Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Befitting its title and main character, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the grittier, edgier entry in the Star Wars saga. Right from the get-go, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy give us the tonal and sensory cues that we’re in for something very different.

No ubiquitous text scrawl at the start of the movie. No blast of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme to set the mood. Indeed, Michael Giacchino’s score has a dark and forbidding beauty to it. The rebels are shown to be capable of underhanded dealings and even cold-bloodedness in battling the Empire. Hardly a lightsaber in sight.

There’s still a line between good and evil, but lots of graying at the fringes.

There are also plenty of hallmarks of Star Wars. It’s a tale of orphans and adoptive parents, of hope shoving off despair, of those who desire power for its own sake and those who would oppose them. The Force certainly plays less of a direct role than any of the seven other movies, but its energy still thrums in the background, living on the characters’ tongues and in their hearts.

It’s easy to call it the weakest of the Star Wars movies. The first half especially is discombobulated, with too many fringe characters demanding their moment in the spotlight. Including not one, not two but three Asian-influenced warriors who aid the cause. One of them is even the embodiment of that tired old saw, the blind-but-still-a-badass combatant.

Still, it’s a matter of degrees. The weakest Star Wars flick is better than 90% of sci-fi/fantasy films out there. And “Rogue One” continually builds energy as it goes instead of losing it, leading to an action-packed final act I suspect will leave zero fans disappointed.

You probably already know that “Rogue One” shines a light on the events leading up to the destruction of the (first) Death Star, depicting the men and women (and aliens) who procured the secret plans that made it possible for Luke Skywalker to blow up the planet-killing station.

(And, in doing so, it definitely rejiggers around some of the established Star Wars lore. To wit: Apparently, many Bothans didn’t die to bring us this information.)

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, capable thief and miscreant. Abandoned as a child after her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was conscripted by the Empire to help construct the Death Star, she finds herself falling into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) recruits her to seek out Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a radical who rescued Jyn as a child. Saw’s a battle-scarred sort who’s missing parts of his body, and we suspect that’s not all.

Chief baddie is Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic, chief architect of the Death Star project, while Diego Luna provides the counterpoint, rebel spy chief Cassian Andor. Donnie Yen plays Chirrut Imwe, aforementioned blind guy, and Wen Jiang is stoic gunslinger Baze Malbus. Riz Ahmed plays Imperial pilot/turncoat Bodhi Rook, whose entire role could’ve been outsourced to a gaggle of stunt men and extras, and probably should have been.

The scene-stealer is droid K-2SO (voice and motion capture by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer who was captured and reprogrammed by Andor. He’s rather peevish but also protective of his human charges, and is so used to more freewheeling behavior that when the time comes to impersonate his former role, he’s spectacularly awful at it.

I enjoyed “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – but then I’ve liked all the Star Wars movies, even the unfairly maligned prequels. (To those who harp on their clunky dialogue and goofy humor: that’s a feature, not a bug, of all these films.)

It’s a departure, but also a return to roots for a franchise that seemingly has whole new universes yet to explore.

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