Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

So, I ask you, what do you do when you have a classic and iconic film that has shaped and defined an entire genre and sparked one of the most recognisable film franchises in history, and it has a pretty hefty plot hole in it? The answer? You make another film, thirty-nine years later, which fills that plot hole. Rogue One was an unusual idea for a film when it was first announced, and it's still pretty bizarre to accept its existence now. It's a story that arguably doesn't need telling, and one that we all already know the ending to. How on Earth do you make that work? Just ask Gareth Edwards. Rogue One is far from perfect, and it won't be as loved and adored as last year's The Force Awakens, but here we have something we haven't really seen before: Star Wars at its boldest, and certainly its darkest. Does it make a strong enough case of fully justifying its existence? Eh, maybe sort of. But does it become so damn exhilarating that, in the moment, you just don't really care whether it does or not? You're God damn right it does.

We all know the story. The evil Empire has created a gigantic super weapon called the Death Star, and it's pretty much ready to be unleashed on the galaxy. The Rebel Alliance needs a way to destroy it. They find that hope with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced into the Empire to help design the super weapon. They believe that, with his assistance, they can find a way to bring the Death Star down. So, Jyn ultimately teams up with a group of Rebels to retrieve her father and the Death Star plans, and help destroy the thing for good. Wisely, Rogue One never even entertains the idea of actually destroying the Death Star within its run time, and neither do its characters. The focal issue with a prequel is that we already know far too much about what comes after, so some elements are tough to care about. Rogue One's script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, is smartly focused on the much smaller goal of retrieving the plans that we know the Rebels are in possession of by the time A New Hope begins.

What the film unfortunately isn't as focused on, though, is its characters. The characters here don't all need to be thoughtful, complex, multi-layered people. They just need to stand out, and they don't. Most of them aren't particularly memorable, and you won't feel fully invested in them. You'll like them, there's no doubt about that, but you won't truly care about them. Felicity Jones gives a great performance here, but Jyn's steady building determination can't quite match the gleeful journey into confidence that Rey underwent in The Force Awakens. Diego Luna's Cassian is enjoyable, but there's nothing that makes you seriously want to root for him. It's not a massive issue in the film - it would be if the characters were genuinely unlikable, and that's far from the case - but it feels like it's always holding Rogue One back from hitting the same heights as the franchise's best efforts. Most of this comes down to the fact that the film skips and bounds between countless locations in its opening half, and it simply doesn't have the intricacy to pull this off while also defining its characters. They all come second to the planets and the table-setting, and it forces them into frustratingly underwhelming places.

But then Rogue One does something. Actually, it does two things. It heads into the two biggest and most epic battle sequences in Star Wars history, and it stages them simultaneously. Rogue One's final act skips between a visually breathtaking space battle over a planet called Scarif, while at the same time the entire main cast are fighting their way through Stormtroopers and AT-ATs on that planet's surface. Within this, the characters are almost all split up, meaning the film's final act has an enormous amount of ground to cover, and it pulls it off masterfully. I'm not messing around when I say that the final act is, without question, the best action film-making of the year, and potentially the most thrilling that Star Wars has ever been. The editing, performances, staging, cinematography and choreography are faultless. It doesn't feel clean and tidy, it feels messy and grim and scary. It doesn't feel optimistic and filled with hope, it feels morbid and as if everything could come crashing down at any moment. The visual effects are predictably terrific, but the cinematography is also above and beyond any that Star Wars has seen before. There are beautiful shots of the Death Star eclipsing a sun, but the film also finds moments of horror in the way it visually depicts war and grounded combat. It all comes together with breathtaking precision, before the film ends at arguably the best and most exciting moment that it could.

So, yeah, it's a little frustrating that Rogue One is so messy in its first half. As well as the offbeat pacing and thinly sketched characters, it also suffers from an almost catastrophic CGI recreation of a beloved character from the original trilogy, and while the constant references to other Star Wars films add a nice sense of nostalgia, they can't help but detract from the standalone nature that Rogue One was supposed to fit. But for every criticism I have, another brilliant moment pops to mind. Vader is used expertly here, never overshadowing the film's own cast and only used when necessary - his final sequence in the film is so frighteningly tense that it will surely go down as one of the best uses of the character to date. K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is also mostly a success. Not all of his jokes land, but he never feels misplaced or like he doesn't belong; he fits perfectly in Star Wars' droid pantheon. The music is excellent, Michael Giacchino's score is so fittingly Star Wars-esque but finds its own twists and changes to form something new. It's very far from perfect, but there is an awful lot to like in Rogue One. While its first half isn't particularly memorable, the final act is something you won't be forgetting for a very long time. Give Rogue One your time and your attention, and then give it your patience. It will frustrate you for a while, but boy does it make it all worth it.

To Summarise: Despite a scattershot opening act, Rogue One eventually finds spectacular form in its second half thanks to its strong performances, breathtaking cinematography, and arguably the greatest and darkest battle sequence in the franchise's lengthy history.

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