Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(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.