Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Why "Rogue One" is the "Star Wars" Film We Needed

X-wing Starfighters. Imperial Walkers. The Death Star. Darth Freakin' Vader. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is brimming with fan service to titillate Force-sensitive aficionados of that galaxy far, far way. And yet, this is the most non-Star Wars film in the franchise, bearing only a few of the saga's signature touches to bring us a story that is simultaneously warm-and-cozy and shiny-and-new. If you felt like last year's excellent-but-familiar The Force Awakens was a retread of A New Hope, you'll be delighted to hear that Rogue One's differences from the core Star Wars films extend far beyond the lack of an opening scroll and a John Williams theme.

Making The Empire Strikes Back look downright cheery by comparison, Rogue One is decidedly dark, and it's definitely not for children under the age of 10. Heroes die and the costs of war are on full display in the inaugural Star Wars anthology film, taking us outside of the Skywalker family saga to chronicle the Rebel Alliance's theft of the Death Star plans that were at the center of the original 1977 film. Even though kids might not exactly thrill to the sacrifices of the main characters of Rogue One, including the impetuous Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the deceptive Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the snarky droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), adult fans of the saga will find much to debate and dissect this year as they impatiently await the arrival of Episode VIII.

I wasn't necessarily overjoyed by the prospect of Gareth Edwards taking the helm of the first standalone Star Wars flick, since I was fairly disappointed by his vision for Godzilla back in 2014. And yet, after the somewhat slow first act of Rogue One, I appreciated his unique take on George Lucas' universe. Edwards made new locales like the bustling city of Jedha and the sun-soaked beaches of Scarif fit right into the established Star Wars universe and feel overwhelmingly real compared to the artificial locations on display in its fellow prequel films. That's right, folks. Rogue One is a Star Wars prequel. Equally real are the smaller interactions between the main characters, whether it's Jyn sharing a tearful moment with her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) or a tense conversation between Darth Vader and the ambitious Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

Speaking of performances, not all of the standouts in Rogue One are flesh-and-blood. A far cry from the bumbling and grating Jar Jar Binks in the other prequel films, Rogue One brings us a remarkable digital creation in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin, resurrecting the late Peter Cushing with surprising realism. It's not perfect, stumbling into the uncanny valley on more than one occasion, but there are certainly moments when you forget you're watching an actor that is no longer with us. A similar work of digital wizardry de-ages another A New Hope character during the film's finale, albeit a tad less effectively. That being said, we're very close to photo-realistic human characters on film, and that's both awesome and terrifying.

Although the film starts out a bit on the tedious side, with out-of-place text informing us which planet we're on as the film jumps around like a caffeinated womprat, Rogue One becomes an outstanding adventure once it gets going. The final is an intense battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire that takes us from outer space to the shores of Scarif, representing what is arguably the most exhilarating Star Wars action sequence ever filmed. It's these jaw-dropping final moments of the film that prove to be the most effective, being satisfying in their own right and bringing new context and gravitas to the 1977 film, which begins mere moments after Rogue One's conclusion.

And yet, as much as Rogue One is a lead-up to the original film, which is made all the better as a result, it deserves and perhaps demands repeat viewings in its own right. I can't wait to watch the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) drop an entire Stormtrooper squad with a stick again, just as I can't wait to see Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) go all Rambo on some Death Troopers just one more time in theaters. Hell, I'm even looking forward to seeing Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) sic his mind-reading squid on former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Because that scene is just weird.

But weird is OK, and even though Rogue One doesn't always feel like a traditional Star Wars film, it still feels like it belongs in that galaxy we know and love.

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