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It’s odd that the resurrected Star Wars franchise has spent so much time at its beginning. Force Awakens is a modern relitigation of A New Hope, a movie that relives its past to attempt to start its future. Rogue One is a cut from the same cloth, a deep dive into the middle paragraph of Star Wars’ opening crawl exploring exactly how “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
While I think mileage is certainly going to vary how much you necessarily appreciate a “new” franchise kicking around the same material over and over again, what’s undeniable is that both of these films are aware of how powerful this mythology is and how much weight even dancing around that initial story has.
Moreover, like the best mythology, there is nuance to be found and ways to evolve and morph around the stories we already know. Rogue One is a film of deep flaws, perhaps owing to a difficult production history or perhaps owing to a series of less than wise decisions, but also of great heights, with Edwards’ eye for striking visual at the center of all of this.
“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet” is all you really need to know going in. It’s Star Wars, you’re socially obligated to see it at this point.
But it helps knowing that the plot revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), criminal on the lam from the Empire and daughter of Death Star architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). The Rebellion breaks her out of prison and enlists her to find her father, under the auspices of Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his snarky ex-Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).
They are joined on their journey by Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind Force monk Chirruit (Donnie Yen) [if that’s not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t want to know you], and Chrruit’s heavily armed life partner Baze (Jiang Wen) in their race against time as the Death Star reaches completion under the auspices of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
That much summary makes this sound like a far more dense story than this really is, which is part of the first problem I have with Rogue One. Minus a brief detour into the sci-fi flick Buster Keaton never made, Force Awakens has a serious and almost unbroken stride forward. Rogue One is not so blessed, and it’s to its detriment.
After a strong opening scene, the film slows while it gets its plot underway and then gets capped at the knees for a solid 20-30 minutes. You see, Bodhi Rook is being held by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker, who I believe now gets to choose his own accents). The excursion our team takes into Gerrera’s fortress is entirely too long and bizarre in its visuals and its tonality compared to the rest of this film, a moment from an Episode film rather than the darker war film this is. Even after that the film takes time to recover.
In other words, Rogue One is well into its second act before it starts really flying, which is a huge problem for a blockbuster. On the other hand, when it gets going, this thing is INCREDIBLE. The actual “stealing of the plans” is perhaps one of the best action sequences in the whole of this series, dazzling in its wizardry and tight construction. Breathtaking and emotional and manages to find the stakes when you know the outcome. It’s hard not to leave the film with a smile on your face. There are other moments too of impressive magic and much of that is thanks to Gareth Edwards.
Edwards’ Godzilla is an unsung classic of blockbuster cinema and while not as daring and impressive as that film, Rogue One keeps Edwards’ signature sense of scale and awe and adds a surprising penchant for on-the-ground action. For example, we get to see what it looks like from the planet’s view when the Death Star strikes. It’s a chilling, awe-inspiring sight and something really new.
If only all effects were so impressive. Because then we get into one Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).
No, you’re not reading that wrong.
Cushing is indeed digitally brought back from the dead to play the role that put the most eyeballs on one of our great gothic actors. Not as a cameo, but as a plot integral part of the film. Even excusing the technical issues here (Tarkin will now forever be the new example of the Uncanny Valley, erasing the last reason anyone thought of the movie Polar Express), I actually have deep moral issues with resurrecting an actor like a puppet to play in a new film.
While the effect should keep it at bay, the fact is that the man has died and we’re now parading his likeness around for the world to see. It’s removing the humanity and turning him into an effect, a play thing. I know this is the future to come, but as my companions learned from the air sucking in through my teeth at his first appearance and the groan I made every other time, this is something that deeply disquiets me. If this be the future, then leave me in the past.
It’s also just a poor screenwriting decision. The casting here is impeccable, every person is playing the hell out of their role. Jones’ Erso and Luna’s Andor are great, but Tudyk as K-2SO steals the show as does Yen as Chirruit, who gets a chance to kick ass unlike the wasted Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Force Awakens.
But let’s take Mendelsohn’s Krennic. Mendelsohn is really strong in the role and there are interesting shading there, Krennic is a bureaucrat and emasculated in a way we haven’t seen out of Star Wars villains, he’s complex. But Tarkin takes up so much time that could have been used to develop Krennic, to give him more power and more presence.
This is the film as a whole. It feels like none of the characters are particularly well-developed, that so much time had to be spent clipping through plot and multiple moving parts that no one character gets a deep dive, decisions got made to hold back parts of the characters and never really explore.
And I do think that is a decision. As a filmmaker, Edwards isn’t really so interested in the depth of the people but rather how those people are reacting to the situations they’re dealing with. His Godzilla was absolutely not about the people on the ground, but how much they were dwarfed by the Gods up above them.
His Rogue One is less about the Rebels than about the Rebellion they’re fighting. It’s about the dirty complex business (this is one of the few, maybe the only time, there’s reference to the Rebels engaging in darker deeds) that is fighting a war and about the people who get mixed up in it. It’s about the symbols of oppression, the dark enforcer figure and the all-consuming weapon of mass destruction.
I think that’s where a lot of Rogue One ended up conflicting during the production. I get the sense that Edwards was interested in a different film than ultimately ended up happening. Now the film that’s created is still well worth its while. There’s a lot of highs and soaring moments and this is a deeply entertaining film that justifies the ticket price. But I see the stitches this time, ones that were much less obvious with Force Awakens, and I’m curious what could have ultimately been.
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