Monday, December 19, 2016

Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          We have now arrived at what is perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event of the year. I am normally quick to call out when something has been overly hyped, but I think, in this case, I must make a special exception. 2016 has been an absolutely abysmal year for film (in stark contrast to 2015), so I can excuse the masses for indulging in celebration when a film comes along that offers a much-needed reprieve from what has otherwise been a smorgasbord of torture. I distinctly recall that, back in January, The 5th Wave left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and, in retrospect, served as an omen of things to come. I have since had to endure through the likes of Gods of Egypt, The Boy, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Ghostbusters (III), with really only Deadpool, The Conjuring 2, and Star Trek Beyond serving as feeble attempts to stop the hemorrhaging (which is to say that, while my attitude towards them was positive, they were unfortunately not enough recompense for how hard everything else failed). It wasn't until last month, in November, when the year is pretty much over, that anything comparable to the cinematic vision of 2015 came along in the form of Doctor Strange. And now, in December, we will be ending the year the same way as 2015, with Star Wars. Particularly, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
          I'm sure that I don't need to remind people how much of a colossal exit The Force Awakens was for 2015. At the beginning of the year, during my review of The 5th Wave, I had questioned whether or not my perception of the early cinematic offerings of 2016 would be tainted by the fact that they came on the heels of The Force Awakens, what I would consider to be one of the largest success stories of 2015, in year that was already stacked with a number of successes (it also turns out that my evaluation of early 2016 wasn't tainted...other critics agree that The 5th Wave, for example, just sucks). Rogue One is Disney's 2016 attempt to top (or, at least, fair comparably to) The Force Awakens. As such, the marketing campaign for Rogue One has paced itself the same way as the marketing for The Force Awakens, with several time-release trailers throughout the year that were careful not to reveal anything of substance and Hasbro releasing all of the relevant toys and collectibles in advance (I will admit that I had already added a Jyn Erso action figure to my collection by the time the film was released). And the surmounting hype surrounding Rogue One illustrates just how successful this marketing campaign was, as anticipation for it had approached levels comparable to the hype for The Force Awakens.
          Rogue One is the first entry in what has been dubbed the "Star Wars Anthology" series, the second entry of which, a stand-alone Han Solo film, is currently in production. The entries in the Anthology series represent a significant break from the traditional Star Wars formula in that they are not intended to focus on the Skywalker family, the Jedi and the Force, nor anything that came before them in the Galactic Republic or The Clone Wars (i.e. the prequel trilogy). Instead, the Anthology series examines the Star Wars universe under a microscope, telling the individual stories that might otherwise get overlooked in the larger picture of the main saga. It is easy, for example, to get so wrapped up in the events of the Galactic Civil War that we never actually stop to ask who Han Solo is and where he came from. We may be so enthralled by Luke Skywalker's Jedi training in the swamps of Dagobah or his daring X-wing flight in the trenches of the Death Star that we never actually wonder how the Rebellion got the information necessary to attack the Death Star in the first place. Perhaps even more intriguing, we know that planets in the Outer Rim serve as nice havens for smugglers, brigands, and other ruffians, and are usually well removed from the conflicts that plague both the Old and New Republics. As such, there could very well be a dashing tale of piracy, action, and romance among the dark underbelly of, say, Jakku just waiting to be told, like the space version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Interestingly, Disney has finally decided to explore these untold stories of a galaxy far, far away, and remind us that, while the events of the The Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War are still important, there is a lot more to the galaxy than that.
          This is a great idea in theory, and has a lot of potential, but, unfortunately, it looks like Rogue One is only a lukewarm example of it put into practice. Rogue One focuses on the events leading up to the first entry in the Star Wars universe, A New Hope. Set some time after the end of the Clone Wars, it follows a merry band of rebels as they track down the man that designed the Death Star and steal the plans for the Imperial battle station in order to discover any potential weakness. Directed by Gareth Edwards (of Godzilla fame), it stars Felicity Jones as sergeant Jyn Erso, an street-hardened orphan who turns out to be the daughter of Galen Erso, the designer of the Death Star. Speaking of Galen Erso, we yet again see Mads Mikkelsen have another crucial role in one of the largest movies of the year (recall that he portrayed villain Kaecilius in Doctor Strange). Diego Luna portrays Cassian Andor, an intelligence operative for the Rebellion who believes whole-heartedly in the cause, sometimes blindly. Ben Mendelsohn introduces us to Imperial Director Orson Krennic, head of the Imperial Research and Development department, who is overseeing the construction of the Death Star, and is in competition with Grand Moff Tarkin for Imperial military leadership. Forest Whitaker portrays Saw Gerrera, an extremist who believes in direct, violent action against the Empire, and whose followers sometimes find themselves at odds even with the Rebellion. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen portray Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively, a blind monk with a devotion to the Force (almost Jedi-like) and a trigger-happy mercenary, also respectively. And throughout the remainder of the film, we catch brief glimpses of Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, C-3PO, R2-D2, a (bizarre) CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin, and, of course, Darth Vader.
          Rogue One opens up with a flashback to Jyn Erso's childhood, where Director Krennic finds her family in hiding from the Empire in order to try and recruit her father to complete his work on the Death Star. Her family resists, at which point her mother is killed and her father abducted, while Jyn escapes capture, eventually being found by Saw Gerrera. Fast forward roughly 15 years. Jyn has assumed a new identity and is now in Imperial custody as a convicted felon and slave. Meanwhile, on a small mining colony in an asteroid field, Rebel spy Cassian Andor hears rumors that an Imperial pilot has defected with an important message from Galen Erso, and that this pilot has made his way into the clutches of extremist Saw Gerrera and his group of militants on the planet of Jedha. The Rebellion also catches wind of the fact that Jyn Erso, the daughter of the man that is designing the new Imperial superweapon, is now an Imperial prisoner and being transferred between prisons. Then, as an additional "meanwhile", Krennic is mining the planet of Jedha, a planet that, in the past, served as an important location for the Jedi Order in the Old Republic, for large amounts of Kyber crystals, which had previously been used in the construction of Jedi lightsabers. In a hit-and-run guerrilla tactic, the Rebellion finds when Jyn Erso is being transported, raids the transport ship, and rescues her (at which point we are introduced to K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid). Taken back to the Rebel base on Yavin IV, Mon Mothma and the others in Rebel leadership convince Jyn to work with them on a mission to find Saw Gerrera and the Imperial defector on Jedha with the promise of ultimately finding her father.
          Upon arriving in Jedha, Jyn and Cassian find the capital, Jedha City, fully occupied by Imperials, with a Star Destroyer looming menacingly overhead, overseeing the mining of the Kyber crystals. While trying to covertly blend in and find contacts that will take them to Saw Gerrera, they coincidentally find themselves in the middle of a raid by Saw's space-jihadists on a small Imperial convoy. With the help of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, Jyn and Cassian are able to avoid capture by the Imperials, but, instead find themselves captured by Saw Gerrera. It's at this point that the Star Destroyer over Jedha City interestingly leaves while the remaining Imperial forces evacuate. Unbeknownst to the city and the Rebellion, the Death Star has been completed over Jedha and Krennic is ready to showcase its abilities to Grand Moff Tarkin. While at Gerrera's base, Jyn and her group come across the defecting Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (portrayed by Riz Ahmed), and Jyn has an audience with Saw. Saw reveals a hologram message from Galen, describing that, though he reluctantly had to complete the construction of the Death Star, he also deliberately constructed a weakness: the central core of the Death Star is sensitive to pressure, so the right amount of pressure to the core from a large enough explosion will trigger a chain reaction that will ultimately destroy the Death Star, and that there are exhaust ports on the outside of the battle station that lead directly to the core, but are small enough to avoid detection. Jyn's meeting with Saw and her trip down memory lane, however, are quickly cut short as the Death Star fires on Jedha City, destroying the inhabitants and the remaining Kyber crystals, and starting a planetary cataclysm that quickly rushes to the far outskirts of the city, where Saw's base is located. Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi escape with the help of K-2SO, but Saw, and Galen's message, are destroyed in the cataclysm.
          With Galen Erso's message destroyed, and, thus, no evidence on how to defeat the Death Star other than Jyn Erso's vague memory, the group sets out to find Galen Erso himself. They track him down to an Imperial research facility on the storm-ridden Outer Rim planet of Eadu, where Krennic has found him first and learned of his treachery. Having learned the location of Galen Erso, the Rebellion initiates a bombing sortie on the research facility, killing Galen in the process while Krennic escapes. Disenchanted with the Rebellion after watching Rebel bombs kill her father, Jyn confronts Cassian in a rather poignant argument, but is slowly convinced to go before Mon Mothma and the rest of the Rebel command and reveal what she learned about the Death Star. Appraising the situation as hopeless in the face of such odds, and without Galen Erso's hologram, many Rebel commanders vote against striking the Death Star and disband. Determined to not let her father's plan be in vain, Jyn assembles a group of about 20 stalwart volunteers, including Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and K-2SO to infiltrate and sabotage the Imperial base on the beach planet of Scarif, where the master plans for the Death Star are housed. Using a stolen Imperial cargo shuttle, Jyn and crew manage to land on Scarif, where Jyn and Cassian infiltrate the base to find the plans while the remaining Rebel soldiers lay siege to the base to create a distraction. Incidentally, at the same time, Krennic and his Death Troopers arrive to comb the archives for any communications sent by Galen Erso. With word of the team's landing on Scarif, Mon Mothma and others in the Rebel high command are suddenly motivated to help, sending a portion of the Rebel fleet to Scarif to assist. What ensues is something akin to a large-scale military rescue operation, like the Star Wars version of Behind Enemy Lines or Black Hawk Down, where Krennic hunts down Cassian and Jyn while the Rebel fleet attempts to hold off any Imperial reinforcements. Ultimately, Jyn manages to find the plans, but any means of getting off the planet are destroyed as collateral damage from the battle above. In the end, Jyn has to transmit the plans via satellite to the Rebel fleet, Cassian and Krennic wound each other, and Tarkin shows up with Death Star, firing on the Scarif base, destroying Krennic, Jyn, and Cassian. Our ending scenes are of Darth Vader's arrival to cut-off the escape of the remaining Rebels and retrieve the stolen plans, transitioning into what would be the opening of A New Hope.
          I mentioned above that my attitude towards Rogue One can best be described as "lukewarm"; while it does a number of things well, there are a number of large blunders that simply can't be ignored, and this is important because, as an entry in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One inherently has a certain set of high expectations to meet. When I do my reviews, I usually form my general opinion of a film first and then jot down several notes before I read what others have to say. And while I don't always agree with the evaluations given to a film by most mainstream outlets, I can safely include myself in what appears to be a large consensus about the glaring things that Rogue One misses the mark on: character and dialogue development. Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader writes that Rogue One is mostly "a clunky attempt at a coldhearted espionage thriller, full of good characters saddled with bad dialogue, tense scenarios saddled with dumb action, and tolerable storyweaving saddled with bad fan service" [1]. David Sexton of the London Evening Standard mentions that he "can only report that [he] found Rogue One not just a dull but an oppressive experience, being force-fed a corporate product: a film that never comes alive, with none of the characters properly developed, none of the relationships gelling, the very adventure formulaic" [2]. For my evaluation of what Rogue One does well, I am also very much consistent with what other critics are saying, so I defer to Chris Klimik of NPR, who notes that "it's a tense, well-made spacefaring war movie about a desperate and demoralized band of insurgents standing up against a rising authoritarian regime" [3], and Ty Burr of the Boston Globe who mentions that "it offers more details of interoffice politics among the squabbling factions of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than probably anyone but a mid-level manager cares for, yet you generally feel you're in good hands" [4].
          Poor dialogue and character development are perhaps the biggest blunders that Rogue One makes, and many of the smaller problems that Rogue One has tend to stem from this. Jyn Erso is described as something of a street-wise orphan, a clever young woman who had to steal what she needed to survive and tried to circumvent anything in her way, and through her actions, which include forging Imperial documents and inciting violence, ended up in Imperial prison. This certainly sounds like an interesting character, particularly for a female protagonist, and having such a character promoted to sergeant in the Rebel Alliance promises a lot of potential. The problem is that we never see any of this - we are simply told she had a rough time on the streets, but never see it. We never see her steal anything, and any time she engages in violence, the scenario is very black-and-white (i.e. Jyn Erso = good, Stormtroopers = bad). We never see Jyn demonstrate the questionable moral compass that someone with a rough upbringing is apt to have. She may say she is a "rebel", but never acts like it. I have in the past mentioned that character development is one of the most important parts of any fiction - it makes the characters relatable and allows the audience to establish an emotional attachment to them, and, when done really well, will even create an emotional investment in an antagonist. None of this is present in Rogue One, however. For example, Galen Erso's character is never really developed - we are given very little of his background and his role in the development of the Death Star is never really elaborated on, other than us simply being told that he is the lead engineer. In fact, he actually has very little screen time when compared to most other characters - we see him in the opening seen for several minutes, in hologram form for about a minute, and then for another two minutes on Eadu before he is killed by the Rebellion. And it is on Eadu that we thus see the result of this poor character development: nobody in the audience ever really cares when he dies. Sure, we can understand that Jyn is upset. But good character development would make the audience feel upset when something happens to a core character - it would elicit a reaction similar to what I am sure most Harry Potter readers felt when Sirius Black was killed in Order of the Phoenix, or Han Solo in The Force Awakens. And this scene undermines what had the potential to be one of the more compelling points to be made in Rogue One: war is never pretty for either side. Galen Erso dying to Alliance bombs had the potential to paint the Rebellion in a different light, which would be a new and profound approach to the Star Wars universe - if only we actually really cared about Galen Erso. In fact, I would have to say the only really memorable characters from Rogue One would be K-2SO and Krennic, K-2SO for having a personality wholly distinct from any other stock character is the film (which is really saying something, considering that K-2SO is a droid), and Krennic for actually displaying any kind of emotional investment into anything.
          Perhaps even worse than the poor character development (in fact, partly contributing to it), the dialogue is cliche, empty, and just generally bad. Far and away, Exhibit A would be Vader's cringe-worthy line "don't choke on your aspirations Krennic" while Force-choking Krennic. Darth Vader doesn't speak in puns. Writing in a pun as one of Darth Vader's lines is nothing short of blasphemy. The word "hope" is thrown around so often towards the end that one might be forgiven for expecting the Rebellion to just start using "hope" as part of their general naming convention, such as the "Hope"-wing fighter or "Hope" base. In fact, there appear to be some points where one might even think that the writers weren't even trying. There is a scene during the final space battle over Scarif, for example, where the editors copy/pasted Red Leader from A New Hope, including his line "get ready to start your attack run" and then simply added "...on the Star Destroyer" to the end of it. And on a side note, the copy/paste of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope was just kind of weird. To me, it quite literally looked like a new 2016 film where someone had superimposed the film reel from 1977 over it. The whole thing seemed really forced, and made the scene feel a lot like that "I think this might be photoshopped" internet meme [5].
          Of course, Rogue One has its redeeming qualities. The underlying general idea behind the film is already something commendable: a Star Wars film that doesn't focus on the Skywalker family and instead tells one of the many other stories to be told in the Star Wars universe. Edwards had remarked that Rogue One would be more of a war film than previous entries in the Star Wars series [6], and, as such, will perhaps be more suitable for more adult audiences. I can now say that there is plenty of truth to this statement, as the war motifs were a constant element throughout. I thought the surprise raid on the passing Imperial convoy by Saw's forces on Jedha was particularly interesting; I don't think it's a coincidence that Saw's guerrillas just happen to have the aesthetic of scarf-wearing, rag-tag militants in a harsh desert city occupied by an invading force. Likewise, the body count on Scarif during the Rebellion's attempt to rescue Jyn and Cassian was probably the highest we've seen in the Star Wars universe, likely higher than the pile of smoldering Rebel corpses the Empire left in its wake during the siege on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. And, while Ty Burr complained of the insight we were given into the "company politics" of both the Empire and the Rebellion, I actually thought that this was one of the things that gave Rogue One a sense of realism, diluting the tiresome black-and-white formula of "Rebellion = good, Empire = bad" that we are used to seeing. Speaking of breaking Star Wars convention, Edwards' attempt to paint the Rebellion in a more ambiguous light, instead of portraying it as the unquestionable force for justice that we are used to seeing, is a commendable attempt to provide a new perspective on the series, even if its execution was handled haphazardly.
          Praise can also be given to the overall effects and aesthetic of Rogue One. The ending scene on Scarif, in particular, deserves special recognition. A beach locale in the Star Wars universe was something not yet explored in the films, and integrating a large-scale tropical beach battle which includes Death Troopers and AT-AT walkers is certainly a first for Star Wars. The attempt to recreate the original look and feel of 1977's A New Hope was also an overall success. Jyn and Cassian, for example, have the same dark blue, black, and khaki wardrobe that we first saw in the opening scenes of A New Hope, while the Imperial army has a weathered, rugged feel to them (for example, the stormtroopers' armor and tanks on Jedha are covered in dirt and wear), more consistent with the DIY aesthetic that we get from the Rebellion and the war-tested feel we get from the Empire in the original trilogy, in stark contrast to the colorful, regal aesthetic we see in the Old Republic and Trade Federation in the prequel trilogy. Speaking of A New Hope from 1977, there seems to be a lot of discussion around the partial CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I will admit, seeing him initially first struck me as kind of weird; I could tell it was CG, but, I must say, it was some rather convincing CG. If this were 1995, someone could very well be fooled into thinking that it was actually Peter Cushing. Others, however, were not able to get past the small "unnatural" feel to the character, but this strikes me as a nit-picky detail. The CG that went in recreating Tarkin was done over an actor serving as a template, so he does not have the overtly cartoonish aesthetic that, say, Jabba the Hutt had when George Lucas re-released A New Hope with bonus scenes. I also found it easy to get over, so after the first few moments of seeing Tarkin, the CGI became a quick footnote.
          Overall, Rogue One is a Star Wars experience worth seeing. It takes risks, which already sets it out from not just other Star Wars films, but most other films of 2016. Granted, its execution of those risks is kind of questionable, but at least it does them at all. This doesn't appear to matter much, though - it already is one of the biggest successes of 2016, and opens the door to other untold stories in the Star Wars universe. In a year with some of the worst movies I have seen in a long time (such as The 5th Wave and Ghostbusters), Rogue One still served as a nice reprieve from the quagmire of silliness that came before it. And Disney doesn't seem to be slowing down here - as mentioned earlier, a Han Solo origin story is in the works, and the surmounting anticipation for Episode VIII grows larger everyday. Looking ahead, the cinematic forecast for 2017, in general, already looks like a large improvement over 2016, with my next big move experience likely being the Chinese-produced film The Great Wall at the beginning of February, and set to end with Episode VIII in December.