Rebel, rebel: Felicity Jones and Diego Luna play members of the rebellion in the new Star Wars story, Rogue One.

‘Rogue One’ puts the ‘war’ back in ‘Star Wars’
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 18, 2016 - 12:00am

For a year now, Star Wars fans have been drooling over trailers about a new story in the canon pipeline, this one concerning a daring mission to help the Rebel Alliance defeat the Imperial Army in a galaxy far, far away.

Rogue One is that story, and among other things, it answers a basic question that has bemused Star Wars fans since the first installment was released in 1977: how did a sophisticated, ruthless Empire leave such a wide-open target on its Death Star?

The standalone Star Wars installment, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and starring Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), solves this mystery in a script loaded with Easter eggs and distant fan lore by obvious fans Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Along the way our heroes gather a ragtag band of rebels out to steal schematic plans to a large, planet-like base operated by the evil Empire.

Our story begins on a planet beset by Imperial Military minions who are forcing retired scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on designs for a new space station, whose ultimate purpose remains unclear — unless you’ve ever watched Star Wars, that is.

His young daughter, Jyn (Jones), escapes as they take him prisoner, and they are separated. She’s raised and trained by militant rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and eventually finds herself recruited by the Rebel Alliance, who think she might be able to help fight against the Imperial Forces.

This part of the movie slogs a bit, trapped in technical and political detail that will basically only appeal to true Star Wars geeks and kids who play endless rounds of Stratego and Dungeons and Dragons in basements on rainy afternoons. There’s a bit of inner turmoil for Jyn, who’s not really sure what happened to her dad. Jones goes into deep acting mode here, lending her character a gloom that lacks the sprite-like spunk of Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (But hey, what can we expect? She’s got abandonment issues.)

What’s interesting for Star Wars freaks and geeks is that Rogue One colors outside the lines of the seven “Episode” installments to drop in bits of lore from the “Expanded Universe” of TV shows like Star Wars Rebels and Stars Wars: Attack of the Clones. For instance, some members of the audience lit up like pinball machines when a certain “hammerhead corvette” move was mentioned (the term appears only in the Star Wars Rebels series and books, not the original Lucasfilm movies).

Star Wars fans tend to be protective of the franchise — and George Lucas is the ultimate fanboy. His reach extends to forbidding Rogue One from carrying an “opening crawl” — all those words that sum up where the story begins — lest the movie be seen as one of the numbered “Episodes” fans know so well. Instead, we get a lone familiar contextualizing line: “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” No matter: it was enough to elicit Pavlovian whoops from the audience.

In addition, Lucas, before selling his creation to Disney, laid out strict guidelines about Rogue One characters not crossing over into the preceding and following episodes. Episode VII, we are informed, continues a plot line that Lucas had already ordained in his original 10,000-page Star Wars script bible back in the ’70s.

Rogue One, then, is really a one-off that fits somewhere between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope (or, as one wag at the IMAX premiere called it, Episode 3.9). It actually picks up its story thread from a few throwaway lines in the original Star Wars, and places us deep inside the action leading up to that moment.

And, unlike most other Star Wars entries, Rogue One is most definitely a war movie. We’re down in the trenches, no Ewoks or Jar-Jars in sight. There’s an underlying tone here of choices being made leading up to a grim mission, of characters being built up and revealed for one brief, shining moment. Think classic ensemble Westerns like The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven. There’s no wisecracking, grinning Han Solo here to lessen the burden, though there is a wisecracking robot (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to lighten things up at times.

There’s also a pair of Force-savvy would-be Jedis played by veteran Chinese actors Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen, who operate here both as a reach-out to Asian audiences as well as a nod to the two comical peasant characters in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (who, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, inspired C-3PO and R2-D2).

There’s an Imperial pilot with mad skills played by Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), and Luna as Cassian Andor, a Rebel spy who grudgingly trains Jyn in the ways of the rebellion. (Bonus: Luna and Jones actually have chemistry.) Added to the mix is a scene-chewing baddie (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs the Advanced Weapons Program for the Imperial Military and wears his billowing white cape in the same menacing manner that Darth Vader wore his black one.

What also struck us as viewers is how effed-up the management structure is on both sides of the fight — the Imperial mid-level managers are just as craven, incompetent and worried about job security as they were in previous Star Wars movies (and there’s always those Storm Troopers, making idle chit-chat when they should be paying attention). But the Rebel leaders are no better: they bicker, they dicker, and they rarely pull together as a united Alliance. It takes a few brave souls willing to think outside the box to properly launch a reckless mission. That’s where the “rogue” part comes in.

In full disclosure, I must admit something embarrassing. I, like, millions of Star Wars fans, had been waiting for Rogue One for over a year. And yet, during the first 20 minutes after the opening credits, I fell asleep. Missed a few crucial scenes with Jyn. Had to ask my wife to fill me in later. That’s because, as mentioned, the opening half is a bit slow and wrapped up in talk. For this we can blame director Edwards, who brought the same sloth-like pace to the first half of his Godzilla.

Fortunately, the second half of Rogue One telescopes the action down to a tiny, crucial point in a fairly breathless manner. Plenty of familiar characters pop up, resurrected by CGI to pull us back into the Star Wars past (you will momentarily be convinced that actor Peter Cushing is still alive and looking quite amazing for 103 years old). That the ending of Rogue One dovetails neatly and precisely into things we already know from Episode IV is ultimately the purpose of this movie — one could call it its “mission.” Though even as a stand alone adventure — grim at times, shaded with more darkness and grit than the average Star Wars swashbuckling adventure — it stands up to fan scrutiny.

And boy, isn’t it awesome that the franchise has created such a riveting collection of rebel characters whose story arcs we can look forward to enjoying in future installments? (Kidding!)

 

 

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