Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue's Gallery

I think just about everybody reading this already has their plans set to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend. (And a few like me already have.) This review won't reveal much more than you'll already know if you've watched the trailers (I will talk character some, but not plot). But if you're looking to stay completely unspoiled, then here's the short version:

Prequel is no longer a dirty word in the Star Wars franchise.

If you're still here, I assume you're okay digging a little bit deeper. Rogue One definitely pulls off a few very difficult balancing acts. Chief among them, it feels like a Star Wars movie without feeling like the Star Wars movies that have come before. It's by far the most "adult" of franchise, less swashbuckling in tone. It's full of brazen heroics and it's plenty of fun, but the consequences and stakes feel more real.

There's loads of fan service sprinkled throughout, sometimes hanging out in the background of a shot. But there are also just as many shots that feel like something new -- more realistic somehow, more gritty. Even the opening shot, revealing a planet as Star Wars movies always do, feels more 2001 than Star Wars.

Another balancing act here is injecting suspense into a story where everybody knows the ending. Rogue One rises to the occasion by providing the most exciting, intense third act since the original Star Wars. It never lets up.

Following in the steps of The Force Awakens, Rogue One also succeeds in presenting engaging new characters. Jyn Erso is another compelling female lead, and debatably more successful than Rey. If you thought Rey's skill set implausibly vast in The Force Awakens, you'll find Jyn much more realistic (though by no means incapable). Felicity Jones perfectly captures Jyn's resilience through trial after trial.

Rebel spy Cassian Andor is perhaps the most realistic Star Wars character of all. He's certainly the most mired in moral ambiguity, a "good guy" who has not and does not always act like the good guy. In some ways, he's a Han Solo without the charm; that's all been drummed out of him by the horrors of war. Diego Luna's performance shows all this without wallowing in the darkness of the character.

K-2SO is my new favorite droid in the Star Wars universe. Sorry BB-8, you had a glorious but brief run. Once again, the droid is the prime source of comic relief in the film. But this time, it often comes in the form of sarcasm. Alan Tudyk's vocal performance is a highlight of the film.

Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus are an intriguing duo, though a spoiler-light review prevents me from digging much into them. Bodhi Rook is the more grown-up, realistic take on the character of Finn.  Mads Mikkelsen, after giving good villain in Doctor Strange, gives us something completely different here as Jyn's father Galen. And the world-weary Saw Gerrera is brought from the Clone Wars cartoon to the big screen by Forest Whitaker. The bench of interesting supporting characters runs deep.

On the villain side, Ben Mendelsohn has the rather thankless job of playing Orson Krennic. He's the least developed of the new characters, and totally overshadowed by the brief appearances of Darth Vader. This movie, not the prequels, is the redemption of Darth Vader -- as a menacing and powerful bad guy.

I really felt there were only two notable bad marks against the film. First, Jyn Erso may be a great female lead, but she's also the only woman among the core characters. She's not "the only woman in the galaxy" as Leia seemed to be in the original Star Wars, but it still feels like there should have been another in this more egalitarian time for the franchise.

Secondly, there is one truly unfortunate, ineffective use of CG in the film. You'll know it when you see it, because you're mind will scream at you its rejection of what you're seeing. It doesn't ruin the movie by any means, but it does kick you out of the moment when it appears.

Not only does Rogue One surpass The Force Awakens in my esteem, but I think it also surpasses Return of the Jedi. I give it an A-, and a slot on my top 10 list for the year.

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