ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
There is just something about “Star Wars” that can elicit feelings of pure joy like nothing else in pop culture can. When it gets it right, that is.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” doesn’t always get it right. It stumbles occasionally, and there are even moments that threaten to step into the leaden territory of the much-maligned Prequels. But when the movie is working, boy is it one heck of an incredible experience.
It accomplishes this feat by successfully balancing what we want to see with what we need to see.
We all know what we want to see in a “Star Wars” movie. And this one goes out of its way to give us those things. Some seem plucked straight out of a fanboy’s wish list, and for the most part they’re a delight. Beloved characters are resurrected (literally, in one case), while mythology and backstory that were once footnotes are now brought to the forefront. As you know, this is the story of how the Death Star plans were stolen by Rebel spies.
Yet what director Gareth Edwards and his writers (Chris Weitz & Gary Whitta, with story credits by Tony Gilroy and John Knoll) are really interested in is to fill in the blanks we didn’t even know needed filling. It’s not just about the mission. This movie is about the cost of the mission. Which is why the filmmakers wanted this to be a war film. Yes, it’s always been right there in the title, but this is the first time we’ve gone down to the ground level to see how war affects the lives of the soldiers fighting it and the civilians suffering through it.
It’s been said that the first casualty of war is innocence. And here’s where “Rogue One” sets itself apart. During the George Lucas era, notions of good & evil in “Star Wars” were clear-cut. Here, as in real life, morality operates in a rather murky grey area, where the good guys must do dubious, sometimes downright criminal things in the name of the higher cause. More politically aware viewers might even read uncomfortable terrorist leanings into the actions of the Rebels. In fact, that’s intentional on the filmmakers’ part. War is ugly, painful, dehumanising, and filled with difficult choices. This movie wants to confront some of these things head on. In that respect, this is the most grown-up of the “Star Wars” movies to date.
Of course, Edwards and company know full well they’re not making “Saving Private Ryan” in space. They haven’t. Nor should it ever be. But by focusing on an aspect that was previously only implied or somewhat sugarcoated, it suddenly makes “Star Wars” feel alive and vital again. I’m not taking anything away from JJ Abrams’ excellent “The Force Awakens”, but that was designed to be a soft reboot for the entire franchise and therefore needed to play safe. Here, there’s the sense that Lucasfilm/Disney allowed Edwards to take some risks. Well, about as much risk as a multi-billion-dollar property can handle. It’s a smart business decision, really. It gives each entry in the franchise a distinct identity, and differentiation is key in any commercial situation. The happy side-effect is creative output that isn’t stock-standard cookie cutter fare.
So who and what exactly am I referring to when I say this is about the cost of war? Let’s start with the who. Our main protagonist is Jyn Erso. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll say that Jyn is a rather tragic figure. From the time we first see her as a child, right until her final scene in the movie, her character knows little else but death, loss and suffering. She grows up practically an orphan – a war orphan, to be precise — forced to fend for herself while her sole remaining parent is taken away to create a weapon of mass destruction for the Imperial Army.
I’ve heard criticisms about her apparent fuzzy motivation for joining the fight, but it’s actually quite obvious. Jyn is bitter and uninvolved her whole life, until she realises — through the very man she thought she’d lost — that the choices we make in life don’t only affect our own lives but can have far-reaching implications for others. It’s just a question of what kind of implications you want your choices to have, good or bad. It may not be spelled out literally, but it’s there in the film.
Plus, it’s no big spoiler to say that with any suicide mission, the mortality rate is going to be high. So kudos to Lucasfilm for having the guts to follow through on this, because it sure hammers home the ultimate sacrifice that soldiers sometimes have to make.
As for the what: there are several instances of how Imperial troops make life miserable for average folk, and I like these little touches that capture the reality of an ever-present, oppressive ruling force. Even in the classic trilogy, the Empire’s tyranny was seen mostly at a macro level, whereas now the oppression feels more immediate, more personal. Which makes the Rebellion seem more necessary than ever before. It’s not just some lofty moral crusade anymore, it’s a matter of basic survival.
With all that said, I do think “Rogue One” kind of misses the mark when it comes to the sheer emotional impact that a war film should have. While we do get the idea that Jyn is a tragic character, we seldom feel the weight of her tragedy. Blame the writing, and to a lesser extent, the editing. Jyn and Galen’s father-daughter relationship simply isn’t developed enough for us to connect with them, and despite the admirable efforts of Felicity Jones and Mads Mikkelsen imbuing their characters with conviction and lived-in believability, they’re shortchanged by thinly-sketched characterisation.
It’s the same with other characters like Riz Ahmed’s ex-Imperial pilot, who’s given a plot point that is inexplicably ignored; Ben Mendelsohn’s main villain who is suitably devious yet still doesn’t come off sufficiently villainous in the grand traditions of the best “Star Wars” baddies; and Forest Whitaker’s extremist Rebel leader whose role not only turns out to be pretty much disposable but actually slows down the entire middle section of the movie.
I suspect the slightly clumsy characterisation and disjointed storytelling here is partly due to the extensive — and controversial — reshoots mandated by the studio. We’ll probably never know what happened behind the scenes, but it’s quite clear that compromises have been made.
It’s not all the filmmakers’ weaknesses. The character of Cassian Andor is somewhat underserved by the actor. On paper, this Rebel spy has the most interesting arc: from a zealot with zero qualms about killing to a man who chooses not to pull the trigger. Yet Diego Luna is just too soft and understated for us to get all that invested in his inner journey. It’s not that he’s bad. Luna has charisma, it just happens to be a different kind from what this role needs.
There are highlights among the characters though. Donnie Yen’s blind Force worshipper is as expected, an ass-kicking badass (in the very few chances he gets to display this). Less expected is just how engaging he is when NOT fighting. Despite the physical and conceptual familiarity of his Chirrut Imwe, Yen gives an actual performance that’s far removed from his usual Hong Kong roles, and has the honour of delivering one of the movie’s funniest lines.
I also love how through Chirrut (and the Jedi planet of Jedha) we get to delve into the Force as a religion, previously something only addressed in passing. This fits in nicely with the film’s main theme of finding faith and hope where there is none to be found.
His partner Baze Malbus, played by China’s Jiang Wen, has less to do or say, but he cuts a commanding presence as the cynic with a heart. Ironically however, the most fleshed-out, relatable character in the movie isn’t even human. He’s the droid K-2SO, played with a zero-fucks-given nonchalance by Alan Tudyk. He’s hilarious and endearing and an instant audience favourite.
K-2SO’s role as comic relief sees the movie through some of its rougher patches, where the afore-mentioned pacing issues keep it from ever being a consistently engaging watch. At least in the first hour. Because once it approaches the 3rd act, it begins to soar. Now, you might’ve heard some debate as to which is better: a weak start and a strong finish, or a strong start and a weak finish. Well, “Rogue One” makes an uncontestable case for the former.
The last 30 to 40 minutes is absolutely outstanding, kicking off with one hell of a battle sequence that rivals the epic one from “Return Of The Jedi”, and in some ways trumps it. We get massive dogfights in space (complete with some cheer-worthy cameos), Normandy beach-style ground assaults, and a race to find and transmit the Death Star plans.
The director’s sense of visual-spatial geography is something a lot of other filmmakers working today need to learn from. You always get a sense of where the main subject of a scene is in relation to other people or elements, which aids the clarity and subsequent appreciation of the action. Edwards’ other strength is design, and although the aesthetic template is already set, he still pushes his production designers to find a cool spin on the costumes, locations, weapons, and vehicles.
His one misstep is an unconvincing CG-rendered character (two, actually), whose dead eyes undo all the painstaking work done to make us believe we’re watching a living, breathing person. It’s enough to take me out of the movie, which is a shame because the scenes with this iconic character are crucial to the plot. Otherwise, the visual effects are flawless.
The climactic battle is good enough to leave us on a high note, but Edwards (or perhaps his reshoot cohorts) then springs what is probably the most joyous closing minutes of any movie I’ve seen in ages. It features none other than the poster boy for “Star Wars”, Darth Vader himself, singlehandedly reversing decades of damage done to his image thanks to countless parodies and product tie-ins, and restoring his rightful status as THE Dark Lord of the Sith. AND THEN it finishes up with a final scene that dovetails so perfectly with “A New Hope”. Excuse me while I shed a (symbolic) tear of joy.
By the studio’s own admission, “Rogue One” was meant as an “experiment”. It has no opening crawl, no John Williams score, no Jedi, and during production appeared to have trouble finding its own tone and manner. In that sense, the movie is very much the odd one out — or a rogue one, if you will — of the franchise.
And yet, Edwards and his team have crafted a movie that feels confident, hugely entertaining, and (for the most part) expertly put together.
That’s “Star Wars” alright.