Sunday, December 18, 2016

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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Score: 5 out of 5

Rogue One is a film about the guys and gals who helped get Luke Skywalker the plans to the Death Star that allowed him to blow it up. It's as simple as that, and yet it's one of the best films I've seen all year. Much like Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials last year, Rogue One is just one of those films where my unbridled love of it is kind of hard to quantify. It didn't come down to one single factor, like a great performance or a mind-blowing twist. It wasn't setting out to change the world, but it did deliver simple pleasures and bring me joy, and it did so really, really well. It's a vibrant space-opera epic that evokes the original Star Wars trilogy without being as slavishly devoted to it as The Force Awakens was, something that becomes readily apparent right from the start when, for the first time in a live-action Star Wars film, we don't open with the famous yellow-on-black title card and John Williams' iconic fanfare. While it's inextricably tied to the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, you don't need to know any more than the broadest strokes of the Star Wars story to enjoy what is, essentially, a self-contained wartime espionage flick that just so happens to be set in a galaxy far, far away. Diehard fans of the series will enjoy the backstory to the classic (if they're not still pissed that Disney jettisoned the entire expanded universe), while newcomers and casual fans will get an exciting introduction to such. Disney's transformation of Star Wars into a cinematic universe with new films coming out at a regular clip is, so far, a lot closer to Marvel in terms of quality than DC, and if they can keep it up, I won't have many complaints.

Our heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist who tried to retire and become a simple farmer when the Galactic Empire took over, only to be dragged out of retirement in order to work on the Death Star -- and they try to take his family with him in order to ensure compliance. His wife dies defending their homestead, while Jyn is rescued and raised by a rebel leader named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fast forward fifteen years, and Jyn is now a crook, having been recently arrested and on her way to an Imperial penal colony when the rebels break her out. An Imperial pilot who defected to the Rebel Alliance revealed to them Galen's involvement in the Death Star project, and the rebels hope to use his daughter Jyn to find out where Galen is located and get close to him in order to assassinate him and derail the weapon's development. Instead, Jyn learns from Galen, via a holotape that the defector brought with him, that he compromised the Death Star's design by building a weak point into its reactor, and while she's undoubtedly not happy when her father dies in a rebel raid (especially since they never told her precisely what they were up to), she blames the Empire as much as the rebels, and with help from a handful of allies, plots to get her hands on the plans for the Death Star to relay them to the rebellion in order to finish her father's plan.

What is there to say? This is just a damn good movie. Director Gareth Edwards does a great job putting his own stamp on the franchise, succeeding where he failed with the Godzilla reboot by bringing interesting characters to life in a compelling world of espionage and Star Destroyers. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are great action heroes as Jyn and her partner, the rebel spy Cassian. The film wisely avoids throwing them into a rote love story, instead letting them connect naturally as brother-and-sister in arms, building to a kick-ass final scene for the two of them. Alan Tudyk reminded me of why I loved him on Firefly as the droid K-2SO, managing to keep from turning into a ripoff of C-3PO by way of a great, smartassed personality that feels, at times, like a more family-friendly version of Bender from Futurama. Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen bring some class in their small roles, while Donnie Yen shows why he's been showing up in virtually every action movie in the last few years: because he kicks a ton of ass in his role as a blind warrior monk who knows that the Force is with him. The universe they inhabit is just as well-realized. It's clearly Star Wars, but it stands out by not focusing on the leaders of the Empire and the rebellion. No, this is the world of Star Wars as seen by the people on the ground: the grunts fighting the stormtroopers, the assassins eliminating targets, the spies passing on information and defectors to rebel leaders. While a certain famous Sith lord does make a couple of memorable appearances that got huge pops from the crowd (along with another cameo I won't spoil), the Jedi never do. It's a side of the universe filled with moral ambiguity, as the various forces and factions in the rebellion often don't trust one another, have their own complicated internal politics, and resort to tough, vicious tactics to fight the Empire; Jyn is not at all pleased with Cassian when she finds out that his mission was to assassinate her father, and though it is understood why he did it, it's a reminder that even the bad guys have their saints, with the tension clouding their relationship for the rest of the film. This isn't just Han Solo shooting first. I was frequently reminded of films about resistance fighters in World War II, where, even though the cause is noble, those supporting it aren't necessarily paragons. How far will you go to fight tyranny and uphold what you believe in, to reach the light at the end of the tunnel?

It's a great world just to watch, too. The traditional Star Wars feel comes through most strongly in the visuals, with a great mix of practical effects work and modern CGI, such that I couldn't tell which was which -- the highest praise I can give to special effects. The old-fashioned feel of the technology is that familiar "how people in 1978 saw the future" style, and the aliens are amazing -- and, at times, icky -- to behold. The planet of Jedha reminded me of the Middle East in space ("Jeddah" is a real city in Saudi Arabia); the awkward feeling of rooting for folks who are clearly styled after mujaheddin helped to build on that moral ambiguity I was talking about earlier. The final battle, meanwhile, evoked the war in the Pacific, fought at an Imperial stronghold located in a tropical island paradise. The special effects are suitably explosive for a modern action blockbuster, well-shot by Gareth Edwards with some highly impressive set pieces. Michael Giacchino's score is probably the only place where I can really find fault, evoking John Williams' classic work but not really doing much to wow me. It gets the job done, though, and the fact that I had to pick on the score (which is still decent) in order to find things to complain about with this film says something.

The Bottom Line:

The best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi. It's a thrilling sci-fi adventure that adds some grit to the world without turning towards grim darkness, delivering a rousing story of resistance and hope that blew me away. The few flaws I could find were so minuscule that they barely registered. For now, at least, provided they don't screw up, I am pumped for new stories in the galaxy far, far away.

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