Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

*** out of ****

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a new type of motion picture for the nearly forty-year-old franchise and it is appropriately a major callback to the original 1977 film without imitating its plot. Certain places, characters and even subtle music cues that have not been revisited since that first entry take part in this movie. The idea behind these new "Star Wars Story” films is to tell original stories that take place at any desired point in the history established by the Star Wars Universe. What’s more interesting is that they are not stylistically beholden to the traditional filmmaking characteristics that define Star Wars.

The movie dumps sacred traits associated with the "Episode" series, such as the opening crawl with the famous theme and those classic iris and wipe transitions between scenes. It also utilizes cinematic techniques that are against the rules in the other series like location captions, flashback sequences and handheld cinematography.

The film’s ambivalent heroine is Jyn Erso, played with effective screen presence by Felicity Jones. She is a drifter in and out of trouble living under an alias ever since her mother was killed and her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by the Empire to take part in the planning of a super-weapon.

The rough tutelage of a guerrilla warlord (Forest Whitaker) has taught her self-reliance, but no sense of direction to take aside from running and hiding to avoid the reach of the evil Empire. While imprisoned in a labor camp, she is rescued and taken to a familiar Rebel base where she is informed that the super-weapon of her father’s forced involvement is rumored to be complete. Using a lead, they want her on a team that can track down his whereabouts and find some key to destroying the construction of technological terror: The Death Star.

The team of heroes this movie brings us amusingly subverts George Lucas’ good-versus-evil vision and explores the gray area of war. Diego Luna portrays a morally questionable rebel spy/assassin. Riz Ahmed is an Imperial pilot in the process of defecting to the Rebel Alliance. Through voice and motion-capture, Alan Tudyk plays a sardonic and brave reprogrammed Imperial droid working with the Rebels that seems like the result of listing everything the cowardly C-3PO would never do. Donnie Yen is a blind warrior who religiously regards The Force as his protector while his doubting arsenal-clad friend, played by Wen Jiang, covers him at all times.

The excellent Ben Mendelsohn brings the most personality we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars villain as Imperial science director, Orson Krennic, a man who answers to characters we haven’t seen on the big screen in quite a long time - one of whom is a digital recreation of a deceased character actor that is probably more astounding than any previous attempt at something similar, but still eerily distracting. This brings to mind my gripes with the movie.

I think Rogue One could have ventured further away from Star Wars familiarity. The film's environment sells us on its setting so beautifully, that there is no need to dish out heavy-handed reminders of which famous characters could be residing in the same place. 

It is said that this film went through heavy re-writes, reshoots and changed composers rather late into production. I don’t know what the original shooting script or score were like, but I have the feeling that they were meant to be darker.

Michael Giacchino’s score is fine, but it’s easily the weakest in a series that has always used the immense talent of John Williams. My problem is that it feels like a pale imitation of the Wagnerian tone Williams was known for when this project presented the opportunity to go for something refreshingly different.

As for the characters and story, the plot is a little convoluted and the characters seem like they’re missing some important moments that clarify their motivations and bonds with one another. The preoccupation with inserting moments of unrelated fan service costs this movie a bit in terms of its own development –particularly at the very end.

To its credit, the film probably contains the best action in the entire franchise and lives up to the title “Star Wars” more than any other entry. This movie immerses itself in the feeling of danger when violence breaks out between a heavily armored military and an ill-equipped rebellion. In other words, don’t expect a goofball CGI creature luckily dodging laser blasts in this film. People die.

If I love anything about this movie, it is how it functions as the kind of prequel I wanted over a decade ago when I not only felt that George Lucas was failing to do a good job telling the backstory to his beloved original trilogy, but that he was telling the wrong story altogether. As a kid, I always wanted to know more about the people running the Rebel Alliance. If you were just some average person, how bad was it to live under the Imperial regime and what was the ideal intergalactic life that people were fighting for? This movie touched on some of these thoughts and relished in others.

John Knoll is the brainchild behind this film’s concept, which is pretty cool considering how long he’s been realizing the concepts of others as an innovative special effects supervisor who helped bring CGI to cinema and invented Photoshop with his brother.

It should be noted that while 2002's Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones was the first major motion picture to be shot on the digital format intended to replace film, it is nice to see that the digitally-shot Rogue One represents how far the medium has come since its premature debut -even if I prefer the glorious return to celluloid we saw in last year's The Force Awakens.

The film’s director, Gareth Edwards may not improve his lacking ability for character and story emotion, but I really respect his gift for producing atmosphere and this film proves that he knows and loves Star Wars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may be a corporate-mandated spectacle ride from Disney to keep fanboys like me enthusiastic, but it is clearly a labor of love that is a little tainted by some pandering. I think Star Wars fans have every reason to watch it over and over, because I know I will.

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