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…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.