Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016, d. Gareth Edwards -- in cinema

I can't believe it's taken me this long to write about a Star Wars movie.  It just goes to show how burnt out I was that I couldn't find the time over a two-month span to write about the latest installment of a franchise that has dominated my brainspace more than any other piece of entertainment.  But after a fourth viewing this week (and seeing that Toasty has posted his review), I figured it was high time I lay down some thoughts.

First, with each subsequent viewing, I love it more and more.  I said this to many people (Toasty included) this was the Star Wars movie I have wanted since I was a kid.  This is the Star Wars movie that skirts around the outsides of what we see in the original trilogy.  This is the side story of the side characters doing their side things.  This is a deeper peek inside the operations of the Empire and the Rebellion.  This is a look at the societies that get caught in their crossfire.  This is a look at the grey area that Rebellions must operate in, breaking laws and making sacrifices.  These aren't the big-hearted heroes with toothy-white smiles, these are the gutter-trenches, heavy-hearted heroes doing what must be done.

When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to just explore the halls of the Death Star, to take in visually every square inch.  I would try to map out in my brain where corridors went based on what we see in A New Hope and the toys that came out, but it never made enough sense.  I would watch Star Wars (practically every Sunday, like it was church, for a time) and just marvel at the backgrounds, wondering where that hallway leads, or what would it look like if Luke and Leia ran the other way?

Rogue One takes us to the ground level of the Rebellion versus the Empire.  Director Gareth Edwards did such an amazing job with Godzilla in establishing scale in that film that had such hope he would do the same here, and he delivers in epic proportions.  We see how ships scale against each other, and against the Death Star.  We see troop on the ground looking up at AT-ACTs in a way Empire couldn't manage.  We see epic disasters loom large.  It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

One of the things I admire most about Rogue One is how it delivers big spectacle but with purpose.  Outside of mainly Christopher Nolan pictures, most films build stories around set pieces.  "Here's a cool action sequence we thought of, now how do we get the characters there?"  Here, every "set piece" emerges organically out of the story, and there are plentiful set pieces.  Characters never feel like they're in arbitrary danger for the sake of audience manipulation, this film flows smoothly -- perhaps too smoothly --  such that the characters always feel like they belong in a scene.

The main complaint about the film is the characters, however, about being too thinly cut without much definition.  It is true, there's not much here for most of the characters. But there is subtext.  The performances here are rather incredible all around, from Riz Ahmed's Bodhi Rook to Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso to Alan Tudyk's K-2SO, everyone is invested in their character, they know what motivates them and they know who they are.  After four viewings, I draw more and more out of their interactions with each other, their relationships get more and more defined, and their characters reveal themselves.  This is an utterly rewatchable movie, partly because it's so damn awesome looking, but also because the subtext of the characters and their relationships leaves much of their interpretation to the audience to draw out.  There are certainly worse ways to handle characterization than "less is more".

As a lifelong Star Wars nerd, I am somehow in awe of this film.  The prequels disappointed in story and character (the spectacle was quite good in many cases) and Episode 7 was like a clean break from all the heavy, depressing debate over whether the prequels irreparably destroyed Star Wars.  It had spectacle, but not like this.  Episode 7 was what we expected.  Rogue One provided so much more.  Planet-hopping, the Death Star, so many different space ships, gun fights, espionage, all out war on the ground and in space.  The space battle leaves me drooling every time.  It's just so phenomenally well-conceived and intense.  Even during the fourth viewing I was still saying "wow" out loud.

Rogue One also serves to fill in one of the life-long major plot holes in the original Star Wars, ie. howcome the Empire didn't know about the flaw in the Death Star?  And this movie is built around that very question and it provides a thoroughly satisfying answer.  What I love is this is its own movie.  It's got its own beginning, middle and end.  It feels heavyweight and important on its own. Rogue One is not a "prequel" to Star Wars, nor is Star Wars a sequel to Rogue One.  They're complimentary sides of the same coin.  In a weird way one completes the other and vice versa, yet neither absolutely need the other.  Had this been the first Star Wars movie in 1977, I would have be just as all-in as I was with George Lucas' original vision.

It's a darker movie than any Star Wars we've seen before, far more intense in its violence (but it's still just bloodless laser blasters).  Even still, it's not necessarily only for older audiences.  It's exploration of the grey side of war, and the casualties it brings can be important for kids to see and talk about afterwards.  My seven year old loved it (she's seen it 3 times now).  But it's really up to a parent to know their kid's tolerance levels for cinematic violence.

This one is in my top 3 Star Wars films already, and could very well edge its way into #1, sentimentality for the originals be damned.  It's such a fantastic, well realized production that it sucks me into the world like I was 10 years old again.  I want to watch this every Sunday for a good long while.