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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

DAMN Good Movies -- ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY


Are you ready to go rogue?

You guessed it, it's time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first spinoff film in the Star Wars movie franchise.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...May the Force be with you...

The film opens just before the events of the original Star Wars film (retroactively branded A New Hope)with the traditional opening crawl replaced by a pre-title sequence showing research scientist Galen Erso and his family in hiding.  We're introduced to the movie's Big Bad, Imperial weapons developer Orson Krennic, who forces Galen to return to work on the unfinished Death Star, even though we know that's going to be a huge waste of everyone's time.  Galen allows himself to be captured so his wife Lyra and young daughter Jyn can escape, but Lyra ends up getting herself killed by going after Krennic.  Jyn manages to avoid capture by hiding in a secret underground shelter beneath a fake rock, and is later taken into safety by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera.


So once again, we have a Star Wars protagonist that loses her parents as we jump ahead fifteen years to see Jyn as an adult.  It turns out she's a bit of troublemaker, and has to be freed from Imperial captivity by the Rebels, who want to use her to track down her father. Jyn is brought to Yavin IV to meet Mon Mothma and the rest of Team Rebel, who tells her they will extract Galen, even though the real plan for him is something else entirely. Understandably, Jyn is eager for any chance to see her father again and she's no fan of the Empire, so this is a win-win for everyone, right?

Jyn is introduced to Rebel officer (and potential love interest) Cassian Andor, and his snarky, reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO and then we're finally off to the races.  The Rogues head to Jedha, where the Empire is mining Kyber crystals that can power lightsabers or, you guessed it, a superweapon the size of a moon.  With the help of blind Zen master Force believer Chirrut Îmwe and mercenary Baze Malbus, Jyn finds Gerrera, who is holding an Imperial defector named Bodhi Rook.  Gerrera shows Jyn a hologram from her father that Bodhi smuggled, in which her father expresses his love for her and explains he's the one who came up with thermal exhaust port design flaw that Luke Skywalker uses to destroy the Death Star in the Rogue One sequel.  The hologram directs them to find the plans at an Imperial high-security data center on the planet Scarif.

In another change for the Star Wars film franchise, Michael Giacchino replaced John Williams as composer, after the movie's reshoots reportedly changed the post-production schedule and Alexandre Desplat (Williams' original replacement) was no longer available. With only four and a half weeks to compose the music, Giacchino turned in a worthy score that incorporated Williams' themes without being slavish to them.  You have to wonder, though, how much better the score would've been if Giacchino had more time. 

Things bog down a bit in the film's Second Act, even though the original generation of fans gets to geek out at seeing Grand Moff Tarkin again as he meets with Krennic on the Death Star.  In an attempt to reassure Tarkin, Krennic uses a low-powered shot from the weapon to destroy Jedha's capital and crush Gerrera's insurgency, forcing Jyn and her group to flee in Bodhi's shuttle, while Gerrera decides to remain behind and die because he's all clunky with a robot body and useless.  Tarkin congratulates Krennic, but then uses security breaches under Krennic's command as a way to take control of the project.  Krennic travels to seek support from Darth Vader and the Emperor, which brings another geeking opportunity for fans, but Vader kicks his appeal to the curb.  The Rogues track Galen to an Imperial research facility on Eadu, but Cassian's real mission turns out that he's supposed to assassinate Galen, making things slightly awkward with Jyn.  Cassian ends up refusing to kill Jyn's father, which sounds great to Jyn, but Galen ends up dying anyway when a Rebel bombing raid begins.  D'OH!

Thankfully, director Gareth Edwards hits the film's Third Act hard, which ends up feeling like one really long, intense action sequence.  Jyn comes up with a plan to steal the Death Star schematics from Scarif, but the Rebel leadership doesn't trust her report and can't agree on what to do next.  Frustrated at their indecisiveness, the Rogues and a number of Rebels use Bodhi's stolen Imperial shuttle to raid the data center.  Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO pose as Imperials to search for the plans, while the other Rebels mount a distraction attack on the resident Imperial garrison.  Bodhi contacts the Rebel Alliance fleet, which engages the Imperial forces in space in an attempt to breach a shield surrounding the planet that prevents the plans from being transmitted.  

From there, the film's body count begins to rise as K-2SO is destroyed holding off a bunch of stormtroopers, allowing Jyn and Cassian to recover the Death Star plans from the data vaults.  Bodhi, Chirrut, Baze, and several Rebels end up dying in the chaotic battle, which looks great as AT-ACTs emerge from a tropical forest along the beach.  As Jyn attempts to realign a giant DIRECTV satellite dish on top of the data center, Krennic confronts her and declares the Empire's victory.  Cassian shoots him, but doesn't kill him, and Jyn transmits the Death Star plans to the Rebel command ship.  Meanwhile, Tarkin uses his favorite catch phrase "You may fire when ready" and has the Death Star destroy the compromised Imperial base.  Krennic finally dies in the blast, and Jyn and Cassian huge one another on the beach just before being killed by the shockwave.

That's right, everyone dies.  This movie is more suicide squad than Suicide Squad.

And then, there's an impressive -- most impressive -- final sequence where an Imperial fleet led by Darth Vader intercepts some of the Rebel ships before they can make the jump to hyperspace.  Vader boards the command ship to retrieve the plans, cutting down everyone in sight, only to watch a familiar small starship escape with the plans at the very last moment.  Aboard the fleeing ship, Princess Leia Organa declares that the plans will provide hope for the Rebellion.  

At this point, you find yourself dying to rewatch the original Star Wars film to see what happens next...even though you already know what happens next.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

JYN ERSO -- As the film's lead, Felicity Jones was more than capable of driving the film, but her character -- like most of the characters in this screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy -- feels less fleshed out than recent Star Wars characters like Rey or Finn.  Jyn is sympathetic due to her desire to reunite with her captured father, and she can be inspirational at times when talking about rebellions being built on hope, but sometimes comes off as too no-nonsense to be relatable as a hero. 

CASSIAN ANDOR -- Diego Luna felt horribly miscast to me as Cassian.  His bland, unremarkable performance resulted in some bad on-screen chemistry with Felicity Jones, and there wasn't enough emotional impact with the revelation that Cassian was ordered to assassin Jyn's father.

K-2SO -- One of the more memorable new characters was Alan Tudyk as the voice of K-2SO.  He's a complete opposite of C-3PO -- snarky, moody, and formidable -- and actually elicits more emotional response during his destruction than most of the other Rogues.  And unsurprisingly, K-2SO has better on-screen chemistry with Jyn than Cassian does.

CHIRRUT ÎMWE -- My other favorite new character was Donnie Yen as Chirrut.  As a fan of martial arts films, I already knew what Yen could bring to the table and was glad to finally see some Asian representation in Star Wars at last.  Chirrut essentially serves the old Obi-Wan Kenobi role here, but his belief in the Force without actually being a Jedi is what makes him interesting, and ultimately tragic, to watch.

BAZE MALBUS -- Jiang Wen acts as the team's badass and Chirrut's close friend...and possibly something more. Baze spends most of the film as a sceptic of Chirrut's beliefs, only to abruptly accept them when Chirrut is killed.  It's been argued online that since we know so little about these characters, Chirrut and Baze could've had an unspoken relationship, but it's handled so ambiguously that you can read whatever you want into it.

BODHI ROOK -- As a former Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebellion, Riz Ahmed gets considerable screen time as Bodhi, but he's only there to drive certain moments of the plot forward.  After getting his brain zapped during interrogation by Saw Gerrera, Bodhi could've been a lot more interesting if written properly.

ORSON KRENNIC -- Ben Mendelsohn is Rogue One's Big Bad, even though he's easily overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by Darth Vader.  Krennic ends up being little more than another Imperial weasel, but he does get some good scenes, such as the pre-titles sequence and later forcing Galen to admit responsibility for leaked information.

GALEN ERSO -- After years of watching Mads Mikkelsen play villains in Casino Royale, Doctor Strange and the Hannibal TV series, I kept expecting Galen to turn out to be a willing sympathizer to the Empire instead of someone forced to complete the Death Star against his will.  Regardless, Mikkelsen is always fun to watch and he doesn't disappoint here.

SAW GERRERA -- Forest Whitaker gets some minor screen time as the live-action version of a character originally created for the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  He's given an interesting backstory as Jyn's mentor and leader of an extremist faction of the Rebel Alliance, so it's a bit disappointing when Gerrera simply stays behind and checks out in the Jedha shockwave.

DARTH VADER -- With Rogue One set immediately before Star Wars, what better reason to bring back James Earl Jones as the voice of Vader, with Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous supplying the physical performance.  I'd forgotten how much more intimidating Vader could be when not bogged down in Skywalker family drama, and the terrific final scene where he cuts down Rebels left and right makes me want a Darth Vader: A Star Wars Story solo film sooner rather than later.

GRAND MOFF WILHUFF TARKIN -- Returning Tarkin voice Stephen Stanton and Guy Henry combine to recreate Tarkin for big screen, with obvious help from some CGI botox to resemble the late Peter Cushing. Once again, Tarkin is his old ruthless self, seizing control over the Death Star project one moment and toasting an Imperial base the next.  Never change, Wilhuff...Never change.

MON MOTHMA -- Genevieve O'Reilly returns as Mon Mothma after last playing the character in deleted scenes from Revenge of the Sith.  Once again, Mon Mothma proves weak and uninspiring as the leader of the Rebellion, making us wonder how they managed to achieve as much as they did against the Empire.

C-3PO & R2-D2 CAMEO -- Anthony Daniels keeps his Star Wars movie streak going in a brief appearance as Threepio with Artoo inside the Rebel base on Yavin IV.  The scene is a fun bit of fan service, but could've easily been taken out to feel less distracting.

PRINCESS LEIA ORGANA CAMEO -- As the CGI botox version of Carrie Fisher, Ingvild Delia turns up at the very end of the film to connect things with the opening moments of Star Wars.  Another bit of fan service, perhaps, but at least this cameo provides continuity.

All in all, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a worthy addition to the Star Wars universe and the best prequel so far.  Gareth Edwards does a solid job with a more serious war film than the main saga, although the story isn't always as strong as it needed to be.  Regardless, the film did what it needed to do, establishing that you could make Star Wars movies outside the main saga, and fans can take comfort in knowing that they'll have something to look forward to every year for the foreseeable future.  The Force, it seems, is now forever.

And for those who may be wondering, here's my personal ranking of the Star Wars films:

1. Star Wars (1977)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
5. Return of the Jedi (1983)
6. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
7. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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