By Daniel Reif
Note: I was on the final words this review when I learned of the passing of Carrie Fisher. In respect to her legend, I chose not to edit this piece to puff her honor. Nevertheless, I must bow to a beloved career of one brilliant actress and writer. Thank you, Carrie.
In Rogue One, an unforgettable Star Wars ending is defeated by a meaningless Star Wars Story.
Off to the mutiplex! The franchise of franchise filmmaking is back on the big screen for its 9th intergalactic journey (including the animated Clone Wars (2008) and skipping the “holiday special”) in its 40th year of existence. Newest owner, Disney, unveils their second strike of the light saber, and its first round of stand-alone Stories within the operatic, vast George Lucas universe. Entertainment’s Goliath conglomerate takes entertainment’s eponymous, Galaxy (from long ago and far away), to its first space fantasy outside the episodic Saga.
Last year, Disney/LucasFilm recaptured the force of our imagination in the dashing, prequel-apology, The Force Awakens (Episode VII). Continuing the ever-fought battle of Jedis and the Dark Side a generation following the epic quest lead by Carrie Fisher’s “Princess Leia”, J.J. Abrams received creative reign for the second time in his career, to revive a mass-beloved, action-adventure product. As one the headlining executive producers, he curated a stellar script featuring a new rebellion. A rebellion including an adventurous ensemble of unique heroes, lead by a thoughtfully drawn cast, and imagined beautifully by a top-to-bottom production team behind a deft return to a Galaxy’s wonder. As director, he nailed his second effort at visually transitioning a historic, sci-fi tentpole for a new age without constructively ignoring what mystified such tentpole’s past audiences. The man can set a bar.
He can also pass the baton. This past summer, Justin Lin (one of present day’s best popcorn directors, himself) showed he could stir up a winning Star Trek voyage with J.J. ingredients. Next holiday season, we will see how Rian Johnson (and company) can play on the new Wars saga headed by “Rey” (the shining Daisy Ridley); but for now, in this supposed season of joy, we no longer have to wait for Gareth Edwards’ portal into the story which started it all.
In this entry, we follow the exact mission before the dawn of the Leia rebellion to destroy the “Death Star” and enact the collapse of “Darth Vader’s” oppressive “Empire”. Fan service is plotted at its most enticing; Rogue One chooses to uncover the reason behind the legendary, peculiar mishap of engineering behind the fall of Vader’s planet-erasing weapon, and the storied legend of the engineer’s “rogue” rebel daughter, who lead the epic theft of the weapon’s plans.
Decades of debate are given clearance in a story we have all waited for. Unfortunately, it takes over half of the 2-hour flick to ever give us such service. I assume you, as did I, didn’t waste a moment to hit the movie palace in search of premiere holiday enjoyment. In case you were smart enough to utilize the waning time of the magical season to be with your loved ones at home, or to even bask in better the films out, then careful alert for some spoilers.
Straight out of genre, Rogue kicks off with a classic, parent-murder, origin moment to introduce our heroine, “Jyn Erso” (Felicity Jones). In the scene, the adolescent Erso is separated by a devastating event and assumes her protective father, “Galen”, long gone. Years later, the adult Jyn is now an imprisoned maverick of the Imperial forces, and her outlaw spirit has caught the eye of the “Rebels”. Little she knows, her last name also rings grave importance. Jyn just happens to be the daughter of the engineer behind the Empire’s forthcoming superweapon ,“Death Star”, and an alliance of galactic radicals know this well. I cringed at Rogue’s overdone opening, but at least we jump straight to Erso’s freeing and destined recruitment into the Rebel Alliance.
The get-to-it approach seems to relieve us some formation of a Star Wars journey. Straight out of the Rebel war room, we behold some franchise nuggets for the first time. Familiarity twinkles in our eye (if your eyes din’t roll out your sockets the first scene), as we get our first look at the hologram of the key, weaponized space station. A smile may lock your face as we meet intelligence officer, “Cassian Andor” (Diego Luna), a Han-Solo-veined go-getter, an agitated agitator, worthy of partnership with the wild and crafty, Erso. The Alliance sets the two off on the first mission of Rogue; the Rebels believe Galen is still alive and collaborating with the Empire, and Jyn has the opportunity to find her long-lost dad. Joining the two knuckleheads is the most vocalized, outcast of the group- reprogrammed Imperial droid, “K-2SO” (voiced by the brilliant Alan Tudyk). The flick takes no hurry to please us with our new favorite robot. You would never go to a party with the unfiltered droid, but his top-of-the-dome sarcasm is exactly what charms you.
We brew now with a premising Star Wars epic. A couple badasses are on the interplanetary road towards battle and adventure; an asshole made of steel by their side. Why we enter a post-Al-Qaeda, psychological, modern-warfare movie about political extremism, is beside me. Worse, why do we enter a movie which thinks its bubble-gum-branded universe is of service to a script about wartime trauma? Worst, how does the movie introduce a wealth of of ragtag players it rarely cares to build?!
Well, here we jet to the planet, “Jedha”, an Imperial mining source for a rare type of crystal used to power the “Death Star”. The area is conflictual for (the infamous) Grand Moff Tarkin and Imperial “General Krennic” (Ben Mendlesohn). Tarkin is dissatisfied with their “project’s” management, and Krennic, the overseer, is up against the wall of the declining security of his mining planet. “Saw Gerrera” (Forest Whitaker), a highly wanted extremist, has long headed a violent insurgency against the stormtroopers who patrol; and known to have casualty ends which do not justify the means.
What to do? Krennic, dressed Dark, proclaims his power and performance by wiping out the planet’s Capital to eliminate Saw’s insurgency. The Death Star’s destiny for destruction becomes real. The nuclear pissing display is horrific, chillingly apathetic… and the most relieving moment of Edwards’ “war film”.
I wish to believe Rogue One is actually a radical, Dr. Strangelove-esque, satire on war films, itself, because the film chooses to completely ditch its examination of the unforgiving consequences of battle, just as the examination puts you to sleep. Over stretching its plotted place for far too long, Jedha chokes us in whirling, quick-cut battle scenes, wrapped in bombing disorientation and outcries from innocent civilians. Jyn’s vomiting backstory is drawn from again. Saw, an important guardian from her post-parent childhood, becomes the story’s worst time chewer; a man who’s purpose is to give us the unseen, grimier beginnings of Leia’s rebellion, but a man who only serves to push Jyn and Krennic’s legacies further. A supposed, by-any-means menace, our minor chance at experiencing his might, is absolutely wasted.
Behold, just as his demise hits refreshingly fin, he has to leave us another forgettable mess of an annoyance. Riz Ahmed plays a defected Imperial pilot; valuable info on his person. In apparent Gerrera fashion (his terror/decisions are never given context), he mind-fuck’s the desperate trader through unnecessary physical and psychological torture. The pilot’s important participance in Rogue’s climactic battle justifies why the Alliance keeps him, but his finite state of confusion demeans his place. One loud, incoherent psycho for another.
To our luck, the unimpressive character buck stops at Donnie Yen. The international superstar uplifts this material with crowning charm. When blind warrior and spiritual optimist, “Chirrut”, joins the gang (partnered with Jiang Wen’s silent and glaring, “Baze”), we focus our attention to a loving believer of “the Force”. You, too, may find the magic when he is able to escape the tragic ruining of his home Capital in Jedha, to able his fresh presence in the film’s left turn into edge-of-seat Star Wars territory.
Look, the rest is glorious. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and company, get to act heroic legend in successful service to Edwards’ raw aesthetic. Epic fable meets contemporary vision in an original franchise experience. The Death Star mission blasts on all cylinders. You’ll find embrace in a fan caviat of tech-heavy battle, killer cameos, and boundless, rebel-rousing fun. The finale is one this universe’s finest.
Unfortunately, the fun will never undo pathetic character building. The fun cannot undo unfit, bite-less, almost offensively fake, intellectuality. The fun can’t undo a number more of this film’s issues: a rushed, disappointing score by Michael Giacchino (the original Star Wars composer if you can believe it), two specific moments of dreadful CGI, and dry melodrama reminiscent of the prequels.
I understand the ambition of Rogue One. I admire it. This origin story is built on a series of connected tales, separated by stilling themes and and visionary styles. When this Story connects, it connects… but when it stands alone, it falls… it falls.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) – 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/LucasFilm – 2hr 13m
Carrie Fisher – Actress, Author, Screenwriter, Producer, Treasure – (1956-2016)
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