A strange feeling washed over me as I watched “Rogue One,” the new Star Wars story—Disney’s attempt at expanding the most popular movie franchise in film history. I was sad. This emotional response had little to do with the film itself, but a realization that I just don’t care about “Star Wars” anymore. Recanned nostalgia is no longer capable of providing any satisfaction. I was fairly forgiving of last year’s “The Force Awakens,” and sucked into the pop-culture zeitgeist as fans across the world celebrated the fact “Star Wars” would continue on in perpetuity. But the film itself was a feast of warm leftovers that didn’t go down as easy the second go round. “Rogue One” felt even less satisfying. Instead of leftovers, it was a garbage bag full of scraps and bones to pick through.
The aforementioned sadness felt like something experienced when young. Eventually everyone matures beyond things that once brought them so much joy. Action figures populating every hour as avatars of imagination seem less interesting. People grow up, tastes change, but there’s often a moment of realization—a lament that what was once loved no longer brings the same level of joy. That pretty much sums up how I feel about “Star Wars.” It’s no longer something I enjoy; it’s something I continue to watch out of obligation for an inner child who has already lost interest.
“Rogue One” is a painful slog. A $200 million fan film so nebulous in terms of plot or character that it might as well not exist. The story revolves around a young girl named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who gets separated from her father, who turns out to be the brains behind the Death Star. Years later, she is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to try and find Jyn’s father and stop the Empire from activating the galaxy’s deadliest weapon. Maybe that would have meant more if we didn’t already know: A) the Death Star would be destroyed by Luke Skywalker in the first “Star Wars”; and B) the Empire would build two more of these stupid things, and each of them were destroyed pretty easily.
Jyn begins to planet hop in search of her father aided by Cassian (Diego Luna), a rebel spy with his own secret agenda. As they go from location to location, they begin to pick up some strays, including a defecting Imperial pilot and a blind acolyte of the Force and his longtime laser machine-gun-toting companion. None of these characters are given much to do. They have their basic reasons for hating the Empire and come together with convenient movie logic, which makes it impossible to really root for them.
The biggest flaw in “Rogue One” is director Gareth Edwards’ (“Godzilla”) inability to show us a character’s motivation rather than tell us. We get Jyn Erso’s motivation in the film’s opening. Empire kills Mom, kidnaps Dad and leaves her as an orphan in a cruel universe. For the record, this is the third “Star Wars” movie to use this same plot point. The other characters have to tell us in the driest, dankest exposition why exactly they have sand in their ass-crack about the Empire.
“Your father told me I could change my ways,” says the defecting Bodhi Hook (Riz Ahmed). How compelling.
“The Empire destroyed the Jedi temple,” says Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). Riveting.
It wouldn’t have surprised me if a character had walked up and said, “Hi, I’m Tom. I hate the Empire because the emperor gave me crabs.” Then crab-invested Tom joins the group and begins killing Storm Troopers.
There’s also a really weird clash of old and new aesthetics. Edwards gives us a very practical, dirty looking “Galaxy Far, Far Away.” Then he mashes it together with scenes featuring complete CGI characters that look like some alive wax abomination from Madame Tussaud’s.
“Rogue One” is a strange melange of a movie—a healthy dose of familiar with new darker elements for an interesting third act. There’s a fairly entertaining final battle sequence that provides hints of human emotion. Unfortunately, the first two acts are a freaking mess of absolute maddening choices. Does anyone like Forest Whitaker? Me, too. Would anyone like to see him play an Empire-loathing cyborg terrorist? Me, too. Sorry.
Audiences only get seven minutes of the great talent screaming at the camera, doing his best version of intergalactic crazy. The whole movie is the same: Lots of potential that never really delivers on its promise of something new or interesting.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
BEST AND WORST FILMS OF 2016
I always struggle with top 10 lists—or any lists for that matter. Ranking creative endeavors seems more and more pointless with each passing year. Though I’ve been writing movie reviews for a long time, the idea of choosing a specific number of films and assigning them a rank feels confining. There are years where I’ve loved more than 10 films. There have been others (like 2016, for instance) I struggle to find 10 films to talk about with any sense of enthusiasm.
This year provided me with only a handful of films I would describe as “exceptional” from opening titles to closing credits. There were, however, lots of pieces and parts of movies to love, which may not have achieved every creative goal but still ended up delivering something unique.
I loved the aesthetics and world Nicolas Winding Refn created with “The Neon Demon.” There’s a sense of both high-gloss euphoria and despair not easily achieved on film. I loved the tension and skin-crawling moments in the thriller “Don’t Breathe,” which is the best scary movie I’ve seen in years.
I loved the Coen Brothers’ crazy old-Hollywood comedy “Hail Caesar,” which featured some downright wonderful performances from Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Channing Tatum. There was a lot to love about Ben Wheatley’s amazing tale of class and friction, “High Rise.” Great performances, with a strong but hardly subtle message about societal hierarchy, it’s a movie brimming with style—and the only film in 2016 I bothered to watch twice. I loved what Dennis Villanueva tried to create with “Arrival”—a cerebral and well-thought-out first encounter, even though I found the final product utterly detached emotionally. I loved Sally Field’s performance in “Hello, My Name is Doris” and Michael Shannon in Jeff Nichols’ superior “Midnight Special” and Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.”
Only two movies I claim to love outright accomplished everything they set out to do. Mel Gibson’s amazing “Hacksaw Ridge” is a war movie with a new story to tel. Desmond Doss and his refusal to raise a weapon or take another man’s life seemed like a thin premise for a movie, but Gibson manages to find the humanity not only in Doss, but all men he served with. It’s a movie about the men war turns us into, and one man who was able to both serve his country and be true to what he believed. It’s an amazing story told by a director unafraid to embrace a more romantic cinematic model allowing characters to be more than just expressionless deliverers of dialogue. Some might call “Hacksaw Ridge” and Andrew Garfield’s portrayal “hokey,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. For some reason, “hokey” won me over.
My favorite movie of the year, and one I would assign the adjective “best” to, if forced at gunpoint, would be David Mackenzie’s exceptional “Hell or High Water.” This tale of bank robbers in the dusty, gritty badlands of West Texas contains the two best performances of 2016 (Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges). It’s a great throwback to the violent modern-style Westerns that flourished in the ‘70s and again in the ‘90s, as independent films received mainstream recognition. The crime film pulls no punches and never lets up; it starts with the gas pedal firmly pressed down and drives audiences through a rollercoaster ride of crime, punishment, sacrifice, and sawdust. It felt like a film Sam Peckinpah would have done in his prime. Lately, I find myself more appreciative of fearless films; “Hell or High Water” is a fearless thriller succeeding on every level.
Of course, there were films I didn’t love. “Zoolander 2” was the closest I came to walking out of a theater (had the theater not been completely empty allowing me to audibly groan, I probably would have.) Watching “Warcraft” was like having someone jab me in the eyes and ears with chopsticks. And I spent far too much time watching generic blockbusters engineered to lull me into a stupor with special effects over story.
The two movies I absolutely loathed in 2016: Rob Zombie’s wretched excuse for a horror film, “31,” and Clint Eastwood’s wildly overpraised and downright terrible “Sully.” I am still baffled by anyone who claims this is a “good” movie. Three minutes of story is stretched out into a painful 90 minutes of forced drama, Sully’s reputation being called into question and (double gasp) his irritating wife complaining about needing to pay the bills. Like “American Sniper,” Eastwood seems to get easy passes from critics based on his body of work. But trust me, “Sully” is terrible in a way few films will ever truly achieve.