Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

     Before Luke Skywalker's fateful entanglement with the Rebel Alliance, a rebellion was raging in the universe. Before Han Solo abandoned his shady ways to join a greater purpose, there were already many heroes for the cause against the Empire. Rogue One seeks to tell the story of those hitherto unnamed and unsung heroes of the rebellion, and to show what war is like for those who aren't Chosen Ones mysteriously bound by the Force to some great destiny.

     Rogue One is more of a war movie than Star Wars has ever presented before. There are no Jedi or fascinating lightsaber battles, no shocking familial connections, and not much fancy space travel. This is the non-glamorous side of the rebellion, where the work is hard and the sacrifices are real. This corner of the galaxy isn't sparkling clean or filled with quirky characters; it's grim, dusty, plodding, and hard. The story of Rogue One is almost Shakespearean, nay, GREEK in its determined interlacing of tragedy, hardship, fate, and eventual victory at noble cost. The full poetry of the piece crescendos in the final ten minutes, sliding Rogue One right up to the minute of A New Hope with what might be Darth Vader's finest moment in any Star Wars movie.


     To Rogue One's credit, the story here is a moderate diversion from the Jedi, the Sith, the Force, and how they play a part in the political terrain of the galaxy. Yes, it still pertains to the destruction of a superweapon, but goes deeper by demonstrating what manner of intrigue and battles ensued in order for Princess Leia to hold the information critical to the destruction of said superweapon. The final battle sequence alone plays out the War in Star Wars, evoking the Pacific battles of WWII as the heroes ambush the guards, storm the beaches, and take up handheld firearms against machines of war. Every shot fired against the courageous troop diminishes their hopes of survival, but never their determination to complete the mission.


     And now, take a deep breath. This is about to get exhaustive.

     Unfortunately, those sacrifices are less than keenly felt, due to a tragic lack of character development, and an overuse of cliche. The dialogue tries to drop hints about each person's background to ignite a connection to the audience, but there isn't quite enough mystery to fuel interest, and not enough exposition to generate any sort of potency. Rather than a band of bonded misfits or a small uncelebrated military unit, we get a lump of disconnected characters who decide (rather abruptly) to unite for a common purpose and die together. This might have worked had there been any development of bonding or friendship between the characters, but there isn't the slightest spark of chemistry among them. This ensemble as a whole lacks the charisma of The Dirty Dozen, the Magnificent Seven, or even The Goonies. After all Disney's and director Gareth Edwards promises of this being a darker installment, a "Saving Private Ryan" for Star Wars, I went in with the expectation that Rogue One would be a heart-breaker. Surely we would be subject to the emotional battering of watching that small but determined troop see their brothers in arms fall one by one. Yet the only loss that seemed moderately emotional was that of a droid. I liked that droid.

     Jyn Erso tries ever so hard to be a tough and independent renegade, but comes off not so much hardened as just wound up. Most of the time Jyn is onscreen she's holding her breath or spitting out her lines in a manner that was clearly intended to be feisty, but comes off constipated and unnecessarily high-strung. She exudes anger, but not even in an interesting "tortured past" or "rebel without a cause" kind of way, though there are hints to both of those archetypes; more like a caged wolverine baring its teeth at everything that comes near it, until...she doesn't. Her journey from lone wolf to self-sacrificing happens so quickly, it's almost dizzying. Unlike other women that Star Wars has proudly toted, there isn't much about Jyn that's likable or sympathetic, but she'll be proudly toted all the same as some sort of feminist icon. Jyn is the quintessential female protagonist that you'd find on your average network TV show: no-nonsense, important father, better fighter than any man, shady past, endless skills, friendless, and so on and so forth. All of these things can add up to an interesting and engaging character, but here they add up to a stoicism that just doesn't offer more than what's on the surface.


     Speaking of the important father, Galen Erso is Exhibit A of criminally underused talent and a largely missed story opportunity. Actor Mads Mikkelson as Galen has better screen presence than anyone else here, yet is barely used in a story that is largely about his work. Galen had the most potential for complexity of anyone; he reluctantly agreed to design the Death Star for the express purpose of working a flaw into the design, knowing full well that he would likely never see his family again. His work drives the plot of not only Rogue One, but also the climax of A New Hope. I could have used a little more on this conflicted and misunderstood character, since he's one of the few  straddling the line between Empire and Rebellion, and could have offered a truly unique perspective to the story.

      Decidedly not redeeming the underdeveloped characters is Cassian, a diluted Han Solo type so limited in his emotional processing that his entire purpose and being is transformed by one "who's with me?" speech. He lacks any defining characteristics in that he's not suave, gruff, funny, or interesting; just clean-shaven, soft-spoken, and of course, shady past. Cassian isn't very soldierly, but he's also not a strong enough personality to be convincing as an intrepid risk-taking spy for the Rebellion. He's got all the right makings of a really nice sidekick, or even the kind of character written to meet his demise in some overly contrived way so as to inspire his comrades to action. Yet here, Cassian is pushed center stage like the high school understudy who isn't ready to have his moment in the spotlight while the real actor is backstage throwing up.

     What is Star Wars without a great villain? Even the woeful Episode 1- The Phantom Menace featured the memorable (and underutilized) Darth Maul, whose fight scene remains the high point of the movie. Rogue One could have used a Darth Maul or someone like him. I'm not even saying that the villain had to be a Sith Lord, just someone formidable. Rogue One's villain is Director Krennic, the military director in charge of the construction of the Death Star. At first it seems like Krennic might be a daunting Imperial with commanding presence and tactical cunning. Nope. He's a middle-manager without realizing it, whose plans and orders can be overturned with a word from his superiors. And when he gets really upset, his lisp comes out. Krennic is unfortunately sub-par, especially when he shares a scene with Darth Vader, or the distracting digitized Grand Moff Tarkin (played with great gravitas by the now adult child-star of the Polar Express).

 
     Yes, Grand Moff Tarkin makes a return, as I always hoped he would. And I jest about the child star of the Polar Express, but if you've seen Rogue One, you know what I mean. I will admit that my hopes of seeing him return centered around recasting rather than resurrection, which is what is done here. It's undeniable why Tarkin's presence was essential to the story. The New York Times explains "If he’s not in the movie, we’re going to have to explain why he’s not in the movie. This is kind of his thing" in a quote by Kiri Hart, a Lucasfilm story development executive and Rogue One co-producer. That's a defendable reason-- in A New Hope there's a definite impression that the Death Star is Tarkin's opus, so it would be awkward to not feature him at all. And while I can certainly applaud the ambition behind digitally resurrecting him, he still looks painfully out of place among flesh and blood actors. If the moviemakers could have conceived a reason to keep the character in shadows, or even feature him via hologram only, it would have solved the issue. 

     After these characters, the rest of the individuals who make up the Rogue One team are more memorable for their features rather than their names (in part because they don't use each others' names much, and so are easily forgotten). Blind Asian guy. Blind Asian guy's friend in Ghostbusters suit. That pilot. Droid. In an unintentionally comical attempt at giving the characters those features that make them identifiable, it treads right on the border of those stereotypes which seems to plague the criticisms of so many movies. Remembering that the idea of the Force is itself based on Eastern mysticism, it's a little overt that the only spiritual person here should be Asian, and that both of the Asian characters are guardians of an ancient temple. Captain Cassian, portrayed by a Latino actor, is introduced in a crowded marketplace trading in shady business under its hanging baskets and smoking fryers. It's not that I personally have a problem with this; I really don't. But if every big movie is going to be scrutinized and raked for racial stereotypes, and its quality measured by the spectrum of its ethnic representations, I feel honor-bound to follow suit and point out in similarly hypersensitive manner that Rogue One isn't perfect in waving its banner of multiculturalism over the good guys.


     While it can't really be argued that the Star Wars movies were in need of some diversity before The Force Awakens, Rogue One tries too hard to make up for it all at once. The result is overkill wherein the good guys are diverse and the bad guys are white-washed. Once again, I'm not criticizing the inclusion of diversity at all-- I thoroughly enjoyed how The Force Awakens demonstrated that there exist a variety of people on both sides of the conflict-- it's that Rogue One totes it with such brazen exhibitionism that it really just becomes "psuedo-political prattle", even mercenary. Without stronger character development or backstory, the diverse array of characters feel like a tactic to woo foreign audiences with promises of ethnic representation, rather than giving solidly written heroes who just happen to represent ethnic groups.

     Getting back to the movie itself, amidst what would have otherwise been a strong story, Rogue One makes some strange choices seemingly designed to shoehorn in showpieces. Example, Saw Gerrera. Here is a character who is mentioned several times throughout the movie, but features only briefly. His entire purpose is unclear other than to be a moped-style exposition vehicle for Jyn's past. Otherwise, he operates as an unhinged zealot, paranoid and barely able to talk without the aid of his oxygen. When he's able to speak, he seems determined to utter the most t-shirt worthy line, no matter how ill-advised the timing may be. Shortly after Jyn declares in no uncertain terms that she is perfectly happy to bury her head in the sand and pretend the Empire doesn't exist, Saw wheezes "Save the rebellion...save the dream..." before being ceremoniously crushed by his falling hideout.

     On the note of unclear purpose, Saw has this monster which can apparently sense truth or deception in its victims. So when Bodhi the defector pilot shows up at Saw's hideout and actually tells the truth, Saw gives him over to this monster thing to be unnaturally interrogated, and warns him that he will probably lose his mind once the blubbery monster is done probing it. Bodhi is mildly traumatized for about a minute before he's fine again.The whole sequence is superfluous, seemingly constructed for the sole purpose of showcasing the obligatory alien monster.

     The Hollywood Reporter film critic Todd McCarthy has been blasted for noting that the film needs "a strong and vigorous male lead to balance more equally with Jyn...". I think I would have been happy for a strong and vigorous character of either gender of any species. To be fair, it's not that every single entity featuring onscreen is boring, it just goes back to under-developed use of what might have been engaging characters. For example, one of the more memorable persons of Rogue One will be Chirrut Imwe (aforementioned as Blind Asian guy), who is Exhibit B of underused talent. He at least has a degree of humor and personality, not to mention martial arts skills. But that's all we get. Every flesh and blood person including Chirrut is out-shined by the droid K-2SO, who has more personality and wit than the rest of the cast put together. And he's one of the only bright spots in an otherwise joyless pocket of the galaxy.

     Alright, time to address the one person who needs no introduction: Darth Vader. It would have seemed strange to have a movie that features sometime between The Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope and not have Vader connected to it somehow. Vader has two scenes here, one being so glorious that it very nearly redeemed everything the rest of the movie did wrong, the other being a little more debatable. One of the things audiences were promised was Darth Vader in his prime. Somehow, Rogue One managed to deliver and disappoint. As previously mentioned, one of Vader's scenes is spectacular, and really does demonstrate why he was such a feared warrior for the Empire. He enters the scene like the title monster of a horror movie, and proceeds to plow through his foes with a chilling mixture of intensity and ease. This is where Rogue One delivers, and delivers well. It disappoints in not having more Darth Vader, though it's understandable why, since his iconic status does drain the thunder from any other villain onscreen. This is the Darth Vader of episodes IV-VI. In what is probably a complete accident, he manages to bridge the movies when his other scene shows him to be the Vader/Anakin of episodes I-III, with bad lines and a labored pun.

     To indicate that Rogue One is a bad movie would fairly unjust. It's not bad, but nor is it great. It's the kind of sci-fi movie that rides its brand name for recognition, and works well enough as a world-building companion piece to the saga, but wouldn't stand on its own. For me, it ranks above the forlorn prequels, but below everything else. It has the right story at its heart, and does an excellent job of fitting Rogue One comfortably into the Star Wars universe in terms of style. Also to its credit, is the restraint with which the originals are referenced. Callbacks to episodes IV-VI are few, and not overly self-conscious in their occurrences, being sure to honor rather than undermine the movies that the story precedes. Characters that have been encountered in other movies are used with defined purpose, such as Tarkin, Vader, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa (Leia's adopted father). The latter is used especially cleverly, as he serves as a sort of bridge character for episodes I-III and episodes IV-VI. 

     Rogue One was born from the opening crawl of A New Hope, which reads:
 
It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power
to destroy an entire planet.
 
 
And now, we know the story behind those few sentences. Given the box office success of Rogue One, I expect the spin-off Band of Bothans to feature soon so as to tell the story behind the line "Many Bothans died to bring us this information" (Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi, referring to the intel that the Emperor himself is overseeing the final stages of the construction of the second Death Star). Rogue One tested the waters for Star Wars spin-offs, and although the results were polarizing, the fact that enough people liked it ensures infinite possibilities for future spin-offs.
      
Rogue One has polarized critics and audiences alike, with some praising its bold and dark approach while others are less impressed by the shallow characters and forced storytelling. Though I recognize that there will be hostile disagreement with my position, just as there was when I praised The Force Awakens, for me, The New York Times critic A.O. Scott sums it up best:
"All the pieces are there, in other words, like Lego figures in a box. The problem is that the filmmakers haven’t really bothered to think of anything very interesting to do with them. A couple of 9-year-olds on a screen-free rainy afternoon would come up with better adventures, and probably also better dialogue. Plots and subplots are handled with clumsy expediency, and themes that might connect this movie with the larger Lucasfilm mythos aren’t allowed to develop...It doesn’t so much preach to the choir as propagandize to the captives, telling us that we’re free spirits and partners on the journey. The only force at work here is the force of habit" (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/movies/star-wars-rogue-one-review.html?referrer=google_kp).

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