Recently seen: Rogue One

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Years ago, I decided that I don’t like the Star Wars “saga”. I know that saying this is not going to make me popular with the many people that absolutely love these movies, but I am in good company: In 1990, I attended ConFiction in The Hague. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I met several science fiction writers on that occasion, one of them being John Brunner. At that memorable lunch, he flatly stated that Star Wars had been a disaster for science fiction. Star Wars, Brunner said, was a throwback to the simple science fiction as it was written in the thirties and forties, not the much more sophisticated contemporary stuff. How unfortunate that this throw-back to the thirties would be the first encounter with science fiction for almost a whole generation.

I couldn’t agree more.

I well remember seeing the original Star Wars movie, later renamed “Episode IV-A New Hope”, and being blown away by it. It was only much later that I realized that I had been blown away by the special effects, which were light years more advanced than anything I had ever seen before. But the cheesy and flimsy story so full of holes? Not so much. In fact, years later I went to see one of the reissues of the movie hoping to be awed like I was in 1977 and, by then used to this kind of special effects, was more or less bored to death.

It’s not just the silly light-sabers or The Force and connected mystical claptrap. Nor is it the space ships that look like fighter planes and perform similar acrobatics, oblivious to the fact that such is impossible in the vacuum of space, because this is unfortunately a staple of most science fiction movies. No, it is far worse. The whole background of the much-praised Star Wars universe is actually full of holes. Let me just name one. Whereas many of the more colorful scenes from these movies show numerous non-human races (but almost all of them humanoid: two legs, two arms, nose and eyes, etc), the vast majority of the Empire’s soldiers and almost all persons of any importance are human. Really? In a galaxy-wide civilization encompassing many different species? Now that we’re at it, indulge me and let me name one more hole. The Empire is built on terror and fear. Even its highest officials tremble for Darth Vader and the Emperor. And with reason, because both of these baddies don’t hesitate for a second to kill anybody who displeases them, no matter how highly placed. Historically, such reigns of terror, while often devastating enough, hardly ever endure more than a few years, or perhaps a decade at most. Read up on some cruel dictators of our time, like Idi Amin Dada (who claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland) or Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself Emperor of the Central African Republic (at the time of course renamed to Central African Empire), or -in the more distant past- look at the fate of the crueler Roman emperors. It is very difficult for blood thirsty tyrants like Bokassa or Vader to instill much, if any, loyalty in their underlings and usually sooner than later they are overthrown. But in Star Wars it is never explained why Vader and the Emperor manage to have so many people, from lowly stormtroopers to high level officials and officers follow them and do their evil bidding. Surely not even the power provided by the “dark side” of the Force can explain this.

After seeing the third movie of the franchise, Return of the Jedi, I gave up and never went to see any of the following movies. Until recently, that is, when I decided that given the popularity of the franchise, I might be wrong after all or perhaps that the movies had improved over time. So I decided to give George Lucas and the Star Wards franchise another chance and went to see Rogue One. Unfortunately, I cannot report any significant improvements and I must admit that this is likely the last movie in this series that I’ll ever waste several hours of my life on.

The main plot line of Rogue One concerns the efforts of the Rebel Alliance to obtain the construction plans of the Death Star. I guess everybody knows what this is, by now, but just to be pedantic, this is the unlikely-large space station that contains a huge weapon that can destroy whole planets. Why “unlikely-large”? Well, think about it. This humongous vessel needs almost 2 million people to operate and -at almost 100 miles in diameter (the size of a small dwarf planet)- an unfathomable amount of materials to construct it. Instead of this one ship that can be deployed only at one place at a time, a smarter Emperor could use the same resources to build thousands (or tens of thousands) of large cruisers and battleships and project power much more efficiently over a whole galaxy. Yes, I know: the Death Star is supposed to be a terror weapon capable of destroying whole planets. But then, a dozen battleships capable of firing a couple of hundred nukes a piece could just as well sterilize any planet of any life larger than a cockroach to the full satisfaction of any evil Emperor.

In Rogue One, this almost becomes a caricature. To demonstrate the huge power of the Death Star, a city on the planet Jedha is targeted and destroyed. Really! A whole city!! With one shot!!! OMG!!! This enormous feat discourages a majority of the rebels, who are ready to give up in the face of so much power. Yeah, right. Ever heard of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Why would folk commanding enormous spaceships capable of untold mayhem be impressed by the destruction of just one city? Surely people who can travel faster than light are also capable of harnessing nuclear power…

So after having thrashed the Death Star and the procurement policies of the Empire, what do I think was wrong with Rogue One? For a starter, there’s the overly dramatic music, which after 10 minutes at most becomes really irritating. I love trumpets, really, but too much of a good thing is simply too much. The story line is overly formulaic and simplistic to a fault. The characters are all cardboard-like and it is very difficult if not impossible to identify with any of them, good or bad. They just go through the motions, without anything more complex than “saintly” or “pure evil” coming into play. And then there’s the rambling grand finale of the movie, when the main characters go to a planet named Scarif to break into the Empire’s archives and steal the plans for the Death Star. Not surprisingly, things don’t go all that smooth and mayhem ensues.

Sure, this results in a lot of action and great special effects, but logic has fallen victim to these effects. I’m not even talking too much about the fact that this high-tech Empire saves its valuable archives on some sort of VCR cassettes that are stored in a huge vault and have to be retrieved mechanically. Seriously? There really is no handier way of doing this? And despite the fact that a lot of highly sensitive super-secret material is stored here (like the plans for the Death Star), there sits this huge broadcasting antenna on top of the archives, just to make things easier for any spies, I guess.

To make life even easier for said spies (but rather miserable for the regular operators, I guess), all controls for handling this emitter and antenna are handily located outside and on top of that huge tower. That way, we can have some harrowing scenes with gaping depths that our heroes threaten to fall into. Apparently solely for the purpose to offer spaceships zapping by an opportunity to shoot at these heroes, the joy stick (!) that is used to align the antenna is rather inconveniently located on a walkway sticking out from the tower. The Emperor and Darth Vader should do something really nasty to the incompetent engineers who designed this tower, they deserve it!

And what’s the deal with robots in the Star Wars universe? They never seem to do much of anything useful, are often hilariously clumsy (like C-3PO), and generally only seem to exist for comic relief. They certainly don’t do things that humans couldn’t do, either, which I think defies the whole purpose of robotics. Let me finish with one final blooper. Near the end, the rebels, who have all but given up, learn of the attack on the Imperial archives and reverse course completely, deciding to join the fight. They are based on a different planet, presumably in a different star system altogether. Nevertheless, within minutes of their decision, they are in orbit around Scarif shooting it out with the Imperials. Well, that’s because of their FTL drives, of course…

So was there nothing I liked in this movie? Well, yes, there was. As I have mentioned several times above, the special effects are really very good and at time breathtaking, the more so because I saw the movie in an IMAX theater in 3D. The vistas of strange planets make you dream of future vacations… But is that enough to carry a more than 2 hour movie? Not as far as I am concerned.