Movie Review: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts

I understand that my movie reviews tend to come a little late to the party, but one a limited budget, we see these things when we can, which is usually why these reviews end up coming in twos. So Christmas weekend, my wife and I were blessed to receive some gift money, and we decided it was high time we saw some movies that were still in theaters and not five months after the DVD release. We visited two different local theaters in order to see one movie per day (Friday and Saturday) and managed to not overtax our minds.

I’ll start with Fantastic Beasts, since the Harry Potter universe is what helped kickstart my love of reading and fantasy, and possibly even writing in general. This is a movie crafted for my age and my generation, as the main protagonist is a full-fledged adult, and not a child going through a coming of age narrative. First off, I don’t remember there being much language, only light sexual scenarios and flirting, but plenty of violence, child abuse, and manipulation, as well as some religious themes that we’ll get to later. Honestly, I cannot recommend this for anyone younger than twelve, and certainly not without a discussion afterwards.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander and his difficulty acclimatizing to the American magical community. Societal rules are far different and much more strict than in Britain with so much care being taken that magical and non-magical persons are not allowed to marry. Regardless, a non-magical man gets pulled into this magical world, and we get to see the wonder of Newt’s vast menagerie of magical creatures which range from cute, to ferocious, to terrifying.

Without spoiling the ending, let’s talk about the religious themes and child abuse present in this movie. Arguably, we can say that child abuse was present in the neglect and mistreatment of Harry Potter in the original series, but here the abuse is much more visceral with actual physical violence shown and implied. The religious society in this movie is fundamentally founded on opposing magic and its users as evil and corrupt. And the leader of this society is the main originator of the child abuse shown.

The main discussions I can see coming out of viewing this movie would tangle with sidelined groups who do not feel heard (Matthew 5), violence and abuse (Matthew 5-7), the importance and care of pets and other animals (Genesis 1-2), and maybe even some about the final decision of the US magical government in dealing with the final threat, asking what your child would have done or tried differently.

Rogue One, though lacking the pulse-pounding, ear thrumming  John Williams theme along with an opening crawl manages to capture the desperation and struggle of a rag-tag alliance who feel they are doing the right thing in opposing an oppressive Imperial power bent on domination through violence. The Rebel Alliance prepares for war by seeking out plans for the Empire’s new (yet familiar to most of us) weapon – the Death Star. The most impressive feat of this movie is that removing the credits from Rogue One and the opening text crawl of A New Hope would allow these movies to be played back to back as one (long) seamless movie.

Now, my enjoyment of this movie does come down a bit when considering how much darker this feels than A New Hope or even The Force Awakens. This feels, as I have heard others say, like a war movie. (Ironic, isn’t it?) Desperation drives characters to extremes, causing deaths, leading to more anger, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the good of others. Death does seem to be a main story-driving force in this movie as the death toll for named characters seems higher here than many of the other movies. And for the first time ever, I felt myself actually afraid of the iconic villain Darth Vader in one of the final action sequences. If you are familiar with Hamlet or Game of Thrones, you know the deal coming into this movie – don’t get attached to anyone. So when it comes to younger children seeing this movie, I may recommend waiting a few years, as before, til around 11 or 12. Some discussion you might have: working together as a team, courage in the face of danger, self-giving sacrifice, violence and its consequences, and maybe even civil disobedience in regards to Jyn’s father’s efforts to stymie the Empire’s plans over and over again.

I have to praise both of these movies for different things. One, romance was not the main driver for either of these plots. Men and women were able to work together, share the spotlight, and solve problems without getting too romantically tangled. Rogue One does more to make sure relationships seem purely professional, but the romantic subplots in Fantastic Beasts weren’t distracting in any way. Both showed strong female characters who were active rather than passive and were only dependent in the sense that each team depended on one another for survival and success. These characters were flawed, but accepted those flaws, struggled through those flaws, and grew on account of that struggle, which is so important. Good characters were good, bad characters were bad, and those in the gray area were treated as ambiguously as their morality.

The next section is completely conjecture and may be me reading too much into these films, but it may be worth considering.

And now I will talk about context and art.Stories mean something. They means something in their immediate context, in the cultural context in which they occur and are viewed, and in the context of the individual’s experience. In our current context, these movies have something to say about our current cultural situation.

Rogue One wants to illustrate what happens when opposition groups go to the extreme, when violence becomes unhinged and desperate. In a notable scene, a group of Rebel extremists (which is what they are called in the movie) stage a surprise attack on the occupying Imperial forces who are present on this particular planet to take mineral resources to power their military. This does sound particularly close to the current situation across the world where certain groups feel pressured and desperate and lash out with extreme hatred and violence toward whomever they see as their oppressor. This movie might spark discussions about foreign relations, how diplomacy should work, and how each of us can work to make sure no one feels outcast or unheard. And Rogue One does a good job of showing how those that use violence to further their goals usually end up succumbing to that violence themselves as retaliation after retaliation ratchet up the casualty counters.

Fantastic Beasts also has a sub plot with its main villain that deals with people who feel marginalized, which is a loaded word, I’m aware. Questions are asked about who certain laws protect, which side has to work harder to prevent violence (magical or non-magical), and what responsible use of power looks like. One could easily (from the religious side) see this as a critique of the way those of the LGBTQ community have been treated over the past thirty or so years. But, looking deeper, we can all see this as an opportunity to look around us and consider who feels unheard, oppressed, or silenced. And then the question becomes directed to the viewer: how are those in the majority and those in power using their station to influence the lives of others for the better? Or better yet: am I the one with power, or the one without, and what am I doing about it? Either way, some discussion could be had here concerning how we treat others.

Long, strange section done.

I enjoyed both of these movies. I don’t necessarily recommend these to kids on account of their darker themes and some fairly scary images, but with parental guidance, I think these movies could create some great dialogue. So whether you’re into Apparating and Quidditch or are one with the Force and trying to get your time on the Kessel Run down, I think you’ll enjoy these movies for their structure, character, action, and fantastical realms.

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