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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Is this the film Star Wars fans have been waiting for? Possibly not but that doesn't mean they won't enjoy it anyway...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Set shortly before the events of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of how a group of scrappy rebels came into possession of the plans for the Death Star.

What we thought

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie the like of which we've never seen before on screen but is sure to ring a bell or two with those dire hard fans (like yours truly) who spent the 1990s reading Star Wars media tie-ins like the “Tales of” anthologies or the X-Wing series of novels and comics and, of course, played the X-Wing and Tie Fighter series of PC games. Those novels, comics and games were set firmly in the Star Wars universe but focused on either new or supporting players in the Star Wars saga and often featured a tone quite different from the original trilogy (these were pre-prequels, after all). They further widened the scope of this fictional universe, even if they did little to propel the overall story arc.

This, in a nutshell, is exactly what Gareth Edwards and screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, have created in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story – albeit now in the form of a “canonical” film. Even the subtitle, “a Star Wars Wars”, indirectly harkens back to those often terrific examples of glorified fan fiction.

How the rebels got their hands on the plans for the original Death Star was never really a story that ever needed to be told as it was dealt with perfectly well by a tossed-off bit of dialogue in the first Star Wars movie – a film where much of its genius lay in just how much world building was done in exactly such tossed off lines – but that doesn't mean that there isn't much pleasure to be had in its telling.

Those eagerly looking forward to the next major movement in the Star Wars saga (that's pretty much everyone by now, right?) won't find much here to quench their thirst, as this moves things forward even less than Lucas' prequel trilogy did. It does throw in some nice tidbits here and there that flesh out the original Star Wars by a hair – most especially the answer to why the Death Star had what amounted to a self-destruct button built into the middle of it – but, even then, they're only a tiny portion of the overall film.

What Rogue One is, however, is a most welcome chance to dip our toes once more into this wonderfully envisioned fictional universe (take away what you want from George Lucas but you can't take that) but this time moving into rather less familiar waters. Rogue One is probably the grungiest Star Wars film and by far the darkest, living up to the Wars in the Star Wars name more than any other of the past films. Though it should work for older kids, the audience for this Star Wars flick is clearly meant to be significantly older than any of its predecessors, with even the comic relief (this time in the form of a reprogrammed imperial droid, K-2SO, brilliantly performance-captured by Alan Tudyk) being far more cynical and hard edged than we're used to.

This is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this does prove the vast storytelling potential of the Star Wars universe that has barely been tapped into by the “main” films and the way the film mixes familiar (and beloved) Star Wars iconography with the storytelling mechanisms of a tight, stripped-down action-thriller-cum-war-movie, is, frankly, quite exciting. On the other, though, it's hard to shake the feeling that without the lightness, whimsy and sense of the fantastical that mark the Star Wars films at their best, Rogue One can't help but feel slightly... off.

It also probably doesn't help that, quite unlike Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn and Poe Dameron in the Force Awakens, the new characters here don't make quite the impact that that the original characters so effortlessly did but, again, that probably has more to do with kind of film Rogue One is than anything else, as its fully-throttled pace and darker tone make it somewhat harder to connect with its heroes. Still, it's not like these characters don't each have their own clearly defined personalities and they are undoubtedly played well by a rock-solid cast.

Felicity Jones, especially, is a particularly interesting bit of casting as she turns what could be a cliché-ridden tough-girl anti-hero into something far more interesting by the virtue of neither her past roles nor her general persona fitting into that “tough girl” mold at all. It may be somewhat patronizing but she's usually called “lovely” for a reason and, rather than being miscast because of it, this actually goes some way toward making her character more interesting than she would be on paper. Well, that and her natural acting chops and personal charisma.

It is, however, the villains who are most memorable. Director Krennic has no complex back story and he's never presented as much more than an overly ambitious scumbag but that matters not a whit in the face of Ben Mendelsohn's gleefully risible portrayal of the character. Most importantly, though, in his four minutes of screen time, Darth Vader eradicates any bad memories of whiny Anakin Skywalker that may still linger from the prequel trilogy. Vader is routinely voted the best screen villain of all time and his short but gloriously badass appearance here reminds us exactly why that is. I do wish that the film's promotion left his presence in the film a mystery, though, because, man, does he make an entrance like no other!

As a serious Star Wars fan, I could probably write pages upon pages about the film (I haven't even gotten to how good a job Michael Giacchino does at filling John Williams' unfillable shoes) but, for the sake of avoiding anything even remotely resembling a spoiler and also avoiding trying to deal with the truly uncanny (in every sense of the word) way they digitally brought a younger Peter Cushing back to life as Grand Moff Tarkin, I will just say this: Rogue One is far from my favourite Star Wars film and is a definite step down from last year's franchise-rebooting the Force Awakens but it is still an obvious must-see for Star Wars fans, a superior slice of high-octane, action-packed sci-fi spectacle and a very promising start for the Star Wars standalone adventures that will be coming our way every other year.


And, if you're one of those who (factually, but wrongly) derided the Force Awakens for sticking too close to formula, this is undoubtedly the Star Wars film for you.




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