A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The idea of a Star Wars anthology series existing outside of the confines of the episodic films made a lot of sense at its inherent proposal. The episodic films would be crafted to center around the Skywalker family (which probably says something about Ray’s parentage) and their trials and tribulations with the Force. At a certain juncture, however, keeping the massive galaxy George Lucas created confined to a single family could arguably feel like the franchise is letting go of an entire galaxy’s worth of legitimate story possibilities. With a corporate model of filmmaking, however, Lucasfilm and Disney probably wanted to find something that was going to be a surefire box office smasher. What would audiences definitely want to see if the idea of a Star Wars spinoff was giving them considerable pause? At some juncture, Kathleen Kennedy and others latched onto the concept of a heist film that would be focused on a group of rebels stealing the plans to the Death Star. It would be a contained, one-off film that would lead right into the opening sequence of the original Star Wars film (the closer Rogue One gets to those moments, the better it gets). Rogue One was greenlit, with A Star Wars Story added to the title just in case casual moviegoers didn’t see the giant Death Star advertised like the latest Frappuccino and make the connection. Connections perhaps is the word that may define Rogue One the best, considering the connections this spin-off makes to the original films whether or not they actually make sense and the ones that ought to matter a lot more within the actual story that it manages to miss. Rogue One is an entertaining war heist film and in spite of having some glimpses into some really intriguing political and philosophical narrative points, never rises above that to become the heartbreaking rebellion film it wants to be. Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) is a competent director, the visuals are more often than not astoundingly stunning, and the action sequences stand out amongst the best the series has offered in any format. If only the characters themselves mattered more.
Characterization is the weakest link in the film. Less than a handful of characters feel like they have earned a complete character arc or even a multi-faceted personality. It’s difficult to do characterizations and arcs for a dozen characters, but if it is indeed that difficult to do so, the script should have trimmed the number of speaking characters in order to focus on the individuals who are more important to the narrative. If that wasn’t an option, then the script simply had to be more intelligent in how it utilizes its characters within the confines of a two-hour finished narrative, which is the more rewarding but admittedly more difficult route to go down. Rogue One goes down the middle route and ultimately, while it feels simultaneously melancholy and triumphant in its final moments, it isn’t able to bring that same emotional nuance to the actual cast embodying its script. The cold open, the first in Star Wars cinematic history, is efficient and emotional, a promising beginning that is botched following the golden “Rogue One” title card. Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy’s (Bourne, Michael Clayton) script is extremely clunky as they’re bringing the disparate players of the team that is coming together to become the titular Rogue One crew. It’s not complex in a manner that is intellectually challenging, it is instead complex in a way where one is simply wondering why it’s taking so long to put the pieces together in a fashion where they could breathe properly and come together so the film could really get rolling. It’s an improvement on what Edwards brought to Godzilla, but maybe he’s a director who is simply not capable of delivering a powerful quiet side to a film as well as the bombastic third act that is a requisite of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. That requisite third act battle was great, mind you, but that battle has to feel cohesive, a result of a logical narrative that flows smoothly regardless of the obstacles the characters face. It doesn’t here, in good chunk because most of the characters barely register as archetypes even.
A case in point of the characterization problem is Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, The Night Of), an Imperial pilot charged with bringing critical information from Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange). It’s never explained why Bodhi is bringing this critical piece of info to Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker, Arrival), nor how critically in danger he was by defecting (which is a decision that is also never explained). He dies in a random explosion, a moment that is meant to register emotionally but only made me want to go back and watch material in which Ahmed was actually given meaty material to chew on. It was neat to see Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, Elysium) act as a darker side of the Rebellion, proving that this conflict was much darker, grittier, and complex than the sanitized version people at times remember from the original trilogy, but he gets a short dialogue with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything) where he references his tragic past and that’s pretty much about it on that front. Him wrestling with his orders and his sense of a moral compass in relation to the Erso family, however, was well done and Luna did a masterful job of acting with the material he was given. Whitaker does a solid job of portraying Gerrara, but unless one was aware of his character from the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, he isn’t given much weight here and when he dies, it doesn’t register as anything more than “Oh, well, that happened I guess,” which is especially disappointing because he had been built up as being an extremist rebel. That extremism (however Mon Mothma would define it) and what it meant for the Rebellion as a whole is never explained, but instead we get a ridiculous scene with some octopus-torturing creature that ought to have been the easiest cut in the entire film. Jyn herself isn’t given much weight beyond her rebellious nature and her desire to clear her father’s name from being too associated with the Imperial weapons project. Jones doesn’t provide a performance worthy of her caliber here but the writing doesn’t require much of her, either, so it’s difficult to pin the lack of sympathy for Jyn strictly on Jones’s performance. As the only female in the group, which is a stupid dynamic to begin with, she’s also straddled with a completely ridiculous romantic subplot that literally comes out of nowhere. Chinese megastar Donnie Yen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) is superb as the blind warrior Chirrup Îmwe and while he also doesn’t get the advantage of a more cohesive narrative, he at least brings enough charisma and gravitas to the role to make his death mean something. His friendship with the understated but strong Baze Malbus (a terrific Jiang Wen, New York, I Love You) gives the film a true emotional grounding that it really does lack in so many other areas.
Rogue One nevertheless is an entertaining film, glimpses of what could have been giving the film a solidification in at the very least thrill. The Death Star is notable used tremendously well here, the true power of its destructive capacities unfolding on the ground level for the first time. The cinematography is simply stunning, creating what could arguably be the most visually gorgeous Star Wars film ever made. Edwards may not be a fantastic director, but he brings a great finesse to some of the battle sequences that gives scenes otherwise familiar a thrilling new perspective. K2-SO, voiced by the effervescent Alan Tudyk (Zootopia, Moana) is a fantastic droid character who steals the entire film with his sardonic wit and quiet heroism. Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Doctor Strange) has the extremely difficult job of filling in John Williams’s shoes for the score and he does a fantastic job at creating music that is his own, making sure nevertheless to include the classic Williams themes when appropriate. While some of the fan service is frankly distracting and unnecessary (the two cantina visitors from A New Hope and C-3PO and R2-D2 for example), the ones relating to Darth Vader are done perfectly. Vader’s presence in the film is executed perfectly, his moment of massacre in the darkened hallways giving further rise to the terror he had emanated during the original film. Ben Mendohlson chews a perfect amount of scenery as Orson Krennic, a perfect embodiment of a lifelong bureaucrat who serves nothing but himself and whose greatest moment of triumph is lost in the annals of history, simply given to other men. There is an undercurrent of the importance of direct action and fighting back against the encroaching totalitarian government, consensus be damned. The film approaches that but doesn’t do enough to explore it, but including that sequence does at least given weight to the political complexities of the Rebellion and to give it that weight is pretty revolutionary in and of itself. Walking away from Rogue One was a largely satisfying experience, if one that left me wanting because the film occasionally flashed moments of brilliance that, if carried through throughout the endeavor, would have allowed for Rogue One to rival The Empire Strikes Back as the greatest cinematic achievement of Lucasfilm to date.
Title: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Screenplay by: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Story by: John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Based on: Characters by George Lucas
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk. Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Cinematography by: Greig Fraser
Edited by: Jabez Olssen
Production Company(s): Lucasfilm Ltd.
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Dates: December 16, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Wired
Every review from now on will have links to organizations who are in need of resources. Please contribute if you are able:
Syrian Refugee/Refugee Crises
Women’s Reproductive Rights