So, now that the opening weekend excitement is out of the way, the reviews are in, and the arguments have started in earnest, I’d like to offer my humble assessment of the best and the worst of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Spoilers ahead.

Was it entertaining? Oh, yes. Was it visually stunning? Oh, yes, again. Was it up to the overall quality of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? That’s debatable. And I have to say no. While there is much to praise about Rogue One, in many ways it fell into some lazy habits that undermined the potential of a story we all already knew the ending to.

The Good

Rogue One's Rebels
Rogue One’s Rebels

Darth Vader—Bringing back the sheer physical menace of the early Vader was a keen tactical move. The closing scene where he casually devastates the cornered Rebel forces with his lightsaber and the Force is breathtaking, reminding us all over again of why he is such an enduring villain.

Effects—The battle scenes were spectacular, as promised. In addition to the flashy guerrilla street fights and Death Star demos, the inclusion of the Episode IV sequences during the final space battle was an excellent connection to the original saga. But what most impressed me was the destruction of the shield around Scarif—seeing a couple of disabled Imperial Star Destroyers get shoved through the gate by a small rebel ship was pretty bold.

Secondary characters—They were the real treasures in Rogue One, managing to take stilted, stereotypical characters and really make them breathe. Alan Tudyk as the repurposed droid K-2SO, Donnie Wen as the blind Jedi Chirrut Imwe, Jiang Wen as his barbarian sidekick Baze Malbus, and Riz Ahmed as the former Imperial pilot Bohdi Rook, all brought tremendous sympathy to their roles and made me care about their fates in a way the leads didn’t.

The Bad

The Death Star is always bad
The Death Star is always bad

Grand Moff Tarkin—Peter Cushing has been dead long enough (he passed in 1994) for it to make sense to cast a new actor in the role. Alternatively, the script could have focused on the multitude of other characters and left Tarkin out of it. What they decided to do felt too much like grave-robbing to me, especially since the CGI was not quite good enough to climb out of the uncanny valley. Tarkin was creepy, alright, just not in the way it was intended.

Lead characters—Jyn and Cassian were far less engaging than the secondary characters. Felicity Jones looked uncomfortably like Jo from The Facts of Life throughout the action, with her face locked in a perpetual frown. There was no sense of connection between her and Diego Luna (or anyone else, really), who fared slightly better in the emoting department. I got the feeling of very good actors given thin, thin parts and not enough space to bring them fully to life.

Slipshod plotting—The reason for Rogue One’s existence is to get from point A to point A New Hope, but there are ways to tell a story with a foregone conclusion that keep it compelling (Argo comes to mind as a recent success). This missed the mark. In their attempt to recall the visual style of the original trilogy, the opening sequences came across as rushed and not especially well connected. Jyn’s backstory also seemed perfunctory, presented in info-dump dialogue to get it out of the way of the next big battle. And the final scenes of the Death Star plans reaching their destination suffered the same hurried fate with an abrupt resolution. It made it very hard for me to invest in the story.

The Other Bits

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Speaking of connecting to the originals, Rogue One did a nice job namechecking the first trilogy with the looming AT-ATs, the Scarif bunkers, and the desert landscape of Jedah. The musical score also very reminiscent of John Williams’s epic work for A New Hope.

But why does the empire put all its controls in awkward and fully exposed locations? They achieved seamless and true AI, but they can’t put the Master Switch somewhere other than on an unprotected podium out in the open?

Why did Jyn’s mother tell her to trust the force? Did Jyn even have the force? I kept wondering when we’d get back to that, but it seems like the explanation for that emphasized line was left out in the rewrites.

All in all, I found the latest entry in the franchise to be a mixed bag of quality. What worked for me worked very well, but what was lacking became distractions too strong to overcome. I’m glad I saw it, because it was a visual feast with some highly interesting characters. But I’m not likely to go back and watch it the way I do with the rest of the saga.

And that’s my take-away from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle

A year ago I reviewed the first season of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. Now, with the premiere of season two, I’d like to look at the source material. While I enjoyed Amazon’s version of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternative history, the novel The Man in the High Castle is contemplative and tentative in ways that few TV series are equipped to handle. The two versions are complimentary, but not truly comparable.

***

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was both published and set in 1962, and supposes a diametrically different outcome to World War II than we know.  In this world the United States fell in 1947, and was carved up between imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Reich is a grasping power, and its relationship with Japan is strained and distrustful. Europe and Africa are ravaged by huge environmental and humanitarian deprivations. There is space travel, and nuclear weapons. There is also a haunting sense of instability. The world order is unsustainable.

***

Unlike its television interpretation, the novel The Man in the High Castle does not need bold action to move it along. Although many things do happen, they are small more often than dramatic. The novel relies largely on character development for its propulsion. Dick’s characters are more circumspect versions of their series alter-egos, and to varying degrees uncertain of their paths.

What is to me most striking about The Man In The High Castle is the finely-tuned tension running through it because of the characters’ uncertainties. The entire novel takes place in the through between sweeping political events, and is told from the points of view of people who are not aware that they can have any influence on the course of history–yet. That possible future influence fills the novel with potential energy as characters come to terms with the circumstances of their lives, and finally make the decisions to steer them rather than merely drift.

A map of PKD's alternate world
A map of PKD’s alternate world

***

Also altered in translation are the importance of two books that form the thematic backbone of Dick’s original work.

The first book is a novel within a novel, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—an alternate history to the alternate history it exists in. While Germany has reason to dislike the future envisioned in the subversive book, their banning of it does nothing to stop its popularity, or its influence on German citizens and subjects: “What upset him was this. This death of Adolf Hitler, the defeat and destruction of Hitler, the Partei, and Germany itself, as depicted in Abendsen’s book…it was all somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world. The world of German hegemony” (133).

The second book is the philosophical guide The I Ching, which most of the characters use to decide the potential outcomes of their actions. It is an exercise in ambiguity and delicate moral complexity, of what may be and what might have been. Everything is open to interpretation, each throw of the sticks leads to a subtly different reading of the associated lines. Nothing is certain until action is taken, nothing is clear until it is in hindsight.

Under the influence of either or both of the two books, the characters decide their paths and reinvent both their places in this world and their ability to change them. Few of those changes are on a grand scale. Like so much else, they are incremental until the balance tips.

***

The man behind The Man in the High Castle
The man behind The Man in the High Castle

I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. (185)

Unlike its serial adaptation, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is a story of transitions both personal and cultural. It is the story of characters coming to an understanding of where their lives have taken them so far, and what possibilities are open to them now. It is not merely an alternative version of the history we know. It is also an examination of how history is made, of the tiny components and the commonplace characters that are as much a part of its making as the men in power.

Lest we forget.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!