Friday, December 23, 2016

I Am One With the Force: Rogue One

 There hasn’t been a Star Wars film released in American cinemas that I haven’t seen there. While Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor were not released state-side, in 1997 I had the luxury of watching the original trilogy for the theatrical release of the Special Editions, and in the intervening years I watched all 5 of the new film releases, usually within the first week. So there was really no question of whether or not I would see Rogue One, and really no need for me to watch any of the trailers.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was advertised primarily as the origin of the Death Star plans that were in Leia’s possession at the start of A New Hope. The film stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a novice rebel with some handy skills (presumably from her time as a criminal, the film’s one concession to the underworld). She is joined by Rebel agent Cassian (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind Force monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), ranged tank Baze (Wen Jiang), and defected pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed).

Like A New Hope, Rogue One is split into three acts: the team meeting up on a dessert planet, the first mission in which a character that matters to the team dies, and the final, impossible mission that the film is primarily known for. Jyn is “recruited” by the Rebellion while she is en route to an Imperial prison due to her connection with both her father – an engineer on the Death Star’s superlaser – and the leader of an extremist cell based on the same planet where, coincidentally, the Death Star is being completed. Bodhi is recruited by her father to visit the same Rebel leader, and you can guess where the team meets up.

I was a little skeptical about this film, only for the reason that I didn’t think there was enough content here to make a movie out of it. I should have known LucasFilm better than to think they would focus the entire film on a single battle. The battle that the film based its promotion on is about half of the film, in some ways mirroring the set-up and execution of the Battle of Endor. I can’t fault the pacing of this film at all; there’s less downtime than A New Hope with just enough slow moments for a cinema-goer to refill their $20 soda from time to time.

Rogue One feels derivative, but in a different way than The Force Awakens. While TFA seemed almost a mirror of A New Hope, with a bigger Death Star and recasting all of the original roles, Rogue One does everything in its power to tie together and homage the rest of the saga.  Dialogue was ramped up, but other than a few speech cadence issues of the returning characters it doesn’t feel as chatty and distracting as it could. Stormtroopers borrow from battle droids’ chattiness in a way that feels authentic to their group character. Scenes and locations are recreated perfectly, but not so often that it feels like they lack original material.

Interestingly, two areas where Rogue One was not derivative of other entries were the score and the opening crawl. The soundtrack is mostly new, with several of the film stings that I expected (and would have helped to sell the recreated characters) not appearing, at least where I expected them. Another thing that didn’t appear was the opening crawl, presumably in an attempt to keep the crawl to episodes only. The score didn't completely do away with the originals, just enough to throw me off a bit.
The characters fall a little flat for me, but not as much as they do in The Force Awakens. If anything I think it’s the quantity – there was just too much going on to develop Cassian, and Chirrut and Baze, and Bodhi. This is rather unfortunate, because there are plot developments that rely on you not seeing these people as redshirts, but it’s not fatal. Rogue One is still a good movie, probably objectively better than The Force Awakens, and at the least a fitting entry to the Star Wars film saga.