I admit to being into, “Star Wars” to a degree that’s probably unhealthy. I admire how this science fiction series, made by a certain film school student named George Lucas (with the help of his friends/employees), has managed to stay in the cultural zeitgeist despite some big missteps. And I like seeing people bring different takes on what makes the universe of this franchise tick, even if the results are silly, very flawed or very very bad. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is one of the more interesting takes made with the help of one particular fan Gareth Edwards (director of 2014’s “Godzilla” movie), a take that just so happens to be shown on the big screen under the official, “Star Wars” canon signature. It has the skin of the original trilogy of, “Star Wars” movies but under the surface has big ideas about war and loyalty. Here, the Empire is given a few scratches on its surface by way of complicated loyalties and lowly workers aspiring to greatness. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance is being shown as a bunch of people with varying differences on how to fight against the Empire, with people having arguments and even splitting up as they find each other’s methods either too extreme or not extreme enough.
Alas, such big themes only get so much play, and at the end we get a (very impressive) fireworks display in the 3rd act, along with a lot of death…and that’s kinda it. Don’t misunderstand, “Rogue One” is a good movie, just one with a different set of problems than, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, which I happen to like. If, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the enthusiastic, star-struck kid who has good ideas but doesn’t realize that they’re just running in place, “Rogue One” is the perceptive prodigy who makes all the right moves but seems dispassionate and unfocused while doing so.
But first with the positives: this is probably the most textured cinematic realization of the, “Star Wars” universe to date, thanks to the cinematography of Greig Fraser along with great art direction. Landscapes loom as characters traverse them, and when we see them in close-up, every creak, wrinkle and bit of rust is shown. The look on a character’s face tells you just about everything one needs to know about them (supplemented with some exposition and flashbacks, granted). One can almost feel the way ships traverse space and the various planets in this movie, and when the Death Star makes its obligatory appearances to deal damage, said results are horrifying and chilling. A few sequences featuring Darth Vader rank up there with some of the best scenes in the original trilogy, due to excellent moviemaking precision and an understanding of scale and tone. However much money Disney/Lucasfilms spent to make this production, it looks, sounds and feels like they spent so much more.
A shame, then, that the characterization isn’t quite as good. Not that anyone does a bad job, the screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy does give it’s characters a bit of room to be more than just generic avatars, it’s just that it doesn’t give enough room for most of them to register beyond that. Though there are some heartbreaking moments. For example, Forrest Whitaker’s character Saw Gerrera. He is described as an extremist by members of the rebel alliance, but when Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) meets her, once in the movie’s opening and later on in the movie, Whitaker moves in a way suggesting years of hurt and pain in the name of the cause. Donnie Yen makes a big splash as a blind Jedi warrior, a mystic who chants, “The force is with me” in moments of danger to ward off fear yet is badass enough to kill Stromtroopers using only a stick. He even shoots at people! The blind Jedi’s friend, Baze Malbus (played by Wen Jiang) has quite a few fun interactions with the guy, and it’s neat to see his hard-edged cynicism contrast with the Jedi’s mysticism and relative kindness. But the true standout is Alan Tudyk as the Imperial Droid K-2SO, whose mix of sarcasm and tact gives light moments even throughout some of the movie’s most grim moments.
Ok, so why am I neglecting to talk about Jyn Erso, or Diego Luna’s character Cassain Andor? What about the defecting pilot played by Riz Ahmed, or the more prestigious Empire stodge Orson Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who aspires to become a commander and truly believes that the Empire can bring peace, but is hamstrung by bureaucracy and wartime suspicion? Hell, why am I not hot and bothered over Mads fucking Mikkelsen as Jyn’s father? Well, because the screenplay doesn’t really give much meat to these characters besides just making them major characters according to the plot. They push the right buttons, initiate the right actions to make things go forward, but few of them resonate in the end. Everyone plays their parts well, don’t get me wrong. If anything, this movie demonstrates that Felicity Jones is indeed the real deal, with some interactions between her character and Mads’, along with some moments with her character in the third act, that made my eyes well up quite a bit. But the problem is that none of the characters are very fleshed-out, they feel more like archetypes shoved into, “good guy”/”bad guy” boxes. Say what you will about Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey, from, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” being a bit too hyper-confident due to having fate on her side, but at least in that movie one gets to see Rey actually grow as a person. “Rogue One”, unfortunately, does not have such character growth or even character chemistry. Which is unfortunate given that while the third act is impressive on a technical level, the movie throws so many characters at the viewer and features sequences of their ultimate fates that should’ve been the stuff of legends. Instead, it’s mostly, “Oh, this person dies. On to the next one” until the very end.
But as a force of hard-edged spectacle, the movie definitely works. There have been talks about a prior cut of this movie, directed solely by Garreth Edwards before rumored reshoots, being very dark and, some would say, “unfun”. While one can perceive some changes being made, shades of the brutality from the original cut are in this movie that is released in theaters now, with long shots of characters coming to grips with their ultimate fates in the midst of gruesome battles. Plus, the third act features some of the most fantastic space battles ever depicted in science fiction, heavily inspired by World War II combat (Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, even Normandy if one squints their eyes) and is definitely worth the price of admission alone. On a primal level, “Rogue One” works. It’s just that given that this is, “Star Wars”, one can’t help but want just a little bit more. Such is the curse of making a follow-up to a franchise so influential it had a Cold War-era military bill made by Ronald Reagan named after it.
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