Now that Rogue One is on Netflix, I got the chance to watch it again last night. This is only my second time seeing it, and boy did it fall in my estimation on second viewing.
As an aside before I get into this lengthy review - the visuals remain stunning. Yes, Tarkin and Leia still look a bit fake, in the way that Jeff Bridges’s CGI double looked in Tron Legacy. They have come a long way, but still have a ways to go with realistic expressions. They should have hired some of the people who worked on the last Apes movie, that was some brilliant work. But overall, the look of the movie cannot be faulted.
I neither like nor dislike the hard open of the film. The first scene is one of the best in the film in terms of character, though even here there was some odd movement of the characters, such as the shuttle flying over Jyn’s head as she runs toward the house, then apparently circling around and landing far away from the house. Lyra’s choice to giver her life in an assassination attempt instead of protecting her child seems dubious, and Jyn’s choice to watch also seems needlessly reckless. These not-quite-right character actions will prove to be a theme throughout the film, as characters move to the beat of a predetermined plot or interesting spectacle above deep motivation.
After the heroic title swell, the exposition on multiple planets made me feel even more whiplash than in the first viewing. The scenes, in order, are:
Jyn wakes up in an Imperial prison
Cassian learns about the Death Star on a random trading post
Bodhi is taken to Saw’s Rebels
Jyn is rescued from prison
Jyn is taken to Yavin 4 and decides to go to Jedha
Bodhi meets Saw
We are introduced to Tarkin and the Death Star
Jyn has a dream (surely this was originally set before she woke up from the Prison scene)
Our ‘heroes’ reach Jedha
Bodhi is interrogated by a tentacle monster
Our ‘heroes’ enter Jedha city
The Jedha city scene is the first time I felt like the story was unfolding naturally, as Jyn meets Chirrut and Baze, and they make decisions as they are trapped in a location torn by street fighting. Everything up to this point feels like the film is telling me what I should care about and what I should know without giving me a reason to care. We should care about Jyn based on the first scene, but too much time has passed between her childhood and why she is in prison.
With regards to Jyn’s life, I am reminded of Batman Begins. Both stories have an (effectively) orphaned child growing up and being trained by an extremist military group before leaving that group and fighting for a less extreme, more idealistic vision. Batman Begins succeeds by showing us Bruce’s decisions at each step of his journey, from grieving orphan to angry youth to wandering vagrant to violent prisoner to willing acolyte to idealistic vigilante. Jyn’s journey, on the other hand, leaves us in the dark as to her decisions and motives. When we do finally learn of her journey to the prison, it amounts to Saw abandoning her in a bunker. Something is done to her, and we are only told of some later crimes she has committed which land her in jail. She certainly has every reason to turn to crime, but we have no reason to care since we haven’t made that decision with her. Our understanding is no deeper than an intellectual recognition of her victimhood. Even her journey to Jedha is compelled by the threat of sending her back to prison if she disobeys. Something is done to her, and she complies. This is why the Jedha city scene is the first real scene of the movie - Jyn makes the decision all on her own to save a small girl in a battle.
I found myself fascinated by Saw, and wished that his character had been more than a rough sketch. The hologram scene felt like the revelation and culmination of an arc that had been building for several acts, not the final note of the first act.
The Death Star intercut with the hologram scene borders on effective, but is undercut by Krennic impatiently ordering the Death Star to fire and then holding for fully three and a half minutes so that the plot can run its course. It’s very odd, since every depiction of the Death Star firing since then has shown only a momentary delay between the order to fire and the firing. Thus, instead of feeling suspense at the inevitable destruction, I felt impatience and boredom. Also strange for a movie of this scope and visual splendor is the lack of any new views of the Death Star interiors. I would have expected Gareth Edwards to have come up with shots of Kyber crystals being consumed as fuel, inner mechanisms of the station revving to life in preparation to fire, teams of technicians monitoring energy flows…any new angle on the established geography of the station. This would have given the firing more weight and realistically drawn out the sequence, providing the needed tension.
So now Jedha is gone and we are off to Eadu to kill the man that the Rebellion needs to save. It is at this point in a normal movie that our heroes would be returning to base, but then our hero would make an impassioned plea and the character in charge would acquiesce, while having an ulterior motive. This would be a reasonable, motivated decision by our characters, but instead Jyn’s still along for the ride as the guy in charge blindly follows the orders of a Rebellion that is acting illogically. To wit: even after they know that the Death Star is operational, the Rebellion still demands that Cassian kill Erso even though it’s demonstrably too late to stop the station. Cassian will still follow these orders even though it’s clear he believes that Erso is their ally. And Jyn makes the decision to save her father only after their course has been decided.
There isn’t much to discuss in the second act, since there isn’t much character being built. Jyn has already asked that the Rebellion steal the plans from Scarif, so she makes no new decisions on that front. She has already had an emotional reaction to the appearance of her father, so this one merely reinforces what already existed. Only Cassian makes a decision, but since his reasons for assassinating Erso were weak from the start, it isn’t a compelling change anyway. But now they’ve stolen a shuttle from the base they’ve just attacked, so the third act can happen.
But first, I’d like to take a detour to discuss Krennic, who makes quite a few of his own in the plot of this film. The Erso meeting in the second act is perhaps the biggest thematic detour, since this is on the heels of his conflict with Tarkin. They are in a battle over who gets credit for the station when Tarkin sends him on an errand to deal with Erso. After this meeting, Krennic immediately flies to Vader’s castle to demand Vader put in a good word for him with the Emperor. If this scene occurred directly after his spat with Tarkin, it would be natural and understandable. Placing it after the revelations about Erso’s defection and the attack on the base is less so, since a reasonable person would retreat from view to lick their wounds and hope the bad PR would blow over. It would make far more sense if Vader’s Castle happened at the end of act one, and acts two and three were concerned with Krennic’s damage control.
Jyn pleads her case to the Alliance, a case unchanged from act one. She fails to convince them, but she does get the support of a small subgroup, most of whom are entirely mysterious to us. It would have been interesting if they had rescued a group of Saw’s rebels from Jedha, and these were the ones Jyn recruited for her cause since they had a personal grudge against the Death Star. Alas, they are nameless grunts willing to disobey the Rebellion yet also so dedicated to it that they would go on an unsanctioned suicide mission. I thought that the point of Cassian’s arc was that loyalty to the Rebellion was difficult to subvert? Whatever, now we have our crew.
On their approach to Scarif, Bodhi mentions the possibility that they will recognize this stolen craft and they will die in the vacuum of space. It’s an attempt at suspense, but I wonder if it would not be more effective if this point was the impetus for their snap decision to go to Scarif. Consider that after Eadu, they instead decided to go to Scarif and bypass the Rebellion altogether since there was no way they could convince the Rebellion without Erso. The theft of the transport would be a ticking clock, as it would only a matter of time before the Empire recognized that it was missing. As it is, they are admitted without a hitch and the plot can proceed.
The final battle is still thrilling as an action setpiece, but there are many issues which are more apparent to me now. For example, the scene where Jyn and company decide on how to get the plans to the fleet makes little sense. After they recognize that they are trapped by the closing of the shield gate, K-2SO says that they could broadcast the plans to the fleet. They accept this as the only way to do it, then he immediately says that transmitting them is impossible without taking out the shield gate.
Seriously, that’s what happens. For context, they are still in communication with Bodhi, who is still on board the transport and the transport is still free to fly. So instead of making the reasonable decision to get the plans and then meet Bodhi at the top of the tower, they commit themselves to broadcasting the plans without a plan for their own extraction. They instead tell Bodhi to get a message to the Rebel fleet telling them to take out the shield gate, something the Rebel fleet is already doing. The attempt to tell the fleet to do something that they are already doing leads to the deaths of Bodhi, Chirrut, and Baze, as well as the destruction of their shuttle. Furthermore, why would they assume they could even transmit anything out of the tower after it was in lockdown? The logical course of action would be to fly out of there in the shuttle and hope that the Rebel fleet managed to destroy the gate in time.
The final scenes of the film are fairly good, with my only complaints being a frustrating inconsistency between the implied sequence of events from ANH and the narrow, legalistic interpretation of Rogue One. “beamed to this ship by rebel spies”, “don’t know what you’re talking about”, and “traced the rebel spies to her” all technically fit the letter of the plot in Rogue One, but they do rather violate the spirit of ANH. The implication that the Tantive IV recieved long distance communications from a battle, Leia’s alibi due to this distance, and Vader’s detective work in uncovering Leia’s involvement are all contradicted by the events of Rogue One, so I can’t help but feel cheated out of a much more interesting and consistent version of events.