Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"Rogue One" Initial (Bad) Impressions

Note spelling, please.
I wasn't remotely enthused by the trailers for Rogue One, but because I'm a pathetic consumerist stooge I went to a midnight screening anyway because with something inevitable like this I feel like it's better to stick your hand into the boiling oil straight away rather than waiting for other people to tell you how much it's going to hurt. I tried to give Rogue One the benefit of the doubt, but I'm afraid to say that I didn't enjoy it very much at all. I'll give my first impressions as two categories and sub-categories within them of things I did not enjoy and things I did enjoy. Spoilers beware!

Things I Did Not Enjoy In Rogue One

The Protagonists

Another sci-fi film in which he gets killed.
Rogue One introduces us to a gang of new protagonists, the main one being Jyn Erso, but none of them (including her) are very interesting. The reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO, is kind of amusing but his role as the "funny character" felt forced to me, as if the writers were trying too hard to make him into comic relief. There's a rogue Imperial pilot named Bodhi who undergoes a bit of character development, but "a bit of character development" really wasn't enough for me. The two major heroes, Jyn and Cassian, didn't come across as engaging to me; they seemed serious and dour and uninteresting. I almost wondered if the film was deliberately making the heroes a bit dry so that when they were all killed off we wouldn't care. I guess I thought the character of Chirrut, the blind force-sensitive warrior, was kind of okay too, but his (at the risk of being tautological) endlessly-repeated mantras about the Force became rather tiresome fairly rapidly.

The Plot

"It's okay because it's the same
Death Star as before."
The story is a bit of a foregone conclusion: they're trying to get the Death Star plans and that's what they do. There's some mucking around with trying to find Jyn's father, who is the chief engineer, and the rebels being divided between those who think action, in some cases violent action, is necessary, and those who seem to be seeking a peaceful political solution, but we know it's going to be resolved in the end with them taking the fight to the Empire. The only real tension comes from wondering whether any of the heroes will survive, and given that they have no bearing on the plots of films set later it's fairly predictable when they don't.

Darth Vader's Neck

"And this scene explains what inspired Vader
to make a fist when he said 'You don't know the
power of the Dark Side!' It's like poetry."
Did no one in filming notice that Darth Vader's neck should be fairly flush with the chest/shoulder piece of his costume? It's not stuck down as such; he's free to turn his head, but there's not much of a gap between the parts. The neck piece is sticking up in this and looks really distracting, as if the actor's head was too big or he didn't have the helmet on properly or something. In general the physical performance of the actors playing Vader in this feels awkward and off, making the character seem like he's not the same character we see in the original films. It's understandable given his age, but James Earl Jones doesn't sound quite right as Vader anymore, something also evident in Season 2 of Star Wars: Rebels. I also didn't like the silly tower Vader appears to live in, which looks nothing like anything one could imagine fitting into the universe of the Original Trilogy and which looks like Vader rents it from the Dark Lord Sauron, replete with lava rivers. I know it's from old concept art, but there's a reason that stuff didn't make it into any of the Original films. Vader should have been off hunting rebels or something when Krennic caught up with him.

The Music
The original music to me mostly sounded like slightly-altered John Williams themes from the Original Trilogy and the Prequels; that is, they sound like someone took some of the old music and just replaced a few of the notes.

Much Of The Fan Service

"The Empire loves big polygonal shapes because
of what's explained in this novel..."
Given that it's a prequel to Episode IV and a bridge between the prequels and the originals, there's a tonne of fan service, some of which I actually liked, but there were some less good parts, such as unnecessary cameos for Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, as well as (perhaps inevitably) R2-D2 and C-3PO. There's also an extremely fake-looking CGI Leia at the end which looks like something from one of those disturbing Robert Zemeckis films. I'll get to that more shortly...

Things I Did Enjoy In Rogue One

Grand Moff Tarkin

"You would prefer another target, a military target?
Then name the... name it! Now!"
I hate to say it, but the repeated scenes featuring a creepily CGI-recreated Grand Moff Tarkin (aka "Moffball"), fully voiced by a reasonably accurate Peter Cushing impersonator, were my favourite parts of the film. Even though Tarkin himself looked absurd – obviously motion-capture with a computer-generated face in rooms full of physically-present actors – and the voice wasn't quite right, the film captured the effortlessly engaging nature of a classic Cushing character surprisingly well, and I appreciated that the film didn't try to bullshit around the fact that Tarkin would have to be important given his importance in Episode IV, yet the actor who played him died decades ago. That being said, the CGI really just isn't up to snuff, and is deep in uncanny valley territory. They should have used an actor in makeup and prosthesis and touched it up with a little CGI as necessary rather than going the full CGI facelift route; Tarkin looks practically like he's just stepped off one of the episodes of Star Wars: Rebels that he's in, just with more detail. Nonetheless I liked seeing him (even if it wasn't really him); even as a CGI recreation he has a presence that most of the film's other characters lacked.

Darth Vader Killing A Bunch Of Dudes

"I will only give you an audience with the Emperor
if you find me some glue for my neck piece."
I don't know if I actually like this because it's inconsistent with his behaviour in the Original Trilogy, especially Episode IV, in which he seemed content to allow stormtroopers to do most of the dirty work, but I somewhat enjoyed seeing Vader lead the assault on the Rebel flagship and massacre some hapless Rebel blokes with a combination of the Force and his lightsaber. It feels very fan-service-oriented, and reminds me strongly of a piece of artwork used in Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars games more than anything you'd ever see him do in the films.

The Death Star Blowing Some Stuff Up

"My emotional state really isn't the greatest."
They can't show the Death Star destroying an entire planet, because it's set in stone that Alderaan was its first (and, indeed, only) planetary victim, but the film skirts around that by having the weapon use a less powerful superlaser attack to cause massive, but not fatal, damage to a large region of a couple of planets. I felt that this was a reasonably effective way of having the Death Star feel threatening and useful without interfering with the established narrative. It's another thing that feels inconsistent, however; I've always felt in Episode IV that the Death Star was more or less brand new and hadn't seen action yet.

That's About It, Really

"It's totally implausible that a device this enormous
and complex would have any weaknesses –
unless someone designed them into it!"
"Thank goodness for that."
There are a couple more things I could mention, like seeing Bail Organa reappear from the Prequels, which I found weirdly effective even though I don't really like his character in the Prequels, the use of the young Mon Mothma from the Revenge of the Sith deleted scenes, which sure is Disney being devoted to the franchise, and the use of Rebel leader Jan Dodonna of whom I'm only aware because of his role as a character in the Star Wars: Rebellion board game. That, however, is what Rogue One is: a string of fan-pleasing moments held together with a bunch of uninteresting characters having boring adventures. I mellowed towards The Force Awakens, so I might mellow towards this, but this feels to me like even more of a licensed fan-film than Episode VII did, and the use of CGI, impersonators, stand-ins, body-doubles and the like reminds me of things like those flashbacks in the X-Men films or maybe that Underworld prequel. It's a weird film that doesn't know what it wants to be: a serious film set in the Star Wars universe with a narrative largely independent of the rest, or a piece of flagrant fan service that largely exists to titillate nerds. It's fortunate that it tries to do the latter, because I feel that without those elements it would be unwatchably dull.

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