Thursday 22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Movie Review
As I explained around this same time last year, I’m not the biggest fan of Star Wars. I recognise its cinematic significance and I get a certain amount of enjoyment out of the films themselves (even the ones that the rest of the world seems to hate with a passion), but I never really bought into the hype that those films carry to this day. Incessantly pushing The Force Awakens in my face for pretty much all of last year definitely didn't help, even with how much I ended up liking that film.

So, with all that in mind, even I am legitimately hyped for this film. The lack of obnoxious advertising could be a part of it, but there’s something else here that makes me anxious to check it out. Knowing how other cinematic continuities have been going of late, with even DC figuring out that some form of variety would be much appreciated, this film could present something different and help strengthen the series, considering this will be the first of the Star Wars cinematic Anthology with more already on the way. But even I couldn’t have expected this film to be this different.

The plot: Jyn (Felicity Jones), having been drafted into the Rebel Alliance at a young age, learns that her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) had been helping the Empire to build a new weapon that could spell doom for the galaxy: A planet-sized planet destroyer called the Death Star. Teaming up with Rebel officer Cassian (Diego Luna), his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and former temple guardians Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen), she sets out to find the plans for the weapon, while also hopefully redeeming her father’s name as a Rebel ally.

This is a very large-scale cast with a lot of prominent characters vying for time in the spotlight. Now, even at the hands of studios like Marvel, this can end rather badly and feel like the film is trying too hard to engage the audience through several half-baked characters rather than a couple that are well-developed. However, and this is exceptionally rare even today, everyone here pulls their weight dramatically, even considering how many people are here. Jones delivers real emotion, both in relation to her father and her place in the Rebellion, Luna handles his character’s moral murkiness with ease, Mikkelsen works well as this forced-to-comply engineer and Ahmed gives a certain grounded affability to the role.

From there, we get Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as one of the most awesome double-acts in any action movie this year, Alan Tudyk stealing every scene he’s given as the dry-witted droid (what is it with these movies and the droids always being the most memorable?), Forest Whitaker bringing serious menace with a touch of heart to the war-scarred veteran he’s been given, and Ben Mendelsohn proves that he doesn’t need to chew the scenery to be effective with a restrained and calculating presence that serves as a nice counterpoint to Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux. We also get some familiar faces (and voices) making cameos like Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa, James Earl Jones as Darth Vader’s still-harrowing voice and… actually, I’m going to hold off on talking about the elephant in the room regarding who we see return for this film for a little bit; with how many others have already talked about it, I think a bit of reprieve won’t go amiss.

Considering how well Force Awakens turned out, this may seem like a moot point by now but it still remains: This is visually gorgeous. Holding up to the more concrete and tangible aesthetic Abrams set in place, the action scenes here again have a greater impact because you can tell that, to a greater extent than we’re used to seeing, there is actual impact to them on screen. This is where Donnie Yen’s legendary martial arts kick in to really help further that, as physical combat ends up doing a lot to make the action beats work really damn well. Actually, in relation to a heightened sense of realism and the fight scenes, the set pieces here genuinely feel like key moments in a war. The skirmishes in the streets, the open-air battles, right down to the sense of strategy that is put into them both in and out of universe; it’s kind of ironic that it’d take this long before a series called Star Wars actually came across as such. Add to that how the sense of scope and the inclusion of many characters from many planets in the main conflict, and this ends up becoming a space opera war film, and a damn good one at that.

When the Disney acquisition of Lucafilms first took place, I remember the overlong bitching from the fanboys about how the Expanded Universe that had been built up away from the films up to that point was going to be jettisoned. Hell, I know people who refuse to watch the new films for that very reason. Well, now that the initial rage has died down a hefty amount in the wake of The Force Awakens, I think this film will definitely benefit as a continuation of the story. Set before A New Hope, with plot elements that directly tie into it, the peppering-in of cameos from both the original and prequel trilogies does a lot to help connect everything together. Now, this does lead to a certain extended cameo that… well, let’s just say that it (somewhat rationally) has been painted as a precedent for a dark age in cinema.

To cut a long story short, Mendelsohn’s Krennic ends up having to answer to Grand Moff Tarkin, or Governor Tarkin as he’s called in-film, and he is portrayed by actor Guy Henry… with Peter Cushing’s visage added with CGI over his. Now, in the cinema, I somehow forgot that Cushing had died back in the 90’s, and sure the effect gently nudges the Uncanny Valley, but… wow, this is probably the best use of this technology I’ve seen yet. It’s not perfect and the character may be on-screen a little too long to keep the effect from being distracting, but it’s still really well-done. Alongside this, the way the film ends up delving further into what was essentially just the thematic backdrop of the original trilogy genuinely lets this hold up as another piece of the narrative puzzle when it comes to Star Wars. Of course, I’m willing to be that there are fans who will disagree with me on that point.

To quote probably the only franchise catchphrase that I honestly consider to be worth quoting in regular life: Only Sith deal in absolutes. Now, don’t get me wrong, it does paint a pretty morally hypocritical view of the whole Jedi/Sith conflict and the Force in general, but that statement which itself is a depiction of moral absolutes is kind of important where this film is concerned. I say that because this film breaks a lot of rules when it comes to what makes a Star Wars story; namely, that it isn’t afraid to show ideological conflict amongst those who are on the same side. The rebellion is collectively shown to be a mish-mash of different ideologies, from the pacifists to the idealists to the extremists to the nihilists, and most of them aren’t exactly on the best terms with everyone else. There’s doubt, there’s conflict, there’s contradictions made between people, and honestly, the film comes out all the better for it.

This more complex morality than Star Wars is used to seeing, what with the moral absolutes made on both sides, shows the kind of mythos deconstruction that would end up leading eternal rival series Star Trek into its greatest moments. Through this willingness to go against the norm, this first step for the Anthology films gives a real impression that this isn’t going to be a uniform set of stories with just different coats of paint; there is room for being different here, possibly more so than the filmmakers themselves realise, considering how director Gareth Edwards thought that Disney would be more restrictive than they actually were on this one. Or, to put it in simpler terms as defined by what we see in the film, you don’t need a gun to win a fight, you don’t need a lightsaber to be at one with the Force, you don’t need to agree with everything someone says to be their ally and you don’t need to survive to become a hero.

All in all, it’s official: I am now a fan of Star Wars. The acting is terrific with probably the most entertaining cast of characters I’ve seen in a single film all year, the action beats are great, the direction maintains the Disney-era aesthetic while carving out its own place in the series, and the writing keeps true to the spirit of the franchise while also re-writing the formula to create a story with a touch more complexity than this series is usually known for. The Force Awakens left me a bit cold because of the incredible hype behind it, but this? Regardless of my own feelings concerning the series, this more than holds up next to the legendary original trilogy.

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