ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Disney)
Dir. Gareth Edwards, Script. Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, (VOICE + MO-CAP) Alan Tudyk
Plot: Jyn Erso (Jones) is the Rebel Alliance’s best hope of preventing the construction of an intergalactic superweapon that will be copied a lot in the future, only bigger.
Rogue One is a film that needs no introduction. Has a film ever been bigger, have the stakes ever been higher? If you don’t know just why Rogue One is the most important film released in years, I would invite you into the mind of scared execs at Warner, Sony and every studio which isn’t Disney and is therefore practically a second-class citizen to them in the movie world’s new hierarchy: Rogue One is the guinea pig for Star Wars to adopt the Marvel model (which Disney also reap the benefits of as owners of the MCU) of having spin-off movies, and perhaps spin-off franchises in the future, within the most rich universe in fan lore. That wouldn’t just be a cash-cow for two or three years – that’s a cash-cow for infinity. And unfortunately for their rivals, Disney are a company that simply do no wrong. While it doesn’t quite hit the lofty heights of the original trilogy (although very few blockbusters ever have), and is behind the quality of The Force Awakens as well, Rogue One is enough to affirm Star Wars as a franchise too monolithically massive to fall – only enough.
But, and I’ve asked this question since 3am yesterday morning – should I compare Rogue One to the other movies? Of course, there’s stormtroopers and lightsabers and, no matter if you think they’ll get bored of using them, Deathstars just like the other seven, but this is a totally new story, with no Jedi, no Skywalkers or descendants of them; Rogue One isn’t even in the same genre. Rogue One is a war film, about the collective rather than the individual, about sacrifice rather than glory. Rogue One has been referred to as Star Wars 3.5 by some as it takes place between Hayden Christensen burning violently on Mustafar for his crimes against acting and James Earl J0nes destroying Alderaan, and apparently in a world where the staples of Star Wars, the noble and singular conflict between good and evil, the dark and light sides of the Force, is blurred. Rogue One‘s motives aren’t entirely ambivalent – the rebellion is of course rooted for unequivocally – but here we see imperial pilots defecting and rebel soldiers killing in cold blood, and it all comes at a cost. To put it in short, this is not your typical Star Wars movie and must be respected as such.
Saying that, Rogue One still has all the feel of a Star Wars movie, just with a fresh lick of paint: Michael Giacchino steps in for the legendary John Williams, but repurposes many of his signature themes amidst his own take. Gone are the dissolve edits – even the iconic opening crawl has fallen by the wayside – for a quick and modern style. And Gareth Edwards, while staying true to the look and feel of the original series movies (almost obsessively in the case of its unbelievably faithful production design), most definitely puts his own stamp on things. Edwards showed promise with his visually memorable if narratively D.O.A. Godzilla adaptation a couple of years ago, and while Rogue One is a beautifully made film with absolutely top-notch visuals, Edwards still doesn’t quite have a hold of the narrative; he just about keeps things on track for the most part, but when he drops the ball it drops as fast as it does for a twelve-year-old boy. Rogue One is heavy on the exposition (and light on the character development, but more on that later) for its first act, and it gets dished up faster than I could chew it: a good six or seven new planets get introduced in a whirlwind, and Rogue One throws points at us and we see how they connect rather than the other way around – the first hour of the film is so desperate to make you breathe in that you can’t breathe out, and the exposition nearly suffocates the entire movie. Rogue One doesn’t really kick until its third act, a superb and colossal battle sequence on a tropical looking moon that is the most epic battle we’ve seen in the galaxy far far away since that AT-AT was tied in knots back on Hoth. It recalls classic Vietnam War movies with its huge scale and candid brutality – Edwards has put a great deal of effort into making the Empire feel as unstoppable and downright scary as they did in the originals. The Deathstar blasts (there are multiple) are biblical and have special effects so outlandish even Michael Bay would be put off by them, yet Edwards makes them feel all-powerful rather than all-comical, which is the mistake of the previously named director. And despite having scarcely any screen-time, Darth Vader is back and more epically frightening than ever – a certain scene which you’ll recognise immediately when you watch it (don’t lie, you will and probably already have) is simply awe-inspiring.
But while Vader’s reintroduction, however brief, is almost perfect, the introduction of Rogue One‘s new characters is muted at best. Barely any of the new faces (although it must be said that its brilliant to see such a variety of faces – Rogue One‘s international cast is incredibly refreshing in a time where the pressure against Hollywood whitewashing is a gas explosion waiting to happen) really have any depth to them, and for the most part they’ve been thrown in as the plot dictates they must be. There are a couple of exceptions to this: Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen makes a brilliant impression as Chirrut, a blind warrior who is as close to being a Jedi as Rogue One allows itself, and although he only really shows up in flashback, Jyn’s father Galen is probably the most well-defined character in the entire film (which says a lot about the characters who the narrative actually focuses on as well). Played by Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen in a unexpectedly nuanced display, his story is the one that best exemplifies what the film is about, and will draw the emotion from out of you as fast as Disney drains my wallet with each new wave of Star Wars merchandise. But everybody else is merely a blank shell of a human being: its hard not to feel the dark irony of the line ‘You’re all rebels aren’t you’ when none of them look like they’ve even ever argued with their mums over the contents of their lunchbox. Cassian Andor (Pedro Pascal, apparently dying to get back to the Game Of Thrones set) is a rebel captain that would have captained the Hindenburg in the real world, and probably have been outvoted for the position – an overly serious brooding expression stays on his person like the stench of wet dog on your clothes. Ahmed’s character, an Imperial fighter who defects to the Alliance, is nothing more than an insultingly bad replica of Poe Dameron with a trigonometrically perfect beard far too clean for the Rebel wasteland, and provides comic relief despite having totally forgotten the comic bit, although relief is distributed when he is cut away from.
However, the worst is yet to come, and that is unfortunately Jyn Erso herself, an effectively useless character whose flat, lifeless personality could put an excitable toddler in a coma and makes a generic Stormtrooper look like the type of person that commands the conversation at the dinner table. The massive problem with Jyn is that you feel like she has to be saved more frequently than she saves herself, and rather than actively discovering and shaping the plot she stumbles into it and does as she is told to by others. Worse still is who has been tasked to play this mannequin of a Rebel fighter. Felicity Jones’s performance is the greatest proof ever that Academy Award nominations should be taken away as well as given. While her performance as super-smart, super-snooze-inducing scientist Sienna in Inferno was as flat as a trampled on cream cracker in a block of flats that had just been demolished beyond recognition, there was an extremely powerful argument that the movie it took place in didn’t exactly help (and believe me, I will talk about Inferno in greater depth when the time comes round to create more lists). However, Rogue One is not a bad movie, and Jones has nowhere to hide here. Watching Felicity Jones bumble her way through this movie looking like Twilight-era Kristen Stewart with an permanent overbite that has to be measured in yards is like watching one of those *insert prominent figure here* EXPOSED videos on YouTube. I’m not saying the dialogue she was relaying was Oscar-worthy or anything, but Felicity made it sound Raspberry-worthy. If you told me that the casting director had pranked the filmmakers by replacing Jones with a life-size version of the action figure that will be sold in Disney stores all across the universe with all due haste, I would honestly be more accepting of this performance. Jones’s line delivery in this film is certainly like an action figure, with everything she says feeling like one of the 27 repurposed lines and phrases that an animatronic My Little Pony says with aggressive, contemptuous joy (and also feels suspiciously dubbed). It was just unbelievably wooden, wooden enough to be IKEA product placement: I’m not entirely sure what’s happened to Felicity in her last couple of films, because in The Theory Of Everything she was superb, but her performance here is most certainly not in the same ballpark.
The rest of the performances are also pretty forgettable, with Ahmed nowhere near his best and Forest Whitaker apparently using his performance in the laughably bad pseudo-Scientology-religious text Battlefield Earth as a reference point for his cartoon-like display, although I admit that Whitaker’s character is good to watch. Also, main villain Ben Mendelsohn, playing a power-hungry Imperial bigwig, has scenes stolen from him by James Earl Jones and Peter Cushing, which there’s no shame in…until you realise that Earl Jones is now 85 and his voice had to be put through about a million effects to have the same impact and that Peter Cushing has actually been dead for more than 30 years, with Grand Moff Tarkin being recreated digitally in a spectacular, amongst many others, special effects achievement. In all honesty though, along with some pacing issues during the second and third acts where Rogue One kind of leaps into its brilliant final battle with less set-up than I feel was really necessary, Chris Weitz (yes, the scribe of that wondrous tapestry American Pie was given the keys to TIE fighters) and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is more than functional, with efficient dialogue, a strong storyline that despite some clunky exposition early on always feels like its going somewhere and some smatters of humour mainly coming from a sarcastic droid played with great verve by Alan Tudyk (who also wrapped up creating the dumbest chicken in history for the absolutely brilliant Moana – most definitely on a roll then). The movie is also technically incredible, with the CG befitting Rogue One‘s estimated $200m budget, frequently impressive cinematography from Greig Fraser and, as touched on before, Michael Giacchino’s strong score which cherry picks plenty of the classic Williams themes but twisted around into a slightly darker suite to fit in with the rougher aesthetic of Rogue One.
I think the best way to describe my feelings on the first of *pick any number* Star Wars spin-offs is to say that I enjoyed it, but with reservations. Rogue One did what it mainly set out to do very well though: it justifies why it was written and produced in the first place, and provides a slightly new take on the Star Wars universe that still feels rooted in the style that we as, not overstating the impact of this franchise whatsoever, the entire human race, have become accustomed to over the last 40 years. And, although this shouldn’t have been a great surprise, Rogue One proves that the Star Wars universe is ripe for films, and filmmakers, to come in and tell new and slightly different stories outside the relatively strict constraints that the numbered episodes have always imposed on themselves. But the reservations are there, and without the strong visuals and storyline, the sub-par acting from the main cast and the weak characters played weakly are not just food for thought, but banquets for the brain trust behind George Lucas’s uber-commercialised wet dream to ponder as they move forward, as the great DJ Khaled would say, ‘through the journey of more success’. Rogue One‘s better than the prequels though – that’s really all you can ask for.
BEST WATCHED: You’ve already seen it. I know you have. Stop reading this, do something else. You’ll feel better.