Writing about a Star Wars movie presents a certain set of, shall we say, opportunities . . . particularly for someone who was born on the right side of the “Ewok Line.” We, as fans, can choose to revel in the nostalgia of the original series as presented long ago in local theaters such as the Cooper or Southtown. We can struggle with the very complicated feelings that the prequels bring to the fore. We can try to pretend than anything we will say won’t be the target of a thousand angry fanboys’ jealous bellowing. Let’s get that last one out of the way first . . . My grandma gave me a TIE fighter for Christmas 1978. I’ve still got it, but she passed away sometime ago. We’ve all got our memories and I don’t really care about how much more you think you enjoy Star Wars than me.
When thinking about the prequel films, I realized just today what one of the main problems with them is—their fundamental problem that explains the poor dialogue, Jar Jar Binks, and their arc that doesn’t quite match the original trilogy. Lucas was trying to accomplish divergent goals with the prequels: he wanted to tell a more mature story about the Old Republic’s fall from democracy, while also creating a batch of films that appealed to younger audiences. The first requires a darker and more mature kind of storytelling, the second needs something more enthusiastic and gentle. So they were pretty much doomed from the start.
This, believe it or not, brings us to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I had the pleasure of seeing this film in 70mm at the Minnesota Zoo’s IMAX Theater. I went in with the hope of recapturing that really big-screen thrill my small body felt when seeing The Empire Strikes Back at the Southtown Cinema in 1980. It stands to reason that my now bigger body should at least get the same thrill (from an even bigger screen) in 2016. (So, that covers the nostalgia.)
Rogue One does what the prequels should have done, but didn’t. The film harnesses much of the same dark undertones that gave The Empire Strikes Back its depth, but it also stays true to the style and tone that defined the original trilogy films (which are essentially sacred texts at this point). While The Force Awakens stayed fairly well within the visual codes of the original trilogy, Rogue One reaches out and expands that visual potential in ways that don’t insult the fans.
There are the familiar horizon line shots, the sweeping space dogfights, and the claustrophobic blaster battles. There are the death-defying leaps and the cunning quips that hearken back to the Saturday serials and war movies that inspired the original trilogy. Rogue One adds plenty of its own original flair, too. There’s a planetrise across the face of the Death Star that nearly brought me to tears with its ingenuity. There’s a grunt’s eye view of oncoming AT-ACT walkers that’s made more terrifying as an impossibly large foot lands in the 70mm frame. This is the rumble of tanks in Saving Private Ryan, transposed to that galaxy far, far away. There’s the masterful hand-to-hand fight on a single antenna, as TIE fighters chase X-Wings all around in their usual manic melee. We all know how those fights go, how things usually crash into other things; one clipped stabilizer and the hopes of the entire rebellion go up in ion-fueled flames.
The performances in the film all survive the 70mm treatment well. A big screen exaggerates the microexpressions which can betray an insincere or lazy performance, but Rogue One‘s characters are well-inhabited, and Jyn Erso’s changing feelings drive the film in a way that is fairly rare in this universe. There is some on-the-nose dialogue, but that’s a given in this kind of story. Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as Orson Krennic is one of the best of all the films, as he manages to portray hubris, insecurity, and sadism in a series of lingering close-ups. Diego Luna, as Cassian Andor, plays on a long history of neurotic intelligence agents who must choose between conscience and orders, a classic trope that adapts well to galactic war.
Grand Moff Tarkin’s appearance (brought to us through a CGI resurrection of actor Peter Cushing) was essential to the story, but is also the one thing that the 70mm doesn’t do any favors for. Naive viewers who might not even know who he is might be fooled, but I’ll be honest and admit that I looked very closely for any flaws I that could find (I don’t know how they would expect us to do anything else; we remember the digital horrors of The Phantom Menace). The effects don’t destroy the film, but they’re not quite flawless . . . though, to be perfectly honest, they use the same effects on living actors and it has a similar, artificial vibe, so by that standard, at least, it’s awesome.
I’ll take a paragraph here and mention a few of the technical things that I noticed. While the 70mm IMAX was projected as an analog film format, Rogue One was captured in digital 65mm (6K), so the production and post-production process was almost entirely captured and rendered in the digital world. I say “almost” because who knows what analog nerdiness the filmmakers threw into the mix. The visuals in the film are well within the range of style of the original trilogy, right down to the perfect recreations of the X-Wing cockpits and TIE fighter pilots from A New Hope. The Death Star interiors are also a match for the original. The filmmakers made a welcome return to practical effects for this film and it brings a heft to the many larger-than-life aspects of Star Wars. These details really stand out on the massive canvas of 70mm and (I’ll dance around a spoiler here) when really big things crash into each other on a really big screen, it is really pretty awesome. I created the same scene with Legos some 35 years ago, and director Gareth Edwards’s rendition was more fun to look at and attracted no parental scolding.
The film’s full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and it’s “story” that’s important in the title, because the film’s story give us exactly we want from a “story.” Everything in the film moves towards an end that is surprising in its execution, if not its specific result. The turns aren’t especially predictable and this entry into a new corner of a known mythology is delightful, because of how well it seamlessly works within the larger mythos. When Darth Vader appears in the film, it’s epic and notable and is a thrill in itself; that feeling is what we always knew Star Wars was and could be. These are our new gods, our new heroes, and the new ways in which we measure our fates. Rogue One shows us many things, not the least of which is that, in times of profound crisis, the lines between good and evil can became achingly clear. There will always come a time when doing nothing is not an option.
May the force be with you, always.