Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story movie review.

The beautiful thing about the Star Wars universe is that, in spite of the fact that we've rarely left the Skywalkers' sides in the movies, there is so much out there yet to be explored. New worlds, new species, new characters of both the Dark side and the Light. Until now, it was a side of the franchise we only glimpsed upon in film, with only tie-in novels and TV series to expand. But with ownership of the franchise now under the guidance of the Disney corporation, and The Force Awakens reawakening Star Wars in a big way, we knew it wouldn't be long until the studio got those side stories geared for the cinema.

These films allow for a greater sense of exploration into the rich history of the Star Wars mythos, able to craft unique stories in the timeline, whether they be based on past events and characters, or be conjured up entirely on the spot. In the first of these anthology films, here to tide us over until Rian Johnson's continuation of the main saga next December, is Rogue One, a prequel to the events of A New Hope directed by Gareth Edwards. While perhaps lacking the same epic touch that graced The Force Awakens, the film still makes for a thrilling, surprisingly gritty diversion for the saga.

The grip of the Galactic Empire is in full swing, with the gargantuan killer space-station the Death Star reaching the end of its construction, and the armies of the Empire ready to crush the Rebel Alliance once and for all. While the finishing touches of the weapon are overseen, the Alliance enlist a team of soldiers, including Felicity Jones' reckless and reluctant new recruit Jyn Erso, and Diego Luna's intelligence officer Cassian Andor, to embark on a daring mission to uncover the location of Jyn's own father (Mads Mikkelson), who played a part in the station's construction. However, this soon turns into a mission to recover secret plans with crucial details of the station's weakness,and joined by other allies gained along the way, the team set out to uncover the crippling secrets of the Empire's massive new weapon.

Built more as a gritty war movie than a traditional blockbuster, Rogue One was always going to have a tough time being able to stand on its own feet. Moreso than The Force Awakens before it, it has little luxury of being able to fall on familiar faces and locations, with a great deal of pressure being placed on its ability to build an entire new sub-universe for itself, and how best to introduce a whole slew of new characters. To the film's credit, it absolutely succeeds in this area. Anyone familiar with my thoughts on Gareth Edwards' prior Godzilla film no doubt knows my fuming hatred of its characters, with me having found them vapid, soulless, and unable to emotionally cling to. This is one area where Edwards easily manages to outdo himself, taking what very well could have been cardboard cutouts, and injecting them with so much life and charm.

Between the last two films, the Star Wars saga has gotten very good at creating strong, engaging, fully-dimensional leading heroines, with Felicity Jones and Jyn Erso making for a fabulous follow-up to Daisy Ridley and Rey. For better and for worse, Jyn is often best associated with her habit of jumping into the thick of combat, driven to great lengths by her invaluable ability to get the mission done, even if that means stepping into the bounds of pure recklessness and endangerment, even at the cost of her own life. She's a fully capable and intimidating presence, the kind of person you'd be glad to have on your side in a fight, yet she also has such a bright presence and striking emotional center underneath that fighting spirit, all perfectly turning Jones into a fierce action star.

With Star Wars having also taken heavy influence from Japanese culture, as well as the films of Kurosawa, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise how Rogue One, and Jones' fanastic supporting cast feels very much in the vein of Seven Samurai. Holding the central team together is Diego Luna's Andor, himself a natural fit playing against Jones, a man highly devoted to his cause in the most grounded, dubious, and violent ways, oftentimes coming across as disillusioned. For the first time in Star Wars, the film lacks the presence of a Jedi, with the closest thing to one coming in the form of Donnie Yen's Chirrut. If Jyn is the heart of the team, Chirrut is the spirit of the team, so at one with the force that even total blindness doesn't hinder him, exhibiting a wise and graceful presence whenever on screen, and given some incredible crowd-pleasing moments when laying waste to Stormtroopers. That's not to undersell the impact of his personal protector, Jiang Wen's trigger-happy Baze, whose fierce loyalty and efficiency with his heavy blaster make for some great Stormtrooper takedowns. Riz Ahmed joins the crew as logic driven Imperial defector Bodhi Rook, initially apart of the team simply out of obligation, but whose motivations and contributions eventually grow into something more powerful and personal. But no team is complete without its humor, here embodied by reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk, often used as an expert to weave around mechanics, but also proving a reliable heavy hitter, both in brawn and in hilarious sarcasm.

The cast itself is quite strong individually, but it's when placing them together that they bring out the absolute best and most lively in the others. In fact, one wishes that other new characters were as strong, including Mads Mikkelson as Jyn's father who is tinged with great regret over his part in the Empire's rise, even if somewhat underused by the film. But that's better than can be said of Forest Whitaker, cast as returning character Saw Gerrara from The Clone Wars TV series, who tries to infuse a sage-like presence into his character, but instead feels desperately out of place, sucking the energy from the room whenever he appears.

One area where the film is particularly unfortunate is in regards to its main villain, Imperial weapons director Krennic played by Ben Mendelsohn. For a series that has always been stellar at creating entertaining and memorable villains, Mendelsohn has a great deal of build-up and personal drive dedicated to him, but despite even his rock solid efforts, the character itself simply has no presence, able to be replaced by any random Imperial commanders without any loss to the story. Far more entertaining a villain is the return of Darth Vader, who I will admit comes into the movie so late that it feels like a spoiler mentioning he's in it, if he weren't all over the marketing campaign. It isn't until well over halfway through that he makes his grand reappearance, and with only two scenes for his credit. However, what he may lack in screentime he more than makes up for in presence, once again given intimidating and icy life by James Earl Jones' voiceover, and continuing to take no prisoners as he dominates the final ten minutes of the film.

In fact, it's for these very reasons that Rogue One is a substantial improvement over Godzilla. Whereas that film felt utterly lethargic and unengaging, due to the zero note characterization and complete lack of connection or lingering dread, Edwards has pulled a tremendous course correction. While the film could have easily been played as dry or lethargic, a great saving grace is that, while Edwards still retains his aim of intensity, he's still wise to make sure that there's a constantly beating heart and levity to offset the dread of the bleak war at hand. It manages to be at once fun and grim, delivering on all the exciting and big thrills that we've known the saga best for, but never to the point of feeling like it upsets that darker mood. But dark moods themselves aren't quite enough, as another appropriate change Edwards has made is that, rather than hastily breeze by sequences and not allow their impact to sink in, instead resonates much more strongly because of his simple decision to let the mood linger. Not only that, but once the team actually get on board for the final conflict, which they slowly start to acknowledge more and more as a suicide mission, the film doesn't cower away from those unpleasant outcomes that have been building up. Rather than be afraid to down any fan-favorite characters, the film doesn't skimp away from those dark side effects of battle, making the resolution of the film feel all the more haunting because of it.

Edwards has also grown as a technical director, doing his best to recreate and capture in as faithful and obsessive a manner as possible every minuscule detail and sense of spirit of the Star Wars universe, and the original film, from the griminess of machinery to the staticky quality of sound effects. There's a great snap to it as the film moves along from locations and set-pieces to the next, and despite the much reported reshoots that have hung over the film like a cloud, thankfully keeps a level of consistency without sacrificing pace or excitement. His use of visual effects are particularly impressive, relying on a great deal of practical makeup and suits, machinery and puppetry, and thrilling stuntwork. But primarily, it's the CGI he relies most upon, and while impressive in the scale and wonderment it creates, is not without its hiccups and less polished qualities, such as one motion-capture character that I simply can't fathom why anyone okayed it. It's also quite a shame we'll never get to hear what original composer Alexandre Desplat had in mind for the film, but as a substitute, Michael Giacchino more than makes up for it, recreating the musical vibe of Star Wars in a very faithful and epic manner, and having a blast doing it.

Rogue One may not touch The Force Awakens in pure exhilaration or enthusiasm, but as a first stab at expanding on the universe's lore, it's a thoroughly enjoyable time. While the film may be constrained by the limitations stacked against it since the beginning, the way that it widens the scope of that Galaxy far far away is nothing if not commendable, showing a strong adherence to the roots of the series, while also delivering on its own unique surprises, making for a satisfying step up for Edwards, and an endearing love letter to this world and its characters. It's safe to assume that the franchise is well taken care of under the turrets of Disney. Here's to next December's big adventure...

**** / *****

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