Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

They did it again. Disney and Lucasfilm gave us sprinklings of our favorite characters and boldly introduced new ones that were just as fun to watch--again. In this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest in the Star Wars franchise, there is no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, no Rey or Obi-Wan Kenobi. No Yoda and no BB-8. Rogue One, the first theatrical release of a Star Wars film outside of the nine canonical chapters of George Lucas' famous story, is a story that really didn't need to be told, and yet it's the very best one since 1983.

But what's even more impressive is that the team behind the movie may have given us a boatload of new characters, but they also have taken us back to a story we basically thought was covered by now. Virtually every human alive has seen the first Star Wars film from 1977, and many fans watch the animated series Rebels about the birth of the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. The gist of this film's plot is that it details the Rebels' heist of the plans for the Death Star, the massive planet-destroying space station that intentionally (we learn) has one fatal flaw. Rogue One is essentially the story behind the steal, and it makes Star Wars feel fresh.

Rogue One, directed by Garreth Edwards, is the first Star Wars movie to have really understood that there is weight behind that second word. This is a war movie, and at times it almost feels like it's channeling Saving Private Ryan. Like in war, it is challenging to easily define so-called "good guys" and "bad guys." The Empire and its leaders are still the villain here, but there are examples of good. Madds Mikkelsen plays an engineer forced to build the Death Star; it is he who creates the weakness of the weapon and informs his daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who must lead a group of guerrillas to steal the plans. The person who delivers that message to Jyn is an Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) who defected. On the Rebel Alliance side, there are pragmatists and cautionary figures, but there are also radicals and freedom fighters who could easily be called terrorists. Revolutions are not always black and white.

It came as a surprise to many, including me, that Mikkelsen, the villain in a host of films and shows, would not be the bad guy here. Instead, that role, Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Empire, is played by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has never given a bad performance, but this one might be my favorite of his. Dressed in a white cape and uniform, he's childish, arrogant, cruel, blood-thirsty, and a risk taker. His opening dialogue, where he taunts Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) into coming back to finish the Death Star, is just about perfect.

Edwards et al have gathered a wonderful cast from all over the world: Mendelsohn is Australian and Mikkelsen is Danish. Jones, as well as co-stars Alan Tudyk (whose comedic performance as the droid K-2SO is my favorite) and Riz Ahmed, are Brits. Genevieve O'Reilly is Irish. Diego Luna, who plays a CIA-like agent willing to assassinate if ordered, is Mexican. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, who play best friends fighting the Empire, are Chinese. Many of the Americans in the cast--Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, and James Earl Jones--are people of color, proving yet again that Disney, unlike most of Hollywood, is committed to diversity.

Jyn is a small-r rebel, one who despite being raised by the radical fighter Saw Gerrera (a character who first appeared in the animated series The Clone Wars and who is played here by Whitaker), has no allegiance to the Rebellion because it has only brought her pain. But whether she likes it or not, she is caught up in the fight and resistance. Jyn leads Bodhi, Cassian (Luna), Chirrut (Yen), and Baze (Wen) and makes "ten men look like a hundred" as they race across the galaxy in an attempt to stop the Empire.

In many respects, this feels like as much of a Star Wars family reunion as The Force Awakens was last year. Smits reprises his role from the prequel trilogy as Bail Organa, the senator fighting the Empire behind the scenes and the step-father of Leia. O'Reilly plays Mon Mothma, a character who first appeared in 1983's Return of the Jedi played by Caroline Blakiston and whose performance by O'Reilly in 2005's Revenge of the Sith was cut for time. Other familiar characters appear and they won't be mentioned in this review, but there is one I will definitely discuss since we all knew going into the movie that he would be back: Darth Vader. I won't elaborate, but remember how disappointed you were in 2005 when Jones basically only appeared to yell "Noooooo!" for five seconds and that was basically it? You surely will not be disappointed this time.

Edwards and his crew channel what worked with last year's Star Wars film and avoid what didn't. In terms of visuals, the team has spared no expensive with their $200 million budget, giving us effects that are more of The Force Awakens and less Attack of the Clones. This may in fact be the most visually incredible Star Wars film yet. And in terms of mood and story, while there are obnoxious little references to the films of the past, nostalgia is not oozing out like it was in The Force Awakens. Rogue One, despite it being one of the darker elements of the franchise, is one of the more hopeful, and it's reassuring to know that in this era of a complete lack of hope with the state of the world, when democracy is trampled on and thrown out the window by those with hatred in their hearts, it's nice to know that Star Wars understands the need for good people to resist and push back. All the while providing so much fun, as Star Wars often does.

But I must end with a heavy heart as I write this review, two days after watching the film and only hours after discovering the death of the beloved Carrie Fisher, our princess, our general, our icon. In a year that has also taken away from us Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Prince, and many, many others, what a cruel way to end a disastrous, dismal, no-good, very bad year. How could I end simply by saying she will be missed? That goes without saying. Like many, I'm shocked, I'm angry, I'm sad. Perhaps her space brother and co-star put it best: no words.


Correction: Alan Tudyk is American, not British. (December 29)


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