) Old Friends

It was nice to see a few familiar faces in Rogue One. Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, a role he originated in the prequels.  Genevieve O’Reilly once again portrays Mon Mothma.  Nearly all of her scenes from Revenge of the Sith ended up on the cutting room floor (although they later appeared as extras on the DVD) so I’m glad she got some actual screen time here.  C3PO pops up long enough to utter one of his characteristic complaints.  Darth Vader also appears, once again voiced by James Earl Jones.  Via unused footage from the first Star Wars movie, Rebel pilots Red Leader and Gold Leader both participate in the Battle of Scarif.

Saw Gerrera is actually a character who originated in the Clone Wars animated series, and Forest Whitaker is set to voice him in upcoming episodes of the Rebels series, which is set a few years before this movie. Speaking of Rebels, there is also a brief glimpse of grumpy astromech droid Chopper, and The Ghost is part of the Alliance fleet.

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5) Let’s Get Digital

A contentious element for some fans was the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin via digital effects. I felt that this started off quite effectively, but the more scenes that Tarkin appeared in, the more artificial he appeared.  It is understandable that Tarkin, who was originally played by Peter Cushing, had to be included in Rogue One in some capacity.  His omission would have been rather glaring, given his position as the commander of the Death Star.  Perhaps it would have been better to have used him in less scenes, or in a couple of instances have him communicate with his subordinates via hologram transmission.

I have heard, however, that casual viewers, people who were not huge Star Wars fans and who hadn’t seen the original movie in a number of years, did not realize that Tarkin was a digital effect. That makes sense.  If you go in knowing that Peter Cushing passed away back in 1994, of course you’re going to focus on how realistic Tarkin appears in Rogue One.  But if you don’t really remember the character from the first movie, you’re probably not going to pay as close attention.

In the final seconds of Rogue One we also see Princess Leia, looking as she appeared in A New Hope, via a digital recreation of a young Carrie Fisher. It is such a brief shot that the movie just about pulls it off.

6) Less Is More

Darth Vader is one of those characters who I have often felt is best used sparingly. He is such an iconic figure that overexposure both decreases his menace and results in fuel for parody.  I think it was a mistake for Marvel to publish an ongoing monthly Darth Vader comic book series.

Vader has two short scenes in Rogue One, and as result has much more of an impact. He first appears about halfway through the movie, with Krennic showing up at the Sith’s fortress to voice his anger at his authority being usurped by Tarkin.   An impatient Vader abruptly dismisses Krennic’s complaints, sending him on his way.

We don’t see Vader again until the very end of the movie. The Rebel fleet has received the Death Star plans and are about to retreat from Scarif when Vader’s star destroyer abruptly emerges from hyperspace, attacking them.  Boarding the Alliance flagship, Vader attempts to retrieve the plans, brutally cutting his way through the Rebel soldiers.  He is a terrifying, seemingly-unstoppable figure.  It was the first time since I was a little kid that I found Vader to be genuinely scary.

(I think I was actually muttering “Oh shit!” under my breath when I was watching that scene.)

rogue-one-vader

7) Plugging A (Plot) Hole

Unlike some Star Wars fans, I never really saw the Empire seemingly overlooking the exhaust port in the Death Star as a glaring plot hole.  It’s very obvious from the final battle in the original movie that the exhaust port is heavily defended, and scoring a direct hit on it is nearly-impossible.

Nevertheless, over the years various people have complained “How can the Empire have missed such a huge vulnerability in their giant planet-destroying weapon?!?” Rogue One provides an answer.  Galen Erso realized that whether or not he assisted the Empire in building the Death Star, sooner or later they would find someone who could get the battle station to function properly.  So he pretended to be browbeaten into submission by Krennic and went to work on the Death Star, which enabled him to sneak a weakness into it: the exhaust port.  Not only is this a nice explanation, it also adds an extra dimension to Galen, revealing that he never completely gave up defying the Empire, that he saw his forced servitude as an opportunity to subvert them from within.

8) This Issue: Everyone Dies!

Going in to Rogue One, I was half-expecting that most, if not all, of the new characters would die. After all, none of them were ever seen or even referred to in the original trilogy.  On the other hand, there was a part of me that really didn’t think that Disney would pull the trigger, and at least a few of the Rogues would escape to fight another day.

But, no, they all die. No cheats, no last-minute reprieves, no cop-outs.  Jyn, Andor, and everyone else die in the Battle of Scarif, all of them sacrificing their lives to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance fleet.

Rogue One Galen Erso

9) Nail-Biting Suspense

You might think that a movie with such a foregone conclusion would be a bit dull. Of course the Rebels are going to steal the Death Star plans; anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that!

Rogue One, however, is so well done that I nevertheless found myself constantly on the edge of my seat. Gareth Edwards does an amazing job directing the movie, making it an exciting, riveting experience.

10) Be Careful Not To Choke On Your Aspirations

There are times when Rogue One’s reach exceeds its grasp. During the first 15 minutes the narrative jumps all over the place, switching between different characters on different planets, leaving me somewhat confused.

Several of the characters also felt underdeveloped. Saw Gerrera feels like he’s being built up to have a major role, only to suddenly get killed off halfway through the movie.  We aren’t given any real insight into why Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook has decided to defect to the Rebellion, other than he was somehow inspired by Galen.  Two of the Rogues, Chirrut Imue and Baze Malbuus are interesting characters, but we get very little background on them.

Jyn could also have used more development. She spends the first half of the movie very reluctantly working with the Rebels, but in the second half she has suddenly become the loudest voice in attempting to galvanize the Alliance to fight against the Empire.  Yes, Jyn has seen the Death Star in operation up-close, and she also doesn’t want her father to have died in vain.  But it still feels like a rather abrupt jump from one position to the other.  The movie could have done a slightly better job at explaining how she came to change her mind.

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11) A House Divided Against Itself

There has been some debate the last month over whether or not Rogue One is a political movie. I think that all great art (and even some mediocre art) can have a message, even if it might not have specifically been intended by the creators.  If there is a political lesson to be gleamed from Rogue One, one that can be applied to our real world, then perhaps it is this…

The Rebel Alliance that we see in this movie is a very diverse group, made up of cultures and species from numerous worlds. Unfortunately that means they have varying viewpoints and agendas, and as a result are often working at cross-purposes.  They all seek the same ends, stopping the Empire, but they disagree on the means.

Mon Mothma is hoping for a political solution to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire; she wants Cassian and Jyn to rescue Galen so that he can provide testimony about the Death Star to the Imperial Senate. That mission is immediately, and secretly, countermanded by General Draven, who pulls Cassian aside and orders him to assassinate Galen.  Other members of the Alliance, learning of the Death Star, are ready to capitulate, believing that they have no hope of winning.  And then there is Saw Gerrera, who is labeled an “extremist” by the rest of the Alliance, a man who dismisses his former colleagues as too moderate and ineffectual.

On the other side is the Galactic Empire. In spite of the individual ambitions of men like Tarkin and Krennic, the jockeying for influence, in the end they all share the same goal: the subjugation of the galaxy through force and terror.  Whatever their individual aspirations, they are nevertheless ready to work with colleagues who they may dislike for the promise of great power.  The members of the Empire are unified in their ambitions for control over others and their willingness to embrace utter ruthlessness.

It does not matter how noble the Rebels may be, how lofty their goals are.  Until the various factions that make up the Alliance set aside their differences, resisting calls for ideological purity, they remain unable to fight the monolithic Empire. It is only at the end, when the Rebels are unified on a common course of action, working together to achieve their goals, that they are finally able to become an effective opposition against the Empire’s tyranny.

Star Wars reviews: Rebels season one

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing various entries in the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today I’m looking at a recent piece of Star Wars lore, the first season of the animated TV series Rebels, originally broadcast between October 2014 and March 2015.  I picked up the season one DVD last month.

Rebels season one DVD

Set a decade and a half after the events of the prequels, Rebels chronicles the exploits of a small cell of the Rebel Alliance operating out of a freighter starship known as the Ghost in the vicinity of the planet Lothal:

Ezra Bridges – The fifteen year old is the figure through whom the audience is introduced to the crew of the Ghost.  Ezra’s parents conducted underground anti-Imperial broadcasts on Lothal.  They were arrested when Ezra was only eight years old.  Spending the next several years as a homeless thief, Ezra comes to the attention of the Ghost crew when he makes off with a supply shipment which they themselves had only just stolen from the Empire.  At first motivated solely by survival and self-interest, Ezra joins the Rebels after they risk their lives to rescue him from the Empire.

Kanan Jarrus – The leader of the Ghost crew is a former Jedi Padawan who survived the destruction of the Jedi Order during Order 66.  Spending the next 15 years in hiding, he became a smuggler and guerilla fighter, keeping his Jedi abilities hidden.  Kanan finally unsheathes his lightsaber in a battle to liberate Wookies who have been captured by Imperial slavers.  After years of running from his past, Kanan reluctantly re-embraces his Jedi heritage when he realizes that Ezra is a Force sensitive, and he takes on the boy as his apprentice.

Hera Syndulla – The Twi’lek owner of the Ghost and an extremely skilled pilot, Hera is the den mother of the group.  She has a close friendship with Kanan, and it’s implied that there is a mutual attraction between the two.  The level-headed Hera serves as the link between the Rebel cell and the larger Alliance, communicating with a mysterious contact known only as “Fulcrum.”

Sabine Wren – A sarcastic teenage explosive expert and graffiti artist, Sabine is from the planet Mandalore.  She was previously enrolled in the Imperial Academy, until an experience there completely embittered her towards the Empire.  As a result she developed an aversion to blindly following orders.  Ezra has a crush on Sabine, but she has declined to acknowledge it, preferring to remain friends.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios – The large, hairy Zeb is one of the last of the Lasat, an alien race who were brutally invaded by the Empire.  Seeking to avenge his people, Zeb became involved in the Rebellion.  Something of a grumpy hothead, Zeb is less than enthusiastic about Ezra joining the crew, although they eventually develop a grudging mutual respect.

Chopper – A beat-up old astromech droid, C1-10P aka Chopper helps keep the Ghost running.  Possessing an irritable, mischievous personality, the droid expresses himself through grunts and beeps.

Over the course of the first season, the writers do a good job introducing the main characters, spotlighting each of them throughout the 15 episodes.  By the time I was finished watching the DVD set, I really did not have a favorite, having grown to like all of them.

Rebels characters

Probably the best character development was in the deep friendship that grows between Ezra and Kanan.  They become not just student and teacher, but also a surrogate family, with Kanan becoming a father figure and role model for the reckless orphan.  Teaching Ezra to use the Force and become a Jedi is just as much a learning experience for the teenager as it is for Kanan.  Both of them need to discover patience and understanding.  It is a different relationship than that of Luke and Yoda, as can be seen by this amusing exchange from “Rise of the Old Masters”…

Kanan: Enough jokes. Focus!

Ezra: I’m trying!

Kanan: Do, or no not. There is no try.

Ezra: What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?

Kanan: Well, see… Actually, that one always confused me, too. But Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.

That was one of my favorite bits from the first season!

Rebels appears to be geared to a slightly younger audience than the Star Wars movies.  There is more of an emphasis on comedy and slapstick, although at times it can also be pretty intense and serious.

Some of the humor derives from the fact that the Empire comes across as pretty damn incompetent.  Yes, there’s that old joke that Imperial Stormtroopers cannot shoot straight.  But if you actually watch the movies, most of the time they are incredibly dangerous adversaries who mow down their enemies left and right.  It’s only when they encounter major characters such as Han, Luke or Leia that they are utterly incapable of hitting the broad side of a Jawa sandcrawler.  And such is the case with Rebels, where the Ghost crew constantly runs circles around the Empire.  You almost get the impression that it’s only sheer force of numbers that’s allowing the Emperor to maintain control of the galaxy!

There are exceptions, such as Agent Kallus of the Imperial Security Bureau, who is dangerously competent, but who is constantly frustrated by the bumbling antics of his troops.  Likewise the utterly ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin arrives on Lothal late in the season to take charge of operations, and he seems to spend half the time uttering exclamations of exasperation at the people serving under him.

The closest thing to a “big bad” for season one is the Imperial Inquisitor, a Force-adept disciple of Darth Vader who utilizes a double bladed lightsaber capable of whirling like a propeller.  The arrogant, mocking Inquisitor spends much of the season in pursuit of Kanan and Ezra.  The design and personality of the Inquisitor is somewhere between Vader and his Sith predecessor Darth Maul.  He is definitely a formidable adversary.

Rebels Inquisitor

Several actors from the movies reprise their roles.  As always, Anthony Daniels is on hand to voice C-3PO.  James Earl Jones returns for his iconic vocalization of Darth Vader, as do Frank Oz as Yoda and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Callrissian.

Lando appears in the episode “Idiot’s Array.”  Zeb loses Chopper to Lando in a game of Sabacc, much to the droid’s indignation.  To get Chopper back, the Ghost crew agrees to help Lando smuggle cargo through the Imperial blockade of Lothal.  And, no, the cargo is not a case of Colt 45 (which was my first guess) but so-called “mining equipment,” namely a very odd animal that is a cross between a pig and a puffer fish.  This is a few years before Lando became the semi-respectable administrator of Cloud City, back when he was still a smooth-talking gambler and con artist.  Williams does a good job recreating the part.

“Idiot’s Array” is one of the most offbeat and comedic installments of the entire season.  Actually, it’s a great episode, genuinely funny and entertaining.  And it actually works out well, coming right before the final four episode arc of the season, a very intense and serious storyline.

Season one draws to a dramatic conclusion with “Fire Across the Galaxy.”  The crew infiltrates Tarkin’s star destroyer to rescue Kanan.  This leads to a final, riveting showdown between Kanan and the Inquisitor.

“Fire Across the Galaxy” also reveals the identity of Fulcrum; she is none other than Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi and fan favorite from The Clone Wars animated series.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Ahsoka survived the Jedi Purge and was working alongside Senator Bail Organa to organize the Rebel Alliance.

Rebels Ahsoka Tano

As “Fire Across the Galaxy” came to a close, I found myself very much looking forward to season two.  The first year had done a great job at developing the main characters, and I am interested in seeing Ahsoka becoming a regular.  Also, with the arrival of Darth Vader on Lothal in the final scene, the possibility of Ahsoka encountering her former master and learning of his turn to the Dark Side appears to be in the cards.

By the way, in watching Rebels season one, I came to realize just how crucial the visual designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the music of John Williams and the sound designs of Ben Burtt all are in recapturing the feel, the atmosphere of the Star Wars universe in an animated series.  All of these have been utilized by the makers of Rebels, and it just would not be the same in the absence of any of them.

I cancelled cable TV service a while back, but I can always get Rebels season two through iTunes.  It’s definitely something I’d rather not have to wait for the DVD release.  It’s an entertaining, well-written series that does a great job of exploring the period between the prequels and the original trilogy.