I saw the new Rogue One (A Star Wars Story) tonight and it was good.
I wouldn't be the first reviewer to compare it to Empire Strikes Back, but regardless of your thoughts on that comparison, the fact that everyone is even debating it at all is basically a good thing.
And the movie is pretty darn good, mixing seamlessly some memorable nostalgic imagery from the originals with new and expanded development and backstory (you know, the kind of thing Empire Strikes Back is renowned for).
Any attempt to rank the Star Wars films is an inherently subjective one. However, if you use basic technical measurements such as plot, pacing, structure, dialogue, acting, production value, etc. you can actually make a pretty good case for an objective ranking, with Empire Strikes Back at the top of the spectrum and Phantom Menace at the bottom. But where the other films fall exactly between them is a little trickier: is Attack of the Clones better or worse than Revenge of the Sith? Is The Force Awakens better or worse than Return of the Jedi? The answers start to say more about you than the film (I for one, am a sucker for both Attack of the Clones and Force Awakens, despite any legitimate flaws. I can't help it!).
Is Rogue One the best Star Wars film yet?
Sorry. Not quite.
But that doesn't mean it wasn't good. It's just a very difficult thing to recreate.
And you can compare all the best parts of Rogue One, and they still can't hold a candle to the comparable elements in Empire. Interesting worlds? Acting? Expanded mythology? New characters? A darker menace? Moving musical score? Even special effects? While Rogue One succeeds in all these departments handily, indeed with 35 years of sophistication it clearly surpasses many of them on a professional and technical level. However Empire will always come out on top because its worlds are a little more distinct and memorable (Hoth, Cloud City, Degobah), its musical score is more intoxicating, its drama is more personal, its tragedy is more painful, and its impending sense of doom is more overhwleming. It justs trikes a chord. And while I could go through each of these items and nitpick the subtle differences between good and better, I thought I'd focus on the one fatal flaw that could've really made the difference, and which is the underlying reason why Rogue One is still in the shadow of Empire Strikes Back.
First, a casual review:
When Star Wars came out, it revolutionized the way audiences and the film industry understood special effects. When Empire Strikes Back followed, it took every single one of those DIY achievements to the "spared no expense" level and then pushed the boundaries even further. It was at the height of what special effects were capable of at the time and even more so, not one of them was gratuitous. Every effect enhanced the story and left you with a profound sense of wonder and awe and terror.
Rogue One has some amazing special effects. The most consistently photo-realistic effects ever produced in a Star Wars film, hands down. They may not have the same spirit of awe as Empire, but they do succeed in creating a sense of wartime chaos. The recreations of Grand Moff Tarkin, Red Leader, and a few other easy to miss cameos (and one impossible to miss cherry on top at the film's closing moments) are incredible to see and reward attendees of Imax and other hi-rez showings. Also cinema has come full circle in its use of CGI, returning to more practical effects just in time for CGI to finaly be invisible. CGI aliens are made to look like puppets. Large scale white-washed Star Destroyers are so detailed they look like they have to be CGI but are actually the most impressive models ever built. The Death Star finally looks like you could really zoom in all the way to the windows. Crowded city streets full of aliens with massive warships just casually hanging in the sky are impressivley tangible and prevelant. This is one film you won't regret buying your fancy TV for. It satisfies modern visual sensibilities while also blending in with the retro pioneering look of the originals. Are these effects as stirring and emotionally impacting as Empire's? That's a matter of opinion. I think not, but it's very close and they are very good.
With John Williams out, I was worried the film wouldn't sound like Star Wars. Plenty of internet commentators apparently feel the same way. But Michael Giacchino holds his own, however. He doesn't originate any new and unforgetable musical montages like the asteroid chase, for example, or the Cloud City climax. But he does successfully retain the proper tone. He utilizes the same types of instruments in the same types of ways for the same types of drama. His signature scoring isn't quite as iconic, but it is unique to the film and I think deserves credit. Luckily they let him borrow from Vader's theme and a few others so that as the film catches up with the main series, more and more it also begins to sound familiar too. All in all, a successful compromise.
Gareth Edwards did a great job under heavy pressure and succeeded in expanding the boundaries of how to make a Star Wars film. He creates some elbow room for all the future directors to deviate gradually further and further from the original cinematic stylebook that George Lucas (and JJ Abrams) enforced. Even with the changes, he proved it can still feel like a Star Wars film through and through, and that's saying something. I prefer the original style that JJ Abrams stayed faithful to, and the longer, drawn out, Spielberg-esque cinematography over this documentary-style of camerawork. But that's just a preference. The point is, he did it his way, and it still worked. He also deserves credit, along with writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy and others, for taking Star Wars off it's high horse and into the morally gray reality we all know and live in. Heroes and villains in this film are written and portrayed with more complexity, ambiguity and compromise. War scenes are more chaotic and messy. At one point, our protagonists are stuck between some resistance fighters and Imperial fighters and have to basically shoot at both to stay alive. This may represent the film's greatest original contribution.
Rogue One provides several very stimulating visual landscapes, and continues the tradition of distinct cinematic worlds. The rainy world on which they try to rescue Jyn Erso's father, for example, or the ancient Jedi city of Jeddha which contributes to the backstory of the Force and the kyber crystals (found in all lightsabers). The beaches at the end of the film, full of Caribbean blue waters and orange sand is unlike any other place we've scene in Star Wars before, and the fact that it becomes the stage for a warzone is a beautiful contrast. Nothing will ever be as iconic as the first few worlds introduced in the original trilogy (desert/ice/jungle or cloud planets) but they did their best, and they don't disapoint.
Standout performances from Alan Tudyk as a dry-humored droid K-2SO, Donnie Yen as the Jedi-equivelant of the blind samarai archetype, Ben Mendelsohn as the ambitious uptight villain, and Mads Mikkelsen as our hero's father. Felicity Jones, however, I have trouble with as Jyn Erso, the (not quite a heroine) protagonist. I liked her in Theory of Everything and she's no less easy to look at here. She strikes a good rebel pose, I'll give her that. And her hardened, world-weary expressions feel very believable. So technically, yes, this qualifies as good acting, but she's not quite another Daisy Ridley. She didn't botch anything, don't get me wrong, but I feel her character was rushed during the introductory scenes and left hollow as a result. Her speeches at the end and sudden confidence in hope and hard decisions seems cliche and unearned. This isn't so much her fault as an actor, in fact it leads to my real concern for the film, which is Spirit.
In the first trailer, there is a sequence in which they bring Jyn Erso before the leader of the Rebel Alliance (Mon Mothma) to list off her criminal history and her orphan backstory. In her defense she then says, "This is a Rebellion, isn't it? I rebel."
(They even make T-shirts with this line on it!)
This brief, fifteen second sequence does more for her character motivation than what actually makes it to film. Let me explain. Yes, they show her father being captured by the Empire to work for them and yes, they show her running to hide as a child before being taken in by Forest Whitaker, a revolutionary type. And yes, they also show her as an adult being set free from some sort of emprisonment from her life of petty crime. But they cut the one line that depicts her personal agency and driving nature, "I rebel." This is the difference between backstory and motivation. Backstory is the fact that her Dad was taken from her as a child in the past. Motivation, though, is what's driving her forward into the future. "I rebel," speaks to her attitude and disposition. It explains how she responds to her backstory, to the idea that her father was taken from her by the government and why she would in turn blindly resist all those systems of governance, such as laws and rules, and justifies everything from her life as a petty criminal to her end point as the definitive rebel of rebels.
Omitting it was a risky move. You only want to edit out something like that if the story otherwise provided that same information in another way. And again, yes, they kept in the backstory, but not her decisive reaction to it. That key concept that she rebels by nature and is fundamentally shaped by her opposition to authority is not reflected adequately anywhere else. And sorry to actress Felicity Jones, but it's not necessarily visible in her acting the way Daisy Ridley depicted her character's inner child-like wonder and resilience through implied subtlety.
After her father's death (spoiler!) half-way through the film, Jyn Erso has no reason to stick with the Rebellion or care about the Death Star weakness. All she wanted was to get her father back and if anything, you'd think she'd blame the Rebellion whose foolish attack caused his death. This could've been her Han Solo turning point. However, if they'd kept the line, "I rebel," this would be the moment when it resonnates. What do you have left to fall back on when things are at their lowest but your core nature? If her core nature was to rebel, then she would not only begin to slowly simmer on the idea of taking her rebellious disposition to the next level and going after the ultimate authority, the Empire. It would also cause her to rebel against even the Rebels, who lack the gumption to do it themselves. Her speeches about hope, despite being gratuitously evocative of A New Hope, would instead mirror Malcom Reynolds on Firefly, "I aim to misbehave."
You can see by the way the movie is structured that the creators had exactly this core essence to Jyn Erso in their minds when they wrote the film because the entire plot revolves around this concept. And in truth, they even went so far as to write the line in the first place! I'm not making it up! The name of the movie is inherently rebellious. It's in Trailer One! You can see it yourself. It's the core of the premise. It's the heart of the film. It's the spirit which drove the entire plot forward, not just for her, but by implication for her whole squad. They don't all need to say it, but it's obvious that the rest of the team consists of a band of outsiders and misfits and the fact they would fall in with a girl whose nature is to rebel is a signal that they share that nature as well. Otherwise why are they dying for this cause, all of a sudden? Why be roused to action by this girl, unless she represents the embodiment of their own inner indulgence to rebel a little. But if this girl never says, "I rebel," and doesn't embody this pure spirit of rebellion, then why band together at all?
But you say, "It's all implied," or "It's all still there, just unspoken." And you have to be right because otherwise the film is a mess. And the fact that it's in the script originally means it certainly is supposed to be there. But as a fatal flaw, they cut it, and on a technical level, I don't think it is there non-verbally. There is no moment, no scene, no vague depiction from the actress that says "I rebel" without saying it out loud. There is no look in her eyes, no fiery spirit that laughs in the face of authority that equals that line. Surely there could have been if they wanted there to be. Like I said, a speech about misbehaving instead of hope would've done it. At the point of her confrontation with the villain Orson Krennic, architect of her father's fate, he could've said something very authoritarian to her, such as "With this tool, we'll finally bring order to the galaxy!" and she could've responded with a sickeningly indulgent grin of satisfaction as she spouts back, "You'll never keep us down!" It'd be at the end of the film but it would reveal the motivation that's been driving her all along, so it would still work. Another non-verbal way to do it would be to provide several moments in the film where she doesn't do what she's supposed to do. Where she either breaks orders from the Rebels, or deviates from the "plan", or sticks her nose into trouble where she should keep to herself, and you see a self-indulgent fire in her eyes that she enjoys doing what she shouldn't do. She likes "going rogue" as it were. But this is not the case. Some of these moments are in the film, but not her indulgent rebelliousness. The only thing Felicity Jones successfully captures non-verbally is her world-weariness from a life alone and abandoned. There is a line after her squad joins up with her for the final mission and they "go rogue" where she acknowledges that it's the first time someone didn't abandon her. I suppose the writers tried to force this into the film as a last minute theme to provide some heart or some spirit to the film, but it's the wrong theme. It's the wrong spirit.
Rogue One wants to be a film the relishes in rebellion, not banding together. It was built around it, named after it, and written for it. For some reason in editing, they thought they could maybe go the other route, and in their defense, it's still a very strong movie. Just not as strong. Not Empire Strikes Back good. But I think if they had gone the original route and did something vaguely less heroic than the norm, less mainstream than banding together, less hope-oriented and more indulgently rebellious, I really think they could've had the spirit to rise a few notches higher, to resonate a little deeper, and to enrapture us with that same magic that blew out minds 35-odd years ago with that first sequel to Star Wars. And I think we'd stop comparing each new Star Wars film to Empire Strikes Back, and we'd start comparing them to Rogue One.
That missing ingredient from Empire Strikes Back:
To say a film, specifically a sequel, is like Empire Strikes Back, is to imply two main claims. 1) That it builds upon, expands, and subverts the world it was derived from. 2) That it ends without ending, either as a cliffhanger, a gaping loose end, or with an unresolved and typically tragic twist. Rogue One has these things. The ending is tragic, in spite of the mission's success. There is a distinct loose-end which gets away that you can follow right into the opening scene of the original Star Wars. And the story does in fact build upon the existing cannon by including and explaining details you never knew about (namely the origin of the Death Star's design, its use of Kyber crystals, and its fatal flaw), just as Yoda expanded our understanding of the Force. But where it falls short of Empire, once again, I think is not a measure of quality but of spirit. The Empire Strikes back had a spirit to it. The spirit was the bond felt between the core cast. The idea of them being ripped apart just as they grew the closest was heart-wrenching. The real spirit of Empire is that the group we have come to love is tragically divided at the end, despite their ever-increasing desperation to hold together. It's this spirit, this heart, more so than any achievement of the film (of which there were many) which makes the film resonate over time. Rogue One could never have recreated that exact ingredient because its cast was never that close for that long, or that endearing. And frankly, as a film, it's just not that kind of story. But it could've had its own secret ingredient, its own spirit of rebellion. And though different, I think it could've resonated just as deeply, and earned a seat beside Empire.
Just to be clear, I liked the film a lot and will probably see it again, now that I understand what kind of movie it is. And who knows, maybe on second viewing I will catch some subtlety that justifies the removal of that line after all, and saves the spirit of the film. Gareth Edwards directs the hell out of this innovative, unprecedented installment, full of action and nostalgia, while still breaking new ground. He successfully ties in extremely small details to expand on the backstory of the original film. The characters are complex and fun and morally gray and the special effects are incredible. Even though I think the film falls short of the heart of the original trilogy, and its cast never cultivates the same bond that Luke and Leia and Han Solo had, it's still a great movie that comes reasonably close while providing more original plotting. In this regard, I think it is the perfect opposite to The Force Awakens. Everyone said that film had all the spirit, tone and comraderie of the originals (no small feat) but lacked originality in the plotting. This film is nothing if not original in its plotting (original for Star Wars, that is), but lacking in that interpersonal dynamic we all fell in love with. As a result, we'll have to leave this one in the murky middle-ground between Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens and A New Hope.
My personal rankings? (purely a matter of preference)
Empire Strikes Back
The Force Awakens (I can't help it, I just loved it!)
Return of the Jedi
***Rogue One*** (very nearly tied with ROTJ)
Attack of the Clones (in spite of itself)
A New Hope (I'll get some flak for this one)
Revenge of the Sith
The Phantom Menace
UPDATE: Click here for my Second Thoughts