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Film Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Directed by Gareth Edwards)

The much-anticipated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kicks off Disney’s ambitious (or ambitious because it’s less ambitious) plan for the Star Wars anthology films, which will alternate with their main Skywalker Saga features over at least a six-year period. If Rogue One is any indication, the anthology films will vary the tone and thematic muscle (if not necessarily the general thematic direction) of the fictional universe. This is a grim, fatalistic war film whose only fleeting notes of hope are shuffled forward/backward to the Original Trilogy kick-off, Episode IV: A New Hope, translating the referential (and reverential) nostalgia impulse that characterized The Force Awakens into a weirdly potent sense of narrative closure and righteous sacrifice.

Rogue One has got some enormous, inescapable flaws, but this story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the secret plans to the Death Star, the evil Empire’s planet-destroying superweapon to which Luke Skywalker deals a fatal blow at the climax of A New Hope, is beautifully shot, impressively scaled, and crackles with gritty energy and a peculiar punch. It returns for influence to the World War II films which George Lucas strip-mined for his first Star Wars film (thrilled by the climactic assault on the Death Star through the metallic canyon? Watch Dambusters some time). Its spectacular, exhausting 45-minutes climactic battle on a tropical planet invokes the slaughter in paradise of the war’s Pacific theatre. It also employs a pair of orientalist supporting characters serving as tributes to Lucas’ considerable debt to Akira Kurosawa.

Even Rogue One is at pains to present itself as a space-opera Sam Peckinpah conflict meat-grinder (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), it remains a Star Wars movie, and is therefore at its soul a family saga (spoilers, such as they are, to follow). That family is the Ersos, supposedly humble farmers introduced in the opening scene. Patriarch Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) meets tersely on the black volcanic rockscape outside his home with Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a high-ranking weapons officer with the Galactic Empire who urges him to rejoin the major project they worked on together. The presence of an armed escort and Krennic’s reassurances-as-threats make Galen’s decision to send his daughter Jyn (played as a young girl by Dolly Gadsdon) into hiding before the confrontation look like a good one, especially when Krennic’s squad shoots down her defiant mother Lyra (Valene Kane) and whisks Galen away against his will.

Moving forward a clutch of years, the adult Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones, preserving the chipmunk-toothed, deceptively steely English lead actress template for the Disney/Lucasfilm reboots set down by Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens) has fallen into a bandit’s existence amidst the wreckage of her familial unit, landing her in an Imperial prison camp. She’s sprung by a Rebel Alliance squad and hustled off to Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4, where the leadership of the rebellion – including Original Trilogy player Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) – tasks her to seek out the grizzled extremist Clone War hero Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a reclusive, uncompromising, barely-hinged, artificial-limbed, oxygen-huffing warlord who also happened to have been her tough-love guardian after Krennic effectively orphaned her.

Gerrera and his followers are holed up in a stone cave-fortress on the barren sand-and-rock planet of Jedha, which is occupied by the Empire. Its agents are extracting the Afghanistanesque world’s mineral wealth of khyber crystals. Once used as the power source for Jedi lightsabers, the potent crystals are now powering the Empire’s close-to-completion superweapon; the transition between political orders is thus marked in resource extraction and manufacture, a smart grace note about the imperatives of imperialist economics. Travelling to this tense outpost with Jyn are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a skilled intelligence officer, and his reprogrammed ex-Imperial droid sidekick K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), whose blunt assessments of the likelihood of their demise pass as droidly comic relief in this more bloody-minded Star Wars. Jyn is expected to provide a safe-ish introduction to the unpredictable Saw, whose forces hold captive an Imperial cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has defected to the Rebels in order to deliver a secret message from Galen Erso about the rumoured Death Star.

Searching for Cassian’s contact in the Arabesque Jedha City, matters take a violent turn when he and Jyn are caught in the middle of a guerrilla ambush on an Imperial Stormtrooper patrol. They find unlooked-for battle allies in Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a Force-trusting blind warrior and former guardian of Jedha’s now-closed Jedi temple, and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a walking arsenal of a mercenary fighter. Captured by Saw’s men, Jyn views her father’s holographic message, which assures her that he is not collaborating willingly with the Empire and has indeed designed a hidden flaw into the Death Star which will allow it to be destroyed, if only the weapon platform’s digital schematics can be retrieved from the Imperial archives on the planet of Scarif.

Barely escaping an atrocity of a Death Star test on Jedha City, Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO, Bodhi, Chirrut, and Baze (Saw stares down the destructive abyss and is swallowed by it) debate and bicker over their next move. Cassian follows orders to Eadu, where Galen Erso and his team are located, with a covert assassination mission that he dares not divulge to his target’s daughter. This incursion also goes awry, with an appearance by Krennic and a Rebel bombing assault, leaving Galen dead (“I have so much to tell you,” he says to Jyn, then expires, one of many such resonantly unsatisfying, unglamorous deaths in the film) and launching this motley crew and a cadre of like-minded Rebel fighters (belatedly supported by the lion’s share of the might of the Rebel fleet) on a desperate, likely suicide mission to smash and grab the Death Star plans from Scarif.

The Scarif sequence sees director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) bring together his ragged-edged but geographically clear battle scenes with his skill for executing perfectly-scaled wide-canvas cinematic images of aesthetic note. Just as Godzilla and his monstrous rivals left the dwarfed humans around them huddled and humbled at their magnitude, so the massive, destructive Death Star (which looms across one planet’s horizon before raining down death, like a facelessly sneering industrial sun) renders diminished mortals and their hopes insignificant and fearful. There’s also a tremendous amount of action, plot, and character work happening in Rogue One‘s final push, but Edwards, his cinematographer Greig Fraser, and his editing team of John Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Jabez Olssen (The Lord of the Rings) and Colin Goudie weave it together remarkably well without sacrificing a relentless, punishing pace. It wrings and punishes not only its audience but its characters as well: the Rogue One team is decimated in the course of their mission, which ends in a success they do not fully see and that does not save them. This closing note of heroic sacrifice, for all of the film’s notes of moral ambiguity and fractured allegiances, ultimately aligns Rogue One most closely with the World War II films of not only the post-war era but also more contemporary takes like Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds.

The potency of these thematic notes and the humbling scope of Edward’s composition gives Rogue One the feel of a film much more coherent, well-constructed, and internally consistent than what the onscreen product manages to rogueonebe. The script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (editor John’s elder brother), is hardly so even and sensible, and the final released cut shows its warts and gaps too prominently, the well-publicized reshoots and recutting (evidently to make Jyn less spiky and more sympathetic) as visible as cracks in a foundation. Although Rogue One can, at its best, maintain a driving, enervating pace, it also seems eternally pressed for time, with never enough of a chance to pause, breathe, and tell us who are heroes really are and why we should care about them.

Jyn’s motivations begin as naked self-preservation, shift to a desire for familial reunion, and then transmute into idealistic dedication to the Rebel cause. The pieces are in place for this arc to complete itself but the key steps between them are fuzzy or missing altogether, and the final dodgy transition to belief in the cause is smoothed over with a series of rousing speeches prior to the final battle on Scarif. This is generally the case with the other characters as well: Cassian Andor is haunted by dirty deeds done for the Alliance but we never find out what they are, Bodhi undertakes his dangerous defection out of seeming loyalty to Galen, Saw Gerrera never gets the necessary backstory to explain his paranoia and extremist sectarian splitting (the Clone Wars cartoons in which he is a recurring player may provide that, however), and Chirrut and Baze simply tag along with their new, vague allies, willing to risk their lives for a lack of anything else to do with themselves. Perhaps as a result, none of the actors (even the putative star Jones, who has a good cry at her father’s holographic message) really stand out, although Luna summons some passionate readings of his functional dialogue and Ahmed could play these kind of nervy motormouth sidekick characters for the rest of his career without serious exertion.

Mendelsohn’s Krennic, too, seems split between three incentives for his villainous actions, which shift freely whenever the film requires one more than another: part general ideological authoritarianism, part personal animus against the betrayal of Galen Erso, part prideful self-interested careerism. The latter reason is most interesting, if only due to its relative distinctiveness in the Star Wars universe. It would prove a decent match to the dirt-under-the-fingernails practicality of Rogue One’s Rebel heroes to have an Imperial antagonist hell-bent on a promotion with little stomach for totalitarian power, like a Wehrmacht general more invested in adding a title than in achieving racial purity. But like many character elements in Rogue One, he is not consistent in any direction, and the usually captivating Mendelsohn (so good at projecting a looser sense of menace on a show like Bloodline) suffers some as a result.

If the human faces of Rogue One labour their way through the material, then the human-like faces do little better. I don’t mean the bitterly droll K-2SO, and I certainly don’t mean Darth Vader, who enjoys a frightening renaissance in his cameo appearance, toying with Krennic like he’s a minor gnat of an officer (which doesn’t help the Director’s villainous profile much) and viciously cutting through Rebel soldiers in pursuit of the coveted plans. No,I mean the way that Rogue One ghoulishly resurrects the late, great Peter Cushing (who has been dead for over 20 years) as Grand Moff Tarkin through the use of computer effects. It’s an unsettling and distracting choice (pioneered, to some extent, by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow using technology to cast the late Sir Laurence Olivier as its villain a decade or so ago) and hardly seamless: miniscule but definitely visible jerks in Tarkin’s movements betray the often uncanny illusion. Even worse, technically speaking, is a late CG-ified cameo of a young Princess Leia, a brief but seemingly rushed and unconvincing effect that surely sparked a few caustic Carrie Fisher zingers at its expense that are unlikely to ever be allowed to see the light of day.

Such flaws aside, Rogue One accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish more than reasonably well. But it’s worth asking whether it genuinely needed to be accomplished in the first place. Rogue One is premised on answering a question from the Star Wars canon that arguably didn’t need answering, on parsing the origins of what is, in its original occurence, little more than a textbook McGuffin. Maybe this would be less piquing if Weitz and Gilroy didn’t take their program of background exposition a step further and address the generations of pedants who picked at the most nagging nit of the Death Star plot.

This practically unstoppable world-exploding battle station had a single catastrophic weakness, Rogue One informs us with the unearned confidence of a Reddit commenter, because one of its key designers was a man of conscience who placed this Achilles’ heel at the Death Star’s core to redeem his own weakness in collaborating with the masters of evil and allow his nefariously powerful creation to be destroyed. Jyn Erso redeems her father’s mistakes but also completes his master scheme in a tragic father-daughter cooperation in a manner reminiscent of Vader sacrificing himself to help Luke defeat the Emperor at a critical moment in Return of the Jedi, and these new Star Wars films do thrive on such thematic echoes (sometimes to their detriment, true).

But is it so difficult to buy into the idea that the Galactic Empire, drunk on its ruthless draught of tyranny, overlooked a vital detail with disastrous consequences? Like the Third Reich it’s based on, the Empire is felled at least partly by its own arrogant hubris, the Death Star an “unsinkable” Titanic of a superweapon with an exploitable flaw that seems obvious in retrospect but was easily overlooked by the space fascists whose heads were swimming with the barbiturates of raw power. I always read the Death Star’s keyhole of a fatal weakness as a stealth Tolkien borrowing by Lucas, the Empire’s totalitarian contempt for the plucky sharpshooting underdog mirroring how The Hobbit‘s dragon villain Smaug’s sneering sense of genocidal superiority was mortally punctured by a feathered informant and an archer whose aim is true.

Rogue One does not wholly undermine such a reading, but it does set down an official version of the Rebel Alliance’s acquisition of the Death Star plans. It eliminates the ellipses and places a period (an exclamation mark, even) at the end of the sentence. For all of its not-inconsiderable beauty and excitement, Rogue One, like all Star Wars films since the original trio 30-odd years ago, is closing off audience readings without opening up the potential for nearly enough (positive) new ones. For a fan community that sustained itself by spinning its own creative webs of interpretation and extrapolation for decades, these films provide lavish new fantasies while choking off previously-spun dreams, and are thus a decidedly mixed blessing.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. March 23, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Nice review. This is real Star Wars! Felt like the originals as it had that dark and gritty side as well. This was WAY better than Force Awakens. I was afraid I would not like it as I felt the female protagonist would feel forced and un-relatable as was the case in Force Awakens with Rey, but I have to give it to this crew they made Jyn believable and relatable.

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