When embarking upon a dangerous mission, blind Martial arts master Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) repeats his mantra, “The Force is with me, I am one with the Force.” In a nutshell, this is how we feel as fans of the 39 year old STAR WARS franchise, plodding through this inspired yet lopsided jaunt through Lucasian lore. After the eighth go around, it’s a difficult task to isolate the accumulated knowledge and think objectively about how a newcomer would receive Gareth Edwards’ ROGUE ONE.
Disney’s first attempt at expanding the sci-fantasy saga’s cinematic universe a-la Marvel proffers the story of the group of rebel spies/combatants who steal schematics of the super-weapon in George Lucas’ 1977 feature film. Instead of a discrete prequel, this film’s appeal and its handicaps stem from writing prologue backwards from the familiar harrowing chase which effectively updated Kubrick’s USS Discovery sequence with lasers and explosions.
On the lush planet Lah’Mu, Imperial architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) takes refuge to protect his wife and daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose care he entrusts to rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Galen contributed to the design of the super-weapon, dubbed the Death Star, under the supervision of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn). Jyn’s father, it turns out, betrayed the Galactic Empire by sending a messenger to reveal a structural weakness for the Rebellion to exploit. Like a Biblical parable, we jump past the intervening years to the moment of Jyn’s liberation.
Edwards’ approach introducing locales and characters is refreshing; establishing shots have a moment or two to breathe. Our fondness grows for the acerbic wit of a reprogrammed robot, K2sO (Alan Tudyk) and the bond between Chirrut and his protector, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The first act is well-conceived and well-executed if a little rushed. But to set the bar at J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is an exercise in self-deprecation. To not admit to one’s self, fan or not, that the second and third act aren’t exercises in circuitousness, is self-flagellation.
I debated showing my cards. As a critic, you’re generally damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So here goes: I know who Nien Nunb is. I’m aware that gold medalist fencer Bob Anderson stood in for Dave Prowse for the better part of RETURN OF THE JEDI. I know Salacious Crumb’s middle initial (“B”). I know that Crix Madine’s hairpiece is a subject of much discussion. My ears perk up when the dissolute Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions the Whills, the mythical race of historians/chroniclers in George Lucas’ rough outlines for The Adventures of Deak Starkiller out of which STAR WARS was adapted. I understand what the inscription on Darth Vader’s chest plate means.
If all that were required to make a movie meaningful were the coattails of a multi-billion dollar franchise, then this film handily delivers all the beats and gags (look for the disfigured fellow who’s got the death sentence on twelve systems) to amuse even the most learned of STAR WARS fans. That too, is where inconsistencies begin to infuriate both the dedicated and the uninitiated.
When Darth Vader (voiced once again for the screen by James Earl Jones) makes his appearance, we finally see him at his most vulnerable. But it’s a visual tease. Nothing more is made of it, unlike our first glimpse at his scarred cranium in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK prefacing the conflicted character within, whose forthcoming redemption lay squarely in the hands of his son, Luke Skywalker. Seeing Vader abandon his usual economy of words feels so off-balance it disrupts the feel of the second act. What was set up to be an endearing struggle against tyranny suddenly becomes a hodgepodge of in-jokes occasionally offset by well-staged action scenes.
ROGUE ONE succeeds in many places that other STAR WARS outings failed. Space battles follow action logically in contrast to the cacophonous “more is more” philosophy embraced in the STAR WARS prequels. Also, the film serves as testament to the diversity of ideas: Asians, Hispanics, Brits (including Riz Ahmed of Pakistani descent) lend uniqueness to the character performances.
Conceived by Lucasfilm/ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll, shot by Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FOXCATCHER), produced by Kathleen Kennedy, the film is a kind of collaborative effort previously impossible to execute under the weight of George Lucas’ money/status. You can sense the input of experienced actors like Yen, Luna and Mendelssohn, conducive toward natural line deliveries: Mendelssohn’s Krennic suggests an eroded friendship with Galen; Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang’s Baze, a huggable bear of a fellow, may be more than friends.
But just as these virtues whet our appetites, appendicitis sets in. The story becomes circuitous. We miss the formative years of Jyn’s life—one moment Saw Gerrera abandons, then rescues her. The Death Star plans are transmitted to Group One of the rebel fleet who departed from Base HQ at Yavin 4 only to send them on a ship back to… Yavin 4. The film establishes faster-than-light communication; why didn’t they just radio HQ? Learn to hate this word: retcon.
Then, the nods become the point, culminating in four or five cameos that go a few beats past whimsy toward groan-inducing. Disney/Lucasfilm strongly emphasized the standalone nature of these anthology films, noting especially the departure from the Skywalker family saga and the absence of Jedi from ROGUE ONE. It may have begun with an earnest desire to tell a unique story that departs from formula (you already know it’s a suicide mission, more or less), hobbled by built-in expectations of something STAR WARS.
The split-personality disorder is multiplied by Michael Giacchino’s (characteristically) anemic score, standing in for the superlative Alexandre Desplat who bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. While John Williams is no Nino Rota, indiscriminately stealing from Holst, he does understand the importance of strong themes. James Newton Howard and John Ottman easily crafted scores immediately identifiable with their key protagonists in UNBREAKABLE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, following Rota’s and Elmer Bernstein’s emphasis on leitmotif.
Fraser’s cinematography is functional where it needs to be, yet falls apart where visual style is paramount. While battles are choreographed with care, there’s no visual storytelling. The coordination between production artist Ralph McQuarrie and DP Gilbert Taylor on A NEW HOPE produced callbacks to Westerns, sci-fi serials and jidaigeki just as Williams’ score cleverly referenced Elgar in the Throne Room ceremony.
In ROGUE ONE, the filmmakers’ consciously summon Darth Vader, ranked on AFI’s 100 Years list as the third greatest cinematic villain of all time, from a demonic lair more angular and a good eighty stories taller than Barad-Dûr. Then, sucking all the wind out of that scene, they use wide shots.
Many great cinematographers hail from Poland, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s Peter Suschitzky is no exception. The difference between the hero shot and, let’s call it, the villain shot, is that the hero looks down his nose at his opposition. The villain, and especially Darth Vader, stares directly down into his enemy’s soul. ROGUE ONE begins as an inspired concept, only to conclude with a soulless stare.