Rogue One



Rogue One is infinitely better than Episode VII, and here are some brief and scattered thoughts as to why. Where the latter asked Hey what can we replicate?, Rogue One again and again and again seems to ask What can we do differently? Where can we take chances? As a result, Rogue One—which tells a story whose ending we've known since 1977 and whose general outline we've considered for just as long—surprises from the first minute. Episode VII, on the other hand—a film about which we knew nothing—indeed, a film whose writers loudly disclaimed and invalidated the entire "expanded universe" of hundreds of novels so as to have a free hand in storytelling—somehow managed to be derivative and styrofoam-ish, a shiny new sports car whose owners resolutely drove under the speed limit.

By the time I saw the original Star Wars, things like the Death Star and and Darth Vader were fixtures in popular culture. I'm not sure that they were ever scary, exactly. One was something that was always going to be destroyed, no question, and the other was always Luke Skywalker's father and destined for redemption. Accordingly, their presences in the films were less existential threat and more challenges for heroes to overcome. The story was never, "Will our heroes succeed?" Instead, it was: "How will they succeed?" This does not diminish the original trilogy in the slightest because the storytelling is superb, the universe inventive, and the characters and their arcs absolutely nailed.

The same should apply to Rogue One. That is to say, the question from the first frame should have been "how," because we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the Death Star plans will be stolen, and the battle station eventually destroyed. And yet I never felt comfortable during this movie. I never felt that sense of: "Ahhhh! OK, that's great. That makes sense. Very good! That explains that!" Instead, I spent its duration wondering if they were going to pull it off. If they were going to survive. If this thing—this rebel alliance—would ever get its act together. There was never a sense of inevitability. The writers never tried to be clever or convince me of their cleverness. They simply wrote a damn good story that was thrilling and scary and wrenching. They didn't lean on expectations; they launched from them.

A lot of this has to do with the style and tone of the film. If A New Hope is Patton, Rogue One is Saving Private Ryan. People die. Good people sometimes act with cruelty and callousness. When someone gets shot, they feel it and you feel it. Even the Stormtroopers—bodies through which our heroes wade in every other entry in the series—earn the sympathy of the audience. Our heroes gun down a squad of white-armored baddies, and you sometimes flinch. Those guys didn't ask for this. They weren't torturing puppies and snatching babies from cribs. They were probably drafted, sure as hell didn't want to be at whatever meaningless posting they were given, and basically just wanted this whole rebellion to go away so the galaxy could have a little peace.

And the Death Star! My god, that thing is terrifying, a looming, hulking presence whose power is so well known and yet when used even sparingly wrenches the viewer. When it appears on the screen, you start to worry. You feel its danger and terrible possibility. And you feel the reasoning behind its construction. If you live in the Star Wars universe circa. Episode IV, you've been at war all your life. You're tired. There has never been a moment of peace, and dammit you've earned respite. If it takes building a giant weapon to stop this "destructive conflict," so be it. It's worth it! It's a simple solution to a messy problem.

And messy it is. Our heroes in this movie do bad things and suffer terrible losses. They pay dearly to steal the plans to the Death Star, and I'm not sure I can ever see the original again without thinking about that. That's good storytelling.

Contrast all of this with Episode VII. It feels silly to type this about fictional characters in a fairy tale universe, but having seen the sacrifices that went into building and destroying the Death Star, it's insulting to audiences and heroes alike that the writers of The Force Awakens lazily said, "Well let's just give the bad guys a Super Death Star that can destroy an entire solar system. How do the good guys stop it? Let's just have Han say some technical handwavium about flying lightspeed into the shield, and they all just shoot at it until it blows up. Who's up for lunch?"

Rogue One made Episode IV better because both are superbly crafted. They strengthen one another. Rogue One shames Episode VII because Episode VII is lumbering and stupid. It highlights all of that film's weaknesses. It reveals how ordinary VII is, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. For all the scorn they've unfairly received, the prequel trilogy is never ordinary. It is never lazy. It is never derivative. And just as Rogue One makes the original film better, the Clone Wars series and Rebels improve the prequels, and vice versa. What a playground George Lucas has crafted over 40 years! What a latticework on which epics can be hung!

A final thought that bears noting. Rogue One makes very apparent something unexpected in the Star Wars universe: that the Jedi are holding storytellers back. If you're a writer and you have in your sandbox invincible, magic heroes, then there's no problem that can't be solved through invincibility and magic. It's deus ex machina stretched over two hour intervals, and a magic arms race is the only solution. How do you stop magic, invincible heroes? By creating magic-er, invincible-r villains! How do you stop them? More magic! More invincibility! After a while, the audience is driven to the brink of total exhaustion and nothing matters because everyone can do everything. (Marvel films have the same problem.)

Rogue One (and the original trilogy) work precisely because nobody has superpowers, or because there's such a tremendous imbalance in said power that it's nullified, more useful skill than anything else.

Episode VIII has finished shooting, so if there is a halo effect to Rogue One, it won't be felt in that film, and whatever story has been set up in the sequel trilogy will have no choice but to play out as designed. Because Disney will drown us in Star Wars until the crack of doom, there is hope, however, for films in the far future. I lament that the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie is squandered, though.


Thoughts on the Jawbone UP3

Two months ago, I gave in to temptation and bought the Jawbone UP3 wristband. (Previously, I wore the Jawbone UP24, which was an extraordinarily comfortable and durable device with excellent customer service. My primary motivation for upgrading was to get the pulse feature. I'm an avid runner and updates on my heart rate just seemed like something that would be cool to know. Here are some brief thoughts on the device when compared with its predecessor. The app for the Jawbone UP3 is much, much better than that of the UP24, which almost never worked by the time I upgraded. (It basically required a daily phone reset in order to sync my device. This had the effect of training me not to bother checking the app but for once or twice a week, tops. More on this in a minute.) It now seems clear that Jawbone simply abandoned the old app in favor of the new, or at least, has its B-team working on that one. (The old devices and new apps are incompatible.) Regardless, the new app is fast and fun to use. It's functionally identical, but it actually works. It's almost worth the upgrade for that alone.

In terms of comfort, once you have the device strapped to your wrist, it's easy to forget about. It has a very low profile, and on the rare occasion that it catches on something, it's not a panic-inducing concern. I can't imagine how one might damage the rubber-like band, and the two-inch plastic "device" component of the band seems well-hardened and scratch resistant. Either way, it's not like you're going to damage the nonexistent screen, or a Jony Ive designed, multi-axis milled, cold-forged-alloy-and-diamond-carbon-coated case. If anything, the rubber-and-plastic band is more durable than the Apple Watch in daily use, as there's no high polish in need of constant cradling. It would be hard to spot a scratch on this thing.

(N.b. that this isn't really to compare the two devices, which serve entirely different purposes. The Apple Watch is a very attractive watch that happens to track activity. The Apple Watch wants to be seen. The Jawbone UP series tracks activity, and wants to stay hidden.)

The UP3 seems close in appearance and fit to those Livestrong bands. (I've never actually worn one, so I cannot comment on the similarity of comfort.) In practice, it takes a couple of weeks to really figure out your fit and learn how to strap on the device. It's not a watch clasp, exactly, but a weird overlap clipping mechanism that requires you to stretch the band with your non-dominant hand, align the clasps and clip them. The device was intended originally to be waterproof, and with that in mind the clasp makes perfect sense. Regardless of the headache that is its design, if you only have to remove it once a week, there are no worries. Unfortunately, the device is not waterproof, which means daily removal while you shower. (It is water resistant, however. I even cleaned my pool yesterday while wearing it. So technically you could wear it in the shower, I guess, but it seems like it would be a pain to rinse the soap away from underside.)

The battery life is much worse than the Jawbone UP24. Within six days, the device is dead, and I never realize it until it's too late. The previous model trained me to just forget about it. It was always there, always working, this immortal machine powered as if by plutonium. This one is like a really healthy octogenarian. There's no reason to worry, exactly, but you know the end could come at any moment. The charger, meanwhile, is a mess. Just this weird, terrible dongle-like thing whose magnetic contacts are impossible to properly align the first five or six times you go to charge the device. This is only like a minute of my week lost, but I'm glad my pulse isn't measured for that minute; my frustration with and bafflement of the design would throw off my average.

The pulse measurement is passive. That is to say, you can't push a button and get a reading. It happens when it happens and that'll just have to do. It measures both resting and passive heart rate. It doesn't give a whole lot of guidance for the information it collects, and I suspect that has something to do with federal regulations. Its advice is usually something to the effect of: "Your heart rate is slightly higher than last week. Try getting more sleep." I'm pleased to have the readings, though, and it really is a motivator to remain on top of my running. My RHR is generally in the high-40s and I'd like to keep it there, or even get it a bit lower. (Now that fitness is measured by how rarely one's heart has to beat to keep you alive.)

Lastly, the cost. I'm not sure of the price at which it premiered, but earlier this year it ran $179, which was a shade too much. $159 would have made it a real bargain. But the price has since dropped to $129, making it an absolute steal. Despite its minor frustrations, I heartily recommend the device. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well.