Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by: Gareth Edwards.
Written by: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy.
Starring: Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Jonathan Aris (Senator Jebel), Valene Kane (Lyra Erso), Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Anthony Daniels (C3P0), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader – voice).
There are ways in which Rogue One is one of the most satisfying blockbusters in recent years. For one thing, this is a film that doesn’t worry about any possible prequels or sequels – both have already been made, and so no matter how much people love this, it is designed to be a standalone film and not just a $200 million, two hour trailer for a bunch of other movies you cannot see yet, and will likely be more $200 million two hour trailers for other films. Freed from that restraint, Rogue One is a film in which there are actual stakes at play – not so much for the story, which we know the ending before heading into the theater – but for the characters, who this time, may actually die and stay dead (as opposed to the Disney death, where we only think they do until they open their eyes and blink, and everything is okay). The film is also wonderfully entertaining, has some of the best action sequences of the year, not to mention some of the best special effects. It also retains the sense of humor the best entries of the Star Wars series have always had. It does a difficult job of bridging the gap between the Prequel trilogy and the original trilogy, and does it quite well. Yes, there are some rather bone headed decisions made in the film, regarding using CGI to resurrect long dead actors, but for the most part, Rogue One works like gangbusters.
The story takes place between the time when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and when his son Luke, and the Rebel Alliance, will attack and try to take him down. In order to do that, they’re going to need to destroy the Death Star – and in order for that to happen, they need to know how this massive weapon is made. One of the long running jokes in Star Wars fandom is why the Empire would make a weapon as powerful as the Death Star, but give it a fatal weakness that makes it easy to destroy. Smartly, Rogue One incorporates the answer to that question into the movie – it’s because one of the scientists who built and designed the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) only did so under duress – and so he built in the design flaw.
The main story is about Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), as she reluctantly joins the Rebel Alliance, and heads out to try and steal the plans for the Death Star, so more rebels can destroy it. She is joined on her quest by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a seemingly remorseless killer, the blind master martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his “friend” Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a marksmen, a Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has defected because his conscience has got to him, and of course a droid – K-2SO (voiced, brilliantly, by Alan Tudyk) – an Empire killer drone, who has been reprogrammed to fight with the rebels – and is easily the most pessimistic character in the film.
The outcome of their mission is never really in doubt – we already know in for the original film, they’ll get the plans. And yet, this story is still worth telling – if for no other reason because it gives the filmmakers an excuse to make a movie this entertaining, and also a little bit different from the other Star Wars films. There is only one scene featuring a Light Sabre for instance – and the climax is an all-out air and ground war sequence, the likes of which this series hasn’t really done before. It’s also not that bad an idea to expand this series beyond the damn Skywalker family for once (Rey is a Skywalker, right?). While Darth Vader is around in the film, I also liked how the main bad guy isn’t some all-powerful villain, but kind of a whiny, powerless bureaucrat – brilliantly played, of course, by Ben Mendelsohn, who is brilliant in everything.
I do have some reservations about the film. We really didn’t need them to digitally create Peter Cushing to recreate the role he played in 1977  and since the actor has been dead for more than 20 years, I’m not sure its ethical anyway (perhaps worse, from an entertainment standpoint, its distracting – as is the scene at the end featuring another well-known character, de-aged by 40 years). The film was directed by Gareth Edwards – who made one of the best, and most original blockbusters in years, with his Godzilla remake – one of the few studio films that size to still feel like it had the fingerprints of its director. Rogue One doesn’t quite have however – it does feel more workmanlike than his last film – although only slightly.
I do wonder, however, how soon it’s going to be that a new Star Wars film feels less special – less like an event, and more like Marvel films now do. Not to knock Marvel (they could be way worse, just look at DC) – but their films have a sameness to them that can grate at times. The Star Wars films still feel like something wholly unique and unto themselves – but if we get one a year, that’s going to change at some point.
But, not yet. For now, Rogue One joins the ranks of Force Awakens and Revenge of the Sith (yeah, I said it, deal with it) as not quite in the upper echelon of the series, but not down in the valleys either. It’s a really good Star Wars movie – and really, what else did you want it to be.

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