“Rogue One:” A satisfying, sad chapter in the “Star Wars” franchise [SPOILERS]

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SPOILERS ABOUND!

Synopsis (Lucasfilm): From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Monique’s review: What a film.

Maybe it’s that time of the month and I’m being hormonal, or maybe the film was just that sad. But it’s about 48 hours after having seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and I’m still reeling from the ending. AUGH! MY HEART!

The opening crawl to Episode 4: A New Hope states that rebel spies steal the Death Star plans, but it doesn’t say that they die! I haven’t gotten over it yet.

It also doesn’t help that the princess of all space, Carrie Fisher has died. Can 2016 give us a break yet?!

The good:

What I loved about the film is that we got to see what Star Wars is like outside of the confines of the traditional crawl, so to speak. I, for one, liked that the film decided to forgo the crawl and throw us right into the movie. It makes sense, since this is the first story that that kickstarts the entire franchise, but it’s also a bold move that takes the franchise further into the future. We’re in the 21st century with Star Wars now; it needs to go beyond what the older fans expect. Now that we’ve got younger fans, the franchise has to use the 21st century modernization to enthrall and keep them. Also, the lack of a crawl added a freshness that a new fan like me appreciated. It made me feel like I was watching a sci-fi action film that didn’t chastise me for not having grown up with the Star Wars franchise.

Let’s talk about the cast. Overall, the cast is 8/15 POC (or should I say MOC), which is hefty for a blockbuster film, especially since they are all main characters. This number, I should say, is if you count the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (the actual figure of Darth Vader, as usual, is played by another actor, this time Spencer Wilding) There are only five main characters who are women, and one of them, Jyn’s mother Lyra (Valene Kane), gets killed early in the film and the other, young Princess Leia, is portrayed by a body double (Ingvild Deila) with a CGI’d face. Aside from Jyn, the most prominent woman in the film is Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a senator from A New Hope who is mostly used in this film to give gravitas with her face and clothes, but not much more. If anything, she seemed to act as a loose replacement for Leia in the majority of this film, almost as if she were a preliminary sketch for the actual Leia character, down to her white robes.

(Interesting fashion note: It appears that this film is setting up the idea that style trends are a thing in the Star Wars universe–White is a color that seems to have been popular up until the construction and usage of the Death Star. Perhaps the lack of white after A New Hope suggests that the innocence of the galaxy before the Death Star had been lost.)

Why is counting the amount of non-white people and women important? Because in Star Wars films of the past, the cast has been mostly white, with only a few POC actors as minor rebel pilots who quickly get killed. Having people of all racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds gives Star Wars the legitimacy it needs as both a contemporary film in a multicultural world and as a space opera itself; why does science fiction/fantasy just have be a place for white people, when we all would like to live in a galaxy far, far away?

Lucasfilm/Disney

The character portrayals themselves are great despite being a little truncated. Was it because the screenwriter knew we’d only be seeing these characters in one film? At any rate, the characters’ collective fates make their performances even more riveting and haunting. Felicity Jones held down the movie as Jyn Erso, further establishing the notion that women can successfully helm “boys’ movies” and bring in the big bucks. I also thought Diego Luna played Cassian Andor convincingly, but I must point out that like Mon Mothma, his character seemed like a sketch of an early Han Solo, what with his own “who shot first” moment early in the movie (although they don’t show a close-up on Cassian’s hand pulling the trigger, we know he’s the guy who shot his informant in cold blood).

Cassian, though, provides one of the most satisfying character arguments I’ve seen in film in a long time. Surprisingly, the film delves into privilege when discussing Jyn’s sudden turn to the resistance after years of not caring about who’s in power. Jyn’s turn comes after her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) dies. Even though Galen dies due to his involvement with the Empire—he was the chief architect of the Death Star, who defected, then later came back to work on the project in order to place a well-hidden weak spot—Jyn blames Cassian, who was ordered by the resistance to kill Galen. It’s when Jyn offends Cassian’s honor as it relates to fighting for the resistance that Cassian decides to tell her the ugly truth about herself. Jyn, he said, was picking and choosing when she wanted to fight for the resistance, whereas he had been fighting for it since he was a small child. While Jyn found it easy to take up the resistance mantle after years of running, Cassian and others like him had devoted their entire lives to the cause. Jyn had no right to assert she automatically knew more about fighting the good fight than someone like him, who had sacrificed everything to get to that point.

On the surface, it reads like a standard argument about who has more to lose and who has the most to learn. But when it’s played out, the optics—a white woman “Damonsplaining” resistance fighting to a Latino man whose been in the trenches long before she had no choice but to care—took the scene up a level to near discomfort for some in the audience, I’m sure. If put in today’s context, the scene was basically a man of color telling a “well meaning,” but insensitive and selfish white woman that she can’t co-opt the fight for social justice and chastise someone else’s part in the fight just because she realized she should have been fighting long ago. The distillation of Cassian’s message was that Jyn should be reckoning with herself as to why she found it so easy not to fight the good fight, considering all she had at stake. It shouldn’t have taken Galen’s death to spur her into action. Similarly, a lot of Jyn Ersos in the audience should ask themselves why it’s taken them so long to join the social justice fight a lot of marginalized people have already been a part of and, indeed, have sacrificed a lot for.

Other standouts include Donnie Yen as the blind devotee to the Force, Chirrut Îmwe, and his friend? life partner? Baze Malbus, played by Wen Jiang.

I went into the film aware of the strong reaction these two had garnered online, with many believing that these two could be Star Wars‘ first gay couple. I say that’s great if it’s true, but if it is, then it’d be nice for Lucasfilm and Disney to actually confirm that. 

Rogue One director Gareth Edwards told Yahoo! Movies that he doesn’t mind people reading a relationship into the characters. “I think that’s all good” he said. “Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”

“Them” being the characters. Come on now, Edwards. Quit being coy.

The coyness is what kills me, honestly. I’ll get to this in “the bad” section of this review, but seriously, the cutesy answers like this from directors need to stop. People don’t like having their emotions played with, and LGBT viewers are a demographic who have had their hopes dangled in front of them like carrots by the entertainment industry for far too long. Queerbaiting isn’t a good business practice for any entertainment studio, especially not in today’s time.

With that said, the evidence for Chirrut and Baze being that couple that’s been together so long that you can’t understand what they still see in each other (no pun intended) is strong from the beginning. They’re a package deal from the first time we meet them, with Baze hovering protectively over Chirrut, who is very much capable of being on his own. But even though we come to know that Baze is entirely aware of Chirrut’s independence (I mean, Chirrut can beat up hordes of stormtroopers in minutes), he still watches over him, and Chirrut lets him. Perhaps a better word to use is that Chirrut allows it.

Second, we have when the gang is on some rainy planet (the same planet Galen and Jyn have their sad reunion) and Chirrut decides to go trudging after Jyn, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and Cassian. If memory serves, Baze taunts him a bit, saying Chirrut would have to be lucky out on his own to survive. Chirrut says, “I don’t need luck; I have you.” At the very extreme, this could be excused away as just banter between really good friends. Sure, Chirrut and Baze are best friends, but movies don’t usually portray friendship in this fashion. This moment was basically the “You complete me” line from Jerry Maguire. Except that in movies, men and women are instantly coded as being in a relationship, while same-sex couples are nearly almost instantly coded as being “just friends.” If one of these characters was a woman, you’d have people vehemently arguing against any idea that their relationship was merely platonic friendship.

Also, this moment, as explained by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, is something that seals the deal, if you were in doubt after the “I have you” statement:

“He spends his final moments in Baze’s lap, and as his friend stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man. He charges almost suicidally into battle, firing at Stormtroopers while repeating Chirrut’s mantra over and over–finally, at the end of his life, paying tribute to his partner’s guiding philosophy–until he, too, is felled. And while there are still plenty of big moments yet to come as Rogue One completes its story and links up with the familiar opening minutes of A New Hope, I couldn’t stop thiking about that near caress and what it might mean. After the movie was over, I asked other audience members if they thought Baze and Chirrut could have been in a relationship, and I was surprised by how many people had been picking up on the same signal.”

I must also add that as Baze faces his death, he looks back at Chirrut’s body, as if he was mentally telling himself and Chirrut that he’d be reunited with him soon. Comfortable friendship is one thing, but showing an all-encompassing love to where you don’t want to live without the other is a completely different kettle of fish, and Rogue One toys with that kettle a lot. If you read their relationship another way, you’re basically sticking your head in the sand.

Another point: Yen did an interview with GT, formerly known as Gay Times Magazine. Movie stars who are playing gay characters do interviews with gay outlets, for instance, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes doing an interview with OUT Magazine. So that kinda cements it as far as I’m concerned.

Chirrut and Baze as two people in a same-sex relationship remind me of what John Cho said about the invisibility of gay Asian men in movies. Cho said that for Star Trek Beyond, he took his character Sulu’s sexuality as a way to pay homage to some of his friends:

“…I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues…I felt like those guys didn’t date Asian men because of that cultural shame,” he said. “So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future…that there was zero shame in the future.”

In this vein, Chirrut and Baze are even more important; not only are they providing a much-needed outlet for LGBT viewers, but they are also providing an outlet for gay Asian men, who are marginalized along racial lines and within the mainstream LGBT community as a whole.

Lucasfilm/Disney

I mentioned Riz Ahmed above; his character Bodhi is super important because it finally breaks with Hollywood tradition of casting brown actors as “the terrorist” or “the taxi driver.” Finally, an actor like Ahmed, of Pakistani heritage, can be the hero of a film.

Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani explained it best with his Twitter thread:

It was also cool to see Tyrant‘s Fares Fares in a role as well. The racial and ethnic diversity abounds in this film, and I’m glad for it.

The bad

I liked Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera. The trailers make you think you’re going to spend the majority of the movie with him, but we don’t. I wish we had more time with him.

Saw raised Jyn after was forced to separate from her parents, so you’d think we would have gotten to see more of their relationship after their reunion. It seemed like a waste to just have Whitaker around for a couple of scenes, only for him to die nobly minutes later. Whitaker gave his scenes his all, though; you can’t say he didn’t chew scenery.

K2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, was…interesting. This might be the first droid I’m lukewarm on. I get that he’s supposed to have a personality—all of the droids do—but maybe the personality went a little overboard with this one. He (since the droid is coded as such) sounded a little too human to be a realistic, more crudely made droid, and it took me out of the film a little bit each time he spoke. He did grow on me, but it took a while.

I wish there were more women of color in this film. I address this at length in this article, but just to reiterate, it’d be nice for me, as a black woman, to see more black women and women of color in general do things in this franchise.

Also, it kinda seems like Jyn still co-opts the resistance and becomes a de facto leader, even though she hasn’t done much to earn the role. Meanwhile everyone else who has given much has to follow her, as if they’ve never come up with a bright idea before. That bugged me. Again, the optics—white savior leading POC soldiers towards victory—painted the picture.

Chirrut is awesome, but does his characterization bleed into the “Hero” stereotype of disabled characters? It definitely could.

Much emphasis is on how accomplished and independent he is in spite of his disability, as if his disability is something that would make him weak otherwise. What’s actually true is that he’s strong because of his disability; it’s because of his adversity that he’s found the strength to channel the Force. On the other hand, though, the fact that he uses the Force to see has its roots in the ableism of the script, which posits that with “sight,” Chirrut is closer to being an able-bodied person. However, Chirrut doesn’t struggle against his disability, which is something that is seemingly inherent in the “Hero” stereotype. He seems to embrace it as a part of himself, which is encouraging. In short, Chirrut’s characterization teeters on both edges of the disability stereotype spectrum.

Lucasfilm/Disney

I already mentioned it above, but just to reiterate: It’s not cool when franchises bait the audience. If Chirrut and Baze are together, everyone in the film should be of one accord and say that to the press. Edwards’ maddeningly cutesy answer flies in the face of those who don’t feel Chirrut and Baze’s relationship is a joke to piddle around with. Of course, I’m sure Edwards is a fine person; he, like most of the people under the Bad Robot helm, is all about diversity. I also don’t think he means to turn Chirrut and Baze into a joke. But to say that we should ask the characters takes all of the onus off of him as the director, who has the unique ability of deciding who gets to be what in the movie. He made it a point to have a diverse cast, right? Why not make it a point to say definitively if Chirrut and Baze are in love? What’s the difference? (I know, “money,” but seriously, though, what’s the difference?)

Finally, I didn’t like the idea of reviving characters with CGI at all.

I understand the minds behind the film feeling that Tarkin and Leia were crucial to tying this film into A New Hope. But I just didn’t care for it at all. It was way too creepy and jarring to me. However, Leia looked a lot more convincing than Governor Tarkin (who we know as Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope). Like Leia, Tarkin had a body double (Guy Henry), but whereas Leia’s transplanted face looked like it could be sustained relatively easily throughout a film (because of Leia’s Disney Princess like features, which are probably easier to animate), Tarkin’s wasn’t realistic enough. To me, this was a case of the animation needing to be as close to the uncanny valley as possible, if not all the way in it.

For me, Tarkin’s face had too many Pixarisms to make me believe it was a real person. Yes, I know the CGI was by Industrial Light and Magic, but I’m sure there was some crossover at some point since this is a Disney movie after all. The eyes seemed too big, the nose seemed to long, and he ended up coming off as a more realistic version of the old man from Pixar short Geri’s Game.

This video explains what I’m talking about (after much fanboy-ing):

If O’Reilly could play Mon Mothma, who looks just like the original Mon Mothma, Caroline Blakiston, how come Guy Henry, who looks and sounds similar to Peter Cushing, couldn’t play Tarkin without the CGI?

Final verdict

I liked the film a lot. It’s a bit of a mood-killer, since all of our heroes die. But I don’t think we were ever promised they’d survive. The subversive aspect of a genre film like this one injecting some realism is quite jarring; we’re used to the heroes surviving no matter what. Even when Han Solo was supposedly dead from carbonite, he still survived. The fact that everyone dies and not just one singular character ups the stakes for the entire fight for the galaxy. It’s no longer child’s play; it’s hardcore. We’re not just following fun characters on an adventure; we’re following people who will give up their lives for a cause. Things are serious, and it’s fascinating that such a serious tone would inject itself in these films at this point in time. As many have said, this film has a serious social message embedded within it (again, something the film’s team coyly deny). If anything, the film warns us to jealously guard our own freedoms; don’t wait until it’s too late to stand up for what’s right.