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Editors React: Is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a worthy addition to the franchise?

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Dec 13, 2016

As the first one-shot in the modern era of new Star Wars films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes out of the gate with a lot of pop culture baggage. First, it's a prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope, and we know how Lucas' prequels landed with the fan base more than a decade ago. Just how the Alliance got the plans for the Death Star is the basis for this film, which means it's inherently dark, with an outcome that bleak. Are fans, and their kids, en masse open to that tone in a Star Wars film?

Blastr contributing editors Mike Avila (a massive Star Wars fan) and Tara Bennett, a lifelong fan of the original trilogy, saw the film on Monday, and together they give their spoiler-light first impressions of what you can expect: heartache or another Star Wars tale to love?

Mike Avila: The first word that came to my mind after leaving a screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was consequence. There has never been a Star Wars movie where consequences and sacrifice permeated the film like this.

Tara Bennett: I also felt the weight of a Star Wars film that is more of a war film than any other, without the lightness of previous chapters. However, I was happy to watch a new film that wasn't afraid to embrace such a dark story while retaining a moral center that genuinely reflects the spirit of the entire franchise.

Mike Avila: Rogue One is, in many ways, the Star Wars movie diehards have been waiting to see ever since we outgrew our action figures and acne and stayed tethered to the franchise that meant so much to so many of us. By that I mean this movie is the "grown up" Star Wars movie we’ve always wanted. Yes, The Force Awakens took steps to move the franchise in a more advanced direction, but for longtime fans, a great deal of our disappointment with the prequels — aside from the obvious quality issues — was that they were made for kids. It wasn’t for us. We wanted our franchise to grow up as we had.

With Rogue One, we get a movie that offers more complexity and shades of grey than any other film in the saga. Director Gareth Edwards and credited screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy flesh out the story of the rebels who stole the plans for the original Death Star and take us right onto the middle of the dirty center of the war tearing apart the galaxy.

Tara Bennett: They also give us a film centered on a strong heroine that isn't as warm or enthusiastic as Rey in The Force Awakens. Jyn Erso is a survivor and as such, she's done and been incarcerated for a lot of shady, rootless behavior. Felicity Jones inherently possesses a sweet face, but as Erso the actress is able to shift into more of a stubborn, less readable mode where she gives away nothing until she's ready. That helps the cat and mouse aspects of the film as she comes to terms with her mysterious family history, and her own place in the Rebellion. She's a darker heroine, well suited for the gritty tone of the film, but one you come to trust and root for like she does with her adopted squadron.

Mike Avila: Exactly. The Rebel Alliance here isn’t the scrappy, unified force for good we saw in the OT. it’s a fractured bunch, coming apart at the seams due to infighting and philosophical differences. They’re also not so altruistic. The ‘greater good’ is a big theme here, and we see several instances where cold-blooded decisions are made that make you stop and think.

Tara Bennett: I loved that this script explored a far less black and white world-view, with leadership on both sides of the war making really small-minded, ego-filled decisions that lean towards not appreciating the value of context and information before making life-stakes level choices. It's sobering and more real than we've seen from the film franchise.

Mike Avila: And then there’s Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his band of extremists. They are a radical departure for the franchise as their methods are too extreme for the Rebellion. When you learn they hide out in the rugged mountain area of Jedha, and carry out attacks on Imperial troops in crowded marketplaces, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to real-life radical groups.

Tara Bennett: We obviously like a lot about the world and it's tone, so what didn't gel? For me it, was the breakneck speed at which the events are introduced to the audience which doesn't allow for much breathing room for character after the opening Prologue.  In introducing an older Jyn, the film is literally jumping from location to location to set up the plot, but there's not much in terms of getting a lot of context or character building scenes for the duration of the film. As a war film, I understand that actual situation doesn't allow for campfire scenes, or hanging in the ship hold talking sequences when the time factor, and stakes are so dire. There isn't time to bond closely, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have liked to know all of the characters in Erso's squad more, or her. We're left wanting in my book, which is a good place to be, but not that great for creating an emotional connection for the audience as we watch these characters embark on an endeavor where we need to be emotionally engaged in their suicide mission to really land the heart of the film. Edwards does make it land, but it could have landed even more in the last, emotional act.

Mike Avila: The notable disappointment to me was Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera. The character, who first appeared in The Clone Wars animated series, actually works better as an off-camera myth. We learn more about him when he’s off-screen than when he appears. I’d be willing to bet a lot of Saw’s story was lost either in the much-publicized reshoots, or in the edit room. Either way,  the one big missed opportunity was exploring the fracture in Saw’s relationship with Jyn and the Rebellion.

Tara Bennett: Agreed on that count. I love Forest usually, but he was too big in this film for my taste and was a little too Blue Velvet for what was happening. But I really did love the assembled support that goes with Jyn to acquire the Death Star plans. Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is a more serious, Han Solo type, who is dashing but principled. He's the least trusting of Jyn and their arc of mutual common ground is one of the best character arcs in the film.

Mike Avila: There isn’t a lightsaber in sight, which shouldn’t really be a surprise since the filmmakers said as much during the pre-release publicity campaigns. Still, it was strange not seeing the more elegant weapon from a more civilized time in a Star Wars movie. But thanks to Chirrut Imre (the absurdly great Donnie Yen), we still get to see a Jedi-like master at work. I say ‘Jedi-like’ because Chirrut isn’t really a Jedi (at least that’s what we’re led to believe). But he’s a dedicated believer in the Force on a planet where True Believers of the Jedi once flocked. Him and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) provide an instant spark once they show up. They are great additions to the canon, as are Jyn and Cassian. Oh, and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is an absolute scene-stealer. Not just in comic-relief fashion either. It was fascinating to see his determination to fit in and be part of this group. K-2 was as human as any other character in the movie, and he’ll be a big fan favorite once the movie opens.

Tara Bennett: Chirrut and Baze are my walk-away favorites. Their rapport, yin and yang as it is, and their emotional connection as friends earned my first tears in the film. They are exceptional additions to the mythology and create an emotional climax that really brings home the stakes of the film in the last act. And speaking of which, it's the last act of Rogue One that really knocks this film into high gear. Once the squad lands for their do-or-die goal, Edwards is able to weave together emotional moments, with incredibly engaging battle scenes, new POVs to experience the Empire and Rebellion in full war mode, as well as a tense McGuffin filled path to success that gives the array of characters a chance to shine. All of it leads to the last ten minutes which are just awesome and bridge to A New Hope in a masterful way.

Mike Avila: We already know that Darth Vader is back in this movie, and while his appearance is brief, it is real and spectacular. This is the Vader during the time he was Palpatine’s Bogeyman, the baddest dude in the galaxy. The mere mention of his name makes Imperial officers shudder. it’s great to see Anakin Skywalker in full heel mode again.  And yes, the climactic battle on the beach on Scarif is something to behold. For goodness sakes, we have stormtroopers and AT-AT Walkers on a beach. How does life get any better than that?

(SPOILER TERRITORY)

Another highlight are the numerous callbacks and homages to the OT. There are a staggering amount of moments like this in Rogue One, but it rarely feels forced. I particularly enjoyed the attention to detail in the bunker scenes of the Rebel base on Yavin 4. It’s like they recreated each scene from ANH, right down to the lighting and blocking of the scenes. From the brief run-in with a certain ugly pair of fugitives with the death sentence on 12 systems to a video hologram of a popular dancer, the fan service runs deep in Rogue One. Some are easy to spot, but others are more subtle. Then there are the ones that are downright ... perplexing. Just keep your eyes and ears peeled, because there are several instances in the last hour where you’ll get certain glimpses and sounds that will make you think you’re watching some deleted scenes from ANH.

Tara Bennett: The fan service was rarely distracting. There are two characters who make an appearance that might pull fans from the story. For me, one was more successful, the other not as much. But I was enjoying the dizzying amount of visual call backs and allusions to the original films which is going to make a second (and third?) viewing so much fun.

All in all, my take on Rogue One is that it's a daring, more adult departure for the franchise that still maintains the spirit and hopeful core of the original stories. If your little ones are more sensitive to loss, maybe wait to see this one with them. But if they can take more intense situations, battles and repercussions (no graphic moments are involved), this is going to be a great film to see together, and talk about afterwards. If you are just an old-school Star Wars fan like me, you might feel a little restless at the start trying to connect to the new cast, but by the last half you will be all-in and breathless to the end for the breakneck, thrilling, bittersweet ride.

Mike Avila: Going back to what I wrote at the beginning … to me, Rogue One is a movie about accountability, and consequence. There is weight to this movie, that puts the mission that that began the whole adventure in ANH in a brand new light. That light is fractured, and sometimes it dims, but in end, it shines brightly with the hope that the Star Wars franchise is ready, willing and able to go off in surprising new directions.

 All the yes to that.

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