Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O' Reilly
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some key plot details**

When it was announced that Disney's purchase of the Star Wars franchise would include the development of a series of standalone spin-off films, I winced. Or more accurately, I feared it for a number of reasons, a few of which are validated, but mostly dismissed by Rogue One, a much better than expected effort given all the trepidation, hype and nearly insurmountable expectations surrounding it. Call it what you'd like, but it's still Star Wars, and its hardcore fans, freshly basking in the critical and commercial success of The Force Awakens, expect greatness each time out. In fact, if we know anything about them at all, it's that they demand it. And that's essentially my entire problem with Disney doing this. If these standalone films are THAT great, how will that not make the other "real" ones seem less special or not dilute the brand? And if these spin-offs disappoint, we don't even need to get into the negative effects that will have, on both Disney's bottom line and the recently rejuvenated public goodwill toward the franchise after George Lucas stepped away. But, I also get it. It's silly resuscitating this franchise if you're not going to milk as much from it as you possibly can.

When it was decided this would be a dreaded "prequel," a whole new potential set of problems presented itself since a burning desire the see this universe expanded is held by only the hardest of hardcore fans. If Lucas' prequels taught us anything, it's that the more we actually learned about the backstory of the galaxy, the more uninteresting it became. Rogue One doesn't bore us with talks of taxation and trade tariffs, but it also doesn't feature Luke Skywalker or Han Solo either. Disney knows where its bread is buttered so they have to be careful, its grip on their property understandably tightening with each new release. A lot is on the line, and any director looking to recreate the franchise in their own vision need not apply. The man hired for this job is Gareth Edwards, who works well within those tight confines to makes something that's not exactly Star Wars, but isn't too far off from it either.

While I wouldn't go as far as some as some as praising it as the franchise's best film since The Empire Strikes Back, it's still a very good one that's darker and grittier than expected. It's more like a cover of a Star Wars film, only just not as close of one as J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, which was a reproduction so authentic it could easily be considered the real thing. While that's not necessarily a debit, it's also kind of all over the place, baring the hallmarks of many cooks in the creative kitchen. Despite these obstacles, it does all come together as an oddly thrilling experience, especially in the final 45 minutes, when these movies tend to feel most bloated. What works really does and what doesn't sticks out, but besides being an entertaining adventure and a solid Star Wars chapter, it's worth examining as a possible template of what to expect from these spin-offs moving forward.

A flashback introduces us to young Jyn Erso, whose father, research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is being threatened by Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to take his family and leave the planet Lah'mu in order to complete work on the infamous Death Star. With her mother killed and father taken into Imperial custody, Jyn escapes with the help of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial labor camp by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who takes her back to the Alliance, where she's informed of a rescue mission to retrieve her father, still working for the Imperial Army.

After a holographic message communicated from defecting Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) reveals her father has valuable information about a weakness embedded within the Death Star, Jyn, Cassian, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) set out to find him.  When complications arise involving the true intentions of the mission, it becomes clear that the Empire is not only stronger than expected, but its Death Star capable of even more mass destruction than imagined. Somehow, they have to obtain the blueprints, but with Krennic getting his marching orders from Grand Moff Tarkin and the shadowy menace of Darth Vader looming, it could very well end up being a suicide mission for the Rebels.

Forgoing the traditional opening crawl that's started each the preceding seven films in the franchise, Rogue One establishes itself early on as slightly different. The decision to abandon this but retain the "A Long Time Ago..." title card is a curious one, as is the call to hold back a bit with the familiar music throughout, picking and choosing their spots for Michael Giacchino's sampling of John Williams' original themes. There's a lot of housekeeping that goes on in the opening hour since Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script must introduce a slew of new characters and fill in enough backstory so that we're not completely lost and can connect the dots to the characters and events within the universe we are familiar with from the previous films.

While this isn't as tightly put together as The Force Awakens, with a lot of narrative stuffed in and transitions between locations not always seamless, at least it's a true prequel in every sense of the word. What occurs directly relates and even bleeds into the events of Episode IV and if the Death Star has started to become a narrative crutch for the series, it's hard to blame them for going back to it given its recognizability and importance. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this actually looks like one in that its dirty and grungy enough to have believably taken place before the events with which we're most familiar. Picking up where Abrams left off, there's still a healthier balance of practical effects and green screen CGI, with only two very notable exceptions. And as much as the comparisons to the Empire Strikes Back  seem a bit overblown, it is fair to claim that this is the and most crisp looking installment since then, with Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser again delivering stellar work, especially when it comes to the visuals in the latter half.

Of everything, character development suffers most as the story races along toward the battle at Scarif, which will occupy much of the film's final thrilling act. Casting was key and if Felicity Jones doesn't initially jump out as a typical Star Wars protagonist, she changes minds in a hurry. Of all these new faces, she was the one audiences most needed a connection to with and she manages it in both the combat scenes and more dramatic moments involving her father.  It's definitely a stark contrast to Forest Whitaker, who really hams it up, drawing unintentional laughs in his role as a Rebel extremist. But that's an improvement over the complete lack of entertainment a bland Diego Luna provides as Cassian, who's clearly intended to be a "bad boy" pilot in the vain of Han Solo, or more recently, Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron. Whether it was how the character was written, performed, or possibly a combination of the two, he instead comes off as a poor man's version of both, completely lacking in charisma and personality. More memorable is Donnie Yen as the blind monk Chirrut and Alan Tudyk, who makes the pessimistic, matter-of-fact K-2SO droid an inspired alternative to the R2's and C3PO's of the galaxy.

Perhaps no contemporary character actor could be better served in the part of an Imperial Military Director than Ben Mendelsohn, who's carved out a nice supporting career playing exactly these types of creepy, slimey manipulators. It may be kind of a one-note role, but he sure hits it thunderously well. And he does it under fairly unusual circumstances, acting in many scenes opposite the CGI ghost of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Guy Henry). In a development George Lucas would undoubtedly endorse (and is probably jealous he didn't get a chance to incorporate himself), modern movie technology can digitally resurrect deceased actors and fully immerse them into scenes opposite current performers. While we can joke about how this dreaded day has finally arrived, it's actually executed fairly well in this case and is likely less distracting than if Lucas were still at the controls.

It helps that Cushing always had a robotic presence and ghastly countenance that made him terrifying on screen, making him in many ways the perfect subject for this kind of a cinematic experiment. Whether we need something like this is another debate entirely, but those involved should at least be commended for pulling it off well, despite reintroducing a reliance on technology that previously hampered Lucas' prequels. If they wisely pick their spots it won't be a problem, but their other attempt at it in the film with a far bigger name comes off, at best, as a needless distraction. While those involved couldn't have known at the time they'd be digitally resurrecting another deceased actor in Carrie Fisher, that still doesn't explain why it looks so awful. Thankfully, it's quick,  logical within the framework of the story, and we still have her for an upcoming Star Wars film that will hopefully serve as a proper swan song for the actress.

Even the most casual of fans will be able to pick up on certain Easter eggs sprinkled throughout and cameos from familiar minor and major characters, occasionally showing up in the background or foreground of various scenes. Most of them work well and don't feel shoehorned in, but what everyone really wants to talk about is the film's worst kept secret: The reappearance of Darth Vader. Still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones but with two new actors (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous) taking over for David Prowse in the suit. And while not quite as physically imposing, there's no mistaking that the character himself is as formidable as ever. He has only a couple of brief scenes, but one in particular that comes late, puts to rest any concerns that his appearances wouldn't be carefully chosen or played for maximum impact. Not only was it worth the wait, but it's not a hotshot, adding a pertinent layer to the narrative.

Whatever its issues, Rogue One offesr something that no other installment preceding it did, except possibly the far inferior Revenge of the Sith. An ending with tragic resonance. Not completely, but enough to make you wonder how much Disney must have debated going with it. To their credit, it would have been easy not to and everyone still probably would have eaten it up anyway since it's Star Wars. But they did, and it's that decision, and the entire execution of the final battle that makes the film linger longer than it otherwise would. Fans like to know what they've seen on screen means something, and for this franchise, where the stakes are suddenly even higher than usual, Rogue One delivers that, and even a bit more.