Release: Friday, December 16, 2016
Written by: Chris Weitz; Tony Gilroy
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Gareth Edwards (Godzilla; Monsters) has been given the none-too-enviable task of linking two of cinema’s most iconic trilogies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story predicates the ultra-classic original space opera and follows on the heels of the considerably less classic trilogy that kicked off circa the turn of the millennium. With such weight on its shoulders it’s a small miracle the production doesn’t fully implode in on itself. Given what’s at stake and the immense hype building up to it, the “spin-off” saga still can’t help but feel like a comedown, especially when it stands in such close proximity to The Force Awakens.
This is a review from the point of view of a decided non-fanboy. Let us not get that confused with me not being a fan of the anthology at all. There are a lot of things I like about the universe George Lucas envisioned some 40 years ago — not least of which being the immense sense of scale and (cringe) epic-ness that has been established year in and year out. The mythos of Star Wars also brilliantly manifests as a thinly veiled critique of the way we earthlings perpetually endeavor to coexist on a single chunk of rock. Perhaps most critically, Lucas has established characters and character arcs that will forever live on in the annals of not only science fiction but in all of cinema. While you will never find me in a packed house fully dressed in Star Wars attire, I will always have time for Darth Vader. And if you have no interest in Luke Skywalker, Chewie, or Han Solo you basically have no soul.
Rogue One, not without a sense of urgency in its precursive structure, manifests as more a tale of two halves where one goes heavy on the exposition and the other overcompensatory with action. It is a decidedly unbalanced epic, unable to maintain momentum or genuine intrigue from start to finish. And it’s a damn long sit, clocking in at well over two hours. The film only seems to achieve greatness down the back stretch, where shit really hits the fan as a small cadre of rebels led by Felicity Jones‘ Jyn Erso finally puts into action a bold plan to recover the design schematic for the Empire’s megaweapon, the Death Star.
Erso, daughter of the reluctant architect behind said “planet killer” Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen — yay!), has lived a life of oppression and isolation. On her own since the age of 15 she’s the very definition of teenage rebel, but not like the ones you see in Nirvana’s music videos. Her journey to become a Rebel leader is built upon a sturdy foundation — the great Ben Mendelsohn gives us reason to be very, very worried as Imperial Director Orson Krennic — but it’s just not very interesting. The entire affair is dark (literally too dark in places, to the point where I couldn’t see what was going on) and sans humor (also sans Hayden Christensen-levels of schmaltz, to its credit), making that first half a slog for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the infallibility of Star Wars.
After a brief introduction to Erso’s humble beginnings we are introduced to key role players who vary in personality from completely boring to vaguely inspiring. There’s Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) — sort of a poor-man’s C-3PO; a defecting Imperial pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has smuggled a holographic message from Galen to present to the Rebel Alliance and a Rebel extremist named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who was the first to “rescue” Jyn from Imperial forces. Also integral to the cause are blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
These folks represent an ideological extremism festering within a faction of Good Guys who all have grown tired of being kicked around by the Bad Guys. The Rebels are the ones we should ultimately care about, except in the end we really don’t. (The perspective I’ve maintained throughout this piece has become pretty confused, I admit. Wasn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of a non-fanboy? I’m not intending to speak for all here because I assume my thoughts are not going to be shared by many. But I digress . . .) In the end, I didn’t really feel the feels. But my buttocks did; pins and needles set in circa the 90-minute mark and as I shifted around trying to get comfortable I also started to gain a greater appreciation of what had been accomplished in Episode VII. Jyn = a watered-down Rey; Rook = a not-fun Finn. James Earl Jones barely even sounds like James Earl Jones.
A large part of the problem I have with Rogue One stems from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s conservative screenplay, one in which narrative coherence is favored over character development. I suppose that, since the arc of the story is itself auxiliary to what comes later — most pertinently the events of A New Hope — the lack of personality or the subtly romantic textures we’ve become so accustomed to over the years is almost intentional. This is a very serious saga, and when humor does meekly surface it arrives absolutely when it is needed, and it doesn’t flow so much as spurt awkwardly; much of Tudyk’s input invokes irritation rather than laughter. In other words, character “growth” here feels more defined by action or inaction, rather than what characters say or feel. Simply put, Rogue One lacks the emotional heft needed to make this a truly memorable chapter in the ongoing saga.
It’s not all underwhelming, though. The aforementioned final third is nothing short of spectacular as Erso and her motley crew successfully infiltrate the highly secured Imperial database on the planet Scarif. The plan of attack is brilliantly devised and fascinating to watch unfold. It’s like the Normandy Beach landing set in space — so convincingly rendered we forget this is all being shot on the Maldivian atoll of Laamu. The contrast between the brutality of the attack and the tropical, utopian setting is, in a word, awesome. The sacrifices made herein also emphasize the ‘war’ in Star Wars. It’s surprising there is emotional resonance behind the losses given the characters are so blandly written.
But even this sequence is not entirely satisfying, insofar as what its execution suggests about the film preceding it. The nostalgia it generates for the
past future risks making entirely redundant any momentum that was supposed to be generated in the events that precipitated it. Rogue One is kind of a big tease; it titillates through sheer force of association while never managing to become something that will endure the test of time on its own.
Recommendation: Fan service to the extreme makes Rogue One a pandering but occasionally enjoyable outing for those who aren’t diehards. It’s visually spectacular and suitably grandiose, but for those wanting to latch onto classic characters it will leave something to be desired. Not even the great Felicity Jones is a true stand-out. Still, there’s something to recommend about the film — namely its reverence for the ever-expanding universe in which it takes place, and when the action is on — boy is it on. Ultimately I’m confident this will still end up breaking all sorts of box office records.
Running Time: 134 mins.
Quoted: “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”
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