Monday, 16 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review - All Your Base Are Belong to Us

The Star Wars saga’s opening theme and text crawl is one of those ubiquitous moments of cinema that even my mum (who doesn't 'do' films) recognises. I often find myself humming the said theme during innocuous tasks such as showering, or washing the pots, or sacrificing others in pagan rituals designed to appease Shub-Niggurath. So imagine my consternation when I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story only to find it does away with the iconic opening and replaces it with…nothing. An act which rubbed me the wrong way; unlike wearing a pair of ill-fitting jeans while watching Women's Tennis.

Rogue One's lack of the iconic opening sequence serves as the perfect indicator of the producers' intentions. This film is what we in the business call filler an interquel - the support band sandwiched in between your mate's band and the band everyone actually came to see. It's the first of the (presumably) many spin-off Star Wars films ordained by Disney; a litmus test of sorts for them as they attempt to shake down the franchise for all the Pablo Escobar-esque stacks of money it can produce.

Well, three paragraphs in and you'd be forgiven for thinking my cynical tip-toeing around Rogue One means I didn't like the film. But I actually enjoyed Rogue One more than any other Star Wars film - including The Empire Strikes Back. I know, I'm losing my lunch money to some alpha-nerds tomorrow.

Set in the nebulous period between the Prequel and Original trilogies, Rogue One tells the previously unseen story of the rebellion's campaign to steal the Death Star plans from the Empire. A story we all already know will end with Alderaan's annihilation and the eventual destruction of the Death Star - or not if you're that girl I once dated who had never seen Star Wars. When dealing with such a well-established story, the term 'previously unseen' sets off all manner of alarm bells; like finding a camcorder, boxing glove, and a magazine about fisting hidden in a motel room.

Fortunately Rogue One is the good kind of spin-off; one which uses the source material as a launching point but ultimately does its own thing. Funny how that excuse never worked with any of my teachers.

The film has perhaps one of strongest opening scenes of the series. Some time after the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith the galaxy is at war, the Empire are feeling like Donald Trump on Inauguration Day, and the fear that Jar-Jar Binks may show up at some point permeates proceedings. Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the planet where young protagonist Jyn Erso is hiding with her family, hoping to force Jyn's scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) into aiding the Empire's work on the Death Star.

Much like a giraffe giving birth on Space Mountain proceedings get rather messy quickly: Jyn's mother is killed, Galen is taken prisoner, and Jyn is forced to flee with Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). It's a surprisingly effective sequence which, like the opening from Inglorious Basterds, is far tenser than the rest of the movie itself.

Fifteen years later and Jyn (Felicity Jones), like all Star Wars protagonists, has become a scrappy Dickensian underdog who gets continually pissed on by society - as though she's a traffic warden about to hand out a ticket - but is destined to become the designated hero. Jyn's captured by the Empire and is en route to a slave camp when she's accidentally rescued by the A-Team a Rebel Alliance squad led by lovable rogue Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Learning that the Rebels' plan to prevent the activation of the Death Star will give her a chance to rescue her father, Jyn decides to join the rebellion. Because Jyn was once asked what she was rebelling against and "what have you got," had already been taken.

Rogue One's writers (John Knoll and Gary Whitta) try hard at making the Rebel Alliance actually interesting this time around. I've always felt the Rebellion in the other films was a bit too Bob Geldof, rather hippy-dippy and operating entirely on good intentions. This was fine in the original trilogy, which had a setting lifted from old samurai movies and placed into a moral pluralist world of virtuous space-knights and evil space-wizards.

But Rogue One is the gritty older kid who once saw a dead body by the tracks; its world exists as a melting pot of criminals, outlaws, rogues, and desperate individuals forced together by the regressive rule of the Empire. We get to witness the Empire in action as oppressors of regular people a fair bit in this film (most notably the sack of holy Jedi city Jedha). Orson Krennic shulks around like the unholy offspring of Nigel Farage and Cancer Man from X-Files, being needlessly dickish to everyone he meets. Between him and CGI Grand Moff Tarkin war crimes are committed like they're going out of fashion.

So it makes sense that the Rebellion would be this morally ambiguous force. The Rebellion is filled with angry extremists and those who would do anything to stop the Empire, all forced through the crucible of war and oppression. Whitaker's Saw Gerrera character and his merry band of terrorists are exactly what the Rebellion should have been all along. They're a desert-cave dwelling guerrilla force willing to use any means to progress their cause, including torture via elder tentacle things. In essence, they're the Fremen from Frank Herbert's Dune - a novel the franchise has been cribbing off for decades.

The focus on the Rebels themselves allows Star Wars to finally emphasise the war part of its title. Maybe in the next one we'll finally find out why these stars are having fucking wars. A lack of Jedi characters means that The Force can't be used as a crutch - like whenever you had pretend fights at school and that one kid would use his everything proof shield -  so Rogue One plays out like a more conventional war movie. The finale in particular. There are a few tightly pitched skirmishes between Jyn's group and the Imperials throughout the movie, and more than a few references to the Storm Troopers lack of accuracy. You know how it goes: White men can't jump, Asians can't drive, and Storm Troopers can't shoot.

Aside from some of the most gratuitous cameos this side of The Hobbit films, Rogue One organically expands the Star Wars universe in a manner that the prequel trilogy simply didn't. For one thing the film attempts to provide an explanation for one of the most long-standing dubious plot points in Star Wars: the Death Star's unnecessarily obvious weakness.

Fans of A New Hope will know that movie ends with the Rebel Alliance engaged in an epic space battle with the Empire, as the Rebels attempt to destroy the Death Star via a vulnerable exhaust port. It may have been an iconic moment of the series but it didn't make a lot of sense. What kind of exhaust port sucks instead of blows? Maybe some kind of whore exhaust port, working the red light district trying to raise money for its sick kid's operation.

The writers for Rogue One explain this plot hole away by having this as a deliberate design choice by Galen; a simple act of defiance that's a bit like when you really hate your job, and instead of simply quitting you decide to just half-arse everything. As far as cementing over plot holes goes, Rogue One's writers are as smooth as a Tory MP trying to force his turgid nob down a rent boy's throat. But in the grand scheme of things, Rogue One is about small acts of defiance against an overwhelming power. Most of the movie is about the Rebellion acting secretly and defying the Empire however they can.

Overall, Rogue One sets a promising precedent for the Star Wars spin-offs. It's a strong entry in its own right, but it also complements the existing films. One can imagine that this will fit naturally during the obligatory May the 4th marathons, in a way that I just don't think the Han Solo film will. Rogue One's characters are particularly strong. Even Darth Vader, the series' recurring protagonist-cum-antagonist, gets his definitive scene in this movie, where he finally gets to demonstrate his unrelenting power. The new characters are three dimensional enough to serve a 21st Century movie, and yet with the usual sassy Star Wars style. There's even a snarky robot to serve as the comedy relief. In Star Wars films, the robot is basically the fat girl from an Eighties comedy.

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