Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Film Review: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Rogue One is a movie set in the Star Wars Universe.

But it isn't quite a Star Wars movie.

Set just before the events of the original Star Wars movie, the film centers around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a prisoner of the Empire whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help build the Death Star.  When the Rebel Alliance gets word that Galen has potentially leaked secret information to them, they must get Jyn's help to retrieve the message.  Along the way they encounter and accrue a rag-tag group of unlikely heroes:

-Captain Cassian (Diego Luna) - a Rebel soldier with a Jack Baur-esque war-time ethic.
-K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) - a reprogrammed Imperial droid who is as tactical as he is sassy.
-Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) - a blind devotee to the ways of the force, though not a Jedi
-Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) - Chirrut's gun-totting companion who tries to keep his blind friend out of trouble.
-Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) - a pilot who is defecting from the Empire but ends up having his brains a little scrambled.
-Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - A rebel extremist who is driven to madness by paranoia.

These unlikely heroes have to work together to prevent the Empire from solidifying its terrifying grip on the entire galaxy.

But right from the start, the movie punctuates its difference from all the previous films.  One of the simplest and most jarring things is that there is no opening theme fanfare and opening scroll.  Once we see the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." we are all classically conditioned to expect that explosion of sight and sound.  But we do not get it.  This is just the first tip that this movie will be different.

Rogue One is darker and more violent than any previous Star Wars film.  In and of itself, this is not a criticism.  This is not the story of bright, shining, epic heroes.  This is the story of war on the most basic level where even the "good guys" find themselves in morally compromising positions.

Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy write a truly excellent screenplay.  Their characters are incredibly interesting, and they manage to create a sense of tension even though we know the ultimate end result.  They achieve this last point by making us care about whether or not our heroes will survive the final battle, not whether they succeed in their objective.

The main failing of the movie lies with director Gareth Edwards.  If there is one reason why this film does not feel like Star Wars it is because of him.  Edwards has a fatal flaw when it comes to being a director, something which is evident from looking at his previous outing with Godzilla.  Edwards can create visual spectacle and he knows how to frame a scene to make it visually engaging.

But Edwards does not know how to tell a story with the visuals.

George Lucas once said that in a good movie you should still be able to follow the story with the sound turned off.  That is because movies are primarily visual and that is the mode in which you need to tell the story.  As stated before, Edwards can give good visual thrills.  But his visuals do not tell the story.

Go back to any other Star Wars Saga film, those directed by Lucas or not, and you will see this principle at play.  Take a look at the most recent: The Force Awakens.  Rey says nothing for the first few scenes that she is in.  And yet those scenes create a strong bond between her and the audience.  We immediately connect to her and her journey.  We see the longing in her face, we see the long wall of lonely days marked off, we see her child-like playfulness putting on the rebel helmet in the shadow of the fallen AT-AT.  The same could be said of Finn and his journey.  We believe his crisis of conscience and how he falls head-over-heals for Rey.  And throughout the movie, there is a strong beating heart.  The movie is designed to make your heart swell and break as you follow the journey of these characters.

But Edwards does not do that.  I lay that blame squarely on his shoulders and not the writers.  The script creates a space for this kind of character development to take place.  The writing allows for the burgeoning connection between Jyn and Cassian.  But Edwards does not use the camera to create these empathic connection.  He assumes the writing and the acting alone will take care of that.  But he is wrong.  We don't connect to the characters the way we should.  In fact, with the exception of Jyn, I wasn't able to remember the names of any of the main characters off the top of my head after leaving the theater.  Instead we talked about "the blind guy" or "the pilot" or "the gun guy."

That is not to fault the writing nor the acting.  In fact, many of the performances are quite good.  Jones plays the part of Jyn with a good mixture of hope and cynicism.  Luna plays Cassian as a man burdened by the evil he has done in the name of the good.  The relationship between Yen and Jiang have a wonderful Yin-Yang chemistry and Ahmed doesn't overplay his craziness too much.  And special mention must be given to Tudyk's deadpan delivery as K-2.  He has the best lines in the movie and give the movie its best laughs.

Not all of the performances are stellar.  I was hoping for something a lot more from Mendelsohn, but he sometimes chews the scenery a little too much.  And when it comes to Whitaker's performance, I honestly cannot tell if it is great or awful.  His Saw Gerrera is so over-the-top that that he may have pushed past his outrageousness to a point of brilliance.  But I cannot make up my mind about it.  There are other performances of note but I do not want to mention them here for fear of spoilers.

The biggest contribution that this film makes to the franchise is that it actually makes the original Star Wars a better movie.  Rogue One does this by putting into context Princess Leia's words "This is our most desperate hour."  What was before an abstract idea of oppression becomes a concrete experience of near-hopelessness.  This is particularly true with the way the movie uses Darth Vader.  Like the Joker in Suicide Squad, Vader was heavily featured in the trailers but appears sparsely in the movie.  But unlike the Joker, Vader's moments are impactful and unforgettable.  This is Vader has his most terrifying!

And Edwards does know how to give a spectacular action sequence.  Whether its Chirrut taking on an entire platoon of Storm Troopers or Rebel cruisers smashing into Star Destroyers, Edwards makes your eyes go wide with spectacle.

And this is the first major Star Wars film that does not have a score mainly from John Williams.  But Michael Giachinno does an excellent job of making his music elevate the material to make it feel like it belongs in that galaxy far, far away.

And while this film does blur the lines between good and evil a little bit, it never falls into outright approval.  Whenever any hero does something morally questionable, we begin to see the toll it takes on their souls.

One of my favorite parts of the film was the tet-a-tet between Chirrut and Baze.  Chirrut is a man of complete and utter faith.  He constantly mummers his prayer/mantra "I am with the Force and the Force is with me."  Baze is a cynic who thinks that Chirrut's beliefs are silly.  Every time Baze saves Chirrut he says that it was him and not the Force that saved his blind friend.  Chirrut says that it was the Force working through Baze.  This back-and-forth feels so familiar to the gentle rivalry between believers and non-believers who are separated in faith but bound by mutual affection.

Rogue One is a bold experiment in the Star Wars universe and it does have a place at the table.  But as cool as it is, it is also a bit cold.

And because of its lack of heart, Rogue One will hold the same place that the other Star Wars films have in my heart.

4 out of 5 stars.

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