The Better Star Wars Movie, The One That Gives Me Hope

Recapturing the Spirit of the Franchise

Yeah, yeah. I know I’m months behind, but I just finally watched Rogue One–had to get it in before May 4th! My delay in seeing the film was not intentional since the original preview caught my interest more than The Force Awakens. Life circumstances conspired against me. But now having viewed it, I unequivocally believe it is the film that gives me hope for the Star Wars franchise after Lucas’ retreat, unlike a certain other effort.

I realize the irony in this assessment: (1) Most viewers will not call this film hopeful; we know going into the story what we learned in theory first film, that the plans got to them through great cost. Here I thought of The Magnificent Seven and the film behind it, The Seven Samurai. Or perhaps Force 10 from Navarone or Bridge over the River Kwai. Ultimately the mission is a success, but it is a Pyrrhic victory.

(2) Because of the heavy-cost and the number of deaths, many viewers may not think this story a good Star Wars story if it doesn’t have an upbeat ending like A New Hope or Return of the Jedi. Even Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones seem to fit here. However, many prefer Empire Strikes Back (my favorite) and Revenge of the Sith. And if you’ve watched any of the animated Clone Wars, you know the power of some of the “darker” stories.

(3) Although I have largely avoided reading criticism of Rogue One (for obvious reasons), I think general popular opinion favors The Force Awakens. If this assessment is true (I plan to confirm after I write this entry), then I swim against the tide again. {Update: I happily discovered several voices on this side, offering a more even split in critical opinion than I suspected.}

(4) For obvious reasons (confirmed when you ride the film to its conclusion), Rogue One is a one-and-done story. How could this give me hope for the franchise? I am deeply disappointed this cast is not progressing into sequels, unlike those in the other film, but at least, I can point to this film now and not appear to be the curmudgeon merely lost in the past. There are writers, directors, casting directors, and actors who do get what classic Star Wars is about.

So why do I think this film “carries the torch” more effectively? If curious, you can jump over to my response to Force Awakens to see the negative side. Here I’ll approach from the positive:

(1) This film recaptures the Rebellion-Empire dynamic in a more authentic way. It certainly helps to have Darth Vader make his brief appearances here, but I also prefer Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic over all the villains in Force Awakens.

(2) Particularly in the last scenes, Rogue One emulates the gradual ratcheting of tension in a multi-ringed circus, as multiple characters struggle to pull off their parts in the overall plan. For me, this rising tension is crucial to recapturing Star Wars.

(3) Characterization and acting were much stronger here. I applaud the casting director and appreciated the work of Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, and many others. Perhaps, we did not get enough backstory on the central characters, but there were enough moments to pull us in, once again like The Magnificent Seven (I think of the original with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.), prompting us to wonder about their other adventures.

(4) The inclusion of allusions feels more natural and respectful of the original material. The writing and directing also dispensed with the “campiness” that so irritated me about Force Awakens (which sometimes unintentionally bordered on satire). I attribute part of this turn to the writing of Tony Gilroy (known for the Jason Bourne movies) and the directing of Gareth Edwards (who tried to make Godzilla palpable for our generation).

(5) This last point is a bit mixed, but mostly positive. I really don’t want Star Wars movies without John Williams. I guessed correctly that Disney would pass the mantle to their biggest composer, Michael Giacchino. Although I don’t think this is his best score (I think he did better work for Lost, John Carter, and Star Trek), I do think it’s the best score away from Williams (when you include Joel McNeely’s Shadows of the Empire and the scores to television productions). Giacchino is not a stranger to following Williams, since he also inherited the Jurassic franchise. Though I like Giacchino’s score, here is the one area where I think Force Awakens is better.

I’ll wrap there to say I would welcome watching the movie again. My greatest problem is that we won’t be seeing more of these characters. I am still holding out hope that Abrams will turn things around with The Last Jedi. But if I don’t like it, I can at least say that there is a better Star Wars movie in the Disney quiver.

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