Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016)

Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Rated PG-13 — Sci-fi violence, frightening images
Running Time: 133 Minutes

Nineteen years after the fall of the old Republic, the evil Galactic Empire is building its ultimate weapon: the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. Upon learning of the existence of this weapon, rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) are tasked with finding Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) the daughter of the man who designed the Death Star.

Jyn, they hope, can get them into a meeting with rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who has captured an imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) with important info about the Death Star. But the more they learn about this weapon, the more dire the situation becomes. Along with a blind Guardian of the Whills named Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his mercenary friend Baze (Jiang Wen), the rebels will engage in their most daring mission against the Empire yet, one that will set the course of the rest of the war...

Finally, a good "Star Wars" prequel. Episodes I, II and III are straight-up garbage. Poorly acted, loaded with shoddy effects and baffling storytelling choices, about the only decent thing about those movies is John Williams' musical scores.

By comparison, "Rogue One" is narratively rather simple, a back-to-basics affair that also has a surprisingly deft touch with its fan service. It is somehow also both retro and a thoroughly modern take on the "Star Wars" universe, eschewing certain conventions of the franchise to stand itself apart while simultaneously hitching itself to the original film. It does what all prequels should do: Make you eager to immediately watch the original again — not to flush the bad taste from your mouth, but to continue the story you just watched.

It doesn't do everything right. The first act of the film is rather choppy. The first introduction to the adult Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, has her waking up in a prison cell in a scene that is as short as it is superfluous since we immediately jump to another star system to introduce Diego Luna's Cassian Andor, then jump back again to Jyn being transported to an imperial work camp.

There's a moment between Jyn and Baze late in the film that feels like it's supposed to be a nice, emotional bit between them that is completely unearned. It's so out of left field that it makes me wonder if there's an entire subplot excised during the film's rather famous post-production shuffling.

Additionally, the film's use of CGI versions of familiar characters can be troublesome. In particular, while I don't think the computerized version of Peter Cushing's Tarkin (Cushing has been dead for more than 20 years) is as bad as others have said, it is obvious that we're looking at a special effect rather than a live actor. While "Rogue One" is content to recast a minor role like Mon Mothma by using the same actress who played her in "Revenge of the Sith," it might have been better served looking elsewhere for ways to bring Tarkin back.

But while "Rogue One" stumbles in a few places, it gets so much right that these are ultimately minor quibbles. The film's third act is a huge, rousing action sequence the like fans have been hoping for from "Star Wars" for decades but have been so often denied. With no Jedi or prophecies of mythic scale, "Rogue One" instead delivers fantastic sci-fi warfare that feels brutal without sacrificing entertainment value — it's both the "Battlestar Galactica" of "Star Wars" films and the "Empire Strikes Back" of "Star Wars" fan-service.

References to later films serve to set up those films rather than how the previous prequels used them for ham-fisted exposition. Little bits of footage repurposed from "A New Hope" put familiar rebel X-wing and Y-wing pilots from that film into "Rogue One" — a tiny bit hidden in the battle has Red 5 bite the dust, opening the door for Luke to take that callsign. Even the Death Star itself is clearly being utilized at a low-power setting so that Tarkin in "A New Hope" can tell Vader that it's time for a "full power" demonstration on Alderaan.

In any case, "Star Wars" nerds will find a ton to chew on here while those less familiar with the nitty-gritty details won't find themselves adrift in a sea of strangling continuity.

Director Gareth Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser construct a number of fantastic images, and the film as a whole is quite gorgeous to look at. The Death Star is given considerable size and weight befitting its dastardly purpose, and there are several moments as it looms over the horizon of the planet Jedha, blocking out the sun before firing or hanging in space as flame and planetary debris blossom upward, that are striking and cool. I was a bit hard on Edwards for his "Godzilla" film which I thought was visually awesome but was lacking in the plot and character department. "Rogue One" is quite a step up but still isn't quite there, thanks to some of the stuff I mentioned earlier. Still, Edwards remains a director to watch who has a fine grasp of tone and imagery, if not always emotion and storytelling.

Ultimately, "Rogue One" cements itself not only as the first good "Star Wars" prequel but as one of the best "Star Wars" movies out there. It's big and entertaining and along with "The Force Awakens" sets a high bar for future films in the franchise as we get away from the awful, awful prequel trilogy.

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