Sunday, December 25, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


   May the 4th can hardly claim to be the ultimate Star Wars holiday anymore, not when theaters are packed to see the latest Star Wars movie on Christmas day two years in a row. It feels like the best gift you could ever find wrapped under your tree, even if you know what it is. But, given that this is the second new Star Wars movie I've seen in as many years... I wasn't about to get all teary eyed this time around. It's an odd thing, this Star Wars movie, but hardly a bad thing for that matter. Quite the contrary.

   Firstly, I had to keep reminding my confused mother and my two little brothers that this was NOT a sequel to The Force Awakens. But the casual viewer should be forgiven for thinking so. Rogue One embodies Star Wars Nostalgia in a way that The Force Awakens only aspired to. Abrams had all the easy elements in place. He had Harrison Ford, John Williams, the opening text crawl, and a story that was basically just a retooled version of A New Hope. Time has been kind to that movie, and it's incredibly enjoyable thanks to the new characters, but Rogue One is the movie I imagine fans have wanted since the 90's.

   It doesn't have John Williams or an opening text crawl. It's a new beast. It's an inter-quel set between Revenge of the Sith (III) and A New Hope (IV), and is the one movie that ties them both together in a loving and intimate way. The story is one we already know in broad enough strokes. A group of rebels plot to steal the plans to the Death Star. Many good bothans died for this information dammit, so don't screw it up, Luke! But, as I feel so many people have forgotten, these movies are called Star Wars. Not Star Adventures. There's literal wars going on, and too often the movies sideline that fact. Not Rogue One. It is a legitimate war movie.

   And like any war, there are always rousing tales of sacrifice and hope. That is Rogue One. It's characters aren't designed to franchise, or to even survive. This is a just one tale from the Star Wars and it proves that the franchise has more to offer than recycled space opera tropes. Not everything is destiny and melodrama. But, Star Wars is known for it's returning characters. It's like a second family to many movie goers. People cried when Han Solo died. I cried, dammit. So how can a movie with main characters we've never seen before, and will never see again, stay afloat in this franchise?

   I don't know. I think it's getting seen on brand recognition alone, and hardcore Star Wars fans are legion so there was no chance of box office failure- but for my mom? My little brothers? Is little Timmy, 9 years old from Tulsa, really going to want a Cassian Andor or a Jyn Erso toy figure? I don't think so. You'll know why before the movie is over. Characters like Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus are fantastic, and I know I'd certainly put their mini plastic likenesses on my shelf- but it's still jarring to me that it's likely we'll never see them on screen again.

   Yet, at the same time, Rogue One is refreshingly, (and sadly) self contained. It's wholly devoid of sequel bait, and its cliffhanger can hardly be called as such because the next movie in the timeline... came out when my 50-something year old dad was still in high school. It was bittersweet, being introduced to all these characters, and some that had amazing potential- only to realize this is a one-off story. I didn't find Jyn Erso a compelling character. I never clicked with Cassian Andor. And, while Chirrut Imwe, and Baze Malbus were so much fun to watch, they did not resonate on virtually any emotional level with me.

   If characters are the heart of this melodramatic franchise, Rogue One is excellent, but skippable fare. Characters are surprisingly not the bread and butter of Rogue One, whereas that might be the one thing J.J. absolutely nailed in The Force Awakens. Rogue One is an ambitious and gutsy side-entry that's perfect for showcasing the potential still left in the mythos of this universe, yet doomed to be an eternal odd duck in the bunch. It will be loved, and its got lines that will be quoted to death, but... but, it's not an essential story.

   Having said that, it's an incredibly well made movie with fantastic set pieces, a rousing score, and excellent performances from all the actors. Ben Mendelson as the villainous Krennic is an absolute highlight of the movie, and Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe stands to be a crowd pleasing favorite alongside the droid that speaks its mind, K2SO- voiced and mocapped by the excellent Alan Tudyk. Felicity Jones, however, is stuck playing a boring character against all these others, and it's a shame that Jyn Erso feels like basic genre stock, because Jones' acting is so damn good. If only, if only. I could go on about the cast for another two paragraphs, but I won't.

   One thing that struck me funny was the lack of decent name introductions. I mean, in most Star Wars movies, characters get a few seconds to get identified. This is LUKE. This is PRINCESS LEIA. ANAKIN. OBI-WAN. JABBA. POE DAMERON. FINN. This is something we've all taken for granted. If I didn't know imdb.com was a website that existed, I'd be lost. As a fan, I knew most of the characters' names before the movie even came out, but again, what about the casual viewer? Screw them? Names are mumbled or rattled off in thick accents in the midst of massive battle scenes. I felt stuck referring to them by the actors names in post-movie discussion. Donnie Yen had to scream "BAZE!" in the climax of the movie before I was certain his buddy was indeed Baze Malbus.

   But again, none of these characters really matter. They are unsung heroes, and this is their tale and while it will always be important, it will also never be relevant again. The highlights of the movie, beyond the stunning action scenes, excellent humor, sharp wit, and fantastic visuals, were all the nods to the other movies, which were often developed beyond mere cameos, but semi-meaningful connections that were smartly formed wherever possible. So when Jimmy Smits shows up as Bail Organa, you can tell the hardcore Star Wars fanatics from the casuals. His inclusion in the movie ties the prequel trilogy together to the original trilogy in a fantastic way. Then there's no fewer than like... ten other familiar faces from the original trilogy that show up, all contributing to this adrenaline pumping nostalgia trip.

   There's no galaxy in which a Star Wars fan doesn't walk away from Rogue One without a smile on their face and ready to race home to pop in A New Hope. And despite my peripheral gripes and observations on and about the movie, it's the most satisfying Star Wars movie I've seen in theaters since Return of the Jedi. Well done, guys. Mission accomplished.

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