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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story answers a question that hasn't really loomed that large since 1977: How exactly did the Rebel Alliance acquire the plans for the first Death Star that allowed Luke Skywalker to destroy it in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope? Director Gareth Edwards offers this lost tale as the first standalone Star Wars movie from Disney not centering on the Skywalker family. A grim, ruthless, death march across brand new worlds in the Star Wars Galaxy, Rogue One (the first Star Wars movie where the characters say the title of the film) heaps a plethora of new characters onto the screen as cannon fodder for the mighty Death Star. Luke Skywalker isn't here to rescue Rogue One, but the entire enterprise is ultimately redeemed by a violently gonzo third act and a welcome parade of Droids, vehicles, weapons, and familiar faces from the Original Trilogy (in the case of the late Peter Cushing, in a computer generated reprisal of his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, a ghastly, haunting familiar face). Rogue One could even be renamed: How Darth Vader Saved a Star Wars Movie from the Rebel Alliance.  

The Rebels are the problem in Rogue One. Not just for the Empire, tightening its authoritarian grip across the Galaxy with its brand new planet-killing super weapon, but for the audience. The Rebels can always be described as a "rag tag" group of freedom fighters, but Rogue One's Rebel heroes are the most rag tag of all. Following the heroes of Rogue One on their exploits, we sorely miss the charm and charisma of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. Hell, we'd even settle for Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker making goo goo eyes at each other during their "aggressive negotiations." Rogue One pleasingly diversifies the human races of Star Wars with a truly multicultural cast. It's a shame most of these new characters are relegated to being a bunch of dour sourpusses with threadbare personalities and motivations. Who are these guys, and seriously, who wants to save the Galaxy with them? Most of them are no fun at all, and a couple join the Rogue One team because they literally have nothing else to do. But we get it, desperate times, and all that...

First and foremost, we meet Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a tough, hardened criminal with the angelic voice of a British nanny. Jyn deserves to wear a Daddy's Lil Monster shirt more than Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a genius scientist forced by the Empire to design and build the Death Star. Separated from her father as a little girl, Jyn had a tough life; she watched her mother get murdered, her father get kidnapped, and she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a cyborg Rebel fighter who's too extreme even for the Rebellion. Jyn spent most of her life on the run or in Imperial prison, suppressing having a winning personality along the way. And yet, she's still swayed by the promise of Hope. Whitaker, incidentally, clanks around on robot legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask in a bizarre cosplay of General Grievous from Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Upon meeting Saw Gerrera, we realize we don't really want to spend any time with this guy. Thanks to Grand Moff Tarkin and the good people on the Death Star, we don't have to.

Unbeknownst to his Imperial masters, Galen built a fatal weakness into the Death Star and sent a sweaty, hapless Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) on a mission to let the Rebels in their "secret" base on Yavin IV know about said weakness. Instead, Rook is captured by Whitaker's people on the planet Jedha, which is under Imperial occupation, because it's both the location of ancient Jedi Temples (the "Force of Others" and "the Whills" are name checked, continuing the mining of George Lucas' preliminary concepts for Star Wars that began with naming The Force Awakens' Death Star "Starkiller Base") and a repository of Kyber crystals. Kyber crystals in Star Wars lore are what power the Jedi's colorful lightsabers, but they are also the power source of the Death Star's fearsome planet-killing lasers. Jyn and a shifty Rebel fighter named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), along with K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial Droid reprogrammed to tell jokes and provide comic relief, are sent on a mission to find (and kill) her father. They're joined by more rag tag recruits to The Cause, including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind preacher of the Force skilled in martial arts, and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), not sure what he does. These are not names easily remembered, and much of their adventure is easily forgotten.

Thankfully, the turgid first couple of hours of Rogue One culminates in an explosive and ruthless third act on the planet Scarif, an idyllic beach world except for the Imperial AT-ATs trudging around and the energy shield around the planet protected by a fleet of Star Destroyers. The Rebel fleet launches a full-scale assault on Scarif while the rag tag Rogue One team penetrate the Imperial base to heist the plans for the Death Star. Finally, the cut scenes from the Star Wars Battlefront video game are filmed as a movie, but this is by far the most enjoyable part of Rogue One, featuring multiple main character casualties and bravura sights like a Rebel Hammerhead starship ramming a listing Star Destroyer and forcing it to collide with another Star Destroyer. As an homage to The Empire Strikes Back (among multiple callbacks to the previous movies), there's a climactic confrontation between Jyn and Orson Krannic (Ben Mendelsohn), the sneering, white cape-wafting villain of the piece who kidnapped her father, on one of those same narrow elevated platforms where Vader revealed to Luke who his daddy is. Anyone who has seen the previous seven Star Wars and lamented that not enough people die in these movies ought to have their bloodlust (hopefully) slaked. Rogue One puts the "war" in Star Wars.

Rogue One manages to accomplish a surprising feat: making the Rebel Alliance unlikable. We had really only seen the Rebellion through the eyes of Luke, Han, Leia and friends, as a bunch of faces and soldiers surrounding the heroes we actually care about. Absent them (save for a computer generated cameo of Leia restoring Carrie Fisher to her cherub-faced youth, a Jimmy Smits appearance as Senator Bail Organa, and C-3P0 and R2-D2 dropping by), we see the Rebellion in a different light: as a bunch of frightened, bickering people who engaged in thinly-veiled terrorist acts and moral compromises in their attempt to defeat the Empire. The Rebel council argues interminably among themselves, forcing Jyn and her Rogue One buddies to act in spite of them. The Rebels aren't strictly white hats in Rogue One, and while that is probably more "realistic," is that actually better? Speaking of wearing white, the killing of Storm Troopers in Rogue One is beyond ridiculous. Dozens and dozens of Storm Troopers are so easily slaughtered, it's hilarious. A Storm Trooper is violently killed almost every few minutes; most are annihilated by explosion or cut down in blaster fire. The Storm Troopers achieve a haplessness beyond even the "roger roger" battle Droids in the prequel trilogy. As the Empire's jack booted stand-ins for Nazis, no one really mourns the Storm Troopers, but Rogue One goes above and beyond in making them look utterly incompetent and easy to kill. I killed two or three just while writing this review.

Star Wars remains the greatest toy box in movies. With Rogue One, director Edwards and his writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are like little kids playing with action figures, haphazardly ramming them together, occasionally coming up with cool things to do with them. However, they did right by the best Star Wars toy of all: Rogue One promised the cinematic return of Darth Vader, and while he's only on screen for a few fleeting minutes - including an eyebrow-raising reintroduction to him by seeing what's left of his limbless, charred human body taking a steamy bath in a bacta tank - Vader utterly commands the screen in Rogue One every scant second he appears. Rogue One concludes right before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope begins, but seeing Darth Vader at the height of his fearsome powers, easily decimating the Rebel soldiers in his way with his blazing red lightsaber, is exhilarating in a way nothing else in Rogue One is. One imagines Kylo Ren leaping to his feet, tears in his eyes, exploding in applause watching Darth Vader in all his glory in Rogue One. Man, that Vader is really something. Someone should make a movie about him.