FILM REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

SPOILER WARNING!

Mass Effect 2 on the big screen…

First things first.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll enjoy Rogue One. All the fundamental pieces are set in place: there’s an eclectic cast, solid archetypes, acute attention to detail for the iconic Star Wars mythos, dizzying dog fight battles that play like a cross between old news footage of spitfires during World War Two and the twinkling stars you might see while suffering an unexpected blow to the back of the head – it’s all here.

The thing with Star Wars is that there are mainly two camps of people when it comes to the franchise: there are (mainly) those that will stare gormlessly at the screen like blank-eyed glove puppets, dewy eyed and slack jawed at every little mention of The Force, chewing up every minute detail of information slipped into every frame, and then there are those that shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Yeah, it was okay I suppose.’ I liked Rogue One, but didn’t love it. The crowd from the former camp will stand defiantly, beating their chests and bellowing curse words at the stars, bleating like a malnourished goat that I hated it and that I’m just looking for an excuse to trash it. It’s a hard line to explore in depth without going into minute detail, so if you haven’t already watched Rogue One, the rest of this review will contain spoilers, so fair warning: turn away now if you don’t want be thrown like Boba Fett into the belly of the Sarlacc to explore the pros and cons of Rogue One.

Good, you’re still reading…which means we’re both in the Sarlacc pit. Great. Hope you have a blaster handy to get us out…Set in the immediate lead-up to the original Star Wars: A New Hope, Rogue One focuses on the Rebel Alliance acquiring evidence about the existence of the Death Star and the subsequent hunt to steal the plans for the moon-based battle station. The first two-thirds of the movie deal with bringing our rag-tag heroes together, and do so in a jumbled, confused mess – one that comes across as an editing nightmare so astoundingly unsympathetic in its disorientation that within the first half an hour you’ll feel like an arthritic pensioner conducting a salsa of planet hopping proportions.

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In the opening sequence set several years before the main action, we meet four important characters – Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal and Dr. Strange), who is an Imperial scientist and primary architect of the Death Star, coerced into leaving his family behind to continue work on the planet destroyer; his young daughter Jyn (played by Felicity Jones); Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the smarmy, bureaucratic and overreaching Imperial General who heads the construction of the Death Star and is determined to prove his worth to the Emperor; and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an extremist Rebel soldier that is shoehorned into the film to provide plot points and exposition.

Overall, however – there are probably ten major new characters, and we follow the story through the eyes of Jyn. She’s the focal point of everything (having the only real backstory here) and despite having the most time to develop her arc; the audience’s link with her is tenuous, at best. Her relationship with her father is portrayed as the focus of the narrative, but how she goes from orphaned street urchin to powerful leader of a motley crew of rebels isn’t quite developed. Jyn’s main ally, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is similar in the same way. Like Jyn, he’s given plenty of scenes to explain why he acts like a bit of a douche nozzle; yet we feel little sympathy towards him. He’s portrayed as a bit of a Han Solo scoundrel at the beginning of the film, sacrificing someone on his side to get the job done.  Later we learn that maybe he’s suffering from the ongoing onslaught of the war between the Empire the Rebellion, but by this time we’re not all that invested in his character. We meet a bunch of other individuals, but in all honesty I needed to consult the Internet to find out what their names were. There’s a defected Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who delivers the message that there is a doomsday weapon from the base that Galen is stationed at to Saw; Chirrut Îmwe (the martial arts master Donnie Yen) as a blind, monk-like hanger-on of the force; and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who wields a behemoth gattling blaster. All the characters are given ample on-screen time, defining their traits and usefulness to the group, which is a rarity in such an ensemble cast (Suicide Squad, I’m looking at you) but the overall film seems to suffer from developing characters.

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I suppose Rogue One can be classified as a ‘Men-On-A-Mission Movie,’ and those types of films either survive or crash based on the group dynamic. We know that things aren’t likely going to turn out too well for our core group in the same way we know that London won’t be better for leaving the EU, because unlike Theresa May there’s a question of who’s going to make it in the end. Sure, there’s tension, but it’s pretty straightforward and surprisingly the last half hour seems dedicated to offing characters at any chance it can get, with the vast majority of the film dedicated to assembling the ne’er do wells, which seems like it was a bit of a misstep.

The standout character for me however, was a robot. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many episodes of Westworld (review of the show coming shortly, stay tuned to find out more!) or toiling away at a Top Trumps list of Robots (also coming to STORGY shortly!) but K-2SO is the real star of Rogue One. The reprogrammed Imperial droid (voiced sublimely by Alan Tudyk) is by far one of the best things in the film. His dry sense of humor and pithy honesty is like a sledgehammer of brilliance repeatedly smashing against your skull.

Rogue One is undeniably a beautifully shot film. Director Gareth Edwards strives to create an intense, exciting rollercoaster ride through this new, yet familiar world and maintains breakneck speed throughout. In the background, he paints a visual treat for our eyes, the landscapes of each planet resonating beautifully against various backdrops: deserts, craggy mountainous rocks, and sandy palm treed beaches. By the end of the film you’ll feel like you’ve been on a cruise ship touring all the ports of the world. The battle scenes are also very impressive, shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) in an appropriately brutal manner, showcasing a great deal of death and destruction, with winks towards a New Hope’s Death Star trench aerial fights, complete with pilots screaming, ‘I’ve got one on my tail!’ before being blown out of the sky by a TIE Fighter. Edwards has utilised a grounded, entrenched warzone-type feel to the climax set on the planet Scarif incredibly well, leading to some great Storm trooper vs. Rebel action set pieces. Edwards also shows the darker side (yuk-yuk) of Star Wars with this particular spin off; gone is the iconic crawl at the start of the film, John William’s original score is hardly anywhere to be heard and he showcases The Rebellion isn’t this wholly altruistic perfect entity that you see in A New hope, or Return of The Jedi. Like the Empire, they have to play dirty in order to win. They plan assassinations. They’re conflicted. They’re desperate, but in the final assault they bring the firepower and the hope of breaking free from the shackles of the Empire’s tyranny.

 

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There are smatterings of cameo appearances in Rogue One, most notably a CGI generated Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, who doesn’t just pop up for a scene and then leaves unceremoniously – he’s a fully fleshed character in this story, conniving in typical moustache-twirling, villainous fashion to take over the Death Star controls from Krennic. It’s kind of a bum note for Mendelsohn however, as his Imperial General villain seems unthreatening, coming off as a sneering, opportunistic bureaucrat rather than a terrifying leading bad guy. There are simply other, more iconic villains in the fold to be intimidated by.  There will be many who feel that the rendered version of Cushing is a step too far towards heavy handed CGI effects in films, but I have to say I was duly impressed with the outcome, and I can’t deny that it was a thrill to see Cushing back in the Star Wars universe.  There is also an appearance at the end of another rendered, younger version of a character, but felt this looked a bit like an FMV scene from a PS4 console.

And yes, Darth Vader is also here, with a notable scene at the end of the film cementing his status as one of the all time badasses of filmography. Rouge One continually pummels us with the notion that this war may not turn out the way we expect and that the good guys might not win. Although we know the story leading through episodes IV, V, VI and VII, it’s the journey of the rebels ascertaining the plans of the Death Star, so we get to see in detail the grandiose power of the battle station, showcasing its abilities at a lower power, destroying not one, but two cities, which is pretty devastating.

But this leads me also to my main gripes with Rogue One. After the credits rolled, there was something niggling at the back of my mind, like a mischievous gremlin, tugging at my memory strands like a coked up, overzealous bell ringer – why had I felt like I’d seen this before? Sure, it shared some qualities like The Dirty Dozen, and most recently Suicide Squad, but there was something else…

And then it clicked. Rogue One is basically EA’s computer game, Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 2, the goal is to bring together an unlikely motley crew of thieves, soldiers, mercenaries and other people with super powers to defeat a race known as The Reapers. If you play the game like a cud-chewing, salivating, head-full-of-dung idiot, then you can get all your crew killed at the climax of the game. In Rogue One, ALL the main characters have died by the end. And look at the characters: You have a snarky scientist Salerian: Mordin Solus/K2-SO, a gun-toting Grogan: Urdnot Wrex/Baze, a character that we can all rally behind (Commander Shepard/Jyn), It’s almost as if the execs at Disney and Lucas Film finished playing the game and basically told Gareth Edwards that he could create this small epoch running parallel to A New Hope, but in no way could any of the characters survive because then they would have to explain why they weren’t present in the canon films following on from episode IV. When K-2SO bought the mechanical scrapyard in the sky, I was genuinely saddened. I couldn’t give a monkey’s shit stain about any of the others, but when the snarky robot took one too many blaster shots and keeled over, whilst valiantly defending a key position so that the main heroes of this story could plod on and get the job done; the rest of the film was emotionally vapid for me.

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If you are a true Star Wars nerd, you will smile appreciatively at all the homages, Easter eggs and information that Edwards has managed to cram into Rogue One. You’ll squeal in delight at the mention of a Dark Saber, you’ll grin like a lobotomised gibbon when Jyn bumps into two minor characters from A New Hope on the planet of Jedha and you’ll positively flip your shit at seeing Darth Vader’s home. For other people though, there’s a decent action film here, tight dialogue that is surprising in a Star Wars film – but I can’t shake this unnerving thought that the Execs were treading water with Rogue One – the next spin off, the Young Han Solo Chronicles, or whatever they decide to name it, will be the real testament to see whether the spin off films are a viable option. Ah, who am I kidding? Of course it will be. It’s Star Wars.

The Force is Quasi-Strong with this one…

STORGY Score: 3-out-of-5

Review by Anthony Self

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