Monday, December 19, 2016

It's A Trap!

Year: 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I liked The Force Awakens a lot, so I’m certainly not against Disney’s attempts to defibrillate the Star Wars universe. But I’m worried that they’re turning the franchise into a Marvel machine, churning out films at an unsustainable rate. They’re raking in billions right now so it doesn’t make business sense to stop, but one day a film is going to jam a wrench in the works and it will all come crumbling down. And if every spinoff is as careless as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which errs on the side of good, but not for lack of trying), that will happen sooner rather than later for George Lucas’ beloved franchise.

But what the f**k do I know? The series survived The Clone Wars, after all.

In Rogue One, we zoom and enhance on a story implied by the plot of the original Star Wars: the acquisition of the plans to the Death Star by Rebel forces. If you don’t know what that means, 1) You don’t exist, and 2) good luck. There is no primer here for newbies. There’s not even an opening credits crawl, which I guess is a luxury reserved for the official Star Wars entries.

Anyway, here we have Jyn Erso (felicity Jones, who is having quite the year), the roguish daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, who is also having quite the year), who is instrumental in the Empire’s development of the Death Star. She is busted out of prison (she has committed the crime of… being sassy? Who knows. This is a universe where backstories haven’t been invented yet, apparently) by Rebel forces and taken by Cassian Andar (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk) on various missions to use her family connection and help the Rebels find the Death Star’s weaknesses (and cement over some of the original film’s biggest plot holes once and for all).

On the way, they meet friends who will come along on their journey: the defected imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) , and his friend Baze Malbu (Wen Jiang), who’s a… soldier? Mercenary? Outlaw? Postal worker? Of all the paper-thin characters, he’s the one who most resembles a random plastic Star Wars action figure pulled from a bucket.

Batting for the Empire’s side, we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the ambitious man in charge of Death Star development, Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry with a Getty Images still of Peter Cushing glued to his face), and some random imperial henchman called Darth… something.

There’s a lot of weird names in this movie, you can’t expect me to remember them all.

OK, guys. I’m about to rip into Rogue One quite a bit, but there are some things you should know before we dive in. First, this is an exciting popcorn action movie with stellar special effects (minus one horrifying rictus mask of Peter Cushing) so every complaint relative to its entry in the canon of Great Cinema is kind of pointless. And there’s one thing that I or anybody else can’t take away form it: Rogue One has an astoundingly diverse cast. The only white person on our ragtag crew is a woman, and the rest are Latino, Asian, Pakistani, and so on as we descend the cast list to its further reaches. And there’s not a dud in the bunch. This kind of representation is seamless, avoiding tokenism or calling itself out for how progressive it is. This is how all of Hollywood needs to start casting tentpole movies As Soon as F**king Possible.

I don’t have a punchline for this. The idea that non-white kids across the world have an entry point for dreaming of traveling the stars is just too sweet.

So, yeah, the script. It’s a rule of thumb of mine that a screenplay is terrible if it has a flashback to something that happened ten minutes before. ...Guess what Rogue One has. Yeah. 

This movie has no trust that the audience will understand its barbarically simple character arcs, so it chews the plot into mush and vomits bit back down your throat. It also strikes upon its themes with the grace and delicacy of a hippo on a pogo stick. You can practically see the highlighted-all-caps-italics on the page whenever they utter stilted lines about hope, geddit? This is a story that treats its thematic buzzwords like they’re holy writ, but doesn’t have the right kind of characters to get that over-earnest tone across.

Only Jyn has any kind of development or backstory, but her character arc conveniently avoids requiring her to actually make any real decisions about her values. Everyone else is drawn with an Etch-a-Sketch, given one character trait if they’re lucky. They’re well-acted repositories of action movie quips, but they’re not compelling in the slightest. And I’m sorry K2-SO, you have some solid line deliveries but you just don’t pass muster in a Droid Sidekick pantheon that incudes f**king R2-D2, C-3PO, and now BB-8. Your name isn’t even as catchy, man. Put some elbow grease into it.

The villains suffer much the same fate. Krennic’s one note characterization can’t survive the litany of cameos shoehorned into the film, creating an endless parade of my least favorite type of scene in movie history: two identical old white dudes yelling at each other. And while Vader gets a showstopping sequence in the third act, there’s no reason to have him appear before that, especially with Spencer Wilding’s garish pantomiming during the dialogue scenes.

Maybe he’s been taking ballet classes since Episode III.

It’s probably likely that I forgot how militaristic the rest of the franchise is. They do, after all, ask that we cheer while literally faceless evil masses are mown down, but wail in tragedy any time some random pilot in orange beefs it. But it’s a bit shocking what a jingoistic, patriotic hash Rogue One becomes. If you love noble sacrifices and people clutching corpses while screaming toward the heavens, this is the movie for you. But as a distinct anti-fan of war movies, I find its jaunts toward the tone of 300 troubling, especially considering what a Wacky thrill ride it so clearly yearns to be in most of the other scenes.

This is a movie that, within minutes of each other, has a blind monk deliver Jackie Chan-esque quips while kicking ass, and shows a crying girl shrieking in a dusty street as her city is laid to waste by laser fire. These two sides of Rogue One are distinctly incompatible, and their clash creates the biggest fissure in the surface of a film already spiderwebbed with cracks.

It doesn’t necessarily break (though, in its dull first act that hops from planet to planet in a grueling, pointless gauntlet, it frequently threatens to), but Rogue One is definitely a misstep. While it’s still a Star Wars film and thus worth a shut-your-brain-off, popcorn-munching watch, unless they really step it up with these side stories, the whole thing is gonna capsize before you know it.

TL;DR: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is decently amusing and boasts an incredible cast, but it can't overcome ghastly tonal shifts and a general sense of silliness.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1228
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)


  1. I'm not seeing it till tomorrow, probably, but I want to love it; and the one thing that really, really scares me about it is as follows:

    "has a blind monk deliver Jackie Chan-esque quips while kicking ass"

    Unless the character is literally Daredevil, then there is no possible way for this to be good. (And if it is Daredevil, he probably shouldn't be making quips, and either way, it still probably isn't good.)

    1. Don't worry, he's still one of the best things in the movie.

      ...On second thought, worry.

    2. Yeah, turns out that it's pretty much the lowest point of the film.

      On the plus side, I liked everything else so much that I wound up buying The Force Awakens today. Why did I *do* that, Brennan?