Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards)

Posted: December 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

“Rogue One” is a bland cookie with a few morsels of delicious chocolate within in. Those morsels may trick you into thinking the whole cookie is good, because those morsels are yummy, but overall the cookie is just bland as hell.

The film tells the story of how the plans for the original Death Star were stolen from the Empire and given to the Rebel Alliance so that Luke Skywalker could eventually blow it up in the original film. More importantly than that, though, the film exists to patch over George Lucas’s bad writing. Why would the Empire overlook such a massive flaw in their design? Granted, the Empire isn’t the smartest organization to have ever graced film (we’ve had THREE fucking Death Stars now…and this film has a major hero victory surrounding a switch, out in the open, being pulled…it’s called the “Master Switch”, and it is proof, yet again, that the Empire sucks at security), but this was at least an isolated flaw in the original film.  You know, before sequels, prequels, and cartoons weakened this fictional universe to a point that simply ripping off and pseudo-remaking that original film (“The Force Awakens”) felt like a breath of fresh air. In any case, now we know that the flaw was put into the Death Star on purpose by a disgruntled ex-Imperial scientist (Mads Mikkelson) for the purpose of hopefully allowing that weakness to be exploited be the Rebellion. Great. Much like the much maligned prequel trilogy, we’re getting unneeded answers to questions that are better left unanswered to be the conversation fodder of fans.

The main thrust of the plot involves that scientist’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones). Jyn is a dull, boring, forgettable character whose only job in the movie is to be a generic hero that gives two speeches. There is nothing memorable, interesting, or exciting about this character. She’s a placeholder protagonist in search of personality. Anyway, after her dad was kidnapped by the Empire to work on the Death Star, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whose name is too close to Che Guevara to be a coincidence. Gerrera, the film tells is, is some sort of radical guerilla fighter who broke away from the Rebellion because he takes more extreme tactics against the Empire. The film really only shows his people ambushing a squad of stormtroopers in a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking marketplace (the closest this film comes to being overtly political beyond a general pro-rebellion-against-fascism message) so I’m not sure why he’s considered to be so radical. This is war, no? Then again, the film shows the Rebellion leaders as being wishy-washy do-nothings in a scene where the leaders and some soldiers are all together in one room discussing their next course of action, so maybe the film is showcasing the inaction of Liberalism versus the revolutionary Praxis of Gerrera. Still, it’s odd that Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Fleet blow up the Death Star, killing thousands if not more, and Skywalker is unquestionably a hero. By what measure is Skywalker a hero and Gerrera a terrorist or a radical? I kind of wish Disney had given us a Saw Gerrera movie instead of this one, as it sounds more interesting. Does he spend his days waterboarding clone troopers? Drone bombing the families of Grand Moffs?

At some point Gerrera abandoned Jyn, and Jyn became a vagabond and criminal, until the Rebellion breaks her out of prison with a mission: find Gerrera and see if he has received plans for an Imperial weapon (the Death Star) from a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), who in turn got them from Jyn’s dad. Accompanying Jyn on this mission are a Rebel soldier, Cassian (Diego Luna) and a comic relief android, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who is often legitimately funny. They head to a planet called Jedha, where Gerrera is located, but also where the Empire is mining lightsaber crystals for use in the Death Star’s laser. An occupying power raping a planet of its rare natural resources, but there’s no time for social commentary, I guess. Once there, they hook up with a blind Force-sensitive monk/wannabe-Jedi named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his partner (romantic?) Baze (Jiang Wen), who also act as comic relief. At least Chirrut gets to show off some Force-tinged martial arts. Having a Star wars film without Jedi at least takes some of the pro-religion ickiness out of this universe for me and grounds it more in political reality, and not of the trade blockade “Phantom Menace” type.

Through various plot machinations, the story goes from finding Gerrera, to convincing the Rebellion that the Death Star is real and to steal its schematics, to a full on space battle based around disabling a shield, ala “Return of the Jedi”. Honestly, this plot is pretty threadbare, the characters are often two-dimensional and forgettable, and many opportunities to make political commentary are inexcusably wasted. At the very least, the film is pretty to look at, mixing the color palette of a World War II movie post-“Saving Private Ryan” (lots of browns and greys) with little visual nods to Vietnam War films (palm trees with explosions rising above the tree tops). Director Gareth Edwards seemed to want to actually make a Star Wars film that brought out the WAR part of the title, and I wonder how much the publicized reshoots did to water down that part, as this film could have been, and deserved to be, grittier and darker than the final product. The tone so often switches from a serious action/drama about a revolution to quipping and wisecracks (even from Darth Vader, whose gravitas has been irreparably damaged from the prequels) that it’s hard for the film to really be successful because it’s trapped between being the fun and funny swashbuckling fantasy we know as Star Wars, and the new take on the franchise that the director clearly wanted this to be. After the lazy copy machine that was “The Force Awakens”, I think I’d have preferred the latter.

That’s not to say this film isn’t without its joys. The mix of CGI and practical to match the visual style of the original trilogy works even better here than it did in “The Force Awakens”, which is good since the appearance of Jimmy Smits makes this film have one foot in the prequel trilogy even as it lunges its body en masse into “A New Hope”. I enjoyed seeing the iconic production design of the Death Star’s interior and the classic costumes/uniforms. The final battle scene feels like a classic Star Wars space battle, but with nice new touches, like using space ships as battering rams against other ships. The two or three scenes with Vader, damage done to the character by the prequels aside, work reasonably well, even if James Earl Jones’s voice didn’t sound quite right this time. I liked seeing Vader with his helmet off in a tank of goo, surrounded by Imperial Guards (my favorite glossed-over characters from “Jedi”). His hallway massacre scene is a return to when we still viewed Vader as a badass and a menace, and not as Hayden Christensen. Of the new characters, I thought Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) was a decent villain, playing a mid-tier level fascist upset with his superior and trying to rise in the ranks of the organization. He’s a nice midway point between disposable storm troopers and Imperial personal and the Vaders and Tarkins of this universe. Gerrera was still my favorite new character, but he’s not given nearly enough to do in the film. His state of existence, in sort of a ghetto Vader cybernetic body due to a lifetime of battle damage, implies a very interesting back story that hasn’t been covered in the cartoon series from which the character originates. Shame we didn’t get that movie instead.

The worst sin of the CGI is the digital appearance of late actor Peter Cushing as Tarkin. Taking a dead actor and putting him in a film as a wholly digital creation that is so very creepily housed in the uncanny valley is distracting, disrespectful, and kind of morally repugnant (regardless of whether his estate actually gave permission or not). They do the same CGI trick to show a young Leia, which is less creepy but equally distracting. Other cameos in this film, like C-3PO and R2-D2, or the angry cantina aliens from “A New Hope” are more welcome and just brief enough to not be groan inducing.

“Rogue One” has some fun moments and little areas of fan service here and there, but it’s a weak film overall. Much like the prequels, it exists to answer questions we didn’t need answers to, and in the process probably adds even more questions about the Empire’s incompetence. It is so beholden to the films that came before and pleasing the fans of those films that it fails to strike its own path into new territory. This is the Member Berries from “South Park”, making you happy because you feel nostalgia, not because you’re actually getting a good experience in and of itself. The film would never stand on its own as a film without drawing on the good will and nostalgia of the previous films. The film has bland, forgettable characters, or if a character is memorable it’s because they have one or two cool scenes. The story lurches from plot point to plot point in a perfunctory manner, while being rather boring for the entire second act. Even when the finale features some good action moments, we get the heavy feeling of been-there-done-that. Perhaps fear of repeating the prequels has made Disney and these new film’s creators so afraid of doing anything too different from the original trilogy that we’re condemned to only have these lifeless nostalgia bubble films that are hollow products containing enough scattered moments of ingenuity and fun to make us feel better about them than they deserve.

I, for once, and getting burnt out on “Star Wars”. C+

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