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Question Club: We throw down over Rogue One’s CGI characters, choppy first act, and that damn blue milk

Question Club: We throw down over Rogue One’s CGI characters, choppy first act, and that damn blue milk


Much like Westworld, Star Wars is apparently all about the milk

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Walt Disney Studios

Ever since Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was first announced, fan expectations for the film have been high, but emotions have been complicated. This is the first Star Wars-related film that isn’t specifically part of the nine-episode franchise George Lucas pioneered back in 1977. It’s the first big-screen “side story” to take its own direction and its own narrative cues. Virtually all the characters are original to the movie, apart from a few old friends making minor appearances. It’s another prequel — a word with loaded connotations for a lot of old-school Star Wars fans — and it’s essentially a launch for Disney’s ambitious new plan to have some kind of Star Wars spinoff in theaters every year for as long as viewers will cooperate. A lot is riding on how fans react to the film, which is meant to kick off a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style era of Star Wars moviemaking. So how does the movie survive the hype, the expectations, and the prequel problem? In Question Club, we attempt to find the answers.

Warning: Rogue One spoilers ahead. Our spoiler-free review is here.

Does Rogue One feel like a Star Wars movie?

Bryan: One of the biggest questions going into Rogue One was just how Star Wars-y the movie would really be. Marvel movies tell an interconnected story set in a shared universe, but aside from the idea of the post-credits teaser — which evolved organically over time — there aren’t really any hard-and-fast stylistic rules that proclaim “This is a Marvel movie.”

Star Wars is the opposite; whether it’s the logo blasting on-screen to John Williams’ score, the opening text crawl, or the embrace of old-school transitions like wipes, the filmmaking conventions and style of Star Wars establish the series’ sci-fi serial feel as much as anything, and that’s continued all the way through The Force Awakens. (It’s more similar to the James Bond series in that way; at this point, any Bond film that doesn’t open with 007 shooting at the camera and a strangely eroticized credit sequence feels out of step with the entire franchise.) Rogue One, however, drops almost all of those Star Wars stylistic tropes — save for the opening title card of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”  

Chris: The core Star Wars films also often open on the looming shadow of a Star Destroyer. I like how Rogue One put a cute twist on that image, beginning on a more abstract but still similar view of a planet’s rings.

‘Rogue One’ skips so many familiar ‘Star Wars’ tropes

Tasha: The film is full of touches like that, where director Gareth Edwards acknowledges Star Wars history — look, here’s some blue milk, here are the cantina jerks from A New Hope hanging out on Jedha for some reason, here’s Darth Vader’s egg-crate-like resting capsule — but generally makes them look slightly different this time around. It’s like he’s trying to earn his Star Wars nerd cred in every other shot. I’m assuming he skips the wipes and the opening crawl because those are so tied to Lucas’ conception of the Star Wars franchise as a kitschy old-school pop serial, and Edwards wants to be a lot more serious. But he has to ride the line of acknowledging Star Wars while picking his own tone and directorial style as much as possible. Personally, I’m not a fan of the endless callbacks — the planetary rings in the opening shot is a clever way for Edwards to respect the originals while doing his own thing, and it’s nice that we have some X-Wing squad-leader continuity, since many of those pilots should be the same people who turn up in Star Wars: A New Hope. But a lot of the “Look, this is totally Star Wars!” touches to me just made the galaxy smaller and pettier. It’s not impossible for planet Lah’mu to have Bantha milk, or for Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan to be on Jedha, but both are unlikely coincidences, and they’re only there so Edwards can wink-wink-nudge-nudge at the audience.

Bryan: Edwards putting his own spin on classic images is an interesting approach, and in some cases, it’s almost necessary. If Disney’s going to release these movies annually, the whole opening crawl thing would get really old really quickly, and if these spinoffs are going to bring new genres and takes to the world, the directors behind them will need some latitude. But I’ve seen Rogue One twice now, and both times, there’s been this same strange exhale when the film first opens, as if everybody is holding their breath, waiting for Williams’ score to blast their eardrums — and then slowly slumping back into their seats when they realize it’s not coming.

The second time through, those difference didn’t bump me nearly as much, because I knew not to expect them, and the film’s production design and costuming nail the scrap-tech Star Wars look and feel as well as anyone could hope. But Rogue One still doesn’t feel like a Star Wars saga film to me. That’s okay — it’s not supposed to, and ditching some of those touches is what allows the film to be its own thing and embrace a darker tone. But at both screenings, I walked away marveling at just how deeply the stylistic flourishes that George Lucas established in 1977 are still embedded into our shared sense of what a Star Wars film actually is.

Chris: It didn’t feel like a Star Wars saga film. It did feel like a Star Wars video game. The Battle of Scarif reminded me of playing 2015’s Battlefront, the multiplayer shooter set in a hyper-realistic re-creation of the Star Wars universe that combines ground and vehicle combat. Rogue One’s Darth Vader scene, in which the helmeted one takes out a squad of Rebels with a flick of the wrist, looked like a special Darth Vader kill-streak. Here, see for yourself:

I think the tremendous violence crossed with a total lack of gore and blood felt both cartoony and video-game-ish — which means Rogue One doesn’t feel as much like a World War II picture as some have suggested. It was hard for me to buy into the danger until the final moments, because everything felt weirdly safe. I admit I’m still chewing on other unusual similarities to the video games, like the sniper sequence, which reminded me of every FPS sniper stage since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare popularized the design. It’s something I’ll keep in mind for my second viewing.

‘Star Wars’ isn’t in the wipes, it’s in the whommms

Tasha: I admit that it never once occurred to me to think “This isn’t Star Wars,” or even “This isn’t Star Wars-y enough.” For me, Star Wars isn’t in the wipes, the blue milk, or even the music. It’s much more in the production design, the recognizable shapes of the architecture (especially Galen Erso’s familiar-looking farm) and the design of the costumes and weapons — all the things you mentioned, Bryan, especially the broken-down tech that makes everything in this world feel well-used, practical, durable, and just about on its last functional day. It’s in the scrappy characters and the contrast between the rebels in their layered linen gear and the Empire soldiers in their shiny battle armor and space-Nazi military uniforms. It’s also in the sound design, in those ever-so-distinctive X-Wing engine noises and lightsaber whommms and pew-pew laser sounds that connect me directly to my childhood. And it’s in the kinds of stories these films tell. Here, as always, we’re getting a frantic planet-hopping good vs. evil story about a monolithic, inhuman, liberty-restricting force against a scruffy-looking pack of nerf-herder underdogs willing to put their lives on the line, all against the backdrop of an old, tired, crowded universe full of myths of the Jedi and the Force. Those are the Star Wars signifiers that matter to me, and they’re all here in abundance. I’ll buck the both of you on this: to me, yes, this feels like a Star Wars film, and if it stretches the definition of what that means a little bit, that’s great. It’s promising. It suggests good things for the franchise to come.

Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Studios

What works about the film, and what doesn’t? What stands out?

Chris: What doesn’t work? The first half. What stands out? The second half. That’s glib, but truly, I can’t think of another big-budget picture that put me off so completely in the first 90 minutes, then won me over with the final hour.

We’d heard rumblings of rewrites ahead of release, and you can sense them in the beginning of this movie, which feels like the work of many different people with sometimes-conflicting ideas. The ensemble, particularly in the beginning, is undercooked, and their motivations are unclear. My brain wandered toward unexplained backstory or backward motivation: why is this temple guarded by a faithless dude with a machine gun and a zealot with a staff? Why would Cassian, who didn’t want Jyn onboard his ship, let two strangers join his cause? Why did Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook arrive at Saw Gerrera’s just barely before Jyn and Cassian? Even the climax is sullied by a huge, distracting question mark: why is there a crucial master off switch in the middle of a beach? A generous read says the film’s logical flaws are actually a commentary on fate, as if these characters were destined to meet and fulfill some Force-guided prophecy. But frankly, it often felt like characters were doing stuff simply because the script mandated forward progress.

Are the rewrites to blame for the undercooked first act?

Bryan: I’d go a step further than that. There seems to be an entire other film — a more complex, coherent one — cloaked in the random bits and pieces in the first half of Rogue One. There’s the idea that the Rebel Alliance isn’t made up of happy-go-lucky collaborators. That just because you murder for the good guys doesn’t mean you’re a good guy. That some rebels can be so extreme (Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera) that even the Rebels don’t want them. These are fascinating themes that this franchise has never even bothered exploring, and so many of the lines and scenes from early trailers (“I rebel!”) seemed to point toward a real emphasis on those ideas. Instead, we get a patchwork of people going places because somebody said a thing, and our group of heroes teaming up because… well, I’m still not entirely sure on that one. I doubt we’ll ever find out if there was one specific cause, like the reshoots, but those first two acts are clunky.

Tasha: All that said, the introduction of Jyn and her parents and Orson Krennic is pretty masterful. In a few images and two lines, we know who these characters are — “The work has stalled. I need you to come back.” We know from past films and from the film’s context what “the work” is, and what it means that someone chose a backwater planet and a family instead of “the work,” and what Krennic is going to do to get what he wants. Everything about that scene is inevitable and weighted with tragedy. And then the film loses its way for a while in scenes that don’t really do much to establish a timeline, or characters, or anything that’s important for us to know. Jyn’s backstory comes in such weird little pieces, and too much of it is through the worst possible exposition tool — ”As we both know because we were both there, you abandoned me under the following circumstances!” I agree that the Gathering of the Fellowship, as Tolkien would put it, takes too long and is handled pretty clumsily. And I suspect that’s because there are too many moving parts. When the story sticks to simple things, like a family being shattered because the Empire wants a weapon, this is an emotionally affecting film. After that, for an hour or so, it’s just “Watch people run around, and appreciate the resentful robot who gets all the best lines and moments.”

Chris: And then the second half clicks. Every generation, we see a handful of directors who really master the action-movie format of the time. For the gritty, sunburnt, “shot through a tobacco filter” 1980s and 1990s action flicks, John McTiernan, early Michael Bay, Michael Mann, and the Scott brothers  come to mind. For the current format of glossy CG-heavy action films, I’d put Chris Nolan, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and now Gareth Edwards on the shortlist. Edwards has an incomparable ability to capture scale without losing track of the tiny humans living and dying on the ground. The unforgettable moment of 2014’s Godzilla pitted the gargantuan monster against a monorail. Rogue One ups the ante, switching between massive space combat, ground warfare, and a claustrophobic espionage heist sequence. A part of me wishes the film was just the Battle of Scarif, with flashbacks to backstory. I found all the running from place to place tedious, but once the film settled on a location for longer than 10 minutes, Edwards was free to achieve something incredible.

Edwards’ grasp of big-scale battles is incredible

Bryan: That’s a great point about enjoying the robot, Tasha. The confusion of the first half really does let the small moments pop, whether it’s Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO or Donnie Yen’s blind monk. (Who needs the Jedi when you’ve got Chirrut Îmwe?) But the last third of the film is definitely when it comes into its own, and there’s so many fun visuals and callbacks that it really does put most of the film’s problems behind it. But can we briefly touch on the tortured contrivances used to keep all that action cooking? Bodhi’s got to run a cable! That random off switch that you mentioned above, Chris! And while we’re in a universe that has walking, talking, sentient droids, the Empire’s data archives are stored on huge Zip drives that can only be accessed by futurist arcade claw-game controllers! Don’t get me wrong: the data center and Scarif sequence were fantastic… but yeah. Running cable?

Tasha: Entirely fair. But still, tell me you didn’t get a thrill when the Rebellion refused to back Jyn’s play, and Cassian turned up with his little group of try-or-die underdogs and said they were ready to do whatever it took to take the Empire down? Or when the movie’s comic-relief robot and most distinctive character, K-2SO, sacrificed himself, and it became fully clear that the movie was going to go full Seven Samurai, and mercilessly kill off its leads? Or when the Rebel fleet showed up and an understaffed ground invasion turned into a space dogfight that wasn’t entirely focused on a damn Death Star of some kind? I enjoyed Rogue One’s wry humor an awful lot (“Jyn, I’ll be there for you. Cassian says I have to.”), but the fist-pump moments stand out more for me. Even though we know the Rebels get the plans in the end, Rogue One winds up being really tense and thrilling, because the characters matter, and because they’re so nobly doomed.

Bryan: Could not agree more. That’s when the film is at its most confident — and was I the only one that found K-2SO’s death not only memorable and noble, but the most emotionally potent moment in the film? I’d put Chirrut and Baze’s deaths in there as close seconds, but I was frankly surprised at just how much I really cared about that droid. I think I ended up more emotionally invested in him than in Jyn, Cassian, or Krennic — and while I could take the snarky route and say that’s a result of the lead characters being pretty underdeveloped in the first half of the film, I actually think it’s much more about Tudyk creating a unique, hilarious droid in a universe that’s already filled with them.

Tasha: Again, though, the wink-wink nudge-nudge references bothered me. Like Anakin building C-3PO, they just make the universe smaller and more of a coincidence-engine. Bail Organa running off to get Leia to get Obi-Wan wasn’t a “Wow, it all fits together” moment for me, it felt clumsy and obvious. (And does it make sense? If she’s supposed to be off getting Obi-Wan from Tatooine, what’s she doing cooling her heels in the middle of the Scarif firefight, waiting for her ship to get taken down? Why does she think Darth Vader will buy the “We're on a diplomatic mission” line when he just watched her ship emerge from a larger ship that was assaulting the Empire? This sequence of events doesn’t make much sense.) I think Marvel movies and Disney Animation movies are pulling this fan-service stuff in the exact right way: they’re both packing their films with blink-and-you-miss it rewards for freeze-framers, but they don’t stop the action of the movie to say “Hey look, everyone, Adam Warlock’s cocoon is in a case over there!” For me, when the blue milk dominates the shot, the director is trying too damn hard.

It’s all about the milk; there should be more blue milk

Bryan: The blue milk played for me, but only because I’ve seen too many interviews where Gareth Edwards geeks out about blue milk, and it felt like his own personal Easter egg rather than a mandated shout-out. But for the rest, they ran the gamut. Characters literally stop in their tracks to suddenly cede the screen to Evazan and Ponda Baba, which felt almost prequel-esque in its clumsiness. Mon Mothma stopping to pow-wow about Obi-Wan with Bail felt equally silly. (If that’s all the planning the Rebel Alliance did, they deserved to lose.) For me, the best references were the ones that were the equivalent of production design; a background comment about Captain Antilles, or the X-Wing squad leaders from A New Hope suddenly showing up.

The best references wove the tapestry of the different films together without the movie itself even acknowledging they were happening. Whenever Rogue One stopped and wanted us to applaud, it was missing the point.

Chris: I felt the blue milk, the Stormtrooper doll, and a handful of other winks gave the universe a lived-in feel. Most franchises zip past the everyday busy work, the mundane stuff that makes characters seem human, and not like immortals solving one world-threatening problem after the other without taking a single restroom break. The big exceptions are, of course, both Avengers films, which took  breathers to show their superheroes lounging about, being “just like us.” Rogue One doesn’t have time for that — it’s a sprint toward death — but I found many Easter eggs helped ground the story. Farmers drink the same milk! Children play with toy soldiers! Passers-by have their own stories! The Easter eggs didn’t necessarily make characters more human-like, but the connectivity suggested life exists beyond our heroes, that this a “real” space with countless people worth saving.

Walt Disney Studios

How do you feel about the CGI legacy characters?

Tasha: I found them incredibly distracting. When faux Peter Cushing first appeared onscreen, I thought Gareth Edwards was going to pull something clever and subtle, but at the same time fairly cheesy, by keeping Grand Moff Tarkin’s back to us the whole time. That would have been the old-Hollywood way: a body double, a voice impersonator, and just enough screen time to remind us of the time period and the major players. Instead, Edwards went full tilt into the uncanny valley. Don’t get me wrong — these are pretty incredible re-creations of Cushing and 19-year-old Carrie Fisher, or at least they would be if they were just digitally created photographs. The texture and detail on the fakes is amazing. But they still don’t physically move like people. No matter how accurately mapped the tiny details of those familiar faces are, the twitchy bodies and the mouth movements are just a little off. It feels so disrespectful to an actor’s career and legacy to trot out these digital copies to fill in for them, and so unnecessary.

Also, Carrie Fisher is outspoken, frank, and hilarious, and I would love to know what she honestly thinks of having this high-end avatar of herself turning up in a movie. I hope she got paid.

Chris: I love any excuse to hear more from Carrie Fisher.

My wife isn’t a huge Star Wars fan, so I was looking forward to hearing her thoughts about Mr. CGI on the car ride home. To my surprise, she remembered exactly who the character was, and she felt the CG looked realistic — enough that it wasn’t an issue. Meanwhile, she found the final space battle distracting. She couldn’t remember the name of Star Destroyers, and whether they’re good or bad. The characters have always been more interesting for her, while the space battles required a Star Wars literacy she didn’t have. I mention this because for a “standalone” movie, Rogue One demands a pretty solid understanding of the Star Wars series. And I still wonder if for casual fans, a CGI Cushing helps connect the dots where a new actor couldn’t, or if some folks are leaving the theater wondering why the hell a computer-animated human was slogging about.

Why didn’t they cast a human for Tarkin?

But yes, I wondered why they didn’t just cast a human. Or find a reason for Tarkin to be a hologram. I get, story-wise, why he needs to be present, that the climax hinges on Tarkin’s climbing the corporate ladder by nuking his rival in middle management. (Overkill, my dude.) You know, now that I think about it, what I find even sillier than CG Tarkin is the notion that the Death Star can warp through space. I know we knew this was canonically possible. But what a silly image: a baseball-shaped, planet-sized deus ex machina zipping through the galaxy. It’s better if I don’t think about it.

Bryan: I think familiarity has a lot to do with it. My wife has a similar reaction when it came to Tarkin — didn’t know the character, and didn’t have a problem — but Leia really stood out to her. But it also seems to be a matter of not knowing to get out when the getting’s good. That first scene of Tarkin is more or less fine. The same problems are there, but I was so wrapped up in the fun of seeing the character return that I was pretty forgiving. But in the subsequent scenes, the lack of drama and chemistry between the characters makes it a lot more interesting to focus on some of the details of how the CG model isn’t quite working. My only question is whether we’re going to see a Rogue One Special Edition in a few years with new and updated visual effects “for a new generation!”

The silly way The Force Awakens almost began