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Beginning in the manner of many a beloved fairy tale, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”, so set we forth into a new chapter of the Star Wars film dynasty.  Rogue One is not as much prequel nor sequel, but a parallel narrative that takes viewers right up to the moment where our 1977 cinematic journey began.

In the words of another successful movie franchise, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” Galen Erso tried very hard to escape his old gig as an Imperial scientist; creating weapons for the further subjugation of the galaxy.  Living happily with his wife and small daughter on a remote planet as a farmer, Galen does not fool himself out of the threat that one day his old bosses may come knocking and use any means of persuasion to bring him back into the fold.  His family is then ready for the moment the Empire turns up to claim him, but young Jyn slightly deviates from the plan, watching just long enough to see Stormtroopers slaughter her mother before hiding away.  The girl’s rescue and raising by a Rebel family friend results in the hardened, cynical woman we meet fifteen years later on her way to an Imperial labour camp.

While Jyn toils, the Rebellion schemes.  In their constant battle against the Empire, the Rebels employ their stealthiest and deadliest agents to seek intel that will strengthen their side.  There is more than a disturbance in the Force, when an informant tells Rebel agent Cassian Ando of the Empire’s newest weapon of unimaginable power; a “planet killer.”  The Death Star is the creation of the brilliant Galen Erso, and the Rebel Alliance decides the best way to stop the threat is to assassinate Erso.  The plan bears many moving pieces, including the participation of his daughter, Jyn, who, if made aware, might have some objection to the Rebels’ ultimate plan to kill her dad, who she has not seen since the Empire dragged him away.

There are many remarkable things about Rogue One; initially, one of those might be its spinoff nature.  The Star Wars literary and comic book universe has many side stories that have a more scant connection to the main tale begun in 1977, but the cinematic world had not yet braved such uncharted waters.  Nor does it here, really; much of Rogue One’s setup depends on the audience’s familiarity with the first trilogy, particularly the 1977 original, to set up our thrills.  Otherwise, it would be a pretty standard freedom fighters against the evil oppressors’ plot that could be set in any world or era.  After a somewhat muted start as the Imperial forces, lead by the feathery-coiffed Director Krennic search for the Erso family on planet Lah’mu, it’s our sight of the metal behemoth known as the Death Star floating in space that sharpens our expectations for what must ultimately occur.

The other unexpected quality of Rogue One is that its appeal to the smallest members of the audience is purely coincidental.  While the first two films, Star Wars (as it will always be to me) and The Empire Strikes Back, certainly contained the whimsy of such adorable creations of R2-D2 and C3PO, and other sights that would appeal to children and made for great stocking stuffers, they weren’t necessarily softened for or aimed with kids in mind, as the films from Return of the Jedi (and the “Special Edition” reissues) onward were.  Rogue One is a war story, plain and simple.  It is about the pain and unbearable losses that come with fighting against odds that are “very high;” being the David against a Goliath that has the power to destroy the universe and everything in it.  It is about finding a calling and strength to place something higher than oneself to fight and perhaps die for.  While it’s not at a level of violence of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, or the psychological intensity of Apocalypse Now, it was shocking as someone who grew up watching Star Wars films to count the fallen and actually mourn the loss of characters we come to know and like.  Even in the 1977 film, with the then-shocking dispatch of the grandfather figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader, we immediately heard Alec Guinness’ unmistakable tones telling us he’s not truly dead.  Rogue One offers no such comfort.

Rogue One is the start of a darker, more grown-up direction for the saga, and I applaud it.

That is not to say there’s no fun in the movie. While I heartily enjoyed last year’s family-friendly The Force Awakens as an energetic reintroduction of the 1977 film to the generations that had never seen that epic in cinemas; compared to that movie, Rogue One has an absolute dearth of cuteness.  I did appreciate the balance struck between telling this new, heavier tale and remembering we are all here gathered as Star Wars lovers, who clap like trained seals at fanservice, including clever inclusions like the two “I don’t like you, either” dudes from the 1977 cantina passing by, the hologram of Oola, Jabba the Hutt’s fave dancing girl, the use of AT-ATs and Chicken Walkers in the midst of battle, as well as the sight of some of our perennial icons shortly before they come into play in the grand scheme.

However, as we’re talking about the cooler aspects of the movie, the time has come to make a huge and important declaration:

K-2SO is my spirit animal.  The large, hulking android seems almost quaint visually, resembling the smoother, simpler lines of concept artist Ralph McQuarrie’s original 1970s sketches and bearing none of the polished shine and pointy, detailed art deco of his nearest compeer, C-3PO.  The contrast doesn’t end there: With his lightning-fast motor reflexes, brilliant problem-solving computations and merciless fighting strength, he is absolutely the one to have beside the rebels in battle.  However, it is less K2’s practical skills than his observation and oratory that make him the breakout star of Rogue One.  Has he got a mouth on him.  Formerly an Imperial droid, captured and reprogrammed by the Rebels for their use, someone clearly forgot to upload the tact app.  K2 blithely and freely says whatever comes into his circuits at any given moment; including putting down his partners for their human foolishness, while not forgetting slights.  Arch, acerbic, brutally frank and fearless, I found myself wondering why anyone would’ve opted for that whingeing sissy, C-3PO, when you had this brilliant warrior, pilot and raconteur around?  All through the movie, K-2SO speaks for the people.

Our hero and heroine are shown as terribly flawed, yet likable and relatable.  Our protagonist, Jyn Erso, believes in nothing.  Watching her life torn apart before her eyes as a child and raised in the service of a Rebel gone murderously mad, who, later - like all she trusts in life - abandons her, there is nothing more to her days than to keep an eye out for where the next kick is coming from (Not to say she won’t kick back harder).  She reluctantly allies herself with Cassian Ando, himself a resourceful orphan of the Empire, who is posed as Jyn’s possible guide back to her father.  Dysfunctional in the way that the traumatised can be, Cassian’s first loyalty is to the Rebel Alliance, even if it literally means casually shooting an informant in the back, or scheming to kill the father of the new friend he knows he’s going to betray.

What is interesting is while it is explained that the Jedi are at this point rare, if not completely extinct, the belief in the Force exists as a sort of faith – and not some stupid genetic chemical mutation – and is the motivating factor behind two of our great characters.  The blind monk, Chirrut Imwe and his bff, Baze Malbus, were guardians of the main temple on the Jedi's spiritual home planet of Jedha, until the Empire decimated it.  Living in its ruins amongst other human flotsam, Baze has lost his faith, while Chirrut has not.  Chirrut’s quixotic humour and genial nature in the film’s darkest moments, remind one a bit of the eccentric Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back, while his bravery in the face of eminent - and frequent – destruction hearkens to his strong belief in the Force.

However, unlike in previous films, the Force is heard and not necessarily seen.  Is it the Force that allows the sightless Chirrut to thoroughly pulverize legions of enemies with his simple staff?  Is it the Force that protects our heroes in the midst of overwhelming odds?  In past movies, we’ve seen manipulation of the Force to fling objects into the air at one’s enemies, to confound weaker minds and levy escape right through the heart of Imperial occupation.   It’s even made it possible to grab that pesky out-of-reach lightsaber that might save one from becoming a wampa’s lunch - all sorts of helpful stuff.  Yet in Rogue One, we only see the sort of classic use of the physical manifestation of the Force by a certain big bad wearing a very dark helmet putting an annoying upstart officer in his place.  But even then, this particular use of the Force has been seen before.  It felt as if while the Force is mentioned as a joining belief, the almost magical aspect of it that loomed so large in the entire series, is purposely absent by the storytellers’ choice.  The reliance here is on what is in our heroes’ two hands; their bonds of friendship and their own skills and heart.

For all this good news, that’s not to say Rogue One is without flaw.  One of my main complaints is aligned with my earlier statement of the lacklustre opening sequence and indeed the rather dull and convoluted motivation of the entire “kill the scientist” storyline. 

In his previous films, Monsters, and Warner Brothers’ 2014 Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards still has yet to show me that he can portray action well.  He doesn’t seem to know how to make the heart pound with his set pieces.  I was fairly shocked by how lifeless the sequences of world-renowned martial arts master, Donnie Yen, as Chirrut battling Imperial forces were.  Yen-plus-staff is normally automatic stand up and clap bait, but whether from lack of timing or poor camera placement, the scenes are pretty unremarkable.  Even more unexpected, is the same underwhelming feeling when the AT-AT, Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters come into play.  And this after copying almost verbatim the action from the prior movies; including the analog target radar where the Rebels’ X-Wings get lined up in the Fighters’ sights right before they go boom.  There are no real jaw-dropping moments, visually, and that might also have to do with the same idea behind the lack of Force-like magic in the film.  The most bombastic cataclysms come from the repeated tests of the Death Star, as its beams of destruction turn planets practically inside out with Nagasaki-times-a-million power, but after we’ve seen it once, we get the idea.  

Lacklustre, too, is our main bad guy.  Director Krennic, the Imperial officer who has hunted the Erso family through several galaxies, is lead by his ambitions and a moth to a flame-like desire to get Darth Vader to notice him over the increasingly powerful Grand Moff Tarkin.  Foremost of the character’s various issues is his look: Yes, I’ve heard that he is meant to emulate certain current political figures and with his feathered, sideswept blonde layers and hangdog, jowly cheeks; that could very well be.  My big problem was that I didn’t sense any actual threat from him, at all.  That sense intensified into pure mockery after I realised that with his perfectly coiffed locks and affinity toward a gleaming, all-white wardrobe, including an omnipresent, enormous swishy cape, he reminded me less of current news figures and more of the love child of Futurama’s buffoon-in-space, Zapp Brannigan, and hapless one-time Harry Potter professor, Gilderoy Lockhart.  While Krennic kept pursuing our heroes toward the film’s climax, I felt zero danger from him and kept waiting for his cape to get wrapped around a nearby Tie Fighter.

Having now mentioned the Grand Moff Tarkin, I must go into the pure creepiness I felt while watching the completely CGI-created performance of the great British actor, Peter Cushing.  Cushing played the role to perfection in 1977, and sadly passed in 1994, years before the second trilogy of the series.  When I first saw the character speaking in Cushing’s crisp, recognisable tones, it was shown from the back, which is where I thought we would continue to view him, or perhaps see another actor cast in the role.  Tarkin is, after all, a major part of the Death Star saga.  When the character turned around fully and interacted with Krennic as if he were really there in front of the camera, I was shaken.  What kind of evil, says me.  I immediately recognised what all the top-of-the-line CGI advancements money can buy still has not been able to provide, and that is the perfect lighting, movement and depth of the human eye.  CG Tarkin often has bright red rims around his lids as if he’s been stricken with severe hay fever, and the pupils flicker and dart around too often and unnecessarily in an effort to make them look less doll-like.  It didn’t work.  The skin doesn’t move normally, either, and the CG Tarkin began to remind me of Anton Ego from Disney’s Ratatouille. 

Opinions of the effectiveness of the CGI aside (We see a couple of other “rejuvenated” characters that aren’t nearly as shocking), I had a larger question about the inclusion of CG Tarkin.  While I’m sure this had to have been achieved with complete assent of Cushing estate and apparently Peter Cushing himself was enthusiastic about his participation in the first film and regretted that he could not appear in the sequels; I could not help but feel some deeper discomfort about this fully-realised CGI performance by a long-deceased actor.  How is it possible to know the way the figure acts is the way the actor himself would have moved, or gestured, or delivered a certain line of dialogue?  Who makes these decisions in the great Cushing’s name, and is it right to? 

Ages ago with the advent of the dreadful second trilogy, wrought with some of the worst acting performances on film, I (and I’m sure many others) said it was clear that director George Lucas was far more comfortable directing green screen effects and cute little toys and widgets, than dealing with flesh and blood performers, and was probably waiting for the day that actors could be CGI, as well.  And here we are.  

Hard as it was to get back in the game every time I looked at the creepy CG Tarkin and the cheesy, feckless Krennic, there was much more to recommend Rogue One than to damn it.  What director Edwards doesn’t hold in terms of action savvy, he more than makes up for in emotional abundance.  This falls to his deft, likeable cast of accomplished stars from around the world, including Brit Felicity Jones as the tough and compassionate Jyn, Mexico’s Diego Luna as the conflicted Rebel, Cassian, Hong Kong’s action star, Donnie Yen, and China’s acclaimed filmmaker and actor, Jiang Wen as laid-off Jedi temple guardians Chirrut and rice cooker-toting Baze, there's also fellow Texans Forest Whitaker as Rebel extremist, Saw Gerrera (This means war!) and Alan Tudyk brilliantly voicing K-2SO. 

If there is anything particularly timely about the film; it may be that the sense of a seemingly hopeless fight against terrifying, political oppression is surely more harrowing, intense and meaningful than it might’ve been before November.  Creating the bonds of faith and trust between the small band of rebels, Edwards brings viewers in on an emotional level, while the visceral fight for the soul of the galaxy rages on.  

In a development I never thought to see in the Star Wars movie universe, Edwards doesn’t flinch from wartime loss, or the pain of failure; but in the midst of all the chaos and tragedy, the director makes very sure by film’s end to instill the audience with the one thing important to us all now, here, or in a galaxy far, far away, and that is a sense of hope.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec. 15th, 2016

 

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Photos

Stills Courtesy of  Walt Disney Pictures
 

 

 

 

 

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