Skip to main content

There is a ninety-seven point six percent chance of failure.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story failed to tantalise me from the announcement of its premise onwards, smacking of the kind of joining the dots exercise that has been the bane of many an ill-advised prequel. And the trailers did nothing to reverse that, lacking even a hint of a character to invest in. The finished film proves both better and worse than those expectations suggested, not quite as limp in its main cast, but depressingly in thrall to distracting dollops of continuity spooned up every couple of minutes. Mainly, though, its faults lie in style over content.


Which isn’t a surprise; this is an incredibly well-made movie, but if cinematic legerdemain was where it was at, director Gareth Edwards’s previous picture, Godzilla, would be the blockbuster of the last decade. Whatever reshoots may or may not have been supervised by Tony Gilroy (credited co-screenwriter with Chris “American Pie and making damn sure The Golden Compass went belly-up” Weitz), fortunately it’s Edwards’ stylistic fingerprints that are evident throughout.


Because, whatever his faults as a storyteller – and they become more evident with each new movie – Edwards’ visual sense is impeccable. Rogue One is gorgeous to behold, blessed with seamless CGI that only ever feels integrated (with one glaring exception that has been much discussed already, and obviously will be here). He’s without peer in martialling the elements to foster verisimilitude, from rain-lashed mountain ranges, to sun-kissed beaches, to vertiginous instillations overlooking the same; there’s real depth and substance here.


As such, this is the most “Star Wars”-looking picture in the series – for all its inclinations toward realism and penchant for handheld camera – since The Empire Strikes Back, and the first since that outing to really feel of a piece with the environment of the first two in the original trilogy (the slipshod carelessness of Return of the Jedi lets it down at times in that regard; at points, it ends up looking like just another ’80s fantasy movie). This in itself may be seen as part and parcel of the trap Edwards has fallen into – of replicating rather than extending – but in this aspect, at least, I think he has a right to be proud of his achievement.


It also lends Rogue One the strongest sense of the occupied worlds of the Empire – or just populated worlds, period –  in the series. The environments here take the Mos Eisley of the original and multiply by ten, discarding the virtual landscapes of the prequels and the inability to do anything but a sideways homage in The Force Awakens. The picture scores too by envisaging normal people in the ranks of the Empire – something The Force Awakens singularly failed at with its basic-training-and-out ex-Stormtrooper. Jyn Erso’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a dutiful Imperial officer but not the embodiment of evil or the good guys’ cannon fodder, and this is arguably the first time the series has been willing to go there.


Similar is the attempt at striking balance through having lead male protagonist Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) showing off the dark side of the Rebellion during the opening scenes (although he’s only dispatching reliably plankish actor Daniel Mays, so he’s not to be thought too ill of) and later with orders to assassinate anyone who may undermine the Rebellion’s grand scheme, white hats included (Forrest Whitaker, meanwhile, is quite comfortable using torture for his just cause). For all that the prequel trilogy attempted to embroil itself in the nuance of political machinations and the downturn of its lead character, what transpires in Rogue One is perhaps the biggest break of faith with Lucas’ vision thus far, particularly given how he went overboard trying to retcon the likes of Han when it came to ensuring his heroes really were impossibly heroic (but then, apparently he gave Edwards his tuna-necked seal of approval, so who knows where his head’s at? Perhaps he just didn’t like JJ put Georgy in the corner, so vocally approving of Rogue One was payback?)


These elements are hung on a strictly perfunctory plot, which doesn’t matter very much initially; the reasons for wanting to involve Jyn makes sense, but as Weitz and Gilroy struggle to inhabit the slender time and space they have presented themselves, they invoke ever more glaringly hackneyed devices. This includes the Alliance refusing the opportunity to take action so our intrepid band of misfits can rise to the impossibly-against-the-odds challenge themselves, which they do with remarkable ease until they start dropping like flies on cue, as the stakes rise inexorably.


While congratulations are in order for at least not copping out at this point, and proceeding on course to a nominal downer, the movie ends up occupying a strangely ambivalent place, where the sacrifices are revealed as of negligible consequence because so much packaged continuity has been lined up to fill all available gaps and squeeze out any tragedy; it turns out the industry fanboys were only pretending they wanted to tell this story, when really they were creaming themselves to signpost what happens next in the least artful manner.


Which isn’t to say the grand climax isn’t reasonably effective in and of itself; while many of the supporting characters are dispensed with in a way that reflects how little substance they were imbued with in the first place, the trio of droid K-2SO, Jyn and Cassian are thrust effectively into a “Can they succeed?” bid to snatch the plans. A bid only in danger of being undermined by the typically over-resourced bombastic battle sequence that serves mostly to recall how every other Star Wars movie (apart from the best one) climaxes. It’s a sequence that also suggests, even if the Empire didn’t have a boffin helpfully undermining their superweapon, some other crippling flaw would be bound to surface; how else to explain their mighty Star Destroyers that seem entirely inept at manoeuvring and prone to ramming each other (on top of their not-so-very-effective walkers)?


K-S2O: (after Jyn zaps a lookalike) Did you know that wasn’t me?

The big problem, though, is that we don’t really care about any of them, Alan Tudyk’s marvellously acerbic droid aside. Tudyk, as about the only source of humour in the piece (Chirrut’s line about having a bag on his head aside), rightly steals every scene he’s in, even if all his lines don’t absolutely land, and also manages to convey the only emotionally consequential scene as he sacrifices himself in a blaze of glory. The design concept for K-S2O is striking as Tudyk’s vocal range, at which he’s a past master, of course, including I Robot’s title character more than a decade ago.


Chirrut Îmwe: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

It’s surely no coincidence that the droid is both the best character and the only character with larger-than-life flamboyance in the group. The trappings of nominal realism just don’t mesh if they’re made to wash over every aspect of the Star Wars universe. Donnie Yen as Force-wannabe Chirrut Îmwe isn’t interesting as a character, only in respect of the thematic quality he imparts, which is actually quite compelling and distinctive for a mainstream blockbuster; it’s the old Salieri thing of “Why doesn’t God talk to me?”, but played through a man who, even though the Force is silent within him, never forsakes his belief in it (his “Make it so” mantra smacks either of desperate clutching at straws or stoic wilfulness). He and best buddy Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen; in the year of gay Sulu, the relationship between Chirrut and Baze is surely a coy sop to calls for more inclusive representation in the Star Wars universe), are rather dull, but his article of faith might be the most provocative element of the picture.


Luna is vague but inoffensive as the lead male protagonist, mainly there to represent the flawed hero (everyone here is flawed, you know, because they’re determinedly not staunch Lucas archetypes, just dull stereotypes), but really it’s all about Felicity. Who rightly got attention for The Theory of Everything but comes entirely unstuck here, with just the one expression – that of a pouting gerbil, and a miserablist pouting gerbil at that – and the same number of gradations in performance. The attempts to beef up her motivation and backstory don’t really carry, and her big speech is unmitigated tripe, likely written by someone who thought Keira Knightley’s pep talk in At World’s End was something to steer for on the rousing front.


There other actors are all fine, but all ultimately kind of forgettable – Forest Whitaker being Forest Whitaker, The new Exorcist Ben Daniels sporting a ‘70s tache and stuck behind an X-wing, and Riz Ahmed getting to wig out a bit.


Mads is okay as dad, but can never get out from under the underwritten misdirected-but-well-intentioned-scientist trope. And Ben Mendelsohn is also okay as Director Krennic, but he can never get out from under his virtual and masked superiors, who undermine not only the character but also the actor. So much time is spent getting to points where Krennic can be given orders by not-Tarkin or have his throat tugged by not-Darth that his actual motivation is reduced to a sliver of rage here and a slice of sadism there; nothing to rely relish, or top with garnish.


And this is where Rogue One suffers the most. Or the most obviously (one might charitably suggest it takes the heat of flaws elsewhere). I don’t know if the decision to stuff the movie with continuity came earlier or later – most probably it was always there, as you don’t get a facsimile Peter Cushing in four months of post-reshoots CG-tweaking –  but God, do all the different Easter eggs grate.


There’s occasionally something that’s quite intriguing, such as seeing Darth in his burns tank, but then we’re “treated” to him in full swing, so to speak, with a costume and mask that look very off, a performer who’s too squat and just plain doesn’t move right – suddenly I have new found respect for the much mocked Dave Prowse – and a James Earl Jones sound less a threatening force planning to do something deadly than an old guy desperate to put his feet up and have a nice snooze in the dialogue booth. It doesn’t quite have the despairing effect that the Yoda the Hedgehog had in Attack of the Clones, but it’s still just not right.


It’s bizarre that Vader – relatively simple to replicate, or should be – ends up so wrong when so much time was clearly put into reproducing the visage of Peter Cushing, whose reproduction is so near in some respects that the result is even further from succeeding in all the ways that count. There is never a moment where Grand Moff Tarkin lulls you into not being distracted, which renders all his scenes entirely pointless.  He just isn’t Cushing, and isn’t Tarkin, and there’s something ghoulishly disrespectful about the whole decision that leaves a bad taste in the mouth (and what’s with his big baggy trousers, like something out of one of those Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars toons?) When we finally come to rest against the iceberg cameo of a young Carrie-GI Fisher, complete with coke trails, we’ve gone long past the sinking feeling of sad inevitability, and there’s a realisation that this isn’t just Star Wars nostalgia; the attempt to recover yesteryear in the least creative, sadly counterfeit way appears to be pervading every movie currently coming out of Hollywood, to varying degrees of irritation or indignation.


And, in tandem with this obsessiveness, there’s something laughably askew about how patchy such obeisance to past iconography is when the actor playing Mon Mothma looks absolutely nothing like the original (clue: here she sports a bleedin’ great beaky nose) and has only been cast because she was in a deleted scene in Revenge of the Sith (besides which, Genevieve O’Reilly is a good decade younger than Caroline Blakiston was), or when Jimmy Smits strolls on looking barely a day older than he did in The Phantom Menace, let alone Revenge of the Sith, and we’re somehow expected to believe that, in this brief gap of time, Ewan McGregor spent so much time getting so windswept in the Jundland Wastes he ended up as Alec Guinness. The more Lucasfilm (whoever is in charge of it at whatever point in time) attempts to gather the strands together, the more they slip through their fingers.


And then there’s the R2-D2 and C-3PO cameo, unnecessary in the extreme, and the “You just better watch yourself” guy, clearly on a month-long, galaxy-wide bender (while I’m a Star Wars fan, I’m not such a fan that I know the actual names of Pig-Face and his Toothsome pal). It appears that you can turn down any given street in this far, far away place, a long time ago and there’s always minor A New Hope character lurking. By the end of the move, the only surprise is that we didn’t discover whether Leia went for a Number One or a Number Two immediately prior to taking delivery of the Death Star plans. The parts that are pleasantly nostalgic – the sound effects and retro computer graphics – are the too rare ones that slip you into the mood of the first movie without rubbing your face in it. Alas, the problem is that every series movie these days devolves into fan fiction, even if it has the official stamp on it, and there’s no one sensible around to say “No, that’s going too far”.


I’d like to be more charitable to Michael Giacchino’s score; it certainly does lots and lots of John Williams quoting, but I’d rather he’d come up with something as individual and distinct as his Star Trek reboot, which had great themes to spare and didn’t have you thinking about the original at all. Here, the one notably original element, the main riff, is terrible. It’s like some kind of Churchillian foghorn from a ‘40s-propaganda movie, and fails spectacularly to do anything but take you right out of the proceedings – I was slightly aghast on hearing it, wondering if they were really serious, hoping something decent might come along if I’d only give it a few seconds.


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is nothing so much as one of those tales Marvel comics would offer back in the ’70 and ’80s (and which other licensees have no doubt done many times since), filling in the gaps between movies (albeit, then they mostly were between movies), or relaying a short story about how Wedge Antilles escaped Hoth, even though he looked absolutely nothing like Wedge Antilles. That, I seem to recall, was an interestingly little diversion, but nothing more. And so it is here; the only way you can make this story truly work is if you care about those involved, but aside from Tudyk’s droid, you absolutely don’t. And neither did the makers. They cared about the shout-outs to Darth and the not-so-Grand Moff and Leia and R2 and 3PO. And in another two years we’ll be getting the same thing all over again with Han and Lando and Chewie and the Falcon and the Kessel Run and maybe even a cameo from Lobot, with a virtual John Hollis… Lobot ROCKS, of course, but not a virtual Lobot.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

Gloat all you like, but just remember, I’m the star of this picture.

The Avengers 5.11: Epic
Epic has something of a Marmite reputation, and even as someone who rather likes it, I can quite see its flaws. A budget-conscious Brian Clemens was inspired to utilise readily-available Elstree sets, props and costumes, the results both pushing the show’s ever burgeoning self-reflexive agenda and providing a much more effective (and amusing) "Avengers girl ensnared by villains attempting to do for her" plot than The House That Jack BuiltDon't Look Behind You and the subsequent The Joker. Where it falters is in being little more than a succession of skits and outfit changes for Peter Wyngarde. While that's very nearly enough, it needs that something extra to reach true greatness. Or epic-ness.