Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Release: Friday, December 16, 2016

[Theater]

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.

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3-5Recommendation: 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. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed, written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

Godzilla

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Release: Friday, May 16, 2014

[RPX Theater]

I AM GARETH EDWARDS, HEAR ME ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Who?

Oh, a nobody, other than the guy who’s responsible for retrofitting the world’s most famous monster for a 21st Century outing.

The British director has been in charge of at least one more monster-related movie. It was actually ingeniously titled Monsters. Now, he’s been tapped to awaken a beast living deep within our oceans — an effort, it’s hoped, that should eradicate any last vestiges of the memory of what Roland Emmerich did to the legend back in 1998. The last man to touch Godzilla controversially recast the giant lizard as some unexplained and malevolent force of nature bent on destroying the world uptown Manhattan. He has posed on occasion throughout his lengthy film career as the villainous type, but never did he feel as disconnected from lore or irrelevant as a threat to mankind as he did then.

Now Edwards has arrived on the scene and there’s a detectable escalating tension in the room. With a restless fan base growing ever desperate to see Godzilla as it truly wants to see him, the time is now to deliver on promises. No more messing around. No more straying from the truth. Just deliver the goods, and no one else gets upset. Or hurt.

Godzilla, the creature, receives a quality facelift in 2014. (I emphasize quality just to ensure no one here’s under the impression of an un-sexy beast; that this is the Joan Rivers of monster lizards.)

He’s so massive the cameras have to take their time in a particularly memorable, vertical panning shot, the moment his true size is revealed. He possesses a thunderous roar that will give the most hardened of ex-cons no choice but to go running for their favorite blankey; and the combination of sheer size and the way he moves in an epic, lumbering gait makes the big guy, for all intents and purposes, the standard against which any forthcoming CGI-fests are to be measured. Behold, the Godzilla we’ve been awaiting, expecting, maybe even demanding — a behemoth so positively ridiculous it couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for technology (namely, visual effects) to catch up and be able to support its very scary ambitions.

In 1999 scientists working in the Janjira Nuclear Plant in Tokyo experience a catastrophic disaster in the form of a series of earthquakes that threatens to expose the entire city to toxic levels of radiation. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are dedicated researchers/engineers on the hunt for something enormous. As fate would have it, their dedication, a stubbornness woven into the fabric of human nature, would become a means to a very certain end.

A collaborative effort among Edwards’ three screenwriters, a trio which includes the one and only Frank Darabont, produces a screenplay that paints the human race as a mostly likable yet largely incapable species. Our sense of self-importance is quickly curtailed by the arrival of two massive insect-looking monsters the government is quick to label MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Mankind’s inability to stop experimenting has ironically produced its inability to continue living in its current state, apparently. Hence, Edwards’ decision to root the Brody’s at physical, emotional and psychological Ground Zero — they are a decent, hardworking family who clearly represents the best of humanity.

While not everyone’s performance strikes the same note — the movie’s biggest crime is that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford Brody is on occasion a bit too dry — the cast do what they need to in order to elevate the non-fantasy component to a suitably dramatic level, while still stepping back enough to allow our own fears and concerns to boil over quietly. We have time to ponder what we would do in these people’s shoes. And while characters fail to break the mould of archetypes — Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa might be the most irritating of the bunch, and Sally Hawkins needn’t even have bothered showing up on set her role is so limited — such is really all we need if we’re talking about retelling a classic and not reinventing it.

Godzilla is one of only a few films that succeeds in producing that gut-feeling, a fear so palpable we wish we don’t keep digging into the unknown. There’s a visceral reason to fear what we don’t understand or have never experienced. In the horror genre of today it seems copious amounts of blood and cruel, unusual ways of suffering and dying translate to “stuff that should scare people.” I mean, that works too. But it’s time the trend is bucked. Here’s a completely new taste for the palate. Packed with scintillating imagery, a generation of suspense that’s comparatively lacking in even recent superhero films, and crafted out of love and passion, the Alpha Predator is back and bigger than ever in an old-school film experience that recalls a bygone era in moviegoing.

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Godzilla is smiling. How can anyone be terrified of a smiling Godzilla?

4-0Recommendation: Quite possibly the biggest film of the summer, Gareth Edwards’ hotly debated second film understands how important it is as it handles the challenge of redesigning the beast on his 60th birthday with aplomb, with room to give plenty of attention to its A-list cast. While some characters are definitely better than others, there’s enough here to keep even the most casual attendee engaged in this global crisis. A movie that would never escape criticism, but considering the alternative (let’s never mention Dr. Nico Tattoo-lotsa-lips. . .or whatever his name was from the Emmerich version. . .) it has done alright for itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The arrogance of men is thinking that nature is in their control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com