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At The Picture Show
December 2016

Rogue One

Rebellion: Ground Zero

On the tones and colors of a rebellion, the forging of new identities, and unwelcome dips into the Uncanny Valley

Rogue One
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Alan Tudyk, Wen Jiang and Mads Mikkelsen
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 14 minutes / 2.35:1
December 16, 2016
(out of four)

Star Wars can contain multitudes after all.

A year ago, The Force Awakens brought the franchise back to life, and did so largely by reaffirming - to the point of replication at times - what everyone fell in love with back in 1977. It brought us all back home - away from the midi-chlorians and the coarse, rough sand and the pod racing and the noisy CGI whizzing through every corner of every frame - delivering a new story that felt comfortable and reassuring. It wore its parallels to the original film as a badge of honor. A mission statement, even. I mean, yes, the movie was good by more traditional metrics, but more importantly - at least at the time - it simply hit the spot. It worked expressly because it was so Star Wars-y, so very much like everything that defined those movies in the beginning.

And now, a year later, we have Rogue One, which works for the exact opposite reason. It works expressly because it forges an identity very different from its seven (and counting)-chapter namesake. It works because it doesn't fit in - doesn't look or feel like The Force Awakens or either existing trilogy. As the first in a presumably long line of spinoffs, one-offs, origin stories and standalone chapters under the Star Wars banner, it is, among other things, an encouraging sign that these movies won't be constrained by tonal or aesthetic uniformity. Much more than simply filling a gap in the series timeline, it's a direct embodiment of the very spirit of Star Wars as a whole. Rebellion, resistance, sacrifice - all ideas important to (in particular) the original trilogy, but up until now mostly typified by royalty and swashbuckling heroes. The rebels we followed were none other than: the preternaturally gifted son of the galaxy's prime archvillain, a princess (from the same bloodline) with heavy political power, and a mercenary who was doing perfectly fine for himself without a cause, thank you very much. All proved terrific exemplars of nobility and heroism, but the characters and films were built on grand operatics and sweeping melodrama - a rebellion romanticized.

Rogue One is a finely executed pivot - away from the stars and idols to the grunts and invisible revolutionaries who made those idols' accomplishments possible in the first place. It is a movie entirely about the unsung heroes, appropriately taking on a darker, more somber tone for characters driven solely by romantic ideals but divorced from romantic glory. They exist for one reason alone: to steal the plans for the Empire's Death Star - the weapon that needs no introduction - which is being overseen by one Orson Krennic (the great Ben Mendelsohn), the Empire's ambitious, white-caped head of advanced military weapons research. Little does he know that there is a small, barely detectable fly in his elaborately conceived, weaponized ointment, through which the rebellion has its best - if not only - chance to strike a massive blow against its oppressors.

It is, in effect, an elaborate heist movie with much-larger-than-heist-movie stakes. Director Gareth Edwards shades this guerrilla operation with earthy, wartime hues - jungle greens and browns, with flourishes of a hellish red - capturing the emotional temperature of a mission fraught with murky stakes and tenuous mortality. During the film's dramatic capstone - a thrillingly drawn-out climactic sequence that cuts anxiously between the on-the-ground heist itself and the firefight erupting above, a section that altogether makes a strong case as the finest extended action sequence in the franchise's history - Edwards cleverly works his muted color palette against the placid paradisal backdrop in which the Empire's high command has sheltered itself. This whole section is full of pointed visual contradictions, with violence perpetually interrupting tranquility, dirty interrupting clean. AT walkers stomping through tranquil waters, competing with the surrounding palm trees for space in the sky. The polished, royal grandeur of the Imperial forces confronted by the grungy, unkempt utilitarianism of the invading rebels. A tropical picture postcard discomposed by machinery and fire. Here, Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser reflexively illustrate the divide between the mighty and the disaffected, outlining the evil and the good even as the narrative itself displays how closely, at times, the two entangle.

I don't think it should be too controversial to suggest this is the best-looking Star Wars movie to date; Edwards gets a lot across in his images, recalling the grace and subtle cues of the original films but using his visual dialect to generate an altogether different brand of existential tension. Right out of the gate, in lieu of the traditional opening crawl, he shows us an Imperial ship emerging from within the shadowy grasp of the Death Star, whose lights blend immaculately, interchangeably, with the stars in the black sky - simultaneously evoking both the Empire's gargantuan scope and its insidiousness. The evil that hides in plain night.

Edwards is clear about where his intentions lie - and where they come from. In one memorable moment there's a center-framed wide shot of an explosion against an infernal sky, with the Death Star eclipsing the sun directly above, that is distinctly and purposefully Kubrickian. Same with Darth Vader's introduction, which is basically a reversal of the circular ceremony that kicks off the mansion sequence in Eyes Wide Shut - this time a figure all in black surrounded in a circle by figures cloaked in red. Red - seemingly the only bright primary color that ever makes an appearance - also makes its presence felt earlier in a scene that mimics an establishing segment of Blade Runner, the cramped quarters and neon reds of a bustling marketplace serving as our introduction to the rebel soldier and recruiter Cassian (Diego Luna). And then there's the Apocalypse Now influence of the climactic setpiece, fireballs erupting on the beach as the camera swings around to capture the burgeoning chaos.

This is not to say Edwards' work here stands with any of those movies, nor to simply celebrate clear (albeit extremely common) directorial influences. It's that he has a real command of how and why to deploy those impulses. Lots of directors resort to quoting Kubrick; Edwards turns his quotes into grand pronouncements. All of his movies to date (including this one) are littered with problems, but he's nothing if not eloquent in his craft, even as he struggles knowing what to do with character and story. Take some of his wide and establishing shots, for example. George Lucas' Episode IV has its iconic shots of isolated desert (Tatooine, most prominently), which evoked something reminiscent of a frontierland from a mid-20th Century Western. There was a loneliness in it, but it hinted at a world getting ready to open up for its hero. Edwards' locations, while superficially similar, have a subtly but crucially different effect. His opening scenes on the planet Lah'mu - where Krennic has landed to re-recruit Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to continue his abandoned work on the Death Star - as well as later scenes in similarly deserted areas suggest emptiness, displacement, desolation. Places full of people who have backed up - or been pushed - to the utter outskirts of civilization. There's almost a hopelessness to it. The kind of hopelessness that might one day lead Galen's daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), into the welcoming arms of the rebellion.

For all the film's qualities, and for all Edwards' ability to carve out a distinct aesthetic, Rogue One's weaknesses come - perhaps not surprisingly - when it strays too close to the series' more traditional characteristics, or even storylines. The first half of the movie is cluttered with an overabundance of characters - which is not inherently a bad thing, but considering this is a one-off with a specific mission and no expectation of further development, it short-changes good performances and potentially interesting characters in favor of moving the narrative along at a brisk enough pace. Strategically, it makes sense, but it also prevents the likes of Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed or even Jones to some extent - all of whom are very good - from registering much beyond the requirements the script gives them. There's no magic beyond that. They're memorable and yet a little disappointing. This, it should be pointed out, is becoming a tendency for Edwards. He has amazing ensemble casts at his disposal and proceeds to under-utilize them. His Godzilla boasted the likes of Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn, and together they barely made an imprint. Rogue One does a better job in that regard, but everyone - from protagonist to villain to supporting player - seems itching for more attention than the movie is willing to give them.

On a more speculative note, there is the issue of the score, which was composed by the great Michael Giacchino after he replaced the also-great but very-different Alexandre Desplat. I have no idea what Desplat's score would have ultimately felt like, but after seeing Rogue One in its final form, I badly want to see the Desplat-themed version of it. It's not that Giacchino is doing bad work - it's that his score sounds very, very Star Wars-y, in a way that contradicts the visual tone of this particular entry. Edwards seems to be going for something dark, haunting and lonely, and Giacchino is meanwhile telling us that the story is triumphant and exciting. He's not always wrong, but he ain't exactly right, either.

And perhaps the biggest shoutout to the film's franchise legacy - and not coincidentally its most glaring flaw - is the appearance of a CGI incarnation of Peter Cushing, reprising his (or "its," in this case) role as Grand Moff Tarkin. If it were a simple cameo, that would be one thing - but instead, Tarkin has several big scenes, and in those scenes his plastic CGI mouth on his waxy CGI face just talks and talks and talks, looking more unconvincing by the second. (I'm not sure of a lot of things, but I'm quite positive that in my lifetime, special effects will never be able to pull off a convincing talking human CGI mouth.) For a revived franchise that has made so many good decisions the last few years, this one is a baffling, even shocking, misfire - a huge eyesore disrupting scene after scene that would have worked perfectly well with an actual human actor with a similar-enough look to Peter Cushing. I'm not saying Cushing lookalikes are falling off trees, but even a mere slight resemblance would be less of a distraction than the Uncanny Valley version we get instead. When Richard Harris died, you didn't see Harry Potter's visual effects wizards CGI'ing Michael Gambon's face so that he more closely resembled Harris, did you? No. Gambon was simply dressed and bearded in a vaguely similar way to Harris and that was that. Just imagine how much money could have been saved here by just hiring an actor with an actual, physical face instead of painstakingly creating a cartoon version of one.

But I digress. Rogue One has a hard time finding its rhythm early on through an array of locations, title cards and character intros, but once it does, it settles into a pretty fabulous groove, giving us both a truly impressive action film and a tale of heroism as jubilant as it is melancholy. Edwards (along with credited co-screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who was reportedly brought on in a more hands-on role in the final months of production) allows the more daunting realities of the series to seep through - its sadness, its sacrifice, its unyielding violence - in a way its sister films have not. That, among others, is a significant accomplishment - to be able to take something so established, so thoroughly explored, and find a new angle and a new attitude with which to explore it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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