Sunday 18 December 2016

Rogue One

Rogue One’s Run

Rogue One  - A Star Wars Tale
2016 USA Directed by Gareth Edwards
UK cinema release print.

Warning: There’s a whole galaxy load of spoilers in this review so probably don’t read this until you’ve seen the movie.

First up, before I pull this movie apart a little, I’d like to ask you all to take this review with a pinch of salt. The reasons for this are as follows...

1). I was pretty ill when I made the journey into London to see this film. I traditionally always see my first viewing of a Star Wars movie in London’s West End (since the end of 1977 at the age of nine) and so I like to make sure I see each subsequent one in a similar venue (if not the same). If it hadn’t been that the cinema in question, the ODEON Leicester Square, had charged me an exorbitant £24 for the single ticket, I wouldn’t have braved it into the nation’s capital city to see it... I was that ill. This could have affected my viewing of it somewhat.

2). There have been a few films in my life where I didn’t get the brilliance of them until I watched them a second time. These have included The Mummy Returns, Avengers Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) and, very recently, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’m guessing this was because there was just too much information for me to process the first time around and so, on subsequent viewings, I was able to appreciate the experience much better. So bear in mind that, although I love The Force Awakens now, I initially came out of my first screening totally depressed with it. So... bearing in mind I didn’t hate Rogue One nearly as much as I did The Force Awakens, I’m kinda hoping this troubling movie will grow on me on any subsequent viewings. That being said, I’m not planning on rushing back to see this one anytime soon and that’s all the wriggle room I’m going to give this movie.

Okay, so Rogue One starts off, as has been stated by many people, quite jarringly. There’s no opening title crawl after the familiar “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” (don’t worry Lucasfilm & Disney, I’ve grammatically corrected the number of dots on the end of the statement for you) which is a bad move, no opening rendition of the Luke’s Theme Star Wars fanfare (another dumb move) but, to be honest, the most jarring thing is not in the visuals but in the music here because, quite frankly, the first shot of the film itself is not inconsistent with the kind of shot you would normally get after a standard title crawl. The difference is purely Michael Giacchino’s opening sting which is deliberately heavy handed, for some reason. Think about the openings of the three Insidious movies (reviewed here, here and here) for a comparison. Giacchino does a similar thing here, albeit less atonal and more in keeping with the musical vocabulary of John Williams.

After this we get a story about how the Death Star plans were recovered to needlessly but, interestingly, make the plot device in the original Star Wars movie (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope) work. And, although it’s, for the most part, immersed in something which is similar to the known Star Wars universe, it doesn’t really feel much like a Star Wars movie, to be sure.

One of the many things which make it very different is the goody-goody moral attitude of the Rebel Alliance as portrayed in all the earlier movies. In this film you have one of the good guys shooting an informant in the back under the guise of calming him down and the same character keeping a hidden agenda from his comrades in arms for a good deal of the movie. So these are the dark edges of a war which, while absolutely necessary in real life, I would imagine, to being able to survive a war... have not been overtly on show in a Star Wars movie before, when it comes to the good guys doing bad things (I’m discounting Anakin Skywalker killing all those kiddies in Revenge of the Sith because he was already established as a villain by that point).

Now one of the bad things which threw me in this movie is that it tries so hard to be a separate channel, so to speak, from the regular Star Wars movies, that it seems somewhat contradictive when it does it while making so many references to the originals. Like The Force Awakens, it’s peppered with both sound effects, sound samples and lines of dialogue culled form the Star Wars stories so far. And to compound that further, it has a lot, really a lot, of characters from the original movies popping up in this movie. Like the Walrus Man guy and his surly friend in a moment that looked to me, pretty much, like the whole scene and dialogue was spliced into a new background in a way that almost makes the scene in A New Hope redundant if you happen to watch this one first.

Perhaps the most problematic thing is the return of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing has been dead for decades now but he’s been digitally resurrected using old footage, re-voicing and CGI twaddle. Unfortunately, he looks just like a bloody cartoon throughout the whole thing and I felt like I was watching a load of cut scenes from an old Playstation video game for a lot of the movie. I think it was a mistake to bring his character back into it this much in this movie, where he seems to have a much bigger role than he did in the original. Now, a friend of mine disagreed with me in the pub about this yesterday and he said the CGI work on Cushing was phenomenal. However, he then went on to say words to the effect that, “... obviously, you could tell it was computer generated but...” and there is the problem in a nutshell. So much CGI in many movies is totally invisible but, when the effects guys get ambitious, they usually ruin it. The fact that you can detect it, even if you didn’t know he was a digitally resurrected character, is absolutely rubbish and, as far as I’m concerned, not worth having in the first place. This monstrosity reminded me a lot of the CGI Yoda in the prequel trilogy, who also looked unrealistic and cartoon like. This is just awful and I think maybe Cushing’s character should have made a minimal appearance at best. When Princess Leia appears at the end of Rogue One, uttering one word, that was at least a bit more minimal and realistic, I thought. A much better use of the technology, as far as I’m concerned. Tarkin just pops you right out of the experience whenever he’s on which was not a good thing.

Another not so good thing is the prison transport truck which is carrying female lead Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. As it trundles along on its wheels you just sit there all popped out of the movie again and go “What the f***? Wheels?” Even the primitive Gungans, over thirty years prior to when this movie is set, had hover technology just like “everything else in the Star Wars universe” asides from, obviously, the AT AT and AT ST Walkers. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Okay, now the movie does something interesting in that we get a character in it who is a ‘Guardian of the Whills”. Now The Journal of the Whills is one of the first bits of Star Wars lore I can remember. It was in the original novelisation of the first movie and it referenced the tale as being a recorded set of facts from these fictional journals. However, although it’s been around in the public conscience since 1977, the Whills have never been overtly referenced in the actual movies themselves, that I can recall. So here we have Donnie Yen playing a Whill Guardian called Chirrut Îmwe except...

Well, there’s no easy way to say this... he’s basically playing Zatoichi.

Now regular readers of my blog will know of my love of the long running Blind Swordsman character Zatoichi and, to be fair, it’s easily the template for this character and the way Yen plays it almost directly references  Shintarô Katsu’s classic take on the character. Now, don’t get me wrong... I loved Yen’s performance here and I would be really surprised if the Japanese don’t offer him a new series of Zatoichi movies based on his performance but... it does seem like his character has just been grafted onto the movie with no rhyme or reason other than they wanted a cool, Zatoichi-like figure. Yes, I know the Star Wars movies are nothing if not a postmodernistic mish mash of various influences from 1930s Flash Gordon serials, Errol Flynn movies and Kurosawa chambera but still, this seems just a little bit too blatant in its ‘borrowing’... even for a Star Wars movie. He’s a cool character though so... whatever.

Darth Vader’s rampage aboard Princess Leia’s ship at the end of the movie makes no sense. Here he is all out using the force and his lightsabre to take out all the rebels, throwing them around with the power of the dark side like rag dolls... but in the following film, the original A New Hope, he resorts to using his hands to strangle a single rebel? Really? If he was still this powerful... doesn’t he come off as a little sedate in the original movies? Hmm... not going to say too much about that.

I’ve read a lot of bizarre criticisms that this is a movie with a strong female lead who dominates the plot. Felicity Jones character is the main character but I wouldn’t say she dominates the film and it really feels like a more ensemble piece, just like the original. So no worries on that front... all the actors and actresses (who aren’t digitally resurrected) do a good job here. I especially liked Alan Tudyk (Wash from Serenity and the Firefly TV show) as K-2SO. He’s pretty good and gets probably the best lines of throwaway dialogue in the entire movie.

It’s funny because people say it drags for the first half an hour and then gets going. I found it dragged the whole time and didn’t get going at all. Although I could see there was a lot of action on screen, it somehow felt really light on the action front to me and I think this was because the music wasn’t carrying me along in the action cues like it should have... which brings me to my main grouch about the movie... the musical score.

Now don’t get me wrong... I love Michael Giacchino and I love this score in some ways. I’m pretty sure when I put the CD on it will be a cool stand alone listen. In terms of what it does for this movie... well all I can say is that I wish Alexandre Desplat had stayed with the project.

Giacchino does some amazing stuff here in echoing John Williams orchestrational style from the first movie (possibly even more subtly than Williams did in his amazingly cool score for The Force Awakens) but what it triumphs in with the technical structure and texture of the sound it loses in its lack of rich melody. So it's like he covered the subtle details of how the scores work while simultaneously missing the broad strokes. Williams’ themes are barely referenced apart from a couple of appearances of The Imperial March (which is wrong because it should have really been pushing the original Death Star theme because The Imperial March doesn’t appear in A New Hope) and a couple of other moments, including Luke’s Theme in the end credits.

Now, I need some melodic, lietmotif hooks to keep me inside the Star Wars experience. This movie appeared not to have any. It’s fine if they want to lose the Williams themes in favour of strong, new thematic material (just like Williams did to a certain extent in The Force Awakens)... but you need to replace them with something consistently recognisable to keep the interest going. In Return Of The Jedi, by the time of the forest battle on Endor, you already know the Ewoks theme because Williams keeps referencing it... so the action music which uses it is something you can tap your toes to as you watch the happy carnage. Here... we have nothing strong that I could latch onto. Yeah... I know this composer only had four weeks to do it and I think he’s done a fantastic job here... I’d be surprised if this is his last Star Wars project. This one just didn’t serve its purpose, as I see it, in this movie. Yes, it’s very clever and uses the grammar of Williams’ scores but... I stayed on throughout the end titles, as I do with all the Star Wars movies, to try and get a handle on the themes and I still had a hard time hearing the melodies. Maybe it was because I was so ill but... maybe not.

And that’s as far as I’m going in this review, I think. I am really hoping that I’ll regret posting such a negative review when I get to see this film again... I’m hoping I get much more out of it on subsequent viewings. At the moment though... yeah, I can’t quite see this as a Star Wars movie... especially when there are some terrible ‘deus ex machina’ moments in it and what looks like a tagged on ending scene for two characters who should have been dead already. there’s some bad stuff in this movie and I was feeling the ‘StarWarsiness’ of any of it by the time the film finished, for sure. However... I’m willing to give it another try so I'll see how it goes next time... I guess.

Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker

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