Rogue One, The Force Awakens and the Rewatchable Movie Checklist
So, I’ve been thinking about Star Wars.
That’s nothing new, by the way. Since I was 10 or 11 or so, my interests have bounced between baseball (which I now cover for my day job), Star Wars and everything else. Maybe I’ll outgrow this cycle one day, but…for now, nah.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking specifically about Rogue One and The Force Awakens, the first two movies in Disney’s $4 billion Star Wars venture. Because it has been decreed that nothing can be universally liked anymore, a lot of people don’t like these movies. I do.
They would be well-made and entertaining movies in any context. In the context that they’re coming on the heels of prequels that not even the series’ creator could get right, the fact that they are indeed well-made and entertaining movies feels like a minor miracle.
But I’ll agree on this much: They’re not quite great.
No doubt some can claim to have known that right off the bat, but it didn’t become apparent to me until later. That’s partially because I’m not a cinephile with a carefully honed nose for quality. It’s also partially because I tend to weigh a movie’s greatness on its rewatchability.
What makes a movie rewatchable? Judging from the sheer variety in Walt Hickey’ list of the 25 most rewatchable movies at FiveThirtyEight, it depends on who you ask. The exact formula is probably something like:
(Whatever + Floats + Your + Boat) / ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But since it’s me writing this thing, it’s me you’re asking. And I have an opinion on this matter that takes the form of a checklist:
· Good pacing
· Characters you want to spend time with
· Fun scenes and set pieces throughout
· A good score and/or soundtrack
· A sense of immersion
· A character named “Quint” gives an eerie monologue about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis
There’s only one movie that has all six of these things. It’s a good one. Seriously, you should see it.
But plenty of others check the first five boxes. A select few from my personal list would be Raiders of the Lost Ark, Predator, Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, Fellowship of the Ring, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and John Wick.
And arguably, all three movies in the original Star Wars trilogy.
I say “arguably” only because there are nits to pick.
Not with Empire Strikes Back, mind you. That one’s perfect in every way. But A New Hope slows down after the opening attack on Princess Leia’s ship and doesn’t pick up again until the heroes get pulled into the Death Star. And in between the delightfully weird beginning and thrilling ending of Return of the Jedi is a cutesy second act that doesn’t quite fit tonally.
Otherwise, each movie comes with fun and compelling characters, great scenes and setpieces and some of John Williams’ best music. And say what you will about George Lucas as a writer and director, if nothing else the dude builds worlds. The Star Wars universe is an escapist’s paradise.
So then, that’s the checklist and how it applies to the first three Star Wars movies. How about the most recent two?
The Force Awakens initially felt like a good bet to pass. I didn’t love it, but I liked it plenty and still liked it upon second and third viewings in the theater. I then let out a sigh of relief when I still liked it after its Blu-Ray release.
The movie easily checks the first two boxes. It moves very quickly but also knows when to slow it down. And all the while, it’s good fun to hang out with characters both old and new.
It’s fair to call Rey, Finn and Poe thinly drawn, but they’re easy to root and are played with charisma by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. An old Harrison Ford returning to play an old Han Solo could have been a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-level disaster, but J.J. Abrams somehow squeezed a fun performance out of him — his first in, what, decades?
The interactions of these characters alone provide plenty of yucks. Throw in the antics of Chewbacca and BB-8, and the yucks are pretty much constant.
The villains of The Force Awakens are a mixed bag, but one that happens to contain a gem. Hux and Snoke are whatever. Kylo Ren, though, is the best Star Wars villain since the Emperor in Return of the Jedi — don’t @ me, Darth Maul fanboys.
The characters are the most important part of any movie, and are especially important in the first of a trilogy — if not a potentially even longer saga, in this case. So, The Force Awakens getting that part right is no small feat.
It’s too bad it fell short of getting everything else right.
Although no scenes in The Force Awakens are outright bad, none are particularly great either. Too many are variations (i.e. the Millennium Falcon gets chased through a desert instead of an asteroid field) or straight-up ripoffs (Maz Kanata’s castle literally is the Mos Eisley cantina) of old Star Wars scenes.
Williams’ score, meanwhile, is a disappointment. Rey’s theme and the Jedi Steps are great pieces. But in between is a steady stream of mediocrity, resulting in one of the least memorable scores of the series.
You can argue (and many have argued) that The Force Awakens’ biggest flaw is its retread story. But a good story being absent from my checklist isn’t an oversight. Unless you’re watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie’s story generally entertains only once. After that, you know what the deal is and it becomes a backdrop for the good stuff.
No, sir. The biggest flaw with The Force Awakens is its immersion problem.
The worlds of the original trilogy and even the prequels feel carefully planned out and are presented in just the right way. The endless stream of cool ships, weapons, creatures and settings helps. But nothing helps more than the sense of scale that pervades the six original movies. It all works together to create a sense of constant awe.
Not so in The Force Awakens.
The world barely feels thought out at all, to a point where it’s not clear how strong the First Order is and what, exactly, the Resistance had to do with the Republic before it got blown up by a shoehorned-in Death Star knockoff. And while there are some cool creatures and cool props — Kylo Ren’s lightsaber FTW— the production design mostly consists of variations on old themes.
As for the sense of scale…Well, what sense of scale?
Pretty much every new location is sparsely populated, and populated by cardboard cutouts to boot. It feels like the characters are hopping around small islands, not planets.
And while there are big things in the movie, their bigness is rarely felt. Even a shot like this:
Feels like a missed opportunity. Imagine if what we got instead was a low tracking shot of Rey speeding along and then suddenly she goes around a corner and the shot goes wide to reveal a giant crashed Star Destroyer looming over her. Imagine watching that and going, “I wonder where she’s goWHOOOOOOAAAAAAA.”
“Whoa,” as it happens, is something I found myself saying a lot the first time I saw Rogue One.
If The Force Awakens is essentially a small, character-driven movie, then Rogue One is a proper epic. Gareth Edwards obviously had the benefit of diving into a universe that was already well established, but fleshed out the lore by illustrating the oppression of the Empire on a ground level and re-casting the Rebellion from an organized band of righteous heroes into an infighting collection of scoundrels.
And the sense of scale! My goodness, the sense of scale.
Rogue One is littered with eye candy like that, and most of the locations in the movie come off as densely populated to boot. As a result, it feels more like a Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens.
As a bonus, Rogue One also contains some of the best setpieces out of all the Star Wars films. Although the Battle of Scarif is basically a modern version of the Battle of Endor, it’s enough of a feast for the senses to earn a pass. There’s also *that* Darth Vader sequence.
Don’t sleep on Michael Giacchino’s score either. It has some standout compositions — namely Krennic’s theme and “Your Father Would be Proud” — and generally walks a balance between doing its own thing and paying homage to Williams’ classic Star Wars scores. On the whole, Giacchino did a better job of sliding into the Star Wars universe that Williams himself did of sliding back into it.
Now, if only Rogue One had the other elements of a rewatchable movie.
As great as Rogue One’s big setpieces are, the fact that they don’t arrive until the end of the movie is part of a larger pacing problem. The prologue in which Krennic is introduced and Jyn is sent on her own fateful path is all well and good. But after that is a character-introduction sequence that goes by too quick and which gives way to over an hour of flat exposition scenes and half-baked action sequences.
On the bright side, Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe keep things light. On the not-so-bright side, everyone else is a drag.
Felicity Jones is fine as Jyn, but her character has one note for most of the movie before a contrived character transformation ahead of the third act. Diego Luna is fine as Cassian, but his character plays one note throughout the whole movie. And because Riz Ahmed gives his all, it’s a shame that Bodhi Rook’s character doesn’t ascend beyond “I’m an Imperial pilot.”
The biggest waste is Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic. He spends half the movie being a worthy addition to the Star Wars pantheon of baddies, and the other half getting put in his place by a digital zombie Peter Cushing and a geezerly-sounding James Earl Jones.
It’s understandable why Tarkin and Darth Vader are in the movie, but Krennic might have been a truly great antagonist — something that comes all too infrequently in modern blockbusters — in a better overall movie if they’d been held out. Alas, we get only half of a truly great villain.
These flaws went over my head the first time I saw Rogue One. I was too busy following what, in my opinion, is a cool story for the first two acts, and then too overwhelmed by all the lasers and explosions in the third act. But upon second, third and fourth viewings, the flaws have become a deterrent against additional viewings.
Looking at The Force Awakens and Rogue One now, I find myself appreciating how Disney has made two Star Wars movies that don’t suck while also wishing the best elements of both movies could be combined into one movie that could be watched again and again and again.
But since that’s about as likely as C-3PO pulling the ears off a Gundark, I’ll settle for being patient and hoping that future efforts can crack the code.
I never thought I’d say this, but I have total confidence in the Han Solo origin movie to get it done. It sounds like a terrible idea on paper. But I’ll be damned if Phil Lord and Christopher Miller don’t know how to make fun movies, and they have an incredible cast lined up for this one.
I’m less sure of what to think about Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi. He did good work with Brick and Looper, but both are slow, cerebral movies that operate on a small scale. I trust him to get the characters right, but he’ll need other tricks up his sleeve to add into The Last Jedi what was missing from The Force Awakens.
In the event that both efforts fail to deliver an infinitely rewatchable classic in the spirit of the first three Star Wars movies, it won’t be the end of the world. When it comes to Star Wars, Disney ain’t got nothing but time and money.
If they can come close enough to getting it right at the beginning, I assume they’ll eventually get it right sometime before the end.