Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Zaki's Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Click here to read my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” 
Those words unfold via the iconic opening crawl that comes at the very top of 1977’s Star Wars (it’s been retroactively retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but to me it’ll always be just Star Wars). And the tantalizing promise of adventure those words offer was powerful enough to capture not only the imagination of that first generation to witness them, but every generation since; their appeal has spanned nearly four decades, seven movies, and mountains of licensed merchandise.

So it’s not too surprising that the opening crawl from Star Wars has also ended up serving as the foundation upon which Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is built. The first “standalone” picture since Disney took over, Rogue One stands apart from the saga—but don’t worry, Episode VIII will be out before you know it—while still leaning on its aesthetic and thematic touchstones in a manner conducive to the “shared universe” mega-franchises that are all the rage these days (due in no small part to Disney’s own Marvel Studios brand).

Indeed, while last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a.k.a. Episode VII) was the very successful leading edge of Disney’s planned fusillade of big-budget epics set in the galaxy far, far away, it’s Rogue One that offers perhaps the clearest indicator of what they had in mind when they forked over a cool $4 billion for the whole shebang back in 2012. Anyone worried that the Mouse House might take the edge off the franchise should take comfort in Rogue One being probably the grittiest entry since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.

As directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Rogue One is, at its core, a down-and-dirty wartime drama, set just before the events of the original ’77 installment—and finally depicting onscreen the events that had, until now, only been alluded to via that opening crawl: The Empire has a planet-destroying super weapon on the way, and it’s up to a hardy band of do-gooders to do something about it before it’s too late.

Among the heroes we cheer for are Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the designer of the dreaded Death Star, and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a lovable rogue in the Han Solo mold. Among the baddies we hiss at are Death Star Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), and a certain Dark Lord of Sith who sounds an awful lot like James Earl Jones. Beyond that, I owe it to you to preserve what precious surprises the story does hold (and yes, there are a few).

In that sense, Rogue One’s biggest asset might have been its biggest deficit: The essential familiarity we have with not only this universe, but this specific story. Moreso than even the previous prequel trilogy, we know with exacting detail precisely where this story needs to end up in order to line up with Episode IV. As such, the big question I had going in was whether the filmmakers could lend consquentiality to a tale that hasn’t been consquential enough for anyone to even bother depicting until now. Whether they could find a way to make a cast of characters “matter” when we know, in the grand scheme of the larger storyline, that they really don’t.

The solution they arrived at was to draw on our nostalgia and fondess for the series without letting this movie be awash in it. Instead, we get a depiction of the Empire at its most dire, and the Rebellion at its most desperate. This is Star Wars with the clock wound back to its most iconic iteration: A galaxy lying crippled under the bootheel of fascism, crying out for emancipation that’s just around the corner. And in the absence (mostly) of lightsabers and Jedi mysticisim, the stakes in Rogue One manage to feel somehow more pressing and immediate, even as we know from the communal memory exactly how this story will—must!—end.

Although set to the side of the previous “saga” films, this still functions as a prequel, of sorts, to the Original Trilogy, and in that sense manages the task far more effectively than those other prequels. At this point the various structural and storytelling flaws of Episodes I-III have been picked to death and I won’t go back over old ground, but Rogue One distinguishes itself by adding depth and scope to this universe in a way those entries never quite mustered, all the while plying our foreknowledge of certain future plot points in a way that’s never distracting.

When Disney first purchased Star Wars from George Lucas and announced its expansive plans, the “sequel trilogy” we’re currently in the midst of via Episodes VII-IX was something of a slam-dunk. There was always going to be an audience for the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, et al. But the spin-offs were always more of a nebulous thing. Was there enough juice in the tank to sustain even the interest of longtime fans for years to come? Well, if Rogue One is anything to go by, there are plenty of Star Wars stories still to tell. A

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