Posted Tuesday afternoon, December 27, 2016.
“The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion.”---Grand Moff Tarkin to Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
They have a bad feeling about this: Rebel commandos Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, left), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, center), and the droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), making it up as they go along, attempt to sneak into an Imperial base to steal the plans for the Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the new prequel to the original Star Wars story.
It took a while but I got caught up in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, even though I didn’t like the main characters, felt the violence wasn’t simply thematic but an aesthetic, and missed everything that was entertaining and fun about the original Star Wars story, which Rogue One seemed perversely designed to remind us of without either equaling or even trying to approach it. The excitement and fun, I mean. Obviously it was intended to remind us of Episode IV since it’s a prequel. But fun and entertainment weren’t high on director Gareth Edwards’ to-do list, and at the end, all those factors I was able to push aside while watching, allowing myself to if not enjoy the movie at least take a rooting interest, came back in a rush and I was left feeling let down, somewhat depressed, and thinking, “Well, that was pointless.”
I was focusing on the pointlessness of making a Star Wars movie that adds nothing new to the Star Wars saga either in the form of new and interesting characters, crucial incidents, or backstory that deepens our understanding of anything that we know has happened or is going to happen. The plot of this Star Wars story is summed up in the crawl at the beginning of Episode IV. There’s a Rebellion against the Evil Empire. The Evil Empire has a terrible new weapon that can wipe out the Rebellion. Rebel spies have stolen the plans for the weapon, which they’ve somehow gotten into the hands of Princess Leia, who is taking them to Rebel headquarters with Darth Vader hot on her trail.
And that’s all there is to it and all there really needs to be to it. Deciding to make a movie about those Rebel spies and how they stole the plans is a bit like deciding forty years later to make a prequel to Casablanca focusing on the couriers carrying the letters of transit. It’s not that such a movie couldn’t be interesting. It’s that it couldn’t include most of the characters we love from Casablanca. If it did, they couldn’t be played by Bogart, Bergman, Paul Henrid, Claude Rains, or Peter Lorre. I suppose Renault and Ugarti could be in it, and that might have worked, if the director resisted the temptation to have Raines’ and Lorre’s faces CGI-ed over the actors playing them so they didn’t come across as exhibitions in a technological freak show.
But what would we have learned about Rick and Ilsa and the story we really care about?
Rogue One did tell me something I didn’t know about the stealing of the plans to the Death Star, by replacing what I thought was the story, as slight as it was, with a new version.
I thought the story was a spy story, that the plans were stolen by a few Rebel agents sneaking into some top secret Imperial facility and attempting to sneak back out. Darth Vader’s chasing after them was either the result of a mistake on their part, a betrayal, or Vader’s own Force-enhanced skills in counter-espionage. Spy vs Spy, in other words.
Turns out the plans are stolen in a commando raid.
Our plucky band of heroes aren’t spies. They’re special ops, and they shoot their way in and attempt to shoot their way out. It doesn’t go according to plan, there not being much of a plan---Nobody that I recall echoes Harrison Ford’s “I’m making this up as I go along,” which I know is Indiana Jones’ line, but Indy is Ford and Ford is Han Solo, so it would have made an amusing verbal Easter Egg. There is, however, a good joke on George Lucas’ “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” signature line.---and the Rebel fleet including squadrons of X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters have to come to the rescue. Which leads to a climactic battle sequence that’s a rehash of the climactic battle sequences of all the other Star Wars movies made after Episode IV, except Revenge of the Sith and The Empire Strikes Back, a back and forth between shootouts on the ground and shootouts in space, ending, like The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens, with a clumsy variation of blowing up the Death Star---again---without another actual Death Star.
This time, though, there isn’t one heroic pilot to focus on in the dogfight. So we don’t know what we’re supposed to be looking at except for the too busy visuals of swooping and exploding spaceships.
One sort of useful thing Rouge One does do, if you're an obsessive fan: it explains how the Death Star could be destroyed by a single torpedo fired down what’s essentially an air vent and why that vent happened to be left open at a crucial moment. But I don’t think we needed a two-hour movie devoted to filling in a plot hole that’s been open with nobody much minding for forty years.
Rogue One could have had more of a point if it had added new characters to the saga for us to root for or root against or care about at least a little bit or used old characters in new and interesting ways besides as gimmicks.
As is, Darth Vader is almost literally a mere shadow of his former and future selves (although it’s great to hear James Earl Jones back as the voice behind the heavy breathing) and Grand Moff Tarkin is through the wizardry of CGI reduced to what amounts to a Disney Animatronic version of the late Peter Cushing who played Tarkin with such delicious malice in Episode IV, which is too bad and I think a big mistake.
Guy Henry, the actor onto which Cushing’s image is drawn looks and sounds the part in his own right and has established a reputation for playing charmingly sinister villains. (See Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II.) It would have been easier, and more fun, for us to make the quick adjustment to accepting a different actor in the part than having to spend the whole movie telling ourselves every time Tarkin appears, “Well, it’s almost as if Cushing’s still alive, I guess.”
The third important character from Episode IV who appears is another freak of CGI and shouldn’t be in the movie at all. You probably know what character I’m talking about but I’m going to pretend I’m withholding a spoiler. The character wouldn’t be on the scene at that moment and besides that character’s connection to this story is taken care of quite nicely in a wry and oblique reference by a character from Revenge of the Sith played by the actual actor reprising the role without computer enhancement.
The new characters include a villain who’s a junior grade Tarkin or a senior grade General Hux from The Force Awakens named Director Krennick and played by Ben Mendelshon as if he’s a corporate lawyer who somehow got himself a military posting and is discovering that the ability to write a contract doesn’t translate into the ability to lead stormtroopers into battle and that ambition and intelligence don’t compensate for sheer ruthlessness; Galen Erso, a genius scientist and engineer of questionable motives---or whose motives are questioned by all sides---played by Mads Mikkelson, whose job is to make his underwritten and under-used character important in our minds mainly because he must be important if he’s played by Mads Mikkelson; and Saw Gerrara, a militant separatist leading his own private rebellion against the Empire, played by Forest Whittaker for the same reason Erso is played by Mikkelson---to make the character seem more important and interesting than the script actually makes him.
Then there are the heroes.
Chief among them in popularity---with good reason---is a hulking, physically expressionless robot called K-2SO and voiced with wonderfully droll matter of factness by Alan Tudyk. K-2SO doesn’t just have most of the best one-liners and jokes, he has just about all of them, and Tudyk makes them all killers. Which calls attention to how grim and humorless the rest of the movie is, but never mind.
Donnie Yen as the monk-like worshipper of the Force Chirrut Îmwe who seems to draw Jedi-like fighting skills from his slightly mad belief that he’s tapped into the Force and Wen Jiang as his big, hand cannon-wielding bruiser of a friend and routinely exasperated protector Baze Malbus aren’t so much characters as a trope. A Don Quixote with real giants and armies and wizards to do battle with and his strong, brave, and resourceful Sancho Panza. They’re an amusing pair but they’re given no subplot or sidestory of their own and the only chances we get to really know them are in the fight sequences when our attention is somewhat divided.
The last member of the Rogue One team is a type not a trope. Played by Riz Ahmed, Bodhi Rook is the nervous and timid nerd in way over his head who finds his courage at the crucial moment. His story seems over by the time he appears, because it is. He’s really more of a part of the Galen Erso subplot and everything he needs to have done he’s already done offscreen before we meet him. Which brings up this:
A better and more interesting story could have been told about Krennick, Eso, Gerrara, and Bodhi, a story that would have been full of intrigue, double-dealing, questionable loyalties, friendships betrayed, a love triangle, and real spy story suspense as we wonder, “Will he get away with it and how will he manage it if he does?” Again, never mind.
That movie would have had Galen Erso as the main character. Rogue One has his daughter Jyn as its main character.
You might remember that when the first trailer was released back in the spring revealing that the main character was female there was some online fanboy temper tantrum throwing over the fact that they were having their childhoods ruined---yet again---by a second Star Wars movie in a row featuring an icky old girl as the hero. This was countered by some feminist-lite crowing over there finally being a female lead as badass as Obi-wan, Luke, and Han, as if Leia and Rey were merely routine damsels in distress.
The problem is Jyn isn’t very heroic. That is, she is not a commanding and independent figure. She’s basically a little girl lost with good aim and wicked martial arts skills. Leia is a full-fledged adult from the first. Rey. although a teenager, is on the brink of adulthood, having had to be essentially a grown-up since she was a kid. Jyn is an adolescent defined by her relationship with her absent father. Which is ironic, considering Carrie Fisher was nineteen when she was cast in Episode IV, Daisy Ridley was twenty-three when The Force Awakens was released last year, and Felicity Jones, who plays Jyn, is thirty-three.
And then Jyn is to the plot of the movie what she is to the agents of the Rebellion who use her in their plot to obtain the Death Star plans, a device to take things where they need to go. Once the movie’s plot and the Rebellion’s plotters are done using her for that, she’s pretty much done as a character. Since this happens only a little more than halfway through, she has to be rewritten on the spot to justify her continuation in the story as its main character. It’s a hasty and sloppy rewrite, and she goes from angry and petulant teenager in rebellion against everything to angry and petulant Rebel with a cause.
This doesn’t give Jones, who I thought was terrific as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, much to work with. She manages about a half dozen facial expressions, all of them variations on a frown or a pout, and as many changes of tone of voice. And she’s given no good jokes.
Meanwhile, as the what’s by default the male romantic lead, Diego Luna seems demoralized, sapped of energy, and barely able to hold himself up---whatever he’s doing, he looks like he’d rather be crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over his head. That’s his character. He’s playing the part as written. I just wish he could have found a way to bring more passion and energy to his performance even so, that he’d done a better job of suggesting what Cassian Andor was like once upon a time.
Andor is supposedly the Rebel leader Mon Motha’s chief intelligence operative but he’s been so worn down by years of war and going on violent and dangerous missions that, as far as he’s aware, have produced practically no good results that now he’s practically just going through the motions, pushed onward by a vestigial sense of duty and responsibility and a half-hearted loyalty to his fading ideals. In short, he’s a character who needs to be reinvigorated and redeemed, and in movies that usually means by the love of a good woman. Consequently, something of a romance develops between him and Jyn, but it’s perfunctory and while Jones and Luna make an attractive couple, Jyn and Andor are no Leia and Han or even Padme and Anakin. There’s nothing about either one that suggests that what they need is each other. They’re just two lost souls who latch onto each other in their mutual hopelessness and desperation.
In other words, their falling in love is pointless.
But it’s a different kind of pointlessness than I’ve been complaining about. It’s thematic.
Mulling it over, I’ve come to think that Rogue One’s pointlessness might be the point.
Nothing much happens in Rogue One to advance the saga because nothing much was happening in the time immediately before Episode IV and the arrival of its title character, the New Hope.
That would be Luke Skywalker, of course.
What we’re seeing in Rogue One is the Rebellion on the brink of failure. The battle against the Empire has stalled. The Rebel Alliance is coming apart. Factionalism, defeatism, and a lack of inspired military and political leadership have taken a toll all around. Andor’s demoralization is representative of a general collapse of will and resolve. People are carrying on just to carry on. They don’t know what else to do. All they seem to be fighting for anymore is to live to fight another day.
“Rebellions are built on hope,” they tell each other, but the Rebels are out of hope.
The long ago, far away galaxy of Rogue One is the one Tarkin describes to Darth Vader in Episode IV, a place no longer lit by the Jedi’s flame. The Force is out of balance, but it’s not just that the Dark Side has clouded everything. It’s that without the Light Side, that’s all it can do. The Force is a whole, a yin and yang, and without one side or the other it can’t do its work:
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
Things are coming apart. All the bonds are breaking. The Force must be brought back into balance. Light must be restored. And, just as the way to the Dark Side is through anger, hate, and fear, the way to the Light is through Hope, and hope is what Luke has in abundance. It’s what he is.
And that’s what gives Rogue One its point. That’s why Luke, even though he’s never seen or even mentioned, is its actual hero. He’s the hero of all the movies, the prequels, the sequels, and the original trilogy, the way Arthur is the hero of all the stories of the Knights of the Round Table. Those stories are all parts of Arthur’s story. Rogue One is a Star Wars story and all the Star Wars stories are parts Luke’s story. Which makes sense.
After all, he is King Arthur.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelson, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Guy Henry, and James Earl Jones. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
Recent reviews from the Mannionville Daily Gazette:
Hacksaw Ridge: Private Desmond Doss' Agony in the Garden.