Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Rogue One

by Patrick Bromley
It's the first standalone Star Wars movie! If by "standalone" you mean "entirely dependent on another Star Wars movie."

Rogue One, the newest movie in Disney's current Star Wars model that will put out at least one film a year, alternating between "episodes" in the larger continuity and self-contained "side" stories, is in many ways a big experiment. It eschews the opening title crawl and John Williams' score, maybe the most iconic of all movie music. It is darker and grittier than any Star Wars movie that precedes it, focusing heavily on the "wars" part of the title. It is, to its great credit, the most diverse movie in the series; there is only one white face in the ensemble of heroes, and it belongs to a woman. It breaks from the tradition of the franchise in a number of ways, which is why it's too bad that it isn't willing to break even more. Rogue One makes A New Hope a better, richer movie but sacrifices itself in the process.

For those who have not yet seen the movie, I won't indulge in spoilers or really even divulge many of the plot details. Suffice it to say that the film takes place in the weeks prior to A New Hope, when the rebel alliance plans a secret mission to steal the plans for a new weapon the Empire is preparing called the Death Star. I think we all know how that works out.
I have spent the weekend reading reactions to Rogue One online, and they are overwhelmingly positive. I have read fans declare it is their new favorite Star Wars movie, or the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. People love this film. So I guess let me apologize up front for not sharing those views, since I know that between this being a Star Wars movie and the amount of affection people have expressed for the movie, I understand how a less-than-glowing reaction can feel personal in a way that puts us on the defensive. I have no intention or desire to shit on anyone's enjoyment of a new Star Wars movie. I am truly glad that people are loving this movie, and the comments I've read about inclusion and identification are legit moving. At the same time, I can only report my honest reactions. This is not, as the kids are fond of saying, a "hot take." This is just me saying that I did not love Rogue One.

I'll admit to having my doubts in director Gareth Edwards. He made an interesting debut with Monsters, prompting me to wishing to see what he could do with a real budget at his disposal. Then he got a real budget to make Godzilla and I realized some wishes shouldn't be granted. I don't think Edwards is what's wrong with Rogue One, though; he does a good job with shooting and balancing the action, and that's the stuff in the movie that works best. I can't say as I agree with his decision to once again drain the fun out of an iconic science fiction property, but that's just a question of taste. I like the cast and I'm all on board for the idea of a "men on a mission" ensemble entry in the series. And yes, this is that, but not in a way that I found particularly satisfying. Most of these actors don't have real characters to play -- they have costume designs and designations, but not characters. Donnie Yen, the biggest standout in the group whose first fight scene against a group of Stormtroopers is the action highlight of the movie, is blind. And spiritual. And that's it. He's actually better defined than some of the other characters, like Wen Jiang, whose defining trait is that he's Donnie Yen's friend, or Riz Ahmed, who is a pilot. Ben Mendelsohn is an incredible actor, but his Orson Krennic might be the worst villain the series has ever seen, again not because he's actively bad but because there's just hardly anything there (and what there is offers only echoes of previous better bad guys). Even the central character, Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso, feels mostly like a cipher -- another in a long tradition of Star Wars characters who defines herself in relation to who her parents are. She's tough and she's capable, but also a bit of a blank. It's hard to come off The Force Awakens, with its likable, realized characters that were the best thing about the movie, and accept the "types" that Rogue One offers.
The movie's pacing is also weird, with a first half that's handed over to a lot of "go there, do this" that amounts to pretty much nothing. The screenplay credited to Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (yikes) spins its wheels a whole bunch to seem busy, devoting a big chunk of the running time to a mission in which the characters have to locate another character so they can talk him into helping them find another character so he can help them do this other thing; not only are there at least two steps too many here, but it just fails to add up. No new information is offered, the characters don't change. There's time for some additional fan service -- something this movie really doesn't need any more of (are these supposed to be Easter Eggs for Star Wars fans inside the Star Wars movie?) -- but it isn't until the mission proper begins that the movie truly comes to life.

Here we get the biggest and longest action sequence in Star Wars history, one that takes place partly on the ground and partly in the sky (so it's a lot like the climactic sequence of Return of the Jedi, but don't mention that to the most die hard fans because you might as well be comparing to the prequels...which, this being a prequel, is also a little bit like). While our knowledge of the franchise means we all know how this battle will turn out, it is to Rogue One's credit that the sequence manages to still be engaging and exciting. It's also this stuff that makes those few lines of dialogue about the price paid to steal those plans in Star Wars carry much more weight, as this is the movie in which we really get to see the cost of the sacrifice made by so many. Does that work as a standalone movie? I'm not so sure, since we need to be familiar with Star Wars and how all of this pays off for the film to have the proper emotional impact. It ends on what is structured as a cliffhanger but really exists just to tee up Episode IV with more fan service, including another instance of some CGI on which Gareth Edwards leans heavily despite the fact that the technology is not there yet. While it is more successful in its goals than the entries that tell us about the Clone Wars or that time Anakin Skywalker met Obi Wan Kenobi, Rouge One still exists ultimately to fill in backstory rather than expand the world of Star Wars.
Maybe the biggest bummer of the reception to Rogue One is that it has already made it ok to shit on The Force Awakens, I guess because this movie is "darker" and "edgier" -- it's the Star Wars for cool kids -- or because this movie is carving out its own path by not including a Skywalker (even though it does) or by telling a standalone story (even though it doesn't). I don't insist that everyone like TFA and I know there were a lot of fans who never got into it, but if Disney's new model is going to mean a shelf life of only a year for each new entry in favor of the shiny latest, it's going to make being a Star Wars fan a pretty big bummer. And I know the two movies don't necessarily need to be compared, but I will mention that while TFA has bigger problems than anything in Rogue One, it also has much higher highs. The things that are good in The Force Awakens are transcendent, whether it's a character or a beat of behavior or a line of dialogue -- these are the things that remind us of what it was like to love the Star Wars universe in the first place. I don't know if it's because Rogue One is trying to be different or because Gareth Edwards just doesn't know how to give a movie personality, but the whole thing feels weirdly indifferent. It's never actively bad the way the prequels could be at their worst, nor does it ever achieve the heights of the best Star Wars movies. It just sort of...is.

I'm happy to see director Edwards continuing with the more grounded aesthetic that JJ Abrams brought back with The Force Awakens; like the original George Lucas trilogy, this entry takes place in a "lived-in" universe. I like how many practical props and locations he uses, and with the exception of a couple egregious choices -- you know the ones -- even the CG is terrific. K2SO, a new android voiced by Alan Tudyk, is an impressive creation and one of the film's best characters, always looking like he's really in the scene even when we know he isn't. I like the way Edwards frames the film, too. It isn't just that he does away with the wipes; there is less epic fantasy scope and more of a real-world immediacy to the shot construction, less informed by classical westerns than it is by contemporary combat movies. For me, the movie is just missing a kind of life -- characters or moments that pop or a spirit to the whole endeavor. Some kind of...force.
Again, I'm sorry for not enjoying Rogue One more. I don't like to be the buzzkill that comes to the party and spills all the drinks and ruins everyone's good time. I'd love to see it again and realize I completely missed the boat the first time, but there wasn't enough spark to make me actually want to revisit it. I'm glad so many people got a new Star Wars movie that they love, and I do think this is Gareth Edwards' best movie to date even though I think it's still just ok. If nothing else, the movie makes me hopeful that we will start seeing big-budget blockbusters with different faces and ethnicities outside of the Fast and Furious franchise -- movies that more closely resemble the world in which we live. But if this one-a-year installment really is going to be the new model for the Star Wars universe, I'm looking forward to stories that don't take place with characters and events and timelines with which we are already totally familiar. It's a big universe. I'm ready for Star Wars to start thinking bigger.

39 comments:

  1. Great read Patrick, I'll be going this week and I'm glad you've lowered my expectations after reading a ton of 'love story' articles over the weekend.

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  2. I've cooled on the movie considerably since I've seen it (it's gone from being my second favorite movie of the year to maybe an honorable mention in a matter of days), but I still love the cast and new characters. I want to see an entire movie based around Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen.

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    1. But I will agree that as much as I like the characters in this movie, they were not fleshed out nearly as well as they could have been. Maybe that's why I want to see more. I think there's something there with these characters, but we weren't given enough.

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  3. Great review, reading your mixed feelings helped me think through my own. Basically I think Rogue One was the coolest Star Wars videogame cut-scene ever.

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  4. Great read. I had the same thoughts but I chalked it up as me not really being a Star Wars fan. The movie was nice to look at but felt empty pointless at certain times. It's so sad that Star Wars fans are so sensitive that an objective guy like Patrick has to basically appologize for not liking a movie that much to a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the production of the movie. This was basically the it's not you it's me of movie reviews. I bet Patrick still gets hate mail even though he in no way shitted on the movie.

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  5. I was really looking forward to your review on this as you and I share very similar views on film and you again are 100% dead on. I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the film. Now I'm just counting down the days till your podcast on it so please hurry!

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  6. i loved it. the characters are certainly not great, but the actors do their darnest with what they have. i think the whole thing about the rewrites and reshoots didn't help the movie though.

    i also loved that it's not about doing an action setpiece to move to the next scene. i rewatch force awakens yesterday (which i also loved, for different reasons) and within 30 minutes we got 3 actions scenes. that movie move fast. rogue one take its time.

    yes i'm a star wars fan, but not the kind that shit on everybody who doesn't like the movies. with rogue one, they walked the thin line of fan service and doing something different. they fell a couple of times, but i like the result. a lot.

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    1. proof of all the changes they made, most of what appear in the first teaser (from a few months ago) doesn't appear in the movie

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  7. Thanks Patrick - I'm not getting to this until tomorrow so this was a great non-spoilery but informative review. I still really like TFA (watched it last night - the at-home 3D experience is really good btw for anyone who's into that sorta thing) though I see a lot of it's flaws - that's helped me temper my expectations for this but also shows I can really like a well-made SW movies in spite of some flaws.

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  8. Rogue One bored me. This isn't a feeling I've ever felt watching a Star Wars movie before. The prequels have serious problems, and The Force Awakens cashes in on nostalgia to a jarring degree, but in none of those movies did I ever feel the need to check on the time. Rogue One's bland characters, "fetch quest" plotting, and uneven tone left me feeling drained, and not in a good way.
    Nerdwriter just released a fantastic video which condemns what he considers to be a recent epidemic of "passable movies." He theorizes that the single biggest problem with passable movies (behind lack of cohesive tone) is the fact that they draw not from life, but from other movies. Many films are guilty of this, but in my opinion, no one has perfected it better than Disney.
    Moana is a passable film that relies heavily on having its characters reference other Disney films. The Force Awakens, to quote Film Crit Hulk, is "a Star Wars movie about Star Wars." The Marvel films, while fun, have become a teetering tower of self referential quips and cameos. Finally, we have Rogue One, which may be the most passable film I've ever seen. Move over "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" (I can't remember what episode it was where you posited that film as the litmus test for if a movie was good or not, but it was one of the funniest things I've ever heard).
    I've heard people accuse Tarantino, Shane Black, and George Lucas himself of simply ripping off other movies, but the reason their films have become beloved doesn't come from their references; it comes from their uncanny understanding of humanity. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels (and there is a LOT to say) but those movies are 100% George Lucas. Rogue One, and to a lesser degree Force Awakens, are Disney films. JJ Abrams' authorship is certainly felt more than Gareth Edwards', but the understanding of humanity in those movies is the understanding that a corporation has.
    I am as guilty as anyone of perpetuating passable films. In all honesty, I'll probably see Rogue One again in theatres, because it's Star Wars, and I have such goodwill for that universe, thanks to George Lucas's incredible vision of a galaxy far, far away. But I also recognize that every ticket sold for Rogue One is another vote for things to remain passable. It's my fear that if things keep going like this we're never going to get another universe like Star Wars.
    Rogue One cashes in on the original Star Wars film in a more blatant way than anything that's ever come before. I was discussing the movie with a friend yesterday, and they said that they tried rewatching the original trilogy and didn't think it was very good anymore. They may be partly right about Return of the Jedi, but what I think they are really feeling is the sense of fatigue that comes from passable movies. By operating on nostalgia these films dilute what they are ripping off.
    I truly hope that isn't the case for me; that I can watch the original Star Wars again and love it for all it's heart, fun, adventure, heroes, villains, and imagination. And not think about the fact that I now know just how goddamn boring the mission to steal those Death Star plans really was.

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    1. Genuinely curious to hear a take on this because we're all just here to talk and be pals and love movies: does Moana rely all that heavily on having its characters reference other Disney films? Does it do that at all? Off the top of my head I can think of maybe one or two brief allusions to the concept of princesses. Other than that I'm having a hard time recalling any direct or even vague references to Disney films, aside from that (SPOILER) post-credits nod to Sebastian.

      I think that Nerdwriter video was spot on in many regards, but I can't see it applying to Moana. I really thought that film made significant efforts to stray from the standard Disney storytelling model and explore themes of culture, identity, and community in pretty interesting ways.

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    2. I may have overgenerlized about characters in Moana referencing other films. What I found with Moana was that it felt more like a response to other Disney films than it's own thing.
      I loved the opening of Moana, with the ocean parting around a young Moana, but as soon as the first song kicked in I thought the movie lost most of its personality. The unmemorable (in my opinion) songs and the unfunny animal sidekicks felt like Disney worrying that if they deviated too much from the formula they would lose the audience. The film ended up feeling a bit like Rogue One to me: trying to pave its own way but being too beholden to other films.
      If Disney had just had Moana be a storng female character, and didn't have Maui reference it, it would have felt much more genuine to me. As is it all felt forced and bland.

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  9. I'm hoping the podcast review of R1 is as entertaining as the Godzilla 2014 podcast, such an awesome critique that exposes everything wrong with that film.

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  10. I think Rogue One might technically be the better movie, but The Force Awakens is more fun. I like how dark and serious Rogue One is. It's probably the movie that original trilogy fans wanted the prequels to be, but I felt like they spent too much time moving the story forward and not giving us those nice character moments we’ve had in the earlier films. I still really liked it, though.

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  11. Oh so I'm not crazy??? Thanks Patrick. I feel mostly the same and I felt like such a buzzkill since everyone I know adores this movie. I agree with most everything you have said, except for Ben Mendleson. He was my favorite character and seemed to be the only actor interested in having any fun with this movie. I thought he was so fun to watch. But he was almost the only fun thing in this movie.

    The problem is if you're going to make a prequel where we already know what's going to happen going into it, you'd better make the characters damn fun to watch. That's why I like X-Men: First Class, one of the only prequels I actually enjoy. But this movie failed at that. No fun heroes, and a story I already know. That's the problem.

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  12. I really loved RO. I think promoting it as a standalone film is a mistake; the movie is clearly a prequel but I think Disney is afraid of what that word signifies within the audience's understanding of Star Wars that they don't want to call it one.

    The movie certainly has it's flaws, a couple unnecessary callbacks and thinly sketched characters, but these didn't break the experience for me. I feel like the movie was competently plotted in a way that TFA wasn't (here I go) and sure, it wasn't as magical an experience but it was pitched as a war movie and I rarely walk away from war films thinking "boy, did that movie have a lot of heart." As far as Star Wars films go, it was a breath of fresh air to see someone make a movie that took place within the universe but didn't feel the need to box itself into an idea of what a Star Wars film should be. The story was great, the action was great, most of the fan service was tastefully done, and I feel like the movie will reward rewatches rather than punish them.

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  13. This review about sums up my feelings (though I think I did enjoy it a bit more than you, Patrick). I think I was more just disappointed that it wasn't the heist movie the people involved in the thing said it would be (the actual stealing of the plans *spoilers* is just sort of "We don't have a plan or know what we're going to do, but we're going to go and do something anyway!"). I would've preferred less time focused on characters finding other characters and more time paid to the different personalities of the group devising a plan to steal the Death Star, erm...plans.

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  14. At least this film offers definitive proof of something we have all long suspected: Even a blind man is a better shot than the average stormtrooper.

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    1. Idunno, Stormtroopers were pretty damned accurate in this particular entry...

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  15. I agree with pretty much everything in this review, the lack of characterization especially. In fact, I still couldn't tell you most of the characters' names without looking them up. The battle at the end is very well done, but ultimately didn't add up to anything to me because I didn't care about the characters and for the most part they didn't really have any reason to care about each other either. We know that the outcome is that the rebels will get the Death Star plans, so the only possible emotional payoff this movie can give us is if we're invested in the fate of this group but then they give us few reasons why we should be. Part of the problem is that once the group has come together, there's very little downtime for them to really interact or bond with one another. There's no calm before the storm moments. I'm not saying they all need deep backstories, but there at least need to be some hooks there to get us to like them.

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  16. Why do you hate Star Wars? Like everything ever, time will tell. I liked it a lot but I get someone not feeling the same way. I'm waiting for the day where we all agree on a movie. Seems like a pretty boring day.

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  17. Can we all at least agree that The Vader scene at the end was badass?

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  18. You don't need to apologize, Patrick. If you didn't like it, you didn't like it. As far as this whole stand alone thing, yeah, it doesn't seem very stand alone, unless you take into account that these are characters who will never have any connection to those in the saga films. That being said, I enjoyed its connectivity to Episode IV. Plus, although Episode VIII will probably be the film that officially gets the commendation for celebrating the 40th anniversary of the saga, Rogue One is the movie that tries to and nearly succeeds in honoring and celebrating the anniversary of A New Hope.




    Here are my minimal issues with the film. 1. No crawl. 2. The logo. 3. No transition wipes. I can deal with #3.

    The movie needed a crawl. I get Lucasfilm's reasoning for not having a crawl. I don't care. It needed a crawl. They have the "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." They have John Williams' fanfare at the end. There's no reason why the crawl should be the only thing they extract to make it a stand alone film. It's not very "stand alone" when the only thing you pull from tradition is the crawl. They probably felt that by putting in a crawl they may be putting themselves in a box and it would hamper any further stand alones they plan to do that might take place before Rogue One. But there's ways around that. It could've been worded in a way that would still give them an opportunity to create new stories in that timeline. The musical sting that opens the film and the track that follows makes the opening scene feel unfinished. But that's the only thing that really bothered me. Any other issues I had were minimal and I can live with them.

    I enjoyed it even more the second time. As far as the comparison game goes, for me The Force Awakens was better.


    As far as the character development is concerned, I really don't think it's an issue. It's no different than, say, A New Hope. Can any of us really say every character in that film is sufficiently fleshed out, or developed at all? Is Chewbacca a developed character in A New Hope? Is Leia? Is Tarkin? There are peripheral characters that don't even have names unless we consult the expanded universe or collect the toys. A lot of the established ensemble depend on the expanded universe to flesh out their characters.

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    1. Totally agree about the crawls. It's part of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. The movies, video games ... heck, even some of the books ... feature crawls. It's crazy the filmmakers thought it was something that should be pulled.

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    2. When the emotional payoff of the movie is that we're supposed to care about the sacrifice these characters make, I think it's absolutely important that they're developed. ESB would have had much less of an impact if it was Lobot getting the carbonite treatment rather than Han.

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    3. I thought there was emotional payoff where it counted. When Jyn listened to her father's hologram. When she dealt with her past with Saw. When Galen died and Jyn was at his side.

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    4. I'm sorry, I just don't see anything in this film comparable to the analogy you make, Lobot switching places with Han in ESB.

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    5. You suggested that it doesn't matter if most of the characters here are underdeveloped because a lot of the characters in ANH were underdeveloped as well but the drama in the original movies isn't built around what happens to Chewbacca or Tarkin.
      To me the central characters in Rogue One are the ones who are underdeveloped.

      If those scenes worked as payoffs for you, I can't very well tell you that you're wrong, but they fell flat to me because the only connection between Jyn and Galen and Saw is that one of them is her father, and the other is the guy who raised her. There's not really a relationship built up between any of them as they don't share any screen time for more than a couple minutes so when those characters die we only care to the extent that we can sympathize with Jyn, which personally was hard for me because I never really got a sense of her character.

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    6. Just because they don't share (enough) screen time doesn't mean their scenes lack emotional resonance. The actors are playing off of past experience. If actors can bring something emotional to a past we haven't seen and make us feel something, then it works. It did work for me, but I understand that it might not work for everyone.

      I was using Chewbacca and Tarkin as only two examples. Luke is inarguably the most developed character. As far as everyone else is concerned, we only know as much as we need to know as it applies to the story being told. Namely, A New Hope. I think the same applies with Rogue One. And like the original trilogy, or just ANH specifically, whatever we don't know from the film is going to built upon in the animated series and the expanded universe.

      The only reason I disagree with your ESB analogy is because it is ESB you're using as your comparison. It's the second film in the trilogy. Of course we're going to have more emotional resonance to Han and his predicament in that film, not merely because we're already comfortable with his character, but because ESB takes his story into a more emotional place than ANH.

      In ANH, Tarkin is the chief baddie and Vader is just the muscle, and yet in this instance the muscle is more developed than the chief baddie.

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  19. Just chiming in to mention that I really hated the sassy, ironic, eye-rolling hipster droid. Truly a Jar Jar Binks for the modern age.
    The CGI horror show is completely unnecessary at best and downright embarrassing at worst. Every time a certain character appeared on screen it totally took me out of the movie. Someone should explain to the writers and the director that the fact that something can be done doesn't mean it should be done.
    The retroactive backlash against Force Awakens is just laughable to me. That movie had huge problems with its priorites, but at least it was fun and engaging for much of its runtime. Rogue One is just straight up stiff and boring.

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    1. I don't agree with you that K-2SO is even one iota like Jar Jar -- he never devolves into those slapsticky pratfalls -- and the CG never took me out of the movie (except for the Leia scene, which may take me some time to come around to), but I do agree with you about the Force Awakens backlash. I don't get it at all. I like Rogue One just fine... but it is not better than Force Awakens. I hate having to bring one movie I like down to hold another movie up, but you brought it up, and it needed to be said.

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    2. Both K2SO and Jar Jar are meant to fill a comic relief role, but I think most would agree that the similarities end there. One's dry and sardonic whereas the other one is a broad, over-the-top cartoon that is completely incongruous with the tone of the series. I'd argue that K2SO's humor pretty strongly echoes Han's "fuck it" attitude in the original trilogy. If it didn't work for you, it didn't work for you, but painting it as ironic hipster dreck seems like a reach.

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  20. Yeah, wasn't really big on this movie. The characters are dry as hell, on average less interesting than even the prequel trilogy's cast, and I'm incredibly glad that they're only in this one movie. This was hugely disappointing to me because I loved The Force Awakens' characters and am hugely excited to see their stories continue.

    Was also disappointed by how not weird this movie is. They had an opportunity to make something really out there for the series but they still held firmly to a lot of Star Wars cliches, like ending with a big space fight and keeping a steady sense of humor, even though this film would've hugely benefited from that disconnect from the main saga's tone.

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    1. I've heard Rian Johnson might be taking Episode VIII into a pretty weird direction.

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  21. I'd stop short of saying I LOVED it but I had a great time with Rogue One. Maybe it was going in with lowered expectations but I thought it was well-paced and though I get that it was light on characterization, war movies are generally filled with archetypes with minimal development so I'm okay with it. Where it really succeeded was fleshing out the Star Wars universe - I mean Jedha was the best depiction of what a galactic society looks like since Mos Eisley in ANH. I thought that felt a little forced in TFA but it seemed really natural in this. I do agree that I never really experienced some of the great feels that I did with TFA but I do think Rogue One is the more solid movie overall.

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