Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' review

We've reached a new age with the Star Wars franchise. The release of a new film in George Lucas' iconic series will no longer be a monumental event, but simply a yearly occurrence. A year ago from this date, J.J. Abrams unleashed The Force Awakens, sending fans into a frenzy and breaking box office records around the globe. Next year at this time, Rian Johnson's Episode VIII will be hitting theaters, and in the subsequent years, new Star Wars films from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and Colin Trevorrow will be the focus of much speculation and discussion. Kathleen Kennedy has seemed to indicate that she hopes that Star Wars will be the "forever franchise," and judging by the extreme interest in each and every bit of news surrounding the saga, her wish may just come true. Simply put, the dynamics of the Star Wars franchise have changed forever, but there's no question that the excitement is still there for each and every installment.

While it never reached the heights of the buzz for The Force Awakens, there was still a healthy dose of anticipation for Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It wasn't an official chapter in the Skywalker story, but there was still plenty of reason to be pumped for the first stand-alone adventure in the Star Wars universe. Billed as a direct predecessor to Episode IV, Rogue One was finally going to be the epic, entertaining prequel that fans had been waiting to see. The return of Darth Vader, the promise of a grittier, more violent war film, and the continued emphasis on practical effects created a perfect storm of enthusiasm, and three dynamite trailers only pushed us closer to mass hysteria. Sure, the rumors of reshoots were troubling, but when positive reactions emerged from the world premiere, many were sure that we were about to witness something truly special and unique in the Star Wars universe.

There's a lot to like about Rogue One. It's a movie that makes some beautiful design choices, with a focus on retro technology, visceral action, and distinct locales. Star Wars fans cried out for more realistic, old-school effects after the CGI excess of the prequels, and Disney has more than answered their calls. Plus, there's a third act battle scene that delivers the geeky goods as a group of rebels make their final push for the Death Star plans. So yes, on the surface, Rogue One looks like a blast. But it's also one of the most disappointing movies of the year. The first spin-off installment in the new age of Star Wars may feel like a noticeable change of pace from our previous adventures in a galaxy far, far away, but that doesn't mean that its skill as a film matches its lofty ambitions. As great as Rogue One looks, it's a hollow, stagnant film, one that feels totally superfluous in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe. Story cohesion, character development, and pacing feel like secondary concerns compared to the pristine visual look of Rogue One, and while the effects are a marked improvement, this movie feels like a slog. I'm a huge Star Wars fan, so it pains me to admit this- Rogue One is a major misfire.

Taking place just before the events of A New Hope, Rogue One follows the journey of a ragtag group of rebels who are in pursuit of the plans for the Death Star, the Empire's all-powerful superweapon. After a brief prologue that depicts how Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by Empire science director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and forced to build the Death Star, we flash-forward to the present, at a time of great desperation for the Rebellion. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is on the hunt for some precious information, and he hears from a spy that the Empire has a major weapon and that the plans could be out there. On the other side of the galaxy, there's Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Galen's daughter who is currently behind bars. The rebellion breaks her out, hoping that she'll be able to help with the mission to find her father. She reluctantly agrees and travels with Cassian and his robot assistant, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), to Jedha.

Meanwhile, Galen sends rogue Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to Jedha to find Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an old Clone War fighter who has played an important role in the Erso family history. While Jyn and Cassian are on Jedha, they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), two warriors who protect the streets. They're all arrested by some of Saw's men, but when he realizes that Jyn is among them, he lets them go, passing on Galen's message and encouraging the group of rebels to save the rebellion by recovering these plans. After a brief detour with Galen on the planet Eadu, the rebel alliance must come together to steal the plans and give some semblance of hope to the cause. With a depleted army and high stakes, can they pull it off? Well, you already know the answer to that.

For a movie with such a simple setup ("Rebels steal Death Star plans"), Rogue One sure is complicated. Maybe I made the plot sound more coherent than it actually is in that synopsis, but I literally had to go back and look up certain details to fill in the holes. In the first 20 minutes of Rogue One, the filmmakers cut back and forth between so many different planets in such a short time span that I had trouble keeping up. Oh, and keep in mind- I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I spent my childhood obsessing over the details of planets, ships, and characters, and I knew some pretty obscure figures in the Star Wars universe. Rogue One expects the audience to absorb too much information in too short of a time span, resulting in a film that somehow manages to feel both rushed and sluggish at the same time. Because despite the rapid fire pace of the info dump that occurs in the first half of this film, it's all exposition. It's a relentless barrage of character details and plot mechanics, and after a while, it just disintegrates into nothingness.

It'd be one thing if there was an excessive amount of backstory to establish character motivations and set up a payoff for later in the film, but Rogue One never builds to that point. It just drags and drags along until the movie decides that things need to happen. When our characters return to the Rebel base to discuss what they've learned from Saw and Galen, the movie just suddenly jumps into action after bumbling around for the past 90 minutes. So without fail, Jyn starts giving speeches, random rebels grab their weapons, her main friends gather around her, and the rebel alliance storms the beaches of Normandy (figuratively, of course, but this was certainly a deliberate decision by Edwards) to save the galaxy from certain destruction. What follows is a prolonged action sequence that delivers all the Star Wars goods, including an aerial battle, a brutal ground fight, and ultimately, a scene where Darth Vader just straight-up murders people. The third act is driving audiences wild, and it's not too hard to see why fans are leaving the theater on a high.

But does Rogue One earn any of this excitement? No, not really. Sure, that final battle scene is cool. As a Star Wars fan, it was probably the part of the movie that I enjoyed the most. However, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the third act ends up being nothing more than a flashy, mildly enjoyable exercise in action filmmaking. There are no real stakes, because you know that they're gonna get the plans in the end. And more disappointingly, there are no real emotional stakes, because not a single character in Rogue One actually manages to be interesting. You don't have an investment in whether any of these people live or die, with the possible exception of Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe. I certainly have my fair share of problems with the film's story and the way that the narrative feels like a total mess, but the root of Rogue One's failure lies in its inability to create interesting, dynamic characters.

When discussing Star Wars, I often go back to the infamous Red Letter Media Plinkett reviews, a web series that condensed every issue that fans had with the prequels into one cohesive, hilarious argument. Over the course of three reviews, I think it's far to say Plinkett changed the future of Star Wars. If you watch those reviews and then watch The Force Awakens, it's clear that Abrams took many of their complaints to heart. They discuss practical effects, intimate lightsaber battles, and a focused narrative in their reviews, and the seventh installment of the saga reflects all of those changes. But one of their funniest bits comes in relation to the prequel's characters. In the review of The Phantom Menace, the character of Plinkett asks several of his friends to describe characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme Amidala without mentioning their race, gender, occupation, or what they look like. All of the friends fail miserably. Rogue One may have heeded many of the warnings of the Plinkett crew, but they didn't listen to this important grievance.

The characters in this movie are thoroughly uninteresting and it starts with Jyn Erso. As much as I like Felicity Jones, she can't pull off a paper thin character with scattered motivation. After that aforementioned prologue scene, we first meet adult Jyn when she's in handcuffs, arrested for some mysterious crime (the trailers seemed to go into more detail). She agrees to join Cassian because of her love for her father, but she's by no means loyal to the rebel cause. Jones is given nothing to do for nearly half the movie, until Jyn steps up to be the hero that the rebels deserve. Why? Because the movie needs her to, I guess. Jyn isn't a likable protagonist, and there's no real reason that we should care about her. She's defined by her utility to the plot, not her charm as a character or her arc over the course of the story. Jyn has no hidden dimensions, nor does she undergo a natural change over the 133 minute runtime. She's whoever the narrative needs her to be at the time, and that's a huge mistake that fundamentally undermines the film.

The supporting characters are no better, and while a few may become fan favorites, I doubt that any will have enduring appeal. The most likely to become a breakout star is K-2SO, the snarky robot voiced by Alan Tudyk. He has some funny moments, but sarcastic robots have been done better in other movies. Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe is a likable presence, though I still have no idea why he joins the crew or who his character really is. Yen has great chemistry with Jiang Wen, but the movie just left me wishing that Chirrut and Baze had more development. Diego Luna's Cassian Andor is pretty much an empty shell of a character, made worse by the fact that I saw glimmers of potential in the conflicted rebel spy. There was a real opportunity for Cassian to represent the murky morality of war, but all of those themes feel so forced in Rogue One that Cassian ends up just being another cipher in a cast filled with them.

Riz Ahmed has really broken out in recent years thanks to his roles in Nightcrawler and The Night Of, but here, he's given a thankless part that only exists to move the plot along. Bodhi is defined entirely by his respect for Galen, and I never understood why he was on this mission or why he defected from the Empire. Ben Mendelsohn is another great character actor, and while he has fun chewing the scenery as the big bad, Director Krennic isn't given much to do. It's equally disheartening to watch excellent performers like Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen existing purely as exposition dumps, but that's the nature of the franchise game. It's just tough to watch a cast of talented people struggle under the weight of a misguided script, searching for anything to inject passion into a boring story. There are so many points in Rogue One where the characters seem disinterested, and when they have no emotional investment, why should the audience?

This is the fundamental issue at the heart of Rogue One, and it's why even the crowd-pleasing third act doesn't work for me. It's a movie that is rendered completely pointless by its ending, and I still don't know why it had to exist beyond "Disney needs money!" I would criticize director Gareth Edwards or the screenwriters, but with all of the talk of reshoots, I don't really know who is responsible for this movie. But in the end, it feels cobbled and forced, cut in a way that pushes it forward limply even as the movie seems to resist any forward progress. Fan service elements pop up at various intervals to reinforce that, yes, this is a Star Wars movie, distracting from the actual plot that isn't all that compelling. Oddly enough, Edwards always said that he fashioned Rogue One as an ensemble movie, an old-fashioned war picture in the vein of The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven. Those movies are defined by two things- likable, well-developed characters and simple plots. Rogue One has neither, and thus, it falls apart.

Sure, it's not a painful movie to watch. It's never aggressively bad, but it is aggressively tedious. Star Wars movies should be fun and exciting, filled with energy, pathos, and humor, and driven by a mythological sense of storytelling. Rogue One is the antithesis of that. It's flat and surprisingly humdrum, dragging along at a snail's pace until a contrived jolt of intensity is thrown in during the finale. It delivers the action goods that everybody wants to see in a Star Wars movie, and I guess people are really loving the ending that leads directly into the main saga. But where others saw innovation and cinematic pizzazz, I saw a movie that was constantly trying to justify its own existence. Enthusiasm is high for Rogue One at the moment, and with stellar box office grosses, Lucasfilm's extended universe is off to a fast start. But when the dust settles, there's no doubt in my mind that this initial Star Wars Story will be viewed as a jumbled, disjointed miscalculation.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.8/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo 

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