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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

* * *

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story we officially enter the period of Star Wars Anthology films, stand-alone films that will ensure that we'll get a new Star Wars movie every year until the end of time (in 2017 we'll get Episode VIII, 2018 a young Han Solo film, 2019 Episode IX, and 2020's release will reportedly be a film centering on Boba Fett). I'm somewhat confused as to how Rogue One can be considered a "stand-alone" film, in that it does technically have a sequel, it's just that the sequel predates it by 39 years, but that's really neither here nor there. Rogue One is a great start to the era of "all the Star Wars you could possibly want," giving renewed context and emotional weight to the events of the original trilogy while also doing something slightly different from the Star Wars films that we've already seen. Fair warning: since Rogue One has now been in release for 17 days, I'm going to assume that anyone concerned about spoilers has already seen it and I'm considering everything fair game for discussion.

After a brief prologue set 15 years before the film's events, Rogue One gets to the heart of the matter: The Death Star is in its final stages of completion, the project overseen by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and his kidnapped engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). In the prologue, Krennic had tracked Erso to the planet where he had been hiding out with his wife, Lyra, and daughter, Jyn, and killed Lyra in the confrontation that ensued, while Jyn managed to escape. Now grown, Jyn (Felicity Jones) has lived on the fringes, raised by Erso's friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and trained for guerrilla warfare before being left to find her own path. After she's captured by Imperial forces, she's rescued by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a member of the Rebellion, which wants to use her to get to Galen. Meanwhile, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot, has defected and turned himself over to Gerrera with a hologram message from Galen in which he warns about the Death Star and reveals that he has planted a fatal flaw within it. With a team which will come to include Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yuen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and the droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi will race against time to extract the Death Star plans and get them to the Rebel Alliance.

Though the subject of some hand-wringing as a result of some fairly extensive reshoots which reportedly changed the story significantly (which isn't hard to believe as what you see in the final film bears almost no resemblance to what was shown in the first teaser trailer), the final product is strong and contains enough action, enough humor (K-2SO has been singled out as the film's comic relief, but I think the film's single funniest line belongs to Yuen), and enough callbacks to the previous Star Wars films to ensure that it maintains a broad appeal. The effects work from Industrial Light & Magic is as impressive as we've come to expect, though I think that the discussions that have been happening about the moral and other implications of the appearance of the long-deceased Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin are somewhat overblown in terms of questioning whether flesh and blood actors are still needed when they can be computer generated. As impressive as it is that the effects team managed to create something that resembles a human being, the effects are not so seamless that you can't tell that you're looking at effects and not only is that kind of distracting, but I expect that as visual effects continue to evolve at their ever more rapid pace, this isn't going to age very well (though, of course, this being Stars Wars, even without George Lucas' involvement, I imagine that the effects will be tinkered with later as the capabilities catch up to the intent). But this is ultimately a minor quibble about a film that ultimately works quite well.

The lore of Star Wars is by now so well-known that films don't really need to do a lot of world building in order to make the audience understand the frame of reference, though like all Star Wars films Rogue One does take the time to establish planets and places that we've never seen before. Yet even though Rogue One builds itself on the familiar foundations of the Star Wars universe, it does divert slightly from what we've come to expect a Star Wars film to be. Although one of the supporting characters (Chirrut) is a believer in the Force, the rest of the characters are not driven by the philosophical teachings that powered the stories of Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker and rarely even acknowledge the existence of the Force (save, of course, for the requisite prayer that "the Force be with us."). In that respect (combined with the scarcity of lightsabers) Rogue One almost feels less like a Star Wars film and more like a war film set in space, like a cosmic Dirty Dozen.

This strategy works for the most part, deepening the understanding of what's at stake in the larger battle between the Rebels and the Empire that plays out across the main films, and putting faces to what was previously just an idea of how much had to be lost to arrive at the initial triumph that closes the original film. The finale of the film is fantastic and at times even moving despite the fact that the characters here are never all that well-developed (which gives one a renewed appreciation for George Lucas' work in the first film, which relied on archetypes for its core characters but also fleshed them out in the midst of the action so that they could become not just beloved, but iconic). Mostly, though, it's a finale built on the bold decision to have a definite ending. Big studio movies never end anymore; they simply fold out into a next chapter complete with after credits sequence to tempt you to the next entry in an endless series. The end of Rogue One is an ending, complete and final and beautiful in its rarity.

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