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Going Rogue One

One of the most heated debates raging in Science Fiction fandom is the Star Wars canon, and what is actually included in it. When George Lucas first released Star Wars in 1977, not he, nor the studios anticipated the popularity of the film and no one could have anticipated its longevity and wide ranging appeal. It has spawned three sequels, numerous books, a couple of cartoon series, several video games and three prequels. Each of these additions tells a different story based in the same universe, sometimes using the same characters. The debate rages over which of these additional stories is “real,” and which is entirely outside the main story. Some say that only the movies are canon, while others say everything is. This weekend sees the first cinematic “additional story” to add to the Star Wars Universe and it is going to add fuel to the fire of this debate.

Rogue One tells a story set between the end of Star Wars episode three, “Revenge of the Sith” and before the events of episode four, “A New Hope,” wherein a young girl, the daughter of the man who designed the dreaded Death Star, joins the rebellion to help the alliance get the plans that are the crux of episode four. I need not worry about spoilers inasmuch as everyone who has seen the original Star Wars knows that the rebels do indeed get the plans and destroy the Death Star. Having said that, one might ask why bother to see this movie. Two reasons: Felicity Jones and Darth Vader.

Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner who saw her mother killed and father enslaved by the empire and grew up under the care of one of the more radical elements of the rebellion, Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker. A reluctant rebel at first, she manages to motivate the rebels into attacking the empire to try to get the plans for the death star to exploit the weakness her father built into it. This is where the debate is going to rage. According to episode four, the alliance didn’t know if there was such a weakness. Leia even mentioned it to Han Solo by saying “I only hope a weakness can be found.” According to the events in Rogue One, they knew there was a weakness.

Jones does a great job of playing the reluctant hero, and she brings the viewer into Jyn’s tortured world and allows us to understand her motivations. We cheer at her victories and weep for her sorrows and we can’t help but think of her as the little sister who we know is in over her head. This is facilitated by the fact that she looks just like a younger Sara Michelle Gellar.

Vader is a bit of a surprise here, because he actually fights better here than he did in Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones reprises the role of Vader’s voice while three actors have credit for his actions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but enough especially at the end when he is pursuing the stolen plans that will eventually lead him to Tatooine.

Several familiar characters enjoy appearances in this film. Of course, Darth Vader has a role, but so does Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing’s face digitally stitched onto another actor. Also, princess Leia has a cameo with Carrie Fisher’s younger face digitally stitched onto another actress. The ruffian who roughed up Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes an appearance as does C3P0 and Artoo.

There is another droid in this film, a reprogrammed imperial service droid is the partner of Jyn’s pilot Cassian Andor. The droid, K-2S0 is voice by Alan Tudyk who gives the droid a quick wit and a bit more humanity than even C3P0, if that is at all possible. As I watched the character’s interaction, I kept saying to myself, ‘that violates the laws of robotics.” But maybe that’s the point.

The film’s weakness is its beginning. Too many scene changes and too many plot threads make it difficult to follow along at first and it threatens to throw the viewer out of the story out of frustration. This is necessary to familiarize the viewer with all the moving parts of this story, since, unlike every other Star Wars movie, there is no text crawl at the beginning to set the stage. Fortunately it does pick up when the main story arc becomes clear.

While this is by far not the best Star Wars film, It isn’t the worst one either. There’s no Jar Jar Binks in this one. While it definitely won’t win an academy award (though it may get a technical nod), Rogue One is an entertaining escapist film. It will defiantly be water cooler discussion fodder for weeks as fan boys debate whether or not or even how it fits in the established Star Wars lore.

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Worth The Wait?

More than 30 years after the release of the first title, the Star Wars franchise has finally provided a sequel to the original trilogy storyline. Because of the extensive time since we last heard about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa, interest in this sequel has driven the internet into a frenzy of leaked images and plotlines and trailers for more than a year. Discussions abound about the supposed plot as people comb over the trailers frame by frame trying to predict the story. Has Luke turned to the Dark Side of the Force? Who is the mysterious masked villain? Did Han and Leia get married? The answers to these questions and more are promised in this seventh episode, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately the answers are not all delivered and more questions are raised as the series is clumsily helmed by a new team of writers and directors, steering the film as badly as our new heroine Rey flies learning how to pilot the Millennium Falcon.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

George Lucas’ grand space opera was launched in 1977 and provided an episode every three or four years until the Return of the Jedi. Lucas said he had originally plotted out 9 episodes in the series: the original three, a set of three prequels and three sequels. After the Phantom Menace bombed, Lucas said he would not be filming the last three, setting off a disturbance in the force like a thousand voices crying out in terror. After the Revenge of the Sith, Lucas sold his production company—and all rights to the Star Wars franchise—to Disney, who promptly announced plans for a sequel trilogy much to the delight of the millions of fans.

Disney picked director J.J. Abrams to helm the project as producer and director. Abrams has a distinctive style as evidenced in his other work. He was tapped by Paramount to reinvigorate Star Trek, and while many trekkers have issues with some of the license he has taken, most agree that his eye brings dynamic visuals to the films. He brings that same visual artistry to The Force Awakens. There is no arguing that the movie has breathtaking effects. My problem with Mr. Abrams is his overreliance on action to the detriment of plot. Star Trek suffers from this in huge ways. In fact, the Star Trek Beyond trailer shows with the Force Awakens and offers a film that promises almost nothing but breathtaking visuals and mind numbing action. I was hoping for more plot in Star Wars The Force Awakens. I was disappointed.

It has been reported that George Lucas offered to help with scripting, but that Abrams turned him down. Given how stilted the 3 prequels were written, that may have been a good thing, especially in the light that Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the original Star Wars scripts, was brought on to co-write the Force Awakens. The overall story was ok, owing to Kasdan’s involvement, but the movie suffers from abrupt cuts to allow for more visuals and action. Several sequences fail to connect the story elements in a logical way and leave holes in the plot that become glaring as the story progresses. Maybe having Lucas on board would have been better after all. To his credit, Abrams pays homage to the original trilogy throughout the film, from the opening scroll and fanfare to the creatures populating every scene in the movie, you know you are watching a Star Wars film. One obvious improvement is that the acting in this film is, for the most part, way better than the stiff and stilted performances in the prequels.

Mild spoilers follow. I won’t give away any big reveals here.

The film suffers from plot holes created by the cuts made to feature the more exciting scenes. We don’t understand what is motivating the actions of our heroes or villains. When the film ends we still don’t know why Rey is living in exile on a nearly barren planet subsisting on salvage from wrecked ships and a crashed star destroyer. We don’t know why Finn decides to go AWOL from the New Order and join the resistance. We don’t know why they don’t know about the force or consider Luke Skywalker a myth. We don’t know why the New Republic hasn’t made taking out the First Order as big a priority as defeating the empire was. We don’t know why Rey would wander around Maz’s compound where she happens to stumble upon Luke’s original lightsaber. It was as if Abrams had a scene in mind, but couldn’t quite figure out how to set it up in the continuity, so he didn’t bother.

Abrams also tries to introduce new abilities for the Force that we never saw in the previous 6 films. Kylo Ren seems to be able to read minds, a trick that not even Yoda mastered. Rea has the ability to use the Force with literally no training whatsoever. Jedi are trained from near birth to learn how to use the Force. Yoda even thought that Annican was too old to begin training. Luke was on Dagoba for weeks being trained by the oldest and most powerful Jedi master before he mastered the basic elements of the Force.

Annican’s light saber, the same one that Luke lost in his first battle with Darth Vader, appears in The Force Awakens with no explanation of how it got there. It also seems to “call” to Rey. While the Force is a living force, binding all living things together, a light saber is not a living thing. It is also not a magical thing. Luke’s light saber is not Excalibur, bestowing powers upon its wielder. I have more questions, but to list them would require major spoilers.

Perhaps Abrams wants us to think that the force is changing. Perhaps the Force has its own consciousness. Perhaps Yoda and Palpatine were wrong in their understanding of the true nature of the Force. Because Abrams didn’t devote any screen time to exploring these ideas, we will just have to wait and see. Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy the movie, cheering at times, clapping at times and gasping at times. It is an enjoyable film. I just wanted more answers and more story than it delivered.

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