By Noel Vera
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
(Warning: story and plot twists discussed in explicit detail!)
Gareth Edwards’ one-off take on arguably the most successful movie franchise ever — good? Bad? Iredeemably ugly?
It’s… okay. First hour is dullsville — lot of implicitly momentous developments for the faithful brethren well-versed in the lore I suppose, but mostly murky talking heads referring to stuff you never heard of (and don’t much care about) for the rest of us mere mortals. Gist of this initial 60 minutes is that the Rebels fighting the Empire have heard stories of an Imperial secret superweapon (But aren’t they always?); a MacGuff — sorry, an oversized flash drive containing plans for this weapon (including a secret built-in flaw) has been smuggled out of research facilities by none other than the superweapon’s designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to be stored in a high-security data bank (“But if Galen meant to give that info to the Rebels why allow it to be stored in a high-security data bank?” “Because otherwise this would be a very short movie silly”).
Second half is somewhat more interesting: a bunch of misfits including the designer’s daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) scheme to break into the databank and steal the crucial data. Thanks to their plan we’re treated to aerial dogfights, gunfights, the rare martial-arts fistfight. Beach-based war scenes (Stormtroopers on surf! All that’s missing really is a soldier on a board, riding waves à la Apocalypse Now), mortar shells detonating in water, a near-space naval battle raging over a narrow orbital orifice (the passage through which seems crucial — not to mention considerably Freudian — to the story). Big explosions for the climax (they’re nothing if not literal-minded), the end.
Doesn’t sound too appetizing and for the most part isn’t — we’re asked to care for Jyn’s ragtag band of brothers (couldn’t she have at least one sister?) who come off onscreen as cardboard types, distinguishable mainly through facial hair and the occasional tinted contacts (to indicate blindness). We’re asked to care about the blossoming attraction between Jyn and glorified chauffeur and part-time body guard Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) but are never given a moment of intimacy between the two, much less a scene that explains Cassian’s suddenly inflamed desire (“Page 69 EXT. NIGHT. RAIN. CASSIAN falls for JYN; fadeout before movie loses PG-13 rating”). Significantly the only relationship detailed enough to leave any kind of impression is between Jyn and a machine, K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), a droid who bonds with Jyn over a coveted blaster — the only believable evidence of trust and respect (not to mention implied kinkiness — see Demon Seed [maybe not, it’s not very good] or more interestingly Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s climactic bionic dildo in The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl), sorry I digress, the only believable moment of trust and respect I could remember in the movie’s 133-minute running time.
To be fair, how many human moments or characters are there in the series anyway? I remember two at best: Alec Guinness playing the last survivor of a fading order (come to think of it, playing the last survivor of a great if fading acting tradition); and Frank Oz puppeteering a fuzzy funny green fool who turns out to be funny and wise after all. The rest is a blur of loud blaster fire and whirring lightsabers; the experience of watching slides off one’s memory like a burnt egg off teflon.
Pretty much it, only Edwards unlike Lucas or J.J. Abrams is a filmmaker with a fair amount of talent (his Godzilla being arguably his best work to date), and invests the movie with more visual sizzle than it really deserves: Donnie Yen as the blind Chirrut Imwe dispatches a score of armed stormtroopers with nothing but a staff (the fight — evoking Kurosawa and Lau Kar-Leung — captured mostly in long shot to better showcase Yen’s choreography [though the editing could have been less frantic]). The superweapon fires an energy blast (a small one) to destroy not an entire planet but a city, and the surrounding rock and earth climb higher higher high into a clear blue sky where aforementioned weapon hangs in serene majesty. The space battle has little one-man fighters swarm like mosquitoes round larger vessels, the fighters shot as if they were in World War 2 dogfights; more interesting are the larger ships that sail towards and past each other like pirate frigates looking for an opening.
The final explosion (did say I’d talk about the plot in detail, though don’t most movies in this series end with a big bang?) is invested with more drama and beauty than any other moment in the picture, deaths included, though you wonder at the kind of aesthetics that would glorify the death of billions without much acknowledging the terrible loss (some tears are shed at the loss of Jyn and Cassian who are caught in the blast, a bit that I thought Paul WS Anderson’s Pompeii did much better [for one thing we actually cared about Anderson’s lovers]).
And that’s about it, or as much as the movie deserves I’d say. Not necessarily the best since The Empire Strikes Back, no; actually it’s the only other movie from the franchise I ever liked, along with Irvin Kershner’s film (and, yes, not a big fan of the first installment). Which isn’t saying much but I suppose says something.
MTRCB Rating: PG