Friday, December 30, 2016
[NB: some of you might quibble with the "no spoilers" tag after reading this review, but in my defense, I'll observe that, beyond talking about the movie's setup, I've mentioned no specific character deaths, nor any major events crucial to the film's plot. I admit I've mentioned that a particular X appears twice in the film, which will set you up for certain expectations, but even there, I don't think that counts as spoiling anything.]
"Rogue One," also known as "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," begins with the Star Wars equivalent of a cold open—no opening crawl of yellow text to provide exposition. Being "a Star Wars story," i.e., a spinoff episode (there will be more: there's a "young Han Solo" movie in the works, and rumors abound that there may be a Ben Kenobi story and, possibly, a Yoda story), this movie ultimately tells a fairly limited tale: that of how the plans for the Death Star were acquired, along with an explanation for the Death Star's hilarious fatal flaw: that damn thermal-exhaust port that leads all the way down to the space station's reactor core.
"Rogue One" centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman with every reason to hate the Empire. Bereft of her parents at an early age, Erso is initially cared for by the extremist rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), but Gerrera eventually abandons Erso, causing a rift between them. Erso's scientist father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), meanwhile, has been conscripted by the Empire to help develop a superweapon—what we know will eventually become the Death Star. Erso fille is broken free by Alliance forces after having been taken prisoner. Her significance to the Rebellion is that she's Galen Erso's daughter and an acquaintance of Saw Gerrera, who has received information from defector pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a man who worked with Galen Erso, and who has promised to deliver a message to the Rebel Alliance on Erso's behalf.
The rest of the movie involves figuring out that a set of Death Star schematics needs to be found and stolen, all of which leads up to the beginning of 1977's "Star Wars." There will be plenty of suspense, conflict, and adventure along the way. Trust will be hard to come by. A disconcerting number of main characters will bite the dust. And unlike the regular Star Wars movies, morality will be plenty murky in a film that focuses on the ugliness of war.
So was "Rogue One" worth the wait? I'll give a tentative yes. It was surprisingly tragic for a "Star Wars" film; by the end, the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" will definitely come to mind. There are no Ewok celebrations—no cute aliens of any kind, really. I actually think I'm going to have to see the movie a second time to drink in all the complexities of the plot. Some reviewers on YouTube have been cooing over all the movie's "Easter eggs," but I quickly saw most of the sly and not-so-sly references that these reviewers were pointing to. All the same, there was a lot to take in, and the movie was good enough to make me want to see it a second time.
I also need to re-watch the movie because there were, frankly, moments that made little sense to me during this first viewing. Most of these problems had to do with character motivations, as "Rogue One" has a definite cloak-and-dagger aspect to it that makes it hard to know what certain characters are thinking when they take certain actions. Other problems related to the sorts of flaws that geeks like that guy at Cinema Sins love to pick on, i.e., nonsensical problems in storytelling and script-writing that wouldn't have occurred had the story been thought through better (e.g., why did that Star Destroyer commander take so, so long to call for evasive action? and further, why were the destroyers hanging together so closely as a battle group?).
In the meantime, part of the movie's watchability came from its visuals, which were faithful to previous cinematic portrayals of the Star Wars universe. The hiss of the heavy doors, the roar-scream of the Imperial TIE fighters, the battered look and feel of clothing, equipment, and Rebel ships—these all aided in the consistency of the film's world-building.
The actors all hit their marks well, too. We're long past the era of corny acting (Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, in particular, gave some cringe-inducing performances in the original trilogy); Felicity Jones is tough and grim as Jyn Erso; Mads Mikkelsen, this era's Bela Lugosi, manages to be serious and poignant; Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera brings pain and war-weariness; Diego Luna as mission commander Cassian Andor is part shifty, part determined; Donnie Yen offers his martial-arts skills and a certain ethereal, Zen-like calm to his almost-a-Jedi warrior Chirrut Imwe; Alan Tudyk does a decent Anthony Daniels impression as the voice of K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial combat droid.
Then, of course, there's the elephant in the room: the CGI reconstitution of several 1977-era characters. By now, you've likely heard that Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin gets a significant amount of screen time. The rumors are true: he does indeed make more than a cursory appearance thanks to an updated version of the motion-capture technique that brought us Gollum over a decade ago. Actor Guy Henry, whom you might remember in the role of Pius Thicknesse in the final Harry Potter films, plays Tarkin, with Cushing's face mapped over his own. The effect is uncanny, but it's good enough that any "uncanny valley" feeling comes more from the knowledge that Peter Cushing died in 1994 than from flaws in the effect itself. Other similarly reconstituted 1977 characters include Leia Organa (who gets a single word of dialogue), Red Leader, and Gold Leader. A lively debate has sprung up regarding the ethics, and the artistic merit, of using CGI/mo-cap to bring back actors from the dead and/or to portray much-younger versions of those actors.
The other elephant in the room is Darth Vader, who gets two major scenes in the film—one creepy and sinister, the other downright frightening in a "full-on Sith" sort of way. Vader is seen inhabiting a mountain fastness on a lava-veined planet that evokes Mustafar from "Revenge of the Sith." (While most of the worlds we visit in "Rogue One" are named via quickly appearing title cards, Vader's planet remains unnamed.) Vader is once again voiced by the magnificently subterranean James Earl Jones, but the body actors replacing the now-superannuated David Prowse are Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous. Breathe a sigh of relief: Hayden Christensen is to be found nowhere near the character.* Since Vader featured in the preview trailers to such tantalizing effect, audiences were no doubt expecting a lot of him. Instead, "Rogue One" uses Vader sparingly: he has one prickly encounter with ambitious Death Star overseer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on the laval planet/moon, then he gets a brutally dark and violent scene during the film's final minutes.
Another big issue for me was Michael Giacchino's soundtrack. This is the first major Star Wars movie not to feature the stylings of John Williams, arguably the greatest film composer of our era. I've said, in previous reviews, that I felt Giacchino started strong with his "The Incredibles" soundtrack, but that it's all been downhill from there. The leitmotif for "Star Trek," while catchy, got annoying because it was beaten to death through constant repetition. The work Giacchino has done since, excepting the score he prepared for "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," has varied from irritating to unmemorable. What Giacchino does in "Rogue One" is a subdued, watered-down take on Williams's iconic themes, but as with his aping of Danny Elfman in his soundtrack for "Dr. Strange," Giacchino offers us nothing special. I almost wish he had been told to throw Williams out and go nuts with his own take on musically punctuating the Star Wars mythology. I remain convinced of Giacchino's talent,** but he's obviously sold out to his corporate masters, producing music that does little more than reflect the dictates of other, lesser souls. A return of Giacchino the Bold would be nice.
And speaking of "the Bold," the "Game of Thrones" actor Ian McElhinney, who portrayed Ser Barristan the Bold, makes an all-too-brief appearance in "Rogue One" as, apparently, General Jan Dodonna from the 1977 film. In this case, no CGI was involved, which is why McElhinney simply looks like Ser Barristan wearing a Rebel Alliance outfit.
I can say for sure that "Rogue One" merits a second viewing, but the reasons for needing that second viewing aren't all positive. On the upside, the plot's intricacies need a bit more unraveling for me. On the downside, the movie shows some nonsensical moments that might become more sensible after a second screening. "Rogue One" is a visual treat, though; its stout heart is in the right place, and for a Star Wars movie, it's rather tragic in tone, despite abruptly ending on a one-word note of "Hope."
*Although I agree with the masses that Christensen's sappy, wooden portrayal of Vader/Anakin did much to deflate the villainous character's respectability, I'm not a Christensen-hater. If all you ever see of Hayden Christensen's work is what he did in the Star Wars films, then you'll come away—rightly—thinking he's a horrible actor and an immense casting mistake. But watch the movie "Shattered Glass," in which Christensen plays Stephen Glass in the true-life story of a young journalist working for The New Republic who is caught after having fabricated literally dozens of stories. Stephen Glass was apparently psychotic (or at least a hardcore fabulist), and Christensen's portrayal of a man hiding his lies while trying desperately to be liked is excellent and eye-opening. Seeing "Shattered Glass" made me respect Christensen as an actor, and I now think the problem with his Anakin/Vader portrayal had more to do with George Lucas's weird, tone-deaf direction than with Christensen himself. Liam Neeson also came away from his Star Wars experience complaining about how constrained he felt by Lucas's micromanaging directorial style. Neeson, too, appeared half-asleep during much of "The Phantom Menace," and he's a fine, talented actor.
**His score for "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" is overall quite good in an action-filled, pulse-pounding way. It does, however, feature some awkward moments, such as his embarrassingly stereotypical evocation of India (when the movie transitions to India) via the standard and unimaginative use of sitars. This is like how so many Western films have evoked China and Chinese culture through the same damn pentatonic sequence of notes, with random erhu wailing nasally in the background. But since I'm trying to note some positives here, I'll say that, despite my complaints about Giacchino's "Star Trek" soundtrack, there's a genius moment during the ending credits of "Trek" in which Giacchino successfully weaves together his own theme music and Alexander Courage's original theme from the 60s-era TV series. That moment is brilliantly done—goosebump-level excellent—and it's one of the reasons why Giacchino frustrates me: such work is evidence that the man is a true talent, but he's wasting his superpowers by allowing himself to be steered to the mediocre.