By Kamran Jawaid | The post is the unedited copy of the review published in Mag the Weekly, on December 24th, 2016. The print version will be uploaded below soon.
In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — or what I believe to be yet another in a string of factory-made expansions around the original Star Wars — the universe far, far away is a grim place. So grim in fact that the film wallows in its eventual near-depressive inevitability, and deliberately forgets to add emotional connections and a sense of humor.
While this grand space-opera had always been one where the good guys were always surrounded in deathly circumstances, (the in-vogue dark-attitude goes back to the Empire Strikes Back), the franchise always had a measure of freshness and feels of giddy schoolboy excitement of watching big events unfold.
That was the 70’s (and maybe the 80’s and the 90’s). Today, big literally translates into big visual effects – for which Rogue One will get eventual ballot entry in the Oscar race (twice, I think, if you count the Production Design). However, big, clean visual effects – and a grand roaring climax – are a pre-requisite, so the nod and rumble, at least to yours truly, is a moot reference to go ga-ga over.
Rogue One is a stand-alone film that’s tightly woven into the first Star Wars film (A New Hope), and pretty much covered in that film’s title scrawl. To quote: “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”.
FYI: there is no title scrawl in Rogue One, however, it is premeditated in all other respects – except, of course, character development.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is your typical impoverished lead (and after conscious pondering, another female lead) yet to embark on a hero’s journey – the path most protagonists usually take in adventure films. She is the daughter of a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen; potential, wasted), who will build the Death Star, but is saved by an extremist (Forest Whitaker; another great actor, squandered), and later abandoned. She is drafted by the Rebel Alliance to seek out plans on how to destroy the Death Star.
Rogue One, in the midst of planet-hopping, includes a supplementary, and sinfully misused cast of characters. They are: Diego Luna (a covert officer, duly hardened), K-2SO an imperial droid reprogrammed by Mr. Luna’s character, a blind samurai-ish warrior (Donnie Yen, whose introductory fight sequence is one of the two genuine wow-moments in Rogue One), his friend and “partner” the scruffy-haired gun-throttling warrior (Jiang Wen), and an imperial defector (Riz Ahmed).
Not one of them is particularly well-utilized, and by the end are more-or-less throwaways. The screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (former of Antz, About a Boy, Golden Compass, and latter of Nightcrawler, Bourne Legacy, State of Play), shuttle through events with barely enough breathing space. What little time the screenplay offers to the people on-screen, there is but little choice to not fallback on their trait’s predictive assertions (Mr. Ahmed’s character, for example, is the second whimpering sideliner since Jon Boyega’s Finn; and for reasons I would never understand, we see the Star Wars galaxy first explicitly-implied gay couple in Mr. Yen and Mr. Wen’s characters).
Now, to be fair, Rogue One was always predestined to be a serious space-filler. Garreth Edwards (Godzilla and Monsters), however, misrepresented the seriousness with dour-determination and augmented the effect with featureless on-set blocking. In particular Mr. Edwards many-angled approach to setting up the camera and intercutting seems like typical Hollywood behavior of shooting too much and letting the editor sort it out.
One text-book scene where this practice comes together is a conversation Ms. Jones’s character has on board a ship. The moment had the potential of rallying triumph and conviction – not the lack of; it’s too great a pitfall for even the dearly-departed Peter Cushing (digitally recreated, and looking videogame-ish), the voice of James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels and Carrie Fisher – or any piece of braided nostalgia – to overcome.
The published copy looks like this