Movie Review: Rogue One

I will try to keep this review spoiler-free. No, really. 

If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you’re going to see this film. You know it and I know it. What you might be worried about is will you like the film? Rest assured, fanboys (and gals), you will come out of theater happy with what you see.

The setup

Many Star Wars fans–I am among them–have memorized the opening crawl text from the first film, now titled Episode IV: A New Hope:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.

Rogue One, as shown in the trailers, is the dramatization of that prologue. The MacGuffin moving the story forward is, as in Episode IV, the Death Star plans.

This is a fun film. The title: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story covers it nicely. It weaves in and out of Episode IV here and there while concentrating on a new batch of characters, both members of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Many of the elements are familiar: the Death Star, the force, Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, X-wings, Tie Fighters, Imperial Stardestroyers, etc.

As is typical of a Star Wars story, the story also takes its characters and us, the audience, to a variety of exotic planets. Unusual aliens greet us, as do a new set of spacecraft–some sleek, some ugly and dented–all part of the “lived in” universe George Lucas did so much to bring to life (yikes) 39 years ago.

Why I liked it

This will be tricky without spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Geek that I am, I always like to see what new stuff the folks at Lucasfilm will add to the galaxy far, far away, and I was not disappointed. They’re running out of new landscapes to film on Earth, but through careful hunting around our diverse planet and some judicious matte painting or digital effects, the filmmakers still manage to give us (if I may cross genres for a moment) strange, new worlds.

I liked the new characters, who manage to carry on the snarky interactions and uncertain-friendship dynamics of the original trilogy while still being likable. Over the course of two hours and some-odd minutes, I managed to care about how they fare. That’s no easy thing, as we learned, painfully, from Episodes I-III.

I suppose what impressed me the most about this film was the production design. Everything from helmets to tools to clothing to architecture to spacecraft looked believable. Again, that “lived in” feeling of the environment was meticulously crafted. And, more to the point, much of it was crafted to look functional, worn, and used, as everyday objects are in our real lives. There are also some other special effects tricks in the film that I can’t describe without spoiling things for the fans, but suffice to say you will be impressed.

The plot I described above. Director Gareth Edwards deftly handles the script and all of the moving parts necessary to make a good Star Wars story. The pacing is good. The dialogue is mostly “business” (moving the plot forward) with just enough character moments to remind you that these are supposed to be people we’re rooting for, not action figures. The space and planetary battles moved by at a rapid clip, as expected, almost a shade too fast to follow at points, but nothing glaring.

I suppose the best compliment I can pay to the film is that I want to see it again. And really, isn’t that what we want out of a good movie?

A couple thoughts for non-Star Wars fans

I know you’re out there: people who are not Star Wars fans or who for your own reasons have never seen any part of the franchise. Yet now your spouse or significant other has told you that you’re going, and you’re wondering if you’re going to care at all. If you like adventure stories, yes, you should like this. There’s some “heart” to be found as well.

The best piece of advice I could give to the uninitiated would be to at least watch the first Star Wars, the one for which this story serves as a prologue. It will introduce you to the Star Wars universe and provide the background for what’s going on. You don’t need to watch the entire series. Episode IV will also provide you with some timeline connections that will help you see how this episode fits in with that one while telling its own story.

Okay, I’ve blathered on long enough. Go see the movie. You know you want to.

Zero G and I Feel Fine

A large number of my friends on Facebook are, like me, enthusiasts about human spaceflight. Therefore, naturally, the death of the first American in orbit (and the last of the “Original 7” American astronauts), John H. Glenn, Jr., produced a lot of mourning and sadness. I have to confess, Senator Glenn’s mission was before my time, but I honor his memory.

Three orbits around the world: it seems almost trivial now, when we’ve got astronauts circling the Earth for 150 days at a clip (and approximately 16 orbits a day). But at the time, Yuri Gagarin had flown around the world once and Gherman Titov had done it 17 times. So space was new in the early 1960s. And, as the book by Tom Wolfe pointed out, “Our boys always blow it” and “Our rockets always blow up.” Being an astronaut or a cosmonaut was a big deal and a high-risk proposition, especially since the odds of your dying in an experimental vehicle were high.

By 1962, the United States had put up two astronauts in the Mercury capsule aboard the Redstone rocket. The missions had gone suborbital, meaning that they had essentially gone up and down without circling the Earth. John Glenn, a United States Marine who had fought in World War II and Korea, was a test pilot with an ego as big as any of the Original Seven. His only difference was in lifestyle and public perception: he was not a hell raiser, fast car driver, or skirt chaser. He was as wholesome as one can get and still fly sh!t-hot airplanes across the country.

NASA chose Glenn for the first orbital flight because he was the next one in the mission pilot rotation. No doubt the agency was nervous about putting Glenn on the Atlas, which at the time had a less-than-reliable flight record. But send him they did, and Glenn went aboard willingly. Glenn was a Marine, as patriotic as they come, and he took his position as an astronaut seriously. The Mercury 6 spacecraft did not function perfectly, and Glenn had to end his mission early after the ground control staff got an erroneous signal that the retrorocket package–which held the spacecraft heat shield in place–had jettisoned prematurely. Friendship 7 and its pilot survived, and Glenn returned to Earth a hero.

Much like the Soviet Union’s treatment of Yuri Gagarin, the United States was leery of launching their biggest space hero into the great beyond again, and so Glenn was effectively grounded. Instead, he sought greener pastures. He left NASA, ran for the Senate, lost, but later won and served multiple terms (1974-1999).

Here’s what I wrote for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW) about Glenn’s accomplishments:

The TVIW community expresses its sadness at the death of John Glenn, America’s first orbital explorer. Respected as a Marine pilot in World War 2 and Korea, a Navy test pilot at Patuxent River, and a NASA astronaut, he also served his country as a U.S. Senator and as the oldest person to fly in orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Glenn expressed America’s sense of bravery and wonder in a dangerous time. His three orbits aboard Friendship 7 also represented this nation’s first steps into sustained human presence beyond the Earth. The steps might seem small now, but at the time Glenn’s mission represented a true exploration of a new frontier. That indomitable spirit of adventure will be remembered and needed as humanity expands into the solar system and, eventually, beyond.

I still believe that. As a Senator, Glenn was as much a partisan as anyone in his party, and I’m not going to lie and say that I agreed with him. But his accomplishments and his bravery–at a time we needed both–command my respect as much as the other Original Seven and the Apollo Program men who walked on the Moon. America has lost a hero to time (Glenn was 95 years old). However, as long as we honor the virtues and technical virtuosity that men like Glenn demonstrated, we have something to aspire to, and we enlarge what we mean when we think of ourselves as human beings.

The exploration and settlement of space are among the most difficult things human beings have accomplished or ever will accomplish. It is right that we recognize and honor the people who perform the activity and make it possible. Ad Astra, sir.

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

I thought I’d know what I was going to say when I sat down to write this review, but I suddenly found myself stuck. I knew I had to write something. I also knew this much going into Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist: it would feature excerpts from her diary from the time she made the original Star Wars and she would talk about her affair with costar Harrison Ford. Okay, maybe I knew a little more than that because I’d seen some of her other movies and read Postcards from the Edge and Surrender the Pink. I could expect her distinctive, remarkable writing style, though I haven’t read any of her stuff recently. What was causing my initial hesitation? I’m one of them–those fans who delight and vex the author.

I have to pause for a moment: I had originally written “I hadn’t read any of Carrie’s stuff recently” above, then politely changed it to her because I do not know Ms. Fisher. I do not know Princess Leia, the role that catapulted her and her costars to superstardom, except as a fan and fannish writer. I’ve tried not to delude myself about my relationships with fictional characters or the people who portray them, despite having dreams where I’ve talked to Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill as actors, as though I knew them personally. These people get under your skin when you’re not looking. Or if you’ve been looking for nearly 40 years, as I have.

It’s just a movie, I remind myself (But it changed my life! my seven-year-old self replies indignantly). She was a person playing a role in a movie, says my inner adult (but she gave the role with just the right spirit to make her iconic 40 years later!). If this book talks about anything, it’s about the relationships that Hollywood actors have with their roles and then with the fans enamored of those characters. And, as I noted above, it’s confusing. I shall attempt to refrain from any additional claims to relationship or ownership of Ms. Fisher’s mind; however, I’m still keeping my action figures.

In any case, as problematic as it is writing about Carrie Fisher as a fan, this book makes it clear how intensely bizarre and difficult it must be to be Carrie Fisher, the person who has lived with this role for 40 years. You might be curious, as I was, about what she thought about most at that time. If you read her diary, which is what she invites her fans to do, you discover that she was most intensely focused on her affair with the now-internationally-famous-many-times-over Harrison Ford.

What comes across most clearly in Fisher’s prose, both now and then, is how blessed smart and funny she is. Her writing sparkles with a spontaneous wit and originality that I hope to achieve someday. She has her own voice. As soon as I read her description of her first iconic hairdo as “the buns of Navarone,” I knew I was in for a treat. This was the writing I remember from Postcards from the Edge–snarky and all-the-way fun. Some bits just jumped out at me and caused me to devour this book in a few hours…

   I need to write. It keeps me focused for long enough to complete thoughts. To let each train of thought run to its conclusion and let a new one begin. It keeps me thinking. I’m afraid that if I stop writing I’ll stop thinking and start feeling. I can’t concentrate when I’m feeling.


You see, my dear, you are not Carrie Fisher at all. They just told that to test you.


I would like to not be able to hear myself think. I constantly hear my mind chattering and jabbering away up there all by itself. I wish it would give me a f###ing break.


   The itsy bitsy spidered his way up my water spout
He little Jack Hornered his way into my corner
And now I can’t get him out
He at all my porridge, sat in my chair
Slept in my bed, washed himself into my hair

At the same time, it can be painful to read Fisher’s writing. She lays out her vulnerabilities like 8 X 10″ glossies on a Comic Con autograph table. She is hyperconscious, self-studying, and self-deprecating to a fault. It hurts to see someone you admire be this hard on themselves.

The Princess Diarist is akin to an emotional strip tease (Fisher calls autograph signing a “lap dance”) with surprisingly little nudity. For example, she is intimate in her writing about Ford, not Salacious–sorry, had to throw that in there. I would be curious to know how Ford reacted to this book, assuming he read it, but that’s between them. She lays bare her troubled relationship with her father; her one-sided passion for a stoic, standoffish, and smart-assed Harrison Ford; her awkward moments with long lines of fans at conventions. If you want to know “What must it be like to be Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia?” this book answers that, in spades, hearts, and every other suit you can think of.

In any case, I wish her well as she continues with new chapters of her life as Princess (now General) Leia Organa and, hopefully, happily, as Carrie Fisher. If I’m ever crazy enough to go to a con and stand in line for her autograph, I’ll keep it short and sweet and let her move on with her day. Judging by The Princess Diarist, the self-doubting princess/actress/icon has had enough worshippers for one lifetime. Maybe several.