Rogue One, Disney’s latest incarnation of the beloved Stars Wars franchise, is the best World War II movie since Fury, the 2014 feature about a lone American tank crew determined to protect Allied forces from hordes of Nazi troops. Like Fury, it also borrows heavily from other films and is dark.
I mean dark figuratively and literally.
Emotionally, the heavily animated movie is as gritty and complex as tweener films get, from its morally conflicted heroes to its ambiguous ending. Much more so than its predecessors. Think wartime Hemingway at his drunkest and most morose, but edited by Teen Vogue into a snappy script.
That’s not a criticism. No reasonable moviegoer buys a ticket to a space opera expecting to be roughed up by a production as hopelessly bleak as, say, No Country For Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, or True Detective. After all, this multibillion-dollar franchise is a mainly a vehicle to sell candy and action figures to kids and adults desperate to remember what it’s like to be kids.
Visually, most of Rogue One is even darker than the script. It looks like it was filmed at night in a rainstorm on the old Blade Runner set using a single 40-watt compact fluorescent light bulb for illumination. Or maybe a nightlight.
That is a criticism. My theater turned the house lights down to Pitch Black for the 9:45 p.m. showing. But the screen was still so dark that every time I left the theater to deal with the unfortunate consequences of drinking a gallon of Coke during the previews, my watery, rapidly blinking eyes reacted to normal light like they were being stabbed by Darth Vader’s lightsaber.
Darkness was a good choice for a brooding film like Rogue, however.
It’s clearly based on classic World War II films like The Guns of Navarone, The Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan, Kelly’s Heroes, and the Battle of Britain. Scene after scene took me back to the depressingly damp forests and muddy fields of WWII Europe depicted in films. So much so, I would’ve mistaken Rogue for one of the technicolor war films of my youth except that it has a woman in it. Not only a woman, but a woman who isn’t a French prostitute willing to trade a roll in the hay for Yankee cigarettes and Hersey’s chocolate.
The movie’s heroine, Jyn Erso, is tough and resourceful in ways most female leads aren’t. You can immediately tell that’s the case because she dresses like a man, isn’t overly fussy about her hair or makeup, and rarely smiles.
Like many Disney leads—Cinderella, Snow White, Elsa, Simba, Bambi, Mowgli, Quasimodo, and more—she’s also basically an orphan, which instantly makes her a sympathetic character. Unlike most Disney leads, she never breaks into song or dance, which automatically earns this film a minimum two-star review from me. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s perky show tunes.
The movie opens on young Jyn’s home planet.
It’s peaceful farm country until a bunch of the evil Galactic Empire’s Nazis show up in a spaceship. Most of these wanna-be grim reapers are silent, well-armed, and dressed menacingly in black. But the talky, bossy one with bad teeth is wearing an über-stylish white uniform and flowing high-collared cape that must’ve originally been designed by Donna Karan for a third-world dictator’s wedding.
Turns out the groom-in-waiting not only has ostentatious fashion sense and an unpleasant smile, he’s not a good guy at heart. Assuming he has a heart; He behaves like he ate it out of his own chest with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
As Jyn flees into hiding with her backpack and—I’m not kidding here—a Stormtrooper doll, the Nazis kill her angry, gun-toting mother before she can take down the wicked man who badly needs a good dental plan. I expected a valiant last-stand shootout from Jyn’s father to follow because he looks like a fierce Viking warrior king. Instead, he’s an engineer who proves to be as soft as a vegan pacifist who threw away his diploma from Berkeley to raise organic produce. He abandons Jyn without so much as stomping his feet in protest and agrees to take a road trip into outer space with the Nazis, who want him to design something called the Death Star.
The Death Star doesn’t exist yet, but the knowing older audience members know what it is from seeing the first three Star Wars’ films, which, paradoxically, take place after this one was filmed, but…oh, never mind. Just accept that it’s a scifi prequel and that there might be some sort of trippy mind-bending space-time continuum stuff involved here.
All you really need to know is that the Death Star is a giant spaceship capable of destroying planets with a single blast. It does this—mysteriously—without blowing itself up or collapsing under its own gravitational weight like an oversized cream-filled pastry puff. Unlike the threatening Borg Cube of Star Trek fame, it’s also adorably round, perhaps to lull unsuspecting victims into complacency when it suddenly appears on the horizon like a metal moon.
“Oh, look at the pretty new moon-thing, Darling!”
“Why yes, yes it is! Put on your Princess Leia harem-slave bikini! Let’s make out while we watch it glow.”
Still, so far so good. I’m hooked.
Unfortunately, the movie quickly gets confusing when it jumps forward to Jyn’s adulthood.
I blame the disorder on a style of film editing I call the Lucas Lunge. The Lunge requires abruptly switching scenes to divert viewers’ attention away from the plot like a game of three-card Monte.
Sometimes the Lunge transports us from room-to-room, but often between entire planets. Either way, at each stop you’re invited to eavesdrop on small groups of people—most of them are humanoid, anyway—while they talk about Very Important Things. What things, it isn’t clear, because you’re ship-lagged and addled after all that hyperspace travel. It doesn’t help that the characters are familiar only to die-hard Star Wars fans, who are identifiable by their Han Solo costumes and lack of dates, or that they tend to mutter conspiratorially using names that sound like they were made up by the Star Wars Random Name Generator.
Rogue’s audience is subjected to the Lucas Lunge several times. Or maybe a dozen times. I can’t be sure because I did what I always do when I fly and nodded off. Somewhere in this mess of cuts, however, Jyn is introduced to many new friends of the Rebellion, including a soldier with questionable ethics, and a wise-cracking Droid with none of the rusty joint problems and only a few of the emotional issues that plagued the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
I continued drooling blissfully into my half-eaten bucket of popcorn until the movie’s core cast finally arrived on a planet for an extended overnight stay. I’ll call the planet Utahine because it looked suspiciously like Utah even though it seemed to be populated mostly by Middle Easterners. I’ve visited Utah dozens of times and never once seen a person of color who wasn’t in an unnatural hurry to get to California.
Whatever its demographics, the Empire has taken over Utahine to mine some kind of crystal with an exotic name that escapes my memory. It powers everything from lightsabers to the Death Star. I’m tempted to call it Unobtainium, but it clearly wasn’t any more unattainable than Unobtainium, and I didn’t see a single Avatar or blue human-monkey-elf in sight.
There were a lot of rebels resisting the Empire, however.
My favorite was the Chatty Cathy version of Master Po, the soft-speaking, blind, but fierce Chinese Shaolin monk from the 1970s television series, Kung Fu. I also liked his trusty sidekick, a powerfully built Japanese warrior straight out of 1954’s Seven Samurai. He was armed with bad-ass hair and a heavily modified Gatling gun he must’ve bought from a Civil War enthusiast on eBay.
Both men are endearing, especially after Master Po singlehandedly takes out a dozen or so stormtroopers with Gandalf’s staff from The Lord of the Rings. The Samurai similarly worms his way into your heart by cavalierly cleaning up the second wave of attackers with his Gatling gun to save Master Po.
A lot happens in Rogue after that scene. Mostly hundreds of fiery explosions, but I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, and I also need to save a little time tonight to binge-watch a handful of episodes of season four of Vikings.
I will share a few teasers, though: The Rebellion votes not to confront the Empire for destroying Utahine with the Death Star, but a plucky band of rebels rebel against the Rebellion and joins forces with Jyn. Together, they steal an enemy cargo ship and bravely embark on a suicide mission into the heart of Empire territory, which I expected to be on foggy, muddy Nazi German soil. Instead, they end up storming sunny white beaches in the Pacific. Judging by the palm trees, luxury accommodations, and heavily reinforced concrete bunkers, I’d guess The Sands of Iwo Jima or the atoll in the Battle for Midway.
The scenic switch was as jarring, but the rest of Rogue One plays out like most vintage WWII movies, only with modern technological flourishes: The Dirty Dozen use their blasters to bravely kill enemy soldiers at a rate of 10 to one while the Battle of Britain rages overhead with spaceships; a pilot has all-too-familiar technical problems hooking up an Ethernet cable to his spaceship while taking heavy enemy fire; and Jyn is forced to free-climb the world’s tallest eight-track storage case so she can retrieve a cartridge and shove it into a modified eight-track player the Empire stole from a 1967 Chevy Impala and tweaked to control its entire communications grid. If she’s successful, it will allow her to realign the island’s Dish Network satellite dish, allowing everybody at the resort to finish the game.
Oh, that reminds me: Darth Vader also makes his dramatic debut in his imposing black penis-head costume, which pound-for-pound is the most-chilling and inscrutable phallic object in movie history since the monoliths appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fun, entertaining moment even if we already sense how this war epic is going to end, and I recommend the film.
Three-and-a-half Stars out of five.