Monday, December 19, 2016

The Rogue Side of History

Rogue One is the tale of how the first Death Star’s plans were stolen and delivered to Princess Leia. Have you been hoping to finally find out how many bothans died to secure this precious information? Hope on, as bothan spies were used to steal the plans for the second Death Star, space ace.

The film has an impressive cast in top form. Of particular note are Felicity Jones’s conflicted Jyn Erso (our protagonist), Forest Whitaker's grizzled warrior Saw Gerrera, Donnie Yen's spiritual badass Chirrut Imwee, Jiang Wen’s guns-blazing badass Baze Malbus, Ben Mendelsohn's villainous Orson Krennic, and Alan Tudyk’s voice-over work for the film’s exquisite comic relief, the droid K-2SO. It’s an ensemble piece and while each character is interesting from the moment we first see them, the sheer number of them prevents any real connection to their individual plights, much less learn why they join the rebellion in the first place. At one point, pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) presses Jyn, “You think you’re the only one who’s lost something?” but the film never delivers on this clear set-up. But this is not a parallel case to the trip-ups of the prequel trilogy. Overall, Rogue One’s acting and dialogue fit the bill for its story of the beleaguered rebellion.

And it is indeed a desperate rebellion. The film’s underlying strength is its establishment of a world with a real sense for how eleventh-hour the situation is for the alliance. Throughout, a series of decisions at the individual level often mean the difference between a slim rebellion victory or utter annihilation. Suspense increases in every scene and we’re constantly reminded of the stakes as well as the ever-thinning thread on which the alliance hangs.

The real standout performance belongs to an actor deceased for over 20 years. The CGI return of Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin (created with the permission of his estate and with actor Guy Henry as a stand-in) marks a standard in cinema visual effects on the level of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs (incidentally both made by Industrial Light and Magic). This is an astonishing and nearly seamless leap forward in the capabilities of computer-assisted storytelling. While the technology’s promise is tremendous (have a wish list of deceased actors to cast in your film and a huge pile of money? Poof! Cinematic resurrection!), the danger exists to overuse it to the point of it becoming showy for its own sake - the very sarlacc pit that befouled the prequels.

"Who used red Sharpie? My board clearly says 'Dry erase only!'"
Thankfully, Darth Vader wears a mask and anyone of appropriate height and a tolerance for black latex can play him (but James Earl Jones? I hope you’re with us forever). When it comes to how and when the film presents the Sith lord, you’ll be thrilled. In finite screen time, he’s that very merciless, one-man legion of unstoppable fury that haunted your space opera nightmares - perhaps even more so. In Rogue One he’s more than just some dude in scary armor with a red lightsaber - he is the Dark Side incarnate.

The nods to diehard fans did not go unnoticed and were just the right amount of classy. Bring your Star Wars trivia friend along to live-annotate, otherwise the occasional gasps from those around you will indicate that certain characters’ brief appearances mean more than mere faces in the crowd. It was also a delight to see Jimmy Smits’s Bail Organa (don’t go back to Alderaan!) in what’s likely to be his sign-off appearance for the series. It was a smart tie-in to one of the prequels' stronger elements.

Ultimately the film falters is in its connection to a genuine human element - the characters are terrific at first glance but we never learn enough about them to understand them personally. Similar to Argo, this is more a film about the procedure and less about those who undertake it. More about the how, less about the who. The scales of laser battles, death, and destruction are off the charts, even by Star Wars standards. That alone isn’t damning, but we simply don’t learn enough about our ragtag band to care very much (much less be able to name all of them) by the conclusion. It’s a satisfying film, but we have a bit longer to wait for the next The Empire Strikes Back.

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