Friday, December 30, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / *** (2016)

The first act of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the frenetic embodiment of the Hollywood machine, a collection of scenes so relentless and overdone that they provide us little time to grasp the scope of their events – unless you are ingrained enough in the mythos of George Lucas’ universe to possess a thorough comprehension, I suppose. Those are the luckiest viewers, in a way, because their sense of exhilaration is likely amplified by their connection to the material, even beyond the mere notion of a movie like this existing at all. But what can be said for the rest of us who don’t own the cliff notes version of the premise, and must observe closely to attempt and piece together the fragments of the conflict? This new stand-alone chapter to the ongoing “Star Wars” saga is an anomaly that will at first seem insufferably distant. There are early moments that involve wondrous sights and notes of nostalgia, but most are sidelined by a central narrative arc that gives little time to characters or their personal experiences. Only later, once an idea has finally lodged in our mind of what everyone’s role is, do things come together well enough to satisfy the more intellectual urges of the audience. The thing about established franchises is that as much as you think you know, so little of it matters when the gears move into new positions.

This is not an endeavor that opposes the trajectory, and yet there is also a good deal of merit contained in many moments of “Rogue One” for those going in with a blank slate. It tells the story of a young woman named Jyn (Felicity Jones), who is nearly orphaned in the early scenes when her father (Mads Mikkelsen), a weapons specialist, is apprehended by forces of the empire and her mother is gunned down. Stowing away in an underground tunnel during the ordeal, she is found and rescued by the enigmatic Saw (Forest Whitaker), a radical rebel whose ties with Galen, her father, apparently obligate him to serve as a foster parent. Somewhere along that path their relationship is severed, however, and Jyn is thrust into the inevitability of living in bleak poverty-stricken conditions as a teenager, where she is usually seen putting Saw’s hard lessons into anger-driven action. Ultimately that leads to a moment when she is captured by rebel forces and assigned a task that will place her in the crosshairs of the empire’s destructive tendencies: acquiring the plans for the death star itself, a weapon reportedly designed by her very father.

Was he complicit in its creation, or does the blueprint possess some sort of secret that the rebellion can exploit against their adversaries? The question drives the behaviors of a handful of the movie’s primary characters, including Cassian (Diego Luna), a rebellion fighter who is assigned to watch over Jyn while she attempts to acquire information on the plan’s whereabouts. But their mission is often beset by curve balls thrown by a vengeful empire, including tests of the death star’s power that serve as the ambitious foreshadowing of later events; surfaces of a planet are seen crumbling to oblivion, and their survivors have the responsibility of rushing off to escape pods while the shaky camera follows them from behind. The dialogue offers bridges to the key moments – an ambush on a space deck in which Jyn narrowly must come face-to-face with her father, a discussion about the force with a blind rebel who may or may not be a Jedi, among many others – and some of it is even rather funny. The token mechanical character – in this case, a reprogrammed empire droid named K-2S0 – plays like a satirical antithesis of his closest cousin; whereas C-3P0 was inquisitive and distinguished, here is a being who matches the cynicism of his possessors with sardonic wit.

Most movies create these virtues as part of introductory phase. “Rebel One” arrives at them after long and exhausting passages of foreshadowing. That is a must, perhaps, based on where the timeline sits for Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz’s ambitious screenplay, but their endeavors are not an orderly presentation of their events. Many of the characters are viewed so abruptly in those early moments that we don’t catch their names until much later, leaving some of us in confusion during inevitable gatherings of all the important figures. Furthermore, the location-jumping of these scenes is so rapid that one must wonder what the intentions are: is it necessary for the sake of establishing the conflict’s framework, or is the director, Gareth Edwards, more interesting in creating a travelogue of all the planets that threaten the empire’s future? Edwards knows the pace of an action blockbuster well enough to serve as the pilot of this sort of endeavor (he did, after all, direct the last “Godzilla,” which had many admirers), but I wonder if the idea of being in this universe overpowered him. Those that are destined to get involved in the worlds they treasure are almost always weakened by the burden of distraction.

If his failure is momentary, then that of his lead star Felicity Jones, is far more glaring. Almost always viewed by the camera in the stillness of an insufferable pout, here is a performance that never allows us to connect directly with the heroine; it is too wooden, almost inhuman, to come across with resonance. What exactly was her motivation? One gathers that the most prominent emphasis in her mind was Jyn’s tragic early life, which certainly adds weight to that conviction. But there needs to be more than a single emotion fueling the effort of the portrayal, otherwise all you get is a face of stone uttering a few rebellious lines of defiance. Contrast her to Daisy Ridley’s presence in “The Force Awakens” – playing a similar character, if you think about it – and one is easily reminded that troubled childhoods can be the conduit to many emotions, not just disgust.

At least towards the end, the focus narrows exactly as it should. The final 30 minutes is a rousing climactic battle on the empire’s home turf, where the resistance is ambitiously led into the halls of their base of operations. As Jyn and Cassian ascend countless floors in search of the crucial death star plans, their peers face-off against waves of soldiers and ships with the precision of a military operation, and often with the same time-bound limitations. Will the rebel pilot be able to send signal up to the ships in the sky to disable the empire’s force field, allowing them to transmit the plans? Will the laser beams of the storm troopers end their endeavors just as someone hurls towards triggering the final switch? Will K2S0 hold back Governor Tarkin long enough for the two leads to find and secure the plans, all while mayhem occurs in the room just beyond? From a technical standpoint, Edwards and his visual effects artists do not disappoint; there is a sharpness to the action, a sense of meticulous detail that keeps our eyes fascinated beyond the exercise. And the ending itself, an effective balance of pathos and optimism, is well done – all this despite the fact that Disney makes a point of ending with a badly rendered shot of a digital actor providing linkage to the fourth episode of the series. Effects have a very long way to go if they are expected to replace living thespians in key movie moments still, but give the movie some credit – if the other illusions have been thoroughly perfected, what’s the harm in at least trying to conquer another obstacle?

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Sci-Fi (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 133 Minutes

Felicity Jones: Jyn Erso
Diego Luna: Cassian Andor
Alan Tydyk: K-2SO
Donnie Yen: Chirrut Imwe
Wen Jiang: Baze Malbus
Guy Henry: Governor Tarkin
Forest Whitaker: Saw Gerrera
Riz Ahmed: Bodhi Rook
Mads Mikkelsen: Galen Erso

Produced by
Simon Emanuel, Kiri Hart, Toby Hefferman, Finni Johanssson, Kathleen Kennedy, John Knoll, Jason D. McGatlin, Allison Shearmur, John Swartz and Susan TownerDirected by Gareth Edwards; Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; based on the story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta

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