As someone who is perhaps not the biggest fan of the Star Wars franchise, I don’t rush out to see Star Wars movies and I’m usually content to wait for them to hit the small screen. “The Force Awakens” hit Netflix a few months ago, and “Rogue One” just came out yesterday, so now I am all caught up. I thought I’d do a rather belated review of the two movies, but really this is more focused on a comparison between them.
Let’s start with the pros and cons of The Force Awakens.
The JJ-version of Star Wars did a bunch of things right: it beefed up the visual effects, improved the dialog (which has always been Lucas’ weakness), and managed to introduce a new generation of popular characters like Rey, Finn, BB8 and Kylo Ren into the public consciousness. Ultimately though, it brought us back to the roots of Star Wars, to the pre-Prequel days where the space battles were epic yet sensible, and the narratives were simple, tight and elegant. It hit the nostalgic button very, very hard; who wasn’t thrilled to see the Falcon fly again? Didn’t everyone jump up and cheer when Han Solo and Chewbacca burst on to the screen once more?
So yes, watching The Force Awakens reminded me of the majesty of the original Star Wars. Judging from a majority of the reviews out there, most people agree with me.
On the other hand, the movie just didn’t stay with me. I realize that if Han Solo weren’t in it to provide a focal point for the cast, I just didn’t care about the new characters that much. The bigger problem is the plot itself: a plucky little droid holds the plan to destroy the Space Nazis’ mega-weapon, comes into the possession of a young hero, who then meets the mentor figure. Some running around ensures, the mentor dies, leading to some sort of confrontation with the black-clad big-bad, as well as the obligatory set-piece space battle against the mega-weapon using the droid’s plan. Haven’t we seen this all before? Sure, the little details have changed, but this is essentially the same movie from 1977. Why is The Force Awakens reusing the exact same plot as A New Hope? I don’t understand it, and I can’t un-see it as a JJ-attempt to reboot Star Wars as he did Star Trek.
Rogue One, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether. But let me set the stage first by mentioning the Gundam franchise.
See, Gundam is a huge franchise in Asia. It has spawned numerous alternate timelines and series, but the main one is the UC (Universal Century) timeline. The UC reality is one of global war, with a very strong flavor of World War II in the mix; the setting is the subject of a good number of “side stories” that focus on fairly gritty war-time story-telling, and are quite different than the typical anime giant robot kung-fu fighting that is the basis of the genre. In these side stories, giant robots are merely equipment — tanks or fighter planes. They get damaged and wrecked, sometimes destroyed. Maybe they get repaired, maybe even upgraded, but the point is that this is war… and no one is safe in a war.
And THAT is exactly what Rogue One feels like. It’s not about being the Badass Jedi who can single-handedly fight off an army of stormtroopers. It’s not about the heroes always winning because that’s what happens in a black-and-white world. This is a war movie, and no one is safe. This is a Star Wars side-story, where nameless heroes fight and die on forgotten battlefields. The story channels the Magnificent Seven. The Guns of Navarone. Saving Private Ryan. Band of Brothers. The settings themselves point to it: the streets of Jedha invoke war-torn Iraq and Syria; Scarif, despite being shot on the scenic Maldives, hint at the jungles of Vietnam.
Critics complain about the film’s pacing… I would agree, but the pacing seems off only because this is NOT really a Star Wars space epic. For a war movie? I thought it’s about right.
Critics also complain that the main cast didn’t get sufficient development. Again, I would agree, because I thought the extremely diverse international cast deserves a lot more development. I instantly liked Felicity Jones’ Jyn, Alan Tudyk’s K2SO, Donnie Yen’s Chirrut and even Mikkelsen’s Galen. Diego Luna’s Cassian, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook and Jiang Wen’s Baze took me a while to warm up to, and I think these characters could’ve used more development before sending them off on the big mission. Even Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic, the main bad guy of the movie, was relatable instead of a cardboard villain. I was surprised and thrilled to see the prominent role Tarkin played, but I admit it was unnerving to see a CGI Peter Cushing.
Still, take a moment to think about the cast. We have a British female lead. The rest of the main cast are from the U.S., Mexico, Hong Kong, Denmark, Pakistan, China, and Australia. Now that is diversity.
The war movie aspect made Rogue One much more memorable to me than The Force Awakens. The Stormtroopers weren’t just dummy targets for the heroes to mow down by the dozens; they may still be nameless and faceless, but the film shows that anyone with a gun can kill you. And in the movie’s final act, we are again reminded that this is a war movie first and foremost, and forgotten heroes sacrifice their lives for the greater good. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Star Wars movie and felt sad at the end; Rogue One was the exception.
In my mind, Rogue One is vastly superior to The Force Awakens in the narrative, but I recognize that is likely because I have a personal preference for gritty war stories over traditional Star-Wars space-opera fantasy. I understand people prefer happy endings, but for me, knowing that Luke will train Rey into the newest and last Jedi, and that she’ll almost certainly vanquish the bad guys in the end and come out okay… it loses the dramatic impact, and lessens the sense of selfless heroism as the story unfolds.