Rogue One (2016)

aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016 #187
Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

Rogue OneThe first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.

It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.

As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.

HeistUnfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.

A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven / men-on-a-missionpeople-on-a-mission… beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.

KrennicThen we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.

Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they currently have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.

Donnie Yen: badassContinuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.

Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).

Star of deathMuch discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.

4 out of 5

Star Wars (1977)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #88

A long time ago
in a galaxy far, far away…

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 121 minutes | 125 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1977 (USA)
UK Release: 27th December 1977
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Star Wars: Episode VIII)
Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, The Fugitive)
Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally…, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai)
James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Lion King)

Director
George Lucas (THX 1138, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

Screenwriter
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones)

The Story
When he discovers a distress call from a beautiful princess, a young farmhand joins forces with an old warrior, a roguish pilot, his bear-like first mate, and a pair of bickering robots to rescue her — which involves taking on the evil galactic Empire, and in particular their chief enforcer: Darth Vader.

Our Heroes
Farm boy Luke Skywalker just wants to go off and join the rebellion, but little does he realise how much that path leads to his destiny. Helping him get there is smuggler Han Solo, who may come from a wretched hive of scum and villainy and is happy to shoot first at the same time as his opponent, but has a heart of gold really. The object of their mission, and both their affections, is the strong-willed Princess Leia.

Our Villains
A man in a black suit with breathing problems might not sound like one of the most effective screen villains of all time, but that’s what you get when you come up with pithy descriptions like that. In fact, Darth Vader is so badass, he’s not above choking members of his own side, the evil Empire — and they’re evil.

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are also introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. A mysterious old man who inducts Luke into the ways of the Force, Obi-Wan is played by veteran character actor Alec Guinness, meaning he is bestowed with instant awesomeness. Not as handy with a lightsaber as he used to be, mind.

Memorable Quote
Darth Vader: “Your powers are weak, old man.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I have a very bad feeling about this.” — Luke Skywalker

Memorable Scene
It’s fair to say Star Wars is loaded with memorable scenes, but for pure effectiveness you’d have to go a long way to beat the opening sequence: giant spaceships flying overhead, blasting laser beams at each other; walking, talking robots bickering; a gunfight between men and armoured soldiers; and then Darth Vader, stalking into the movie like a sci-fi vision of Death himself.

Memorable Music
George Lucas wanted a score reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies to help inform audiences about what they were watching — that although it was set on alien worlds with giant spaceships and laser swords, it was a familiar kind of heroic adventure tale. Composer John Williams delivered exactly that, drawing on influences including classical composers, like Stravinsky and Holst, and film composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (King’s Row) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won). He produced not only a great soundtrack all round, but arguably the most famous movie theme of all time.

Truly Special Effect
Star Wars did so much to break new ground in special effects, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it’s a little skwiffy (the lightsaber effects are notoriously problematic, their colours varying even in recent remastered versions), but the model work — the spaceships and their battles — is fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Han shot first! *ahem* Yes, A New Hope is definitely the movie where Lucas’ unpopular Special Edition fiddling is it at its least liked, primarily for that bit where Han no longer shoots Greedo in cold blood. What do you have to do to get a merciless good guy these days, eh? Other changes have varying degrees of effectiveness: having extra X-Wings in the Death Star battle looks pretty neat, but the CGI Jabba the Hutt — complete with Han stepping jerkily over his tail — is terrible.

Making of
George Lucas screened an early cut of the film for a group of his director friends, most of whom agreed with him: it was going to be a flop. Brian De Palma even called it “the worst movie ever”. There was one dissenting voice: Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be a huge hit. As if that man’s entire career wasn’t proof enough that he knows what he’s talking about…

Previously on…
Star Wars’ influences can be clearly traced back to the sci-fi cinema serials of the ’30s and ’40s, like Flash Gordon. In-universe, the saga begins with the Prequel Trilogy, and there’s shedloads of other spin-off media. Most pertinently, this December’s first live-action non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, should lead more-or-less directly into the start of A New Hope.

Next time…
Star Wars essentially inspired the next 39 years (and counting) of effects-driven summer blockbusters. It also started a mini-industry all of its own — well, quite a large industry, actually: films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, board games, role playing games, toys, clothes, lunch boxes… anything you can imagine, I’d wager. Primarily, the story is directly continued in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and resumed in The Force Awakens, with more to come in 2017 and 2019.

Awards
7 Oscars (Editing, Score, Sound, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay)
2 BAFTAs (Music, Sound)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Editing, Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
13 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (tied with Spielberg for Close Encounters), Writing, Music (John Williams tied with himself for Close Encounters), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Special Award for Outstanding Cinematographer)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (both Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill), Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Peter Cushing))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“The battles, the duels, the special effects — and what special effects! Swords made of light, blasters shooting laser beams, exploding planets — it goes on and on. All the aging acid-heads who tripped out to Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, will go bananas over Star Wars. Not to mention comic-book freaks, science fiction and fantasy fans, lovers of old westerns, romances, mysteries and movies about the Crusades. In addition to being a slickly produced and highly entertaining adventure suitable for the whole family, Star Wars is richly evocative of a whole range of old film forms and I predict that entire books will be written on the sources, the religious symbolism, the mythological and historical allusions, and so on and so forth that Lucas has incorporated” — Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail (This review from the original release, before it was called Episode IV, also notes that it “opens like Episode 6 of a serial”. Good call, sir.)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“To this day, A New Hope is used as a primary example of storytelling. It perfectly establishes a world and introduces audiences to a protagonist that goes on his hero’s journey. There’s a reason that so much pop culture parodies and pays tribute to this film and it’s because of how near perfect it is. You have the Princess in peril still holding her own against what will always be one of the greatest movie villains of all time in Darth Vader. That is also one thing the prequels do that take away from this movie and the two that come after: They soften Vader. Vader is cold, ruthless, robotic, and menacing. Not someone who cries about his girlfriend. […] A New Hope just does everything the right way. When it wants you to be excited, you are. When it wants you to be sad, you are. John Williams contributed to this a great deal with his score; and Lucas’ use of practical effects to tell his story make it a masterpiece.” — Reed, We’re Not Sorry

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of A New Hope’s modified DVD version, I said that “there are a few extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release.” Then, treating the film as the fourth part of the saga, I wrote that “the biggest change [from the prequel trilogy] is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power.”

Verdict

In my post on The Empire Strikes Back, I said it wasn’t actually my favourite Star Wars film. For all the popularity the series has as a whole, there’s only really one other possible contender for that crown: the first one. By which I mean this one, not Phantom Menace. Here, Lucas almost instantly conjures up a universe that feels wholly-imagined and genuinely lived-in (which is part of the reason people ended up so disappointed by the made-up-as-they-went-along, fill-in-the-blanks prequel trilogy). Throw in an array of likeable and entertaining characters, plus groundbreaking special effects, and you’re on to a winner. The plot may just be a classical hero narrative, but it’s in space and has laser swords — that counts for a lot.

Next: #89 ! Fuck yeah!

Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – DVD Edition (1983/2004)

2007 #82b
Richard Marquand | 129 mins | DVD | U / PG

Star Wars - Episode VI: Return of the JediAgain, there seem to be only minor differences or effects improvements here — it does make you wonder what the fans were kicking up such a fuss about! The main 1997 additions were shots of planets around the Empire following the destruction of the Death Star, and these actually improve what is otherwise a very low-key celebration. The main addition for the DVD is Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. It doesn’t work at all; in fact, it manages to make it look as if there was never anyone there at all.

The film is still a great piece of entertainment; the speederbike chase is one of the trilogy’s greatest action sequences. And Ewoks are cute.

4 out of 5

My thoughts on the Star Wars saga as a whole — including more detail on Return of the Jedi — can be read here.

Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope – DVD Edition (1977/2004)

2007 #81a
George Lucas | 120 mins | DVD | U / PG

Star Wars - Episode IV: A New HopeMuch criticism has been made of Lucas deciding to modify the original trilogy for the 1997 re-release, and then further for the 2004 DVD release. It’s not necessarily unjustified, but it is sometimes picky. If Han shooting first bothered you, you may be a little pleased to know they now shoot at the same time.

There are a few other extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release. The film itself is still a fun sci-fi-fantasy action/adventure, devoid of many problems that plague the new trilogy.

4 out of 5

My thoughts on the Star Wars saga as a whole — including more detail on A New Hope — can be read here.