Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Short review: A convoluted story sends Jyn Erso to Scarif with a band of ruffians where they set about stealing the plans for the Death Star and kick off the plot of the original Star Wars movie from 1977.

Her father taken
A secret design flaw
Desperate mission

Full review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the eighth movie set in the Star Wars universe, but the first that is not directly tied to the "Skywalker Saga". The announced intent is, for the foreseeable future, to alternate between additional "Saga" movies - such as 2015's The Force Awakens and the upcoming The Last Jedi, scheduled to be released in December of 2017 - and "anthology" movies featuring ancillary stories that are set in the Star Wars universe, but have plots that are related but not integral to the ongoing "Saga" such as Rogue One and the upcoming "young Han Solo" movie.

Rogue One is about the rebels who stole the plans for the first Death Star, whose actions set up the plot of the very first Star Wars movie. This movie is not about the "many Bothans" who died in the service of the Rebel Alliance, because those Bothans died recovering intelligence about the security surrounding the late stages of the construction of the second Death Star, which led to the events the took place in The Return of Jedi. One thing that is somewhat sad is that the existence of Rogue One would seem to make it less likely that there will ever actually be a movie about those Bothans, as having two movies about a desperate attempt to steal classified military plans would seem to be redundant. On the other hand, the Star Wars series includes three movies that are essentially all variations of a desperate effort to destroy a giant planet-destroying super-weapon built by the forces of evil, so maybe having a redundant plot isn't really all that big of an obstacle.

Given that this is a new style of movie for the Star Wars franchise, the first question one must ask is, does this new format work? And the answer is a qualified yes. The story of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans is, to a certain extent, a predictable one: The audience knows when they are walking into the theater that at the end of the movie, someone will be handing the Death Star plans to Princess Leia, who will then jet away to be caught in the skies over Tattooine at the beginning of A New Hope. On the other hand, the ending of a story is just that - the ending, and the important part is how one gets there. Unfortunately, for much of its run time, Rogue One seems to be something of a disjointed mess. It is fairly apparent that the movie was substantially rewritten at some point during the filming process, and what is on the screen frequently seems to be material that was cut from some other, possibly more coherent movie and then stuck together to make a new story. Everything comes together in the final section of the movie, which is something like a combination of the Dirty Dozen and Midway, and that makes up for the somewhat scattershot nature of what goes before, but there is still a lot of this movie that feels somewhat off-kilter.

The story of Rogue One is, more or less, the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and his wife Lyra Erso. In the opening scenes of the movie, Lyra is killed and Galen is abducted by Imperial forces under the command of Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Jyn hides from Krennic's death troopers and is rescued by the Rebel leader Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker). The movie jumps forward in time by about a decade and a half and rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has learned that an imperial pilot has defected to Guerrera with a secret message about the doomsday weapon that the Empire is building. The trouble is, in the intervening years, Saw has become an "extremist" and the faction he leads has broken off from the rest of the Rebel Alliance.

The Rebel Alliance decides to locate Jyn, being held in Imperial custody for a variety of crimes, and breaks her out with the hope that she will be able to introduce them to her former benefactor. After some twists and turns in the Holy City on the moon Jedha that introduce the characters of the droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Jyn gains entry to Guerrera's hideout and hears the message, which turns out to be from her father and reveals that he has been forced to help construct the Death Star but that he secretly planted a flaw in it that can be revealed by a careful study of its plans. Meanwhile, Grand Moff Tarkin demands a test of the freshly completed Death Star's capabilities and destroys the Holy City, apparently killing Saw and most of his partisans in the process. Jyn, Cassion, Chirrut, Baze, and the imperial pilot (named Bohdi Rook and played by Riz Ahmed) all escape.

It is in these sections of the movie that the somewhat haphazard structure of the film is most apparent. despite being played by Forest Whitaker, Saw Guererra is only in a handful of scenes, and doesn't do much of anything in any of them. For the most part, Guerrera's role in the movie is to hold the defector Bohdi and show Jyn a hologram message from her father. Not only does this seem like a waste of the talents of an actor like Whitaker, but there are indications that at one point the role of Saw Guerrera was much more prominent in the story - with his numerous cybernetic parts and frequent need for an air mask, he seems like a thematic counterpart to Darth Vader, someone becoming more machine than man in service of the Rebellion just as Vader did in the service of the Empire. Perhaps Guererra was intended as metacommentary upon the price one might pay for having too much devotion to a cause, but we will never know. We are told that he is an "extremist", but there's never any demonstration of what that might mean. We see men in his service attacking a storm trooper patrol in the Holy City on Jedha, but that seems like awfully weak tea as far as "extremism" goes. I suppose his methods of interrogating Bohdi are a bit ruthless, but that also seems like a pretty limited place to hang the label of "extremist" upon him.

Further, the story that Guerrera was part of the Rebel Alliance until recently, and only left due to disputes over tactics leads to another question: Why doesn't anyone in the current Rebel Alliance know Jyn Erso? According to Guerrera, she was his best soldier until he abandoned her when she was sixteen to protect her from rumors among his other followers. That can't have been more than ten years before the events of Rogue One, so the idea that Jyn never worked with anyone from any other part of the Rebel Alliance seems somewhat implausible, especially given that Cassian says he has been fighting the Empire since he was six. But when they pick her up, the Rebel Alliance acts like they have never had contact with her before. To a certain extent, they act like they had never heard of her before they brought her in when Guerrera became important to the cause again. There are other oddities as well: Cassian meets a contact in the Holy City, but then he and Jyn actually connect with Guerrera's group in the middle of a firefight, and then they are abducted. Who was the contact? What was the actual plan? Was there a plan? Guerrera uses an alien beast to interrogate Bodhi, using a method that is supposed to damage the mind of the subject. Later, when Jyn and Cassian find Bohdi, he seems like a man with a broken mind, gibbering almost incoherently in his cell. A few scenes later, when the time comes to break out and escape from the onrushing wave of destruction caused by the Death Star, Bohdi seems to be perfectly fine. How he was able to recover so quickly is never explained. Time and again, it feels like scenes were reordered, removed, or realigned, leaving the viewer feeling like there is something missing from these parts of the story. On can only surmise that the wrinkles that don't add up are held over artifacts from the original version of the story that were left in because it would have been too difficult to reshoot the scenes that have them.

The obvious slicing and dicing of the intrigue and adventure in the early parts of the movie would be forgivable is one were able to think that it was done simply to try to cram as much of that as possible into the story, but instead the movie keeps shifting away from Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO and the rest of the intrepid rebels to focus on what can only be described as the deadly dull office politics of the Imperial Officer class. In large part, all these scenes really do is provide a really long-winded answer for the question "How did Grand Moff Tarkin become the commander of the Death Star", which is a question that pretty much no one actually asked to be answered. These scenes have the additional downside of retroactively making Tarkin a less imposing villain in A New Hope, as he comes off as a petty backstabber whose only real skill is leeching off of the accomplishments of others, and makes Krennic look like a cloddish buffoon in this movie. Every time the story cuts away from the heroes to these boardroom shenanigans, any momentum the movie has built up grinds to a screeching halt as we watch CGI Peter Cushing outmaneuver Krennic and take over the Empire's new superweapon.

This is probably the juncture to discuss the two CGI characters that everyone noticed in the movie: Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. There was a third - K-2SO - but no one thought of the droid as being a particularly remarkable example of CGI work. As a CGI character, young Princess Leia isn't very convincing, and has kind of a plastic look about her. She's only on screen for a few seconds, and only has one line to deliver, so this isn't that big of a deal. Tarkin, on the other hand, is integral to the whole Imperial Officer backstabbing politics story, and so has to carry a fair amount of narrative weight. For the most part, the CGI effects recreating the deceased Peter Cushing for the big screen are fine, but the end result is pretty obviously not Peter Cushing. The CGI Cushing looks like the late actor, but Cushing was an incredibly skilled and subtle actor, capable of conveying enormous amounts of meaning with a slightly arched eyebrow or the tiniest curl of a lip and, well, the CGI Cushing just doesn't have those skills. The result is a performance by a creation that pretty much looks like Cushing, but is strangely flat and lifeless when compared to the actual actor.

After the group of would-be rebels escape from Jedha, they make their way to Eadu, which is the location of the Imperial research station where Galen Erso is stationed. The important thing about this excursion is that essentially nothing of importance to the story takes place on Eadu. Jyn thinks that the group has gone to Eadu to rescue her father, Cassian has orders to kill Galen, and everyone else is basically just along for the ride. Krennic shows up looking for the identity of the leaker who sent Bohdi Rook to Saw Guerrera and kills the entire staff of engineers except for Galen and then a squadron of Rebel fighters show up and bomb the whole base, killing Galen just in time for him to die in Jyn's arms. After a whole lot of meaningless activity, everyone leaves the planet and heads back to Dantooine to have a talk with all of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance. Once again, this entire sequence feels like it was stitched together out of scenes from another, more coherent story in which something notable happened on Eadu. As it is, this entire section of the movie could have simply been left out and there would have been almost nothing lost.

What saves Rogue One, in the end, are the characters and the final third of the movie. And by "the characters", I mostly mean K-2SO, Chirrut Imwe, and Baze Malbus. Krennic is a standard issue movie villain, backed by standard issue movie villain henchmen, with nothing that makes him seem particularly unique or even all that interesting. Jyn Erso is perfectly serviceable as a lead, made somewhat more interesting due to the fact that she is the female lead of an action movie, but for the most part she is a fairly standard character - a surly, disaffected rogue who finally finds something to believe in and ends up leading the way. Cassian is also pretty much a standard issue character as well, with nothing in particular that really makes him stand out from any number of other action movie heroes. K-2SO, on the other hand, is almost the platonic ideal of the anti-C-3PO. Snarky and rude where C-3PO is endlessly obsequious, competent and capable where C-3PO is mostly useless, and willing to be ruthless when needed, K-2SO is a droid unlike any seen before in the Star Wars universe, and provides a welcome counterpoint to the rest of the squad. One repeated joke has K-2SO bringing up the odds of something happening, but unlike C-3PO, who would give precise figures as calculated by R2-D2, K-2SO is almost always vague with his estimates, and usually gets cut off by those around him, who simply don't appreciate his wisdom.

The real highlight is Chirrut Imwe, the blind former guardian of the Jedi temple on Jedha. What makes Chirrut so interesting is not the fact that he is blind, or the fact that he is a practitioner of a Jedi-like martial art, although his fight sequences do raise the eternal question of what the Imperial stormtrooper armor is for, as Chirrut is able to knock stormtroopers senseless with nothing but a stick. No, what makes Chirrut interesting is that he is the first character who actually makes one believe in the Force as a religious belief. In previous movies the Jedi have used the Force, but for them it always seems like just a tool. Chirrut, on the other hand, believes in the Force in a way that no other character really has. Despite his religious leanings, Chirrut is also frequently hilarious, with insightful and humorous comments, such as his incredulity at Guererra's men placing a hood over his head when he is captured along with Jyn, Cassion, and Baze, "Are you kidding? I'm blind!" Chirrut's constant companion Baze is interesting by extension, mostly because he clearly doesn't share Chirrut's deep-seated religious beliefs, and yet the two are obviously extremely close. This sort of odd couple pairing isn't particularly original, but in this instance putting the idealistic Chirrut and the cynical Baze together simply works.

After kind of limping through the first two-thirds of the movie, Rogue One finally finds its feet once the heroes make their way to the Imperial records facility on Scarife to actually steal the Death Star schematics. This sequence, which takes up all of the rest of the movie, pretty much makes up for all of the deficiencies that may have gone before as the movie turns into a desperate fight against impossible odds. Jyn and her team of roguish volunteers try to infiltrate the Imperial base while also taking on a garrison of storm troopers and Imperial walkers, while the Rebel fleet valiantly tries to punch a hole in the planetary shield above them. The only notable weakness of this section is that it makes apparent that the movie has been suffering somewhat from Smurfette syndrome, as Jyn is the only woman in a strike team comprised of grungy dudes and at least one alien. This is offset somewhat by the inclusion of a handful of female fighter pilots in the space battle (and a few flying close air support in the land battle), but other than Jyn and these pilots, the movie is pretty short on substantial roles for women, which is something of a shame as the movie's cast is interestingly diverse in other ways. In any event, the battle plays out about as one would expect, which should be entirely unsurprising given that the movie is a prequel and the audience presumably already knew that the Death Star plans would end up in Princess Leia's hands. There is a lot of action, and all of the main characters have their heroic moment to shine. The space battle is exciting, with the inclusion of some references to the original Star Wars movie series that are just subtle enough to be noticeable without calling too much attention to themselves. Despite being predictable, then ending of the movie manages to remain thrilling and tense, with the final resolution being both a completely satisfying close to this story and the perfect launching point for A New Hope.

In the end, Rogue One is a flawed but still quite enjoyable installment in the Star Wars franchise. The somewhat disjointed nature of the plot in the first two-thirds of the movie is offset by the engaging characters and the climatic battle that finishes the movie. The only real downside to this movie is that, for rather obvious reasons, most of the characters who appear in it really can't be revisited in the future - it would have for example, been interesting to see a movie that told Saw Guerrera's story and the sequence of events that drove him from being a member of the Rebel Alliance to being the leader of an extremist splinter group. Even so, this movie is a good addition to the original Star Wars story, illustrating the high price extracted from the Rebels in their struggle against the Empire, and depicting the world of the "grunt" level soldiers in the fight. Ultimately, Rogue One contains everything that a Star Wars fan is likely to want in a movie plus some additional grit and self-sacrificing heroics that set it apart from the other installments and make it unique in the franchise.

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  1. The Force Awakens was an improvement from those wretched pre-quels but Rogue 1 is the Star Wars movie i had been waiting for since Jedi.

    1. @Shlomo: I'll probably write a similarly comprehensive treatment of The Force Awakens in the reasonably near future, but the short version is that I think that it was exactly the kind of movie that Disney needed to green light to be able to win back the fans that the prequels had driven off.