Tuesday, December 13, 2016

'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' (2016) Movie Review

What are you doing? Why are you reading this? Odds are, you already know whether or not you’re going to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Hell, most of you probably have tickets (or you’re not seeing it until 2017). You don’t need me to tell you whether it’s good or not. Go see Rogue One. Come back afterwards and we can discuss it then.

Back? So that was pretty fantastic, right? Very different from your traditional Star Wars movie. Sure, there were lots of stars, but the emphasis this time out is heavy on the Wars side of things. Seriously, no Skywalkers, not much in the way of Jedi action, and little to no Force to speak of (though the characters speak of it often). And damn, this is the first adventure in that far, far away galaxy without an opening crawl or a John Williams score to accompany the deep space action.

But as different as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, it’s still very much in the Star Wars mold. The first of a series of standalone movie, it opens up the world and sheds light on heretofore unexplored corners of George Lucas’ space opera. Though the main saga, the Episode movies, continue to follow the Skywalker clan and their particular brand of familial drama, these installments tell different stories, adding depth and breadth to the universe in a way we haven’t seen. (Admittedly, there’s the Expanded Universe, but since Lucasfilm scrapped all that, it’s not the same.)

Rogue One dives into a story familiar to fans. In A New Hope, we learn the Rebels stole the plans for the Death Star, which is where they discover the weakness that allows Luke and company to blow it out of the sky. And this movie tells that tale. We knew it happened, now we know how it happened and who risked everything to pull it off.

Part heist, part war movie—there are shades of Vietnam-era combat, scenes that could be lifted straight out of modern Middle Eastern war stories, and even echoes of the Pacific Theater from World War II—one thing Rogue One does like no other Star Wars is introduce shades of gray. The saga films are, with few minor exceptions, black and white; there’s good and evil and not much in between. Sure, characters like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian skirt this line from time to time, but they’re more lovable rogues and rapscallions, and their hearts are always obviously in the right place.

There’s a healthy dose of good-becoming-bad and bad-becoming-good, but there aren’t many people who dwell in that middle ground. Rogue One, on the other hand, is all middle ground, all gray, all moral ambiguity. Very little is cut and dried. The heroes are capable of pretty unheroic feats.

Our heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a criminal, an outlaw. Left on her own as a child to fend for herself and find her own way she’s out for number one and nothing more. When we first meet her as an adult—the film begins with a scene from her childhood that makes way more sense if you read the tie-in novel Catalyst—she’s in prison under an assumed identity. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the burgeoning Rebel Alliance, admits he’s done terrible things, taken atrocious actions, in the name of what he believes to be the greater good. Even the good and noble Rebels use and manipulate Jyn, leveraging her position—her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is a key scientist on the Death Star project—to get what they want with no regard for her.

Within the Rebellion, there’s further division about strategies and tactics. There are those who advocate for diplomacy and the ineffectual, in-fighting-filled bureaucracy—politicians more concerned with minute bickering than uniting against an encroaching evil—is eerily reminiscent of the American left during the recent election. And factions like those led by Clone Wars holdover Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), take a by-any-means-necessary approach. Ostracized by the more moderate mainstream elements, they’re essentially insurgent jihadists. Again, doing terrible things for what they view as righteous reasons. (Saw’s extreme measures leave a lingering impression in the Star Wars universe. The novel Bloodline, set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, mentions how he’s still viewed as a terrorist, decades after the fact.)

This type of moral flexibility, this ability to justify and rationalize their actions abounds in Rogue One. Everyone has the ability to change and be something not wholly good, not wholly bad. Driven as he is by desire for power, primary antagonist Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) thinks the way to galactic peace is through superior firepower. Young Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is a local kid with no options who joined the military only to discover he didn’t like what it’s all about. Donnie Yen’s blind warrior, Chirrut Imwe, is a true believer in the Force—not a Jedi, but a devotee—a former temple protector cast adrift after the Emperor purged the Jedi Order. Now he just hangs out and fucks up stormtroopers. His BFF, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), was once a fellow believer but has lost the faith his friend clings to desperately. Even Galen’s motivations for what he does are incredibly complex, using evil means to hopefully accomplish something positive.

No Star Wars movie is ever going to be rated R, but the violence of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story reflects this uneasy morality. People get blown up, shot, crushed, Death Starred, and straight-up murdered in startlingly personal ways. There’s a grit and savagery not often found in this universe—even with Anakin’s rampant youngling slaughter—which further distinguishes this from its cinematic kin.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) brings both a grand sweeping scope and an intimate, visceral edge to Rogue One. He creates an epic sense of scale as the camera soars through these imagined worlds, some familiar, like Yavin 4, while others, like Jedha and Scarif, add texture and expand the mythology. In the combat scenes, handheld, eye-level photography delivers a fly-on-the-wall immediacy that puts the viewer in the middle of the action. And the final act is a phenomenal achievement of sci-fi action.

In the grand scheme, there are a few unnecessary scenes—there’s a ton of footage in the marketing that’s not in the final film—and threads here and there that could use additional development. And some shoehorned-in cameos didn’t need to happen—critics of the overboard fan service of Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have a field day here and people are either going to love or hate Alan Tudyk's K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid who's a kind of anti-C-3PO.

I’m curious to see how it ages on repeat viewings, but overall, Rogue One thrills and excites as it sets the table for the Holy Trilogy. It strikes a strong balance between what fans love about the franchise, while also mixing in new angles and elements to make it fresh and vital. Great new characters who audiences know legitimately might not make it out alive—few characters are safe—and timely commentary about standing up in the face of rapidly swelling fascism, create a deep investment and tension.

While the prequels were for kids, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a movie for those of us who were kids the first time we watched Star Wars, those of us who grew up on these movies. This feels like grown-up Star Wars. [Grade: B+]

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