The Great Debate: ROGUE ONE

Alan Cerny and Jacob Oller fight it out over Gareth Edwards' A STAR WARS STORY.

Last week we announced the newest entry in our Great Debate series: Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Not familiar with The Great Debate? This'll catch you up: 

Welcome to The Great Debate, a new feature on Birth.Movies.Death. in which two writers argue the relative merits of a particularly divisive film. We'll talk upcoming new releases and occasionally a polemical rep title or two, and we'll have guest writers who feel strongly about each film pop in to make their impassioned opinions heard. 

Important! The Great Debate is intended as a forum for those who have seen the films discussed herein. In other words: here there be spoilers. And Alan and Jacob aren't the only two whose opinions matter here. After you've seen Rogue One - again, after! - we want you to make your voice heard in the comments with your own reviews, as well as by voting in the below poll. A week from today, we'll announce the results: is Rogue One BMD Reader Certified? 

Yes, this week we've got two critics going head to head on Rogue One. Alan Cerny is a film reviewer for Coming Soon, and Jacob Oller writes for Film School Rejects and Paste Magazine. Welcome them both the best way you know how: by being loud in the comments and voting in the poll!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now. See it at the Alamo or elsewhere - just see it, and then come back here and weigh in.

Alan Cerny:

When Meredith asked me to participate in the Great Debate about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I said yes immediately. I’ve been defending Star Wars pretty much right out of the gate since 1977, through the dry years after 1983, even through the only-took-years-to-finally-admit awfulness of the Prequels.

But even now, there’s a natural feeling, when I see other critics disparage Star Wars, to come blasting in with shields up. There is no other movie franchise that does this to me. Star Wars is loved by millions of people, but for some reason any attack or criticism hits perilously close to home. Star Wars isn’t immune from criticism, and it shouldn’t be. But I also think it’s fair to say that, for many people and certainly for myself, when someone attacks Star Wars, it feels personal. I can’t divorce myself from that.

Now I’m of two minds about how to approach this debate of defending Rogue One from its detractors (as if Disney/Lucasfilm needed any help from me). I can approach it from the viewpoint of being a slavish fan of the franchise, which I most certainly am, or I can defend it from the more clinical, remote aspect of a film critic, which I can also do. And as a Star Wars fan, Rogue One is a triumphant entry into the Saga, full of the emotion and power that makes fans like myself keep coming back. But Rogue One is also, objectively, a good movie, full of meaning and, yes, even importance.

When I watched it again for the third time, Rogue One played very much like a propaganda film from the late 1930s-early 1940s. Its characters aren’t as full-blooded as, say, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa or Han Solo, but that isn’t an accident. We are used to Star Wars telling stories in longer arcs, and we only get one film with these characters. Rogue One isn’t as intimate as A New Hope – this is telling a broader story, and Rogue One has more to do than A New Hope. That film was about a young man’s spiritual awakening in the backdrop of a war, but Rogue One almost feels like an historical account of that war and how this historical event came to be, with many pieces in motion. It has the benefit of the previous films bringing us into that universe, but it also has the difficulty (as all prequels do) of building on what has come before without contradicting those other films. So what suffers? Our characters. We don’t get to spend as much time with them as we would like, and we are given broad strokes when we would have rather had more personable characters. I’ve even read in some places about how the diversity of this cast is a striking difference from the original Star Wars film, some going so far as to deride Rogue One for casting such a wide net with their actors. Star Wars is now, truly, for everyone, and I loved the stark differences between the Rebellion, made of many different species, races, creeds and sexes, and the Empire, full of staid grays, whites and silvers, full of the same villainy. While the message isn’t subtle, it’s also important to remember that this is a diverse world, full of people looking for heroes where they can find them, and Star Wars should belong to everyone. That’s what makes it great.

Still, those broad strokes in theme, plot and character are effective. Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, in fact, will likely become the most memorable character from this movie – a blind, Force-sensitive (?) Guardian of the Whills, a protector of the Jedi Temple, now left bereft when the Jedi are purged, but still steadfast in his belief in the Force. His close friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is no longer a believer in the Force, having seen terrible things, but stands by Chirrut even though Baze is faithless. These two characters, and this friendship, are the true heart of Rogue One. For a long time, the “badass” Star Wars fan favorites have been villains, so it was nice to see two heroes take that spot this time. The other characters – Jyn, Cassian, Bodhi, K-2S0 – all have roles to play, and they are all martyrs. People in war movies tend to, well, die. Perhaps as a piece of a continuing story, this isn’t very satisfactory, but I love that this is a Star Wars movie that acknowledges the price of war is high, and if Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Chewie and the other characters are the bricks that build this world, then the characters of Rogue One are the mortar that keeps them in place. Rogue One was never meant to be a standalone story, separate from the rest of the Saga. It can’t – we have a wide history of the Republic, the Empire and the Rebellion to tap into and these characters are a part of that. The only truly standalone movie of Star Wars is Star Wars.

Perhaps that’s why some are irritated with the callbacks to previous films, because Rogue One shouldn’t have to use those pieces of familiarity to tell its story. I have no problem with these callbacks – they’re fun. And, to be fair, Rogue One could have been much more self-referential than it was. These pieces of Star Wars added to the flavor; they weren’t the main course. Of course we would see Red Leader and Gold Leader in the Battle of Scarif. It makes sense, as they are skilled pilots, and this was the first significant victory of the Rebellion. It makes sense, also, that Darth Vader is a part of the pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans – that’s been well established. I loved seeing Darth Vader’s castle on Mustafar (I can only assume it was Mustafar, as there was no title card for the planet), a bit of Star Wars lore that’s been talked about for years in both Expanded Universe stories as well as in the original trilogy making-of books. It would be just like Vader to put his home where he was “born.” Some say that the scene between Vader and Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) serves no real purpose, but I disagree; Krennic, as someone clawing his way up the Imperial ranks, would try to go over Tarkin’s head for favor. Government employees do it every day, and I imagine in the new administration to come, we’ll see a whole bunch of wannabe Krennics, trying to scramble for their place at the table.

Let’s talk about the CGI Jumanji elephant in the room – the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, in a Guy Henry motion-captured performance, and with ILM’s special effects crew returning Peter Cushing to life. Yes, there’s a stiffness to the performance (if one could call it that) that feels strange, a glaze over the eyes that feels artificial. The Uncanny Valley has yet to be crossed in a satisfying way. But, to be blunt, I got over it. There are, of course, moral concerns with bringing an actor back to the screen, using computer wizardry, after they have passed away. But the character of Grand Moff Tarkin, for Star Wars fans, is an iconic one, and because it is played by one of the most well-known horror actors, any choice the filmmakers had made to recast would have been distracting as well. This was a no-win for everyone involved, and Tarkin is directly involved with this story. Frankly, he had to be there. We’ll never know what Peter Cushing himself would have wanted. But I imagine Cushing, as a veteran of so many classic horror films, would have loved being brought back to cinematic life one more time. I don’t presume to guess, but I think Tarkin’s return was done as respectfully and as lovingly as it could have been, barring better technology.

Rogue One’s third act, the Battle of Scarif, is what is being praised the most in this film, that Gareth Edwards and his team truly brought the “war” to Star Wars. But it wouldn’t have had nearly that emotional power had the stakes not been set up as well as they were. In every war movie with high stakes, we are given just enough for the audience to invest themselves in these characters. How successful the filmmakers are in doing that is up for debate, and while characters like Jyn and Chirrut are given more satisfying arcs than others, I believe that in the scope of what Rogue One is trying to accomplish, we are given enough emotional weight to this disparate group of Rebels to make the best moments of the third act sing. K-2S0’s sacrifice, Baze’s embrace of the Force, even Jyn and Cassian’s final moments on the beach are given power. We know what happens next. We know that Luke succeeds. But we didn’t know the cost before, that there were people behind these words:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

I didn’t even talk about Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score, or the brilliance of Alan Tudyk’s work as K-2SO, or even Felicity Jones’ work as Jyn Erso, or the brilliance and empathy of Mads Mikkelsen. It may not all be there in the script, but it is certainly in the performances. Judging as a film critic, from the long history of war films and Kurosawa films and “Man on a Mission” films, Rogue One succeeds. But as a Star Wars fan? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is essential, and joyous, and everything I’ve wanted to see since I was seven years old. Star Wars will now outlive me, and I couldn’t be happier.

Jacob Oller:

Rogue One is the rare movie that has been reverse-engineered. The Star Wars side project doesn’t so much flesh out the rich extended universe to its cinematic audience, but merely fills in a footnote between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. It’s a utilitarian excuse to plaster over a plot hole - a movie defined by a mission with an outcome we already know. The film paces within its franchise enclosure, slowly suffocating its characters with a lifeless script.

In the opening half hour of Rogue One we travel to several different planets, bases and character groups waiting for Jason Bourne to show up and the car chase to begin. We briefly get names and faces and explanations of how they’re related to the conflict before the film marches ahead. Too much to cover in too much detail with too little time. Once we’ve lingered on Jedha long enough to get our bearings, it’s destroyed and off we go again.

The original trilogy’s films provided action, location and character in their openings. A New Hope has us above Tatooine, then on Tatooine. We get a bad guy, a good guy and a chase that leads us to more characters. The Empire Strikes Back gave us multiple conflicts (the Empire trying to find the Rebels and a wampa trying to munch on Luke’s bones) while establishing its ice world and leads.

Rogue One’s opening may move quickly but there’s no momentum forward - it’s just treading water until the film finally gathers its characters. The Death Star schematic heist is thrown together so arbitrarily it makes the Ocean’s movies seem Tolstoyan.

Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) father (Mads Mikkelsen) is forced to use his engineering skills in service of the Empire by non-threatening Imperial middle manager Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a conflict that has the potential for many heartfelt character moments. But feelings of betrayal, acceptance, redemption and admiration are condensed in a cloud of Jyn’s evaporating apathy. When all we want is to care about her turn from loner to rebel, the film focuses on boardroom discussions and Imperial power plays. When we get the gang together, their job is to motor through the film’s endless exposition midflight.

The great cast is almost completely misused. Operating as a bunch of neat descriptions, barely sketched only to be killed, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen look great on the poster playing characters just as thin. They’re soulless ideas on a whiteboard.

I’m sure there were scenes that built past their assuredly badass script introductions, but they had to make room for countless reiterative discussions with Darth Vader, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma about clunky specificities while reminding us that, yes, we are watching Star Wars.

The best character of the film isn’t even human. K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk)’s droll complaints sometimes fall flat, but at least he has moxie. He’s also fresh compared to the delicate droids that rely either on gunshots or rimshots, giving us the Imperial equivalent, which includes a penchant for bashing heads, a general misanthropy and an honorable death. A grim movie’s best character embodies humorous grimness.

The universe feels alive but its inhabitants are all skeletons raised by the necromantic script. Yen’s mystical Mr. Magoo repeats his non-sequitur mantra about The Force to no end, wasting time that could’ve been spent earning his tender final scene with Wen. The script tells us that the characters are feeling things, but shows us little evidence of it. Luna’s character is meant to have a troubled past and Ahmed’s character would like to redeem himself, but the emotional impact never hits. It’s too rushed when it counts while meandering over the bells and whistles.

Every other scene has fan service (a certain pair of droids, Ponda Baba, blue milk, a Twi'lek holo) that clogs the film. There’s little plot associated with why these things show up - which is at odds with the rest of the film’s meticulously detailed story of logistics - so when Darth Vader shows up it’s less a story beat and more a Wrestlemania pop with people in the audience screaming, "YOOOO GIVE HIM THE FORCE CHOKE.” When Vader drops a pun so bad I wanted to throw myself down the theater steps, it’s a jarring reminder that we’re watching fan fiction.

The absolute worst symptom of this decision to value past over present is a digitally resurrected Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (though digital Leia is similarly off-putting, she’s used only once). His godforsaken presence sucks the air out of scenes quicker than a decompressing airlock. The rubbery grotesque blights an otherwise beautiful film, like a video game that punishes your progress with cutscenes involving your Weekend At Bernie’s-ed grandpa.

The film isn’t a disaster by any means. Its gorgeous close-shot action enhances Gareth Edwards’ keen sense of scale and genuinely entertains in its final act. The Star Wars franchise just doesn’t seem to care for characters that aren’t sticking around long enough to monetize. When Rogue One promises the first diverse Star Wars, I want every kid around the world to find an amazing character they could dress up as for Halloween, not a preview for a story we already know.

Now you've read the arguments, and it's time to make your own voices heard. Are you FOR or AGAINST Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?