Saturday, December 17, 2016

Save for Three Main Flaws, 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' Is Sheer Awesomeness!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of my most anticipated movies of 2016.  And for good reason.  It’s a Star Wars film after all, as well as the first of the stand-alone anthology films set for release between the releases of the main Star Wars saga’s “sequel trilogy” (i.e. Episodes VII, VIII, and IX).  Clearly, there’s amply merited hype surrounding this movie.  So with reference to that hype, as well as the expectations shaped by its trailers, I was extremely satisfied after watching it, as it delightfully turned out being everything I was hoping it would be: an entirely different Star Wars movie, but at the same time, also comfortably familiar.

(Mild spoilers ahead)
Set between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One covers the events written in the iconic opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie ever made, particularly how the Rebel Alliance got their first victory over the Galactic Empire, and how Rebel spies stole the secret plans for the Death Star in the process.

The plot centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a rogue maverick raised and trained by “Clone Wars” veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who is sprung from Imperial captivity by the Rebels in order to help them track Gerrera after he intercepted a message meant for the Rebel Alliance from Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a research scientist coerced by the Empire to build the Death Star.  This eventually leads a ragtag band of misfits – made up of Jyn; Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel Alliance spook; K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior who has some affinity with the Force; Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a heavy repeater cannon-wielding mercenary; and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a defecting Imperial cargo shuttle pilot – to go on an impossible mission that will determine the survival of the Rebellion.
Overall, I freakin’ love this movie.  It’s not perfect, but I genuinely think it’s great.  Since this is what I feel about it, let me get the negatives out of the way first.

I only have three problems with this movie.  First is that it’s choppy at the start.  It simply jumps from one scene to the next, exploring different settings and characters, without any feel of sharp focus to it.  Fortunately, as the movie progresses and the band of characters finally gets together and the bulk of action kicks in, the flow of the narrative becomes smoother and fully engaging.
The second noticeable flaw is its core characters aren’t as interesting as those in Force Awakens.  Save for Jyn, the other protagonists are minimally fleshed out.  K-2SO and Chirrut Îmwe are easily the most striking supporting characters, and the others aren’t unlikable, either, but all of them don’t have the same degree of effortless oomph, on-screen charm, and distinguished characterizations of Finn, Poe Dameron, and BB-8.  Orson Krennic is a decent villain, but he isn’t as profoundly well-realized and badass as Kylo Ren.

And the third flaw – and what bothered me most – is the lack of Darth Vader, arguably the greatest of the greatest of Star Wars characters.  I wouldn’t have any problem with it if the plot had made it logically clear why Darth Vader couldn’t be in it much, or if Krennic had been an extremely compelling villain.  But, seriously, if you scrutinize the script, there’s just no reason why Vader couldn’t be the big bad – or, at least, the second big bad – of this movie.
All the scenes that Vader’s in are gratifyingly exciting (especially the final one – oh my!); but though they’re a positive for this movie on their own, they also further magnify the impact of the fact that he lacks screen time.

In comparison, Grand Moff Tarkin is in more scenes than he needs to be in this movie.  Friggin’ Tarkin who was played by Peter Cushing, an actor who has been long dead.  Sure, Tarkin is one of the most badass villains in the Star Wars universe, and the mo-cap CGI technology that made it possible for the late Cushing to appear in this movie is shockingly impressive (though I’m not sure it will remain so in the passage of time), but why put so much effort on that?  A single scene for him would have been enough, and the rest could have been delegated instead to Darth Vader, which would not only have been infinitely more satisfying, but also more efficient in a technical and logistical standpoint.
But aside from these three negatives, the rest of this movie is sheer awesomeness.

Rogue One is a dark Star Wars film, in the same tonal and emotional vein as Revenge of the Sith and Empire Strikes Back.  It does have humor; it’s in appropriate, un-forced amounts but genuinely hilarious (my most favorite joke involves Chirrut Îmwe).  Its story, apart from the early minor problems with pacing, is truly groundbreaking and deeply impactful.  In fact, in my opinion, it was able to hit some dramatic storytelling heights that Episode VII didn’t.  In addition, it provides this very integral information about the Death Star that greatly improves the plot of Episode IV.
The visuals are breathtaking (which is something unsurprising, really).  And this aspect is very apparent in its action scenes, as Rogue One really put the “wars” in Star Wars.  The ground battles are amazingly gritty, but the space battles are especially exhilarating works of art.  One of my minor nitpicks of Force Awakens is the lack of variety of spaceships, so I love that Rogue One showed non-X-wing spaceships as well.  But, again, that Darth Vader scene is just more glorious than any of its most gorgeous space battle sequences.

Lastly, I find its various cameos and references to the Star Wars universe amusing.  They are mostly gratuitous, yes, but the movie successfully makes these in a manner that concretizes its connection to the Star Wars saga without getting too desperately forced and annoying.
In the end, Rogue One: A Star Wars may not turn out being the best movie of 2016 as Force Awakens did last year, but it’s one of my favorite movies of the year nonetheless – definitely there among the top of the list.  As a Star Wars film, it has a delightful formula of innovation and familiarity mixed in its incredible aesthetics and stirring narrative, resulting to an immersive, exciting, and emotional experience that put a constant smile on my face, goosebumps on my skin, and even a lump in my throat.

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