Diego Luna Felicity Jones

ROGUE ONE Review: A New Hope is Far Away

Monday, December 19, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Finding a new way to do something is potentially a wonderful thing -- innovation is the key to improving as an individual or as a culture. Innovation is also filled with ethical and practical land mines. Rogue One’s creative team (director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta) had that problem on their minds while making the first non-Skywalker-related film in the Star Wars universe. In telling an occasionally thrilling story about destroying a malevolent Empire’s ability to use technological innovations to harm its people, the Rogue One filmmakers stepped on a couple land mines themselves.

Photo credit: Star Wars/Facebook

Setting aside the most visible ethical quagmire they placed themselves in -- in a move that is both exploitative and distracting because the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time, they make a CGI model of the long-dead Peter Cushing, who played the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in George Lucas’s 1977 franchise starter, into a supporting character who appears in multiple scenes -- Edwards and company probably take their quest for innovation in Star Wars storytelling a step too far. In their story about a ragtag group of Rebel Alliance misfits who go on a quest to steal the plans for the first movie’s Death Star, these filmmakers choose to focus on the harsh realities of war and the ways people can misuse their intelligence to harm others. Gone is Han Solo’s mischievous “ain’t I a stinker?” grin. In its place are the defiant (but dour) Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) contemplating the horrific compromises freedom fighters must make to take on an oppressive regime -- including murdering relatively innocent informants once they have divulged their information. They question whether their actions truly represent the greater good, and whether their willingness to die for their cause is actually an excuse for suicide in the face of the ever-encroaching darkness of fascism.

This is heavy, grim stuff. It is genuinely shocking, and a little disheartening, to see a Star Wars film explore themes like this. It’s a series known for such joyful, kid-friendly moments like Chewbacca scoffing at being derisively called “fuzzball” by Han. Other kiddie moments, like Anakin Skywalker yelping, “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace, aren’t so great, but they are certainly designed to cater to a younger audience. In a lot of ways, Rogue One feels like a direct response to the complaints a lot of 20- and 30-something fans had about the prequel trilogy (1999-2005) for being made for their children rather than for themselves -- it might be a mistake to bring your kids with you to Rogue One. Despite a tacked-on, literal call for hope at the very end of this movie, it doesn’t feel right, particularly when everything that happens before those last few seconds deals in death and despair.

Yet, maybe it’s okay for this movie to wade in those murky waters. One of the main selling points of the Star Wars universe has long been that it is so huge, with so many storytelling avenues, many of which were explored in ancillary materials like novels, comic books, and video games. Seeing it projected on a big screen is different, and it is shocking (and maybe not so good). But as Disney and Lucasfilm roll out more of these Star Wars Story movies that only barely connect to the “main” saga, perhaps Rogue One will begin to feel like it’s part of a wide range of storytelling within the universe rather than a strange, uncomfortable appendage. Context will matter a great deal for the long-term prospects of determining this movie’s quality within the overall world of Star Wars.

None of this is to say that Edwards’s movie is without merit. It is a sumptuous visual marvel -- Greig Fraser’s cinematography recalls his work on another grim but gorgeous wartime thriller, Zero Dark Thirty. Its action is among the best 2016 has to offer. Its cast is a melting pot of voices, colors, skillsets, and more, and they complement each other nicely when they get a moment to themselves, away from the hell of war that surrounds them. Despite the darkness that bubbles to the surface of each character, the film has rare moments of levity -- particularly whenever the exhausted, sardonic, suffers-no-fools droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is on the screen.

Edwards takes the lessons he learned on 2014’s Godzilla and applies them to an even larger canvas. With the help of meticulous and thoughtful production design by Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont, Edwards makes Rogue One a film of scale, scale, and more scale. He contrasts small, grubby, and ragged Rebels with the sterile-clean enormity of arrowhead-shaped Star Destroyers -- these ships are models of efficiency that will nonetheless be outdated upon the Death Star’s completion, another example of the movie’s obsession with evolving tech. He shows the Empire’s power via the aftermath of one of its ruthless attacks on the old days -- the ruins of a Jedi city are shown with gigantic crumbling statues dwarfing the few rickety buildings and huts that survive in a dusty wasteland. His eye for action is impeccable and his instinct to slow things down rather than speed them up in moments of intense fighting is indeed the proper one to have. That slowness allows you to see the heroes survey their environment and make decisions, so you understand their thought process a bit. This is essential with a script that leaves their characterization more than a little thin.

Edwards, Chiang, and Lamont find the proper way to apply new technology to the series by adhering to the model set by the 1977 original. Graphics displays on computer screens resemble data readouts on the first Death Star and the video-camera look of Jyn’s binoculars is lifted directly from visuals of those early movies, but they somehow don’t look chintzy to modern eyes. It all feels part of the same world. If only Edwards had found a way to make the macro, philosophical parts of Rogue One match with the other Star Wars movies the way he and his team were able to copy the minutia.

Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed
Rating: Three stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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