Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [Blu-ray]
Studio: Disney / Lucasfilm
Apr 05, 2017 Web Exclusive
Regardless of its quality, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was in some ways destined to be the most interesting Star Wars film since A New Hope, if only for what it represented. As the first film in the franchise to not revolve around the Skywalker saga, the promise of Rogue One was twofold: ensure that the Star Wars brand would continue to be profitable beyond the main series of films and usher in a new creative direction for the franchise, allowing filmmakers to explore new themes and genres within the vast Star Wars universe. $1 billion in ticket sales later, the commercial viability of Star Wars remains certain. As an exercise in filmmaking, Rogue One is a clear step in the right direction, while also fumbling in some major ways.
Rogue One derives its entire narrative from the first paragraph of the opening crawl of A New Hope, expanding a single line about Rebel Alliance spies who steal the plans for the original Death Star into a story that’s equal parts war and heist film. The titular rag-tag team is led by Jyn Erso, a smuggler whose father is the Death Star’s chief engineer, and Cassian Andor, a rebel spy and assassin. The degree to which Rogue One is rooted in the minutia of the original 1977 film may make it seem like continuity-heavy gobbledygook to casual viewers, and the film does assume a certain amount of familiarity with the Rebel Alliance, the Galactic Empire, and several old-school characters that appear in extended cameos. These reservations are somewhat justified by the first act, which features a marathon of cross-cutting to various planets with names no one is going to remember regardless of how many location chirons are stamped at the bottom of the screen. But for all the cameos and callbacks, Rogue One does succeed in standing as its own work in a way that the more reverential and narratively-derivative The Force Awakens does not.
Above all else, Rogue One is a war movie, more so than any other film in the Star Wars canon. The first half takes obvious visual and narrative signifiers from the current conflicts in the Middle East: talk of “extremists” and “weapons of mass destruction,” friendly-fire casualties, black bags pulled over the heads of prisoners, and an action set-piece featuring an Imperial tank being bombed by insurgents on the streets of a desert city. Cassian Andor, as played by a charmingly sleepy Diego Luna, is presented as the end game of a child soldier, his life spent doing terrible things in the name of a just cause. Forrest Whittaker appears as Saw Gerrera, a violent Rebel partisan whose crude robotic limbs and breathing mask make him a sly doppelganger of Darth Vader. In a fun bit of stylistic and narrative symbiosis, the modern aesthetic carefully established in the first two acts gets inverted for the final third: a rousing, Dirty-Dozen-style assault on an Imperial base that recalls World War II propaganda films and the aerial dogfights that were a major inspiration for George Lucas during his conception of the original films. Although it feels padded by some video-game-style narrative busy work – “we’ve got to connect this cable so we can throw this switch and get through that door!” – the final action sequence is expertly staged and deployed for maximum aesthetic and emotional impact.
The aesthetics work like gangbusters throughout, which has become something of a calling card for Gareth Edwards. Director of the indie hit Monsters and the 2014 Godzilla reboot, Edwards was clearly hired thanks to his sharp eye for composition, color and contrast, all of which are displayed beautifully throughout Rogue One. His sense of scale is his most vital asset and makes this universe feel bigger than it ever has before. One striking establishing shot follows a TIE fighter, which is dwarfed by a Star Destroyer, which is in turn dwarfed by the Death Star. Another sequence shows a low-powered blast from the Death Star obliterating a city like an asteroid impact, folding the horizon over on itself until it looks more like an epic 19th century landscape painting than a mass of typical CGI destruction. All of this goes a long way toward making the often-recycled threat of the Death Star seem existentially terrifying and downright mythic.
Unfortunately, the emotional import that the film so desperately wants to impart is mostly undercut by another recurring element of Edwards’ filmography: underwritten, stock characters. While Rogue One admirably builds upon the work begun by The Force Awakens in diversifying the Star Wars universe, its eclectic cast is given little to work with beyond broad archetypes and boilerplate dialogue. As the main character, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso suffers the most from this. In addition to being the umpteenth Star Wars protagonist with crippling daddy issues, the character is a textbook case of all tell and no show. We’re told she’s a dangerous, hardened smuggler, but never shown it beyond Jones throwing a few punches and keeping her emoting to a minimum. Even the crux of her character arc, the scene in which she goes from being a cynical mercenary to an idealistic freedom fighter, only works due to the moving performance by Mads Mikkelsen as her father. Jyn feels like she popped into existence at the start of the film and that lack of a tangible, developed past makes it hard to care about the characters’ future as the movie unfolds. This applies to the rest of the ensemble, all of whom only feel like real people on the occasions when the actors’ charms can shine through. Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen as a blind monk and lovable character actor Alan Tudyk as a snarky droid are the two obvious slam-dunks in this regard, but this all results in the broader problem of a squad-based movie in which the squad never fully coheres. No single member builds a meaningful relationship with more than two other members of the team. Certain team members never even have dialogue exchanges with other team members. With the central heroic ensemble consisting of only six members and an ending built on a foundation of self-sacrifice and teamwork, the film doesn’t do its due diligence in making their comradery feel grounded in character rather than narrative necessity. This tricky, lop-sided balancing act between tone, aesthetic and character ultimately makes Rogue One feel like an interesting promise of great films to come, rather than a great film.
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