Monday, December 19, 2016
Star Wars Watch: Rogue One - a Star Wars Story (2016)
When those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy thought of what might happen in the long-awaited prequels, I strongly suspect most of us expected something a bit more like Rogue One (2016). We'd only received glimpses of the pre-Luke Skywalker past, embedded in the story we'd heard about the Clone Wars, an Anakin Skywalker who was supposed to be some sort of edgy fighter pilot who becomes a Jedi... I was expecting three movies that took place against the backdrop of The Clone Wars, which always sounded pretty rough, at least in my head.
I'd also observe - Much as the superhero comics we read grew up with us, I think maybe I was expecting a Star Wars that acknowledged the conflict from which Episode IV sprang and maybe cut a little deeper - maybe had a bit of a rough and tumble edge that Ewok-laden finales may have foregone.
So, I think it's true that the content and execution of the three Prequel films surprised a lot of us.
Rogue One, the second of these films directed by the generation that grew up on them, expands upon what we know, creating far less continuity difficulty than Lucas introduced in the Prequels, brings back familiar sights and sounds, while filling in gaps and giving us all new adventures and characters. In this, I think you can say it succeeds with a solid A-, B+ (I spotted an issue or two, and my pal Matt brought one up I thought actually a pretty salient point).
That's not to say Rogue One hits all the right notes or was exactly what I was expecting (it wasn't). It's interesting to see Disney seeking to expand upon the seemingly vast universe Star Wars always promised, but which we could only visit in 150 minute increments. Here, they risk tonal differences, deliver only bits of familiar characters and try something a little uncomfortable, and, for the most part, they succeed.
This is the first Star Wars film not centered on the Skywalker family, broadening the scope to give us an idea as to how things were going out there in the period immediately leading up to Star Wars: Episode IV. Our characters have lived in the twilight world between Anakin Skywalker's fall and Darth Vader boarding a Rebel Blockade Runner, and things are coming to a head in the galaxy as the Emperor begins tightening his grip.
Desperation is driving people to extremes, a conscience is a major liability if you want to keep breathing, and even the "good guys" tend to have to do very bad things in a guerrilla war against the recognized government.
A scientist who was helping build the Death Star has left the Empire - disappearing to a backwater wasteland to live in peace when the Empire comes to reclaim him. His daughter, Jyn Erso, escapes, and, flash forward, she's now a 20-something (now played by Felicity Jones), forced into labor by the Empire as payment for some petty crime. She's liberated by the Rebels or the Alliance (it's not clear they've even settled on a name), who need for her to make contact with the man who raised her (Forest Whitaker) - a man considered an extremist by even the same Rebellion that seems okey-dokey with employing assassins and whatnot. Meanwhile, Director Krennic is trying to bring the Death Star online, and seeks recognition from the Emperor and Darth Vader, seeing Grand Moff Tarkin moving in on his territory and likely to take the task of managing the Death Star away.
I'm realizing I don't want to tell too much of the story lest I spoil it, but Jyn falls in with a shady Rebel operator, his robot buddy, a blind martial artist and his heavy-weaponry-toting pal, and a former Imperial pilot. All that you saw in the trailers.
The picture painted is bleak. The Empire isn't shy about throwing its weight around, exploiting whole worlds for the advancement of the Emperor's causes - so, obviously, strong-arming a scientist into helping them build a weapon isn't really something to keep them up at night. Meanwhile, The Rebel Alliance is more a loose arrangement of folks who can agree "yes, the Emperor is awful" than a cohesive organization. They're a fractious bunch still trying to find a path as the shadows creep in from all corners. Hell, The Imperial Senate still exists (disbanded in Episode IV in what amounts to a near throw-away line) and - while clearly ineffectual - is something bright-eyed hopefuls still think they may appeal to.
It's not without coincidence that this is also the first Star Wars movie since 1977 where I felt like the Empire itself delivered the genuine menace we didn't get to see as our heroes foiled and outsmarted their foes. This is a fascist government at work, and the first time we get to see how that impacts cities and people, far from the glamour of Coruscant. The Empire has driven whole populations to the edge and created a not-irrational level of paranoia. Rather than the hapless goobers in armor we'd have by Return of the Jedi, these Stormtroopers reflect their namesake of the SS, a faceless goonsquad terrorizing helpless populations. And, in his few scenes in the movie, Darth Vader appears as the Grim Reaper, a terrifying figure to anyone who lays eyes on him.
The story moves briskly, leaping from planet to planet, pulling the cast and pieces of the plot together to get us to the point we know is inevitable - heisting the plans for the Death Star and getting them into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. While exposition heavy, it's punctuated with enough action (frankly, spectacular action that also tends to skew towards some of the more graphic violence in a Star Wars movie) that I never felt the drag that seemed to weigh down the plot-heavy Episode II and III as pieces slid into place.
As much as this is a more "adult" Star Wars movie (frankly, I don't know if this is a good one for the smaller kids. It feels like it earns the far end of the PG-13 end of the spectrum), pulling together complex pieces that feel not unlike Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen or other movies that use the scenario of an ongoing war as a backdrop to tell the story of one remarkable unit - somehow the characters never quite gel. Which - if I'm being honest - I'm not sure they gel all that well in those movies, either (eagle-eyed viewers will notice more than a little imagery matching Nazis v scrappy, multi-national Allies, picking up where Lucas left off).
While we can nod sagely at how simplistic we found Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens, I never questioned their motivations, who they were, what they were doing or why - or even why they were partaking in the conversations that they did. But, with Rogue One, it's not that the movie delivered character with more subtlety, it's that character beats occurred sometimes without context or motivation. (spoilery example: where the hell did Jyn's speech before the assembled Alliance come from? It was an odd, unearned moment for the character, motivated seemingly from nowhere).
Perhaps like The Dirty Dozen, we're seeing snapshots of characters, defined mostly by their role and less by digging into their psyche. Certainly we never get much about the bling martial artist and his pal, we don't get much but boiler plate from our shady Rebel-guy, and I was okay with that, for the most part. We can rely on shorthand in some movies, even if I don't think that's been Star Wars' MO to date. But I still think we lost a lot of Jyn Erso on the cutting room floor.
It's not a total trainwreck - Jyn never seems to behave contrary to what we know. She just seems to make some leaps in the movie that felt under-motivated.
If I had to guess, somehow that stuff got lost in favor of stunning action sequences, astounding design of the film (which feels so in line with the original Trilogy, you'll be spotting details in every scene), and an attention to what the story needed to deliver more than it needed to make Jyn a compelling character.
As you've seen in the trailers, the look of the film slavishly replicates the original Star Wars series, borrowing architecture, uniforms, even the shape of doors and how control panels work. Scenes are recreated in meticulous, shocking detail, as if the crew that made the film in '77 was back at it the next week. Parts of costumes will look familiar, and the design aesthetic of our robot supporting player sits pretty darn neatly into the "functional, no-frills" concept that seemed to be the rage in everything but protocol droids. While we've passed the era when Star Wars spacecraft will once again be models shot on a soundstage, the ships look phenomenal, and even newer craft are clearly from the same design school as portions of the Rebel Fleet we saw in Episodes IV and V.
What will be long debated, especially as technically continues to improve, will be the insertion of CGI versions of familiar characters, including those once performed by actors now long since passed. I'm not certain it was convincing enough to not become a distraction, and was, in the end, both a brave and strange choice when I'm not certain we're not okay with re-casting.
I did like the movie a great deal. It's imperfect in different ways from it's predecessors, and I'm fairly well convinced Gareth Edwards is the sort of director who is phenomenal at spectacle and detail, but like Lucas himself, may need some polish on how humans interact (and I say this as someone who was bored stiff by all non-Cranston human characters in the 2014 Godzilla release).
It will be a movie people refer to often as what Star Wars can be when it wants to be - a dark chapter that brings greater light to the successes and wins (like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star). And, it actually makes me all the more happy to return to see what our friends Rey and Finn are up to in the future, where I don't know exactly how their story has to end to fit in with much of anything.