Film Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Second Take)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Hey, have you ever sat back and thought: “If the Death Star was such a powerful weapon, why was it so easily destroyed by a couple of blasts down a generator shaft?” Well, lucky for you, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) spends a meaty one hundred and thirty four minutes explaining this. It’s funny how this one off prequel to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) spends its entirety covering up what’s essentially a plot hole.
It’s indicative of where this franchise is going. Actually, let me correct that: it’s indicative of where this franchise isn’t going. The story of The Force and The Dark Side, the Jedi, The Rebel Alliance, and The Empire has been in existence longer than many of us have been alive (me included). And with each new installment, the more we realize that it may never truly separate from the foundation that George Lucas created all those decades ago. It’s nostalgia filmmaking to the extreme. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) repurposed the plot of A New Hope and sold it as something new. Rogue One goes a step further. Instead of throwing tribute to the past, it literally goes back to it, cutting directly into the continuity to detail how The Rebellion stole the plans to The Death Star. The suspense is not there because we’ve known what the result was for forty years. It’s just a matter of waiting for the pieces to fall into place.
Director Gareth Edwards (with screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) sets the structure similar to a war film. Edwards – whose previous work includes Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) – has always been good at depicting a sense of scale. The cinematography (Greig Fraser) composes the frame to exaggerate the weight and size of backgrounds, buildings, and of course space ships. The Death Star has never felt larger, looming over all like the destructive moon base it is. Characters are placed in the foreground while massive structures (such as the AT-ATs) are pushed to the back to show off their height. During battle scenes (particularly the climactic one), Edwards’ eye for scope lends to a larger, epic feel.
But the approach drains the thing that makes Star Wars “Star Wars”: Charm. This doesn’t have the sense of adventure or fun that made the best of the previous entries such a joy to watch. Yes, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was dark, but it also had charisma. Here, nearly all of the featured performers play their roles with a heavy seriousness. The entire middle section drags along as the characters go through the mechanics of getting to the finale. If the point was to show how war is no laughing matter, then the production did what it needed to. But do we want our kids to see something that’s so dour? It’s telling that the most charismatic character is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a robot who seems more lifelike than many of its human companions.
Perhaps that’s because many of the human characters are composites of familiar types. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso represents a lot of the heroes that this franchise has seen. Orphaned at a young age, Jyn’s motivation involves reconnecting with her long lost father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) who was taken from her to help build the Death Star. Does this sound familiar to you? It should, given that Luke Skywalker (from Episodes IV through VI) and Rey (from Episode VII onward) go through the same daddy issues. What’s nice about Jyn is that she is a fully flawed person. Where Rey was near superhuman with her piloting, hand-to-hand combat, and Force ability, Jyn comes with an array of positives and negatives. She doesn’t always have the answers and is prone to making mistakes. Seeing her father again and stealing the schematics of The Death Star are all noble and worthy goals, but Jyn knows she needs help. That’s what makes her a strong character.
It’s a relief to see the amount of diverse faces populating this story. Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Forrest Whitaker, and a host of others open the doors for other cultures to be represented. As a person of color, I know the younger version of me would love to see someone that I resembled up on screen kicking butt. Sure, Donnie Yen’s blind warrior is an Asian stereotype, and yes, this might have something to do with appealing to an overseas market, but at least it’s not played like a caricature. In this area, the production should be commended for its progressive casting.
I found Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic to be the most interesting. Unlike most of the villain’s within the Star Wars universe, Krennic is not an all-powerful being. Heck, he’s not really that high up on the food chain. He longs for respect from the upper brass of the Empire, and does whatever he can to be recognized. His chance comes when he leads the construction of The Death Star, which causes him to kidnap Galen. Mendelsohn plays Krennic like a weasel, greedy and ambitious but not necessarily physically imposing. He’s a bit like a dweeb. He doesn’t want to take over the universe, he just wants to work higher up the ladder. There’s something compelling about that.
***Warning – Minor Spoilers Ahead***
Let’s talk about the CGI for a hot second. For the most part, the computer-generated imagery is pretty convincing. The space battles and creature effects are all top notch. However, there is one area where it falls disastrously short, and it’s in recreating human faces. Familiar characters are brought back through the magic of computers. The problem with this is that many of the actors of the previous entries are either too old to play their younger selves or are – sadly – no longer alive. The fact that the production chose to bring back these characters is borderline disrespectful. Not only is the rendering still not believable enough, but the performances don’t work. How does the production know what kind of performance the actors would choose here? Is it so difficult to find another actor that resembles the previous one? This is astoundingly strange, it’s as though the character (and actor) is nothing but a product to be used at the studio’s discretion. In other words: I didn’t like it.
***End of Minor Spoilers***
During my screening of Rogue One, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the person sitting next to me. At certain moments, this person shook with delight. Sadly, these bits of uncontrollable joy came from the Easter Eggs. When a specific cameo or a line of dialogue called back to the previous films – these are what got the biggest reactions. This was disheartening. Will this franchise ever pull itself out from under its own pop culture imprint, or will it be destined to provide fan service until the end of days? Honestly, how many times do we have to hear about someone having “a bad feeling about this?” Star Wars now lives in this weird middle zone where every new installment is required to stick to the same old routine. As a result, it plays things safe and doesn’t go beyond being a technical marvel. I can’t wait until they do Episode 20: Admiral Ackbar – The Untold Story.