Tuesday, December 27, 2016
The Films of 2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
[Beware of Spoilers.]
In the months since the theatrical release of The Force Awakens (2015), I have been (vocally) critical about Disney’s impending strip-mining of the Star Wars franchise, with the studio planning to drop a film every year.
On Facebook last week I saw a meme about Gonk Droid: A Star Wars Story, and feared that we are just one step removed from such an absurdity.
Fortunately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is the first product to emerge from Disney’s assembly line stretching from here to eternity, and for the moment my fears seem unmotivated.
Rogue One is a great movie, and a great Star Wars film to boot.
Indeed, in spirit and texture, Gareth Edward’s film is the closest thing to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) that franchise fans have seen in over thirty-five years.
If that’s what you seek in a Star Wars movie, you’ll be enormously pleased with this film, which seems to have emerged from another decade...through a time warp.
I’ll go further than that in my praise.
Rogue One features all the suspense and intrigue that audiences could hope for, and these are qualities that I felt were largely missing from The Force Awakens; a film I liked but didn’t love.
Here, the battle scenes are crisply and colorfully executed, so that we know the geography of the fight, and the importance of each and every sacrifice. Here, although we know the outcome of the plot -- The Death Star plans are transmitted -- we are never quite sure how steep the cost will be.
Rest assured, the cost is steep.
I am not a J.J. Abrams hater, nor a prequel hater. In fact, as my reviews on the blog attest, I enjoyed the prequels quite a bit (and yes The Force Awakens too…).
However, what I see as the most glorious achievement of Rogue One is the restoration of Star Wars original promise: that “everyday” people can be heroes too. That people like you and me, banding together, can achieve great things.
That’s a message -- in the age of Midichlorians -- that was sacrificed in the last decade of Star Wars films. The prequels (which again, I’m not hating on…) followed a more overtly fascist approach. You needed to have the right blood-line to be a Jedi or a Sith, or a movie-worthy hero.
Delightfully, Rogue One puts the idea of human -- not superhuman -- heroes front and center, where it belongs, and more than that, gives the audience its closest look yet at the Rebel Alliance.
I was delighted to see that the Rebel Alliance is not monolithic, nor “good” in a black-and-white sense.
Rather, it is a messy conglomeration of competing agendas, but with one common purpose: the defeat of the Empire. This approach contributes immeasurably to the “reality” underlining the lived-in universe of Star Wars.
Rogue One features other virtues too. It’s a travelogue, in a sense, revealing at least four fascinating new worlds (Kafrene, Jedha, Eadu, and Scarif), though it doesn't visit them all with the depth I would have preferred.
And, finally, the film is a great showcase for Darth Vader at his most monstrous. Although the Sith Lord has limited screen time here, the filmmakers make the most of that time, showcasing a Vader who is nothing less than terrifying.
Rogue One isn’t perfect, for certain.
The first hour is muddled and largely incoherent, and some characters make baffling or opaque decisions. But by the time Rogue One reaches hour number two, the film seems to pull itself together, with all thrusters firing in one glorious direction: towards a relentless, suspenseful, rousing final act.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….the rebel alliance frees small-time crook Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) from an Imperial gulag, in the hopes that she can help them get an audience with extremist Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised her following the death of her mother, and her father’s capture by the Empire.
Guerrera -- who lives in a holy city on Jedha -- has captured an imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The pilot has a message from Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), one in which the scientist reports that he has built a flaw into the Death Star’s reactor. Guerrera, however, suspects an imperial trap.
Captain Andor (Diego Luna), and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K2SO (Alan Tudyk) are assigned to transport Jyn to see Guerrera, but the mission takes a catastrophic turn when the Imperials test the Death Star’s weaponry at Jedha.
After a mission to Eadu to find Galen, Andor and Jyn attempt to convince the Rebel Alliance to locate and steal the Death Star’s plans in the Imperial Archive on Scarif.
But the Death Star is also en route to Scarif, as is Lord Vader…
I wont mince words: Rogue One’s first act is not promising. The narrative is unnecessarily complicated with a lot of planet hopping, and myriad introductions to characters we don’t recognize, and don’t really understand. In short, we don't always understand where we are, who we are with, or why any of it matters.
The weakest character in the film is Whitaker’s rebel extremist, Saw Guerrera -- Che Guevara? -- who comes across as paranoid, resorts to torture, and then, when faced with annihilation, accepts his death feebly, rather than escaping to fight another day.
The question regarding Guerrera is, simply, would a character who is so paranoid about a trap that he instantly resorts to torture willingly give up his life when faced with an attack by his enemy?
If you’re so worried about a trap, the inference is that you care about what happens to you. Saw chooses suicide by Death Star instead. It feels like a plot contrivance for him to die at this juncture, when the audience still knows almost nothing about him.
The section of the film involving Guerrera is long and convoluted, and his allegiances and agenda -- other than showing Jyn a hologram of her father -- are not entirely clear. I understand the value of creating a kind of “extremist” rebel character to contrast with the nice, friendly, image we may carry of rebels (hey, boys and girls, everybody gets to be a general in this army!) but the character just doesn’t work.
Also, the scene shifts from planet to planet, early on, are jarring. I love the travelogue aspects of the film, and we encounter some beautiful worlds here. But some scenes only leave the audience wanting more. I know I felt that way about Kafrene, the trading post. This is a hustling-bustling, overcrowded world that looks like something from Blade Runner, and a world worthy of a closer look. Instead the rocky wasteland worlds -- Jedha and Eadu -- get more play time.
The overall impression of Rogue One, starting out, is of a film in search of its setting, its purpose, and its narrative drive. Fortunately, everybody rallies and the film rises above its sense of disorganized chaos following the excursion to Eadu.
The final act, on Scarif, is stunning.
It is legitimately breathtaking.
It is also purposeful, beautifully rendered, and exciting as hell. This sustained, complex battle sequence represents “the gritty war movie” fans were promised, and generates almost unbearable suspense as the strategy to steal the Death Star plans is enacted.
That plan would not work, incidentally, without several characters choosing a meaningful death (a strong contrast to Guerrera’s baffling choice for a meaningless one). Droids and guardians of the Whills, alike, sacrifice their lives to push the strategy forward.
I’ll confess, I loved this choice on the part of the filmmakers. And I loved the message that sometimes to win a war or battle, sacrifice is necessary. Sometimes, an idea -- like freedom – can only survive at extreme personal cost. Sometimes in the Star Wars saga, however, the Force is but a gimmick which gets one out of scrapes, or dangerous situations, and so the sense of danger is minimized.
Here, the Force is called upon as a source of Faith and strength, but not a deus ex machina which miraculously saves the lives of the protagonists. I love that for the heroes of Rogue One, their actions are undertaken with knowledge that the consequences will be grave.
They choose to fight anyway. The galaxy -- and its freedom -- means more than their lives, and they accept that fact.
Rogue One also gives the world a glimpse at the Darth Vader that we’ve always known existed, but have never truly seen in action. It’s true that we saw a dark Anakin kill a number of Trade Federation agents on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith (2005), but that was pre-Vader. Rogue One offers us our first opportunity to see Vader -- more machine than man -- unleash his wrath on screen in a sustained, horrifying fashion.
More than one critic has likened Vader’s scene to a horror movie, and that’s an apt description. We see here why Vader has developed such a reputation for being a fearsome enforcer. He goes about his task with ruthless, merciless, murderous focus. He is terrifying, the last person in the universe you want to encounter in the dark. The scene of his arrival on a rebel starship, first in darkness (then bathed in the red light of his saber) is unforgettable.
The entire sequence on Scarif (and in Scarif orbit) is a master class in building and sustaining suspense through cross-cutting.
The sequence generates a roller-coaster ride of motions, because we see characters who we have grown to like and admire (such as my favorite, K2S0) give the cause every last breath. It’s a foregone conclusion, as I’ve written above, that the Death Star plans get to their destination, but the magic of Rogue One is that it still erects this massive aura of tension around the characters and their choices, as the battle rages.
Rogue One also features approximately a million and one “fan service” moments, from hammerhead spaceships to Walrus Men, from R2-D2 and C3PO to Vader’s castle on Mustafar, and yet each one of these touches feels organic and right, like a valid piece of the film’s tapestry.
The much-discussed CGI representations of Tarkin and Leia are unfortunate, and poorly rendered, and the only moments I can recall that took me out of Rogue One's narrative. They exist, ironically, not as fan service, but so as to create a more solid continuity with A New Hope. I worry that these moments will hurt the film’s longevity. In five years, they will look even more egregiously “wrong” than they do in 2016. I think re-casting would have been a better choice than the use of a dodgy, not entirely successful technology.
These are small quibbles, no doubt.
I will tell you this, with some certainty: After The Force Awakens last year, I worried that I had outgrown my love of Star Wars. The film was fine.
Really. It was.
But the rerun Death Star/Starkiller Base, and general lack of overall suspense (not to mention visual clarity) made me feel that I had moved beyond any real need to stay current or passionate about the franchise. I vowed I would see the films, as a completist, if necessary. But I feared the days of being inspired by Star Wars films was over.
Rogue One, by contrast, left me feeling jazzed, and excited about exploring the Star Wars universe anew.
It is one with the Force, and the Force is one with it.