Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, December 30, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

When Disney acquired Lucas Films a while ago, the Mouse Factory made its intentions clear from the beginning. They were going to get the most out of that billion dollars they spent. In addition to the sequel trilogy, the studio was going to make an apparently endless number of spin-off films. While movies revolving around fan favorites like Yoda or Boba Fett were rumored, the first of these so-called anthology films was destined to be “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The proposition of working in the “Star Wars” universe was apparently enough to lure Gareth Edwards away from one dream gig – the “Godzilla” sequel – to another. While some wondered if there was enough public interest in the non-Skywalker corners of George Lucas' universe, the box office receipts for “Rogue One” suggests Disney will be making these spin-off movies for a while.

Beginning weeks before “A New Hope,” Edwards' film follows the band of Rebellion soldiers who retrieved the plans for the Death Star, making the heroic campaign shown in Episode IV possible. The Alliance seeks Jyn Erso, the daughter of a scientist who has been kidnapped by the Empire to build a planet destroying weapon. Jyn is used to contact Saw Gerera, a Rebel extremist who has kidnapped a defecting Empire pilot carrying an important message. The message is from Jyn's father. He has built a secret, intentional flaw into this Death Star, giving the Alliance a chance to destroy the massive weapon. (This neatly clears up a long lingering plot hole in the original film.) Jyn, joining forces with a ragtag group of rebels, attempts to deliver this message to the Alliance's strongest fighters before the Empire destroys them.

The biggest benefit of the “Star Wars” anthology series is allowing filmmakers to play in this universe without being beholden to the franchise rules. We could get “Star Wars” movies in different genres, with less uncertain outcomes and more complex characters. “Rogue One” is, for example, a “Star Wars” movie that emphasizes the war. It shows the rebellion against the Empire from the perspective of the grunts in the trenches. Lives are lost. Loyalties are uncertain. Some characters are atoning for their crimes, as Jyn carries the weight of her father's actions. While hope is repeatedly mentioned as the film's theme, sacrifice strikes me as the more pertinent idea. Perhaps the hope stems from those willing to put their lives on the line to save millions more.

In his previous films, “Monsters” and “Godzilla,” Gareth Edwards showed an impressive visual sense. Edwards is excellent at placing elaborate CGI special effects in extra-wide frames. He shoots from the ground up, towards towering giants or outstretched landscapes. This visual sense is well utilized in “Rogue One.” An early shot shows Imperial troopers walking across a wide field of blowing glass. Later, a fleet of AT-ATs break through the fog, not unlike the MUTOs in “Godzilla.” These same tendencies make Edwards an ideal pick for “Rogue One,” a film set in a fantastic universe that focuses on grounded, ordinary individuals.

“Rogue One” shares many of the strengths of “Godzilla” but some of the flaws too. As in Edwards' kaiju epic, the most interesting characters tend to occupy the supporting roles. This isn't necessary a knock against Felicity Jones or Diego Luna. Jones has a brassy strength while also doing well during the emotional scenes. Luna, meanwhile, is good at inserting humor during some of the film's most intense sequences. Yet the supporting cast still proves the most interesting. Forest Whitaker layers his performance with wheezes and twitches but remains singularly sinister. Alan Tudyk practically steals the film as K-2SO, a sarcastic droid who doesn't make his resentment of humanity any secret.

Disney has prided itself on the diversity in “Rogue One's” casting. This is, after all, a big budget tent pole release starring a woman. A Mexican, black, Pakistani, and two Chinese actors fill the other major roles. The last two are of particular interest to me. Donnie Yen, long established as one of the biggest Hong Kong action stars, finally seems like he's breaking through to the American market with this one. He plays Chirrut, a blind swordsman-style mystic who prides himself on his bond with the Force. It's a good fit for Yen, showing his quiet humor, monk-like grace, and aptitude for ass-kicking. Jiang Wen is equally impressive as Baze Malbus, Chirrut's platonic life partner. Unlike his warrior monk friend, Baze prefers a massive machine gun. Wen plays off of Yen excellently, the pointed but friendly banter between the two being a high-light of the film.

As an action movie, “Rogue One” doesn't disappoint either. Edwards emphasizes the war movie tone with an early battle on a desert planet. It's a close-quarters fight, taking places between tight corridors. The audience feels the impact of the explosions, as insurgents stumble off walkways and blast through walls. The second big action scene takes place in a downpour. The constant rain helps up the tension for what is ultimately a stand-off. That build-up pays off nicely, amid bombings and dying confessions. The film's entire latter half is set on Scarif, the tropical planet containing the Death Star plans. It's an effective climax, with a compelling climb up a tower as its key sequence. Yet the men on the ground, fighting and dying, center the big conflict.

Another reason the “Star Wars” anthology series is an exciting proposition for long time fans is that it allows us to revisit characters we haven't seen in a while. “Rogue One” features brief cameos from C-P30, Walrus Man, and Admiral Ackbar's entire race. Somewhat controversially, Disney hasn't even let the boundaries of death and age keep them from using certain characters. Yes, Peter Cushing has been, somewhat appropriately, Frankensteined back to life. While the CGI used to recreate Moff Tarkin is eerily convincing, Disney weirdly didn't get a pitch perfect sound-alike. Most prominently, “Rogue One” gives “Star Wars” fans something they've been wanting to see for years: Darth Vader, being a bad-ass and tearing shit up. I suspect the gratuitous Vaderation at the end might have been the result of a reshoot, as it occurs after the story is essentially over. But there's no denying that it's an immensely satisfying sequence of brutal violence.

Some have been happy to declare “Rogue One” superior to “The Force Awakens.” Some have even called it the best “Star Wars” movie since “The Empire Strikes Back.” I think it's too early for sweeping declarations like that. However, it has been quite some time since the series has attempted to tackle complex themes, while still delivering on blockbuster expectations. Gareth Edwards is getting good at that, even if weak protagonists continue to be an issue of his. Ambitious, occasionally powerful, and uniformly well made, “Rogue One” certainly exceeds any expectations. [7/10]

No comments: