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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogueDIRECTOR: Gareth Edwards

CAST: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk (voice)

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN “SPOILERS”

Rogue One, the second entry in Disney’s revival of the Star Wars franchise after buying the rights from creator George Lucas, represents a risky departure and an attempt at doing something different with the iconic property.  Unlike last year’s The Force AwakensRogue One is not a continuation of the main series (as evidenced by being titled as a Star Wars “story” as opposed to an episode), but a mostly stand-alone entry that serves as a prequel/tie-in with the original 1977 A New Hope, chronicling the untold story of exactly how those stolen Death Star plans fell into the rebels’ hands in the first place.  The result comes with plenty of familiar Star Wars trappings (some more heavy-handed than others), but a markedly different tone and feel.  Rogue One bears more resemblance to a Dirty Dozen-style war/spy thriller than a conventional Star Wars movie.  To that end, it’s generally well-crafted, but doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a “take it or leave it” footnote to the original trilogy.

Straying away from the Skywalker clan, our heroine here is Jyn Erso, who witnessed her father, brilliant scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) being taken away by Imperial forces when she was a child, forced to work building a top-secret superweapon for the Empire.  Years later, the adult Jyn (Felicity Jones), a surly and politically apathetic loner, is broken out of an Imperial labor camp by agents of the Rebel Alliance, who have a potential mission for her.  Her long-lost father, reluctantly toiling away under Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), has used a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) to smuggle a message alerting the Rebellion that the long-delayed Death Star, a moon-sized battle station with the firepower to destroy planets, is almost online, and also that he has hidden a flaw in its design that leaves it vulnerable to attack.  Jyn is teamed up with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to visit old friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and rendezvous with the defecting pilot to receive her father’s message.  Along the way, others join their mission, including snarky reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (voice and motion capture performance by Alan Tudyk), Force-worshiping blind monk/ninja Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), whose blindness isn’t much of a handicap, and his companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

rogue3Rogue One immediately sets itself apart from the mainline Star Wars series from the get-go.  We still get the Lucasfilm logo and “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”, but there is no Star Wars logo to John Williams’ rousing fanfare, nor the opening text crawl that has been a Star Wars staple since 1977 (and was intact in last year’s The Force Awakens).  This was a conscious and deliberate choice to set the episodes apart from the so-called “anthology” stand-alone films (Rogue One is the first of several in development), but its absence is felt.  Michael Giacchino’s score is largely generic and unmemorable apart from the too few and far between moments where he mixes in familiar musical cues from John Williams’ original score (the full Star Wars theme doesn’t play until the end credits).  The absence of such iconic elements reduces the overall “Star Wars feel” of Rogue One, but that may well have been an intentional choice on the part of the filmmakers.  Rogue One is less a conventional “Star Wars movie” than a war movie/spy thriller set in the Star Wars universe.  That said, there’s no shortage of familiar elements.  There are plenty of X-Wings, TIE-Fighters, Star Destroyers, Stormtroopers, and both AT-AT and AT-ST Walkers.  Sharp-eyed viewers will spot the Imperial probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back (or an identical model, at least), floating by in the background.  The rebel base on Yavin 4, the rebel control room, and the Death Star interiors all look exactly the same as they did in 1977.  The two alien thugs Luke and Obi-Wan had a scuffle with in the Mos Eisley cantina in A New Hope make cameos, as do C-3PO and R2-D2.  And the movie doesn’t ignore the much-maligned prequels either.  Prequel planets Coruscant and Mustafar have cameos.  Jimmy Smits has a small part reprising his role as Bail Organa (Princess Leia’s adopted father), and Genevieve O’Reilly, who appeared as Senator and future Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma in a deleted scene in The Revenge of the Sith, gets to come back here.  O’Reilly is spot-on casting, uncannily recalling Caroline Blakiston (who had a small role as Mothma in The Return of the Jedi) in both appearance and voice, and flows easily with the older original version.  Even the original Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope make cameos here in the climactic space battle, courtesy of unused original footage from 1977, digitally remastered and smoothly inserted into the action here.  Most significantly, the closing scene leads straight into the opening scene of A New Hope; one could finish Rogue One and start watching A New Hope without missing a beat.  There are also three appearances from main characters from A New Hope, some of which are more smoothly-integrated than others.  The combination of a body double, CGI, and a voice double to resurrect the likeness of Peter Cushing (who passed away 22 years ago) has the unfortunate effect of making him look like a video game character; technically well-rendered but still not fully passing himself off as a real person.  The result is a bit jarring and distracting, compounded by the amount of screentime Grand Moff Tarkin is given.  This is the kind of thing the filmmakers might have gotten away with in a shadowy cameo, but they push their luck by featuring Tarkin in several scenes where he’s front-and-center.  A closing cameo from Princess Leia, looking as she did in 1977, is more passable, perhaps because she’s only onscreen for about ten seconds and we don’t get so much time to examine her.  The final, and most impactful cameo comes from Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones and physically played by 6’7″ Spencer Wilding), who only appears in two scenes but makes a suitably ominous impression.  The first, a tense visit by Director Krennic to Vader’s foreboding castle on the volcanic planet of Mustafar (where he was horribly maimed in Revenge of the Sith), is nicely atmospheric and sinister, and the second far later, as Vader returns in one of the final scenes to go on a rampage through a ship’s worth of haplessly outmatched rebel soldiers, might well be the biggest can of whoop-ass Vader has ever unleashed in the entire Star Wars saga.  The way in which the scene is filmed recalls a horror movie (close-ups on the frightened faces of the crew, the corridor going pitch black, and then illuminated by Vader’s igniting red lightsaber), and it’s almost worth the price of admission to watch Vader face dozens of foes and effortlessly cut them to pieces (literally).  After some felt the prequels ruined the character’s mystique and intimidation factor, Rogue One has made Vader menacing again.  In fact, the ship massacre is perhaps the most frightening Vader has ever been.

While it has its share of comedic one-liners (most supplied by the sardonic K-2SO), Rogue One has a darker, grittier, more downbeat tone that’s lower on whimsy and heavier on the body count (including main characters) than perhaps any previous Star Wars film.  Unlike the original’s Luke and The Force Awakens’ Rey, Jyn doesn’t turn out to be an unsung Force user, and apart from Darth Vader’s glorified cameo, there are no Jedi or Sith around (Chirrut believes in and worships the Force, but is not a Jedi himself).  Like J.J. Abrams, Gareth Edwards hearkens back to A New Hope by blending CGI and practical effects, relying extensively on sets and location filming, and making the world look gritty and lived-in, far removed from the glossy CGI oversaturation of the prequel trilogy.  Inevitably, there’s a fair amount of CGI, but it’s held in check and not used to excess (except perhaps for the somewhat distracting pseudo-Peter Cushing walking around).  We do lots of planet-hopping (excessively so, in fact), and all of them are filmed in real locations, not CGI environments.  As he did in his 2014 Godzilla reboot, Edwards shows he knows how to handle large-scale special effects and integrate them nearly seamlessly with live-action and human actors running around underfoot.  There are a few striking shots, including an AT-AT Walker appearing out of the mist, heralded by its thunderous footsteps, and a Star Destroyer slowly being dwarfed as the Death Star is illuminated behind it.  Later, there’s another nice shot of the Death Star moving in front of a planet’s sun and creating an eclipse.  Also, since none of these characters ever appear or are mentioned in any of the later installments, one has the ominous feeling that Rogue One isn’t going to end with Jyn, Cassian, and company being wreathed with laurels like Luke and Han in A New Hope.  We know their mission succeeds at least to an extent, but there’s an air of grim inevitability that hangs over the proceedings.  Suffice to say Rogue One doesn’t have a typical “happy ending” (although our previously unsung heroes here make the victory of A New Hope possible).  An Imperial-occupied city visited by Jyn and Cassian is a grim, oppressive place that recalls the feel of Nazi-occupied Prague in the recent WWII spy thriller Anthropoid (a not altogether inappropriate comparison).

Rogue One finishes stronger than it starts.  The first act feels edited together choppily, rushing around on a convoluted planet-hopping trek and introducing a small crowd of characters.  The visit to Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera feels a little superfluous, and one feels like this entire sequence could have been cut out for a more streamlined and less convoluted and meandering journey.  Reportedly, the film underwent extensive reshoots and the climactic battle is much-changed from its original version (considering it’s the best part of the movie, this might have been a good move).  Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script unfolds a solid narrative for the most part, but with some seemingly pointless and superfluous side detours that could have been tightened up, or that extraneous time spent on more character development for the principals.  Some later character moments feel unearned by their truncated development.  There’s some poignancy in the conclusion, and by the end we form some connection to Jyn and Cassian, but they’re neither as compelling as the heroes of the original trilogy, nor The Force Awakens, which limits the finale’s emotional impact.  The action ramps up nicely in the final act, cross-cutting between a space battle, a beach assault that could be straight out of a WWII movie except with a few Imperial Walkers thrown in, and Jyn and Cassian infiltrating the databanks holding the coveted Death Star plans.

rogue2Jyn Erso adds another heroine to the Star Wars cast of characters who’s not afraid to get down and dirty and kick some butt, though Felicity Jones’ stoic, surly demeanor doesn’t make her as engaging or compelling as Daisy Ridley’s Rey in The Force Awakens.  Jyn falls victim to the limitations on character development; her transition from apathetic loner to giving rousing speeches inspiring a roomful of rebel soldiers feels somewhat rushed and not fully earned.  Among Star Wars’ heroines, she’s a rung down the ladder beneath Leia and Rey.  She’s nicely partnered with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, who is likewise a more stoic character than the likes of Han Solo, and has more skeletons in his closet (he’s introduced shooting an informant in cold blood to guard his secrets).  One could argue Cassian is more three-dimensional than Jyn; an obedient but conflicted soldier who wrestles with the sometimes unsavory actions he commits in the name of “the greater good” (when it comes to its depiction of the Rebel Alliance and its agents, Rogue One embraces a little more moral gray area than we ever got from George Lucas), although like everyone, his backstory and character development is limited.  Their dynamic, like Ripley and Hicks in Aliens, keeps their low-key semi-romantic undertones subdued for the brutally simple reason that it doesn’t have time or opportunity to grow into anything else.  Everyone else is onhand more for action scenes than their personalities.  Donnie Yen gets a couple badass fight scenes, along with a little dry humor, as the blind warrior monk Chirrut (although the character trope is a bit of a cliche), and a little comic back-and-forth banter with Jiang Wen’s mercenary Baze (Gareth Edwards has called the exact nature of the pair’s close partnership “open to interpretation”).  Forest Whitaker hams it up in his glorified cameo as oddball rebel guerilla leader Saw Gerrera, who uses an oxygen mask that recalls Dennis Hopper’s Frank from Blue Velvet, has a vaguely-explained mind-reading tentacle monster that can tell if you’re telling the truth or lying (don’t ask), and speaks in a weird raspy voice; Whitaker’s take on Gerrera is vaguely in the territory of Tom Hardy’s Bane for examples of respected actors giving strange, hammy performances, although Whitaker doesn’t have nearly as much screentime (which might be just as well).  As our rather unimpressive “big bad” (though he plays second fiddle to the less often-seen Vader and Tarkin), Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic makes for a cooler action figure than character, stalking around in a billowing white cape and being the same hammy weaselly villain that Mendelsohn played in The Dark Knight Rises and Exodus: Gods and Kings.  Krennic desperately wants to play with the big boys, but he’s small potatoes next to Vader and Tarkin, whether he realizes it or not.  Actually, given how ineffectual he ultimately is, Krennic could almost have been left out of the movie with a few small tweaks.  As Jyn’s estranged father, Mads Mikkelsen is just as wasted as he was in Doctor Strange.  The comic scene-stealer in the supporting cast is the mouthy droid K-2SO (voice and motion capture performance by Alan Tudyk), who’s like a more abrasive cousin of C-3PO  This is the second time Tudyk has done this kind of role, after his “Sonny” in I, Robot.  It’s interesting to note that, while the Empire is as always populated with lily white pseudo-Nazis, the filmmakers have filled the Rebel Alliance with a diverse cast including Mexican Diego Luna, Middle Eastern Riz Ahmed, and Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen.  I’m not sure if the Rebellion’s ethnic diversity versus the Empire’s pasty whiteness was an intentional political statement (though the filmmakers’ Twitter accounts have not been shy about their disdain for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign), but it’s a conspicuous contrast.

In a sense, Rogue One is something like the Marvel Studio installments that regularly crop up in theaters in between the “event” all-star Avengers reunions, a stopgap to keep the brand name in the spotlight while waiting for Episode 8 to arrive.  Also, like most stand-alone Marvel offerings, while generally well-done, it can be skipped without really missing anything essential to the larger narrative.  It’s engaging but not as exciting or compelling as The Force Awakens, and while it sheds some interesting light into shadowy corners of the Star Wars mythos and serves as an intriguing companion piece to A New Hope, it doesn’t ultimately add anything indispensable to the main series.  As an excuse to spend a little more time in the much-loved Star Wars universe, it’s a fun ride, but in and of itself, it’s moderately underwhelming.

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