Review: Rogue One- A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Rogue One, which is the first cinematic attempt to branch out of the episodic storytelling structure that weaved the narrative of the Skywalker lineage, halfheartedly succeeds in presenting a bold new vision for the near forty year movie franchise. George Lucas’ mythological heft and silent film sensibility are replaced with a stark, tense and claustrophobic picture that illustrates the severe effects of war, which is primarily demonstrated with director Gareth Edward’s free roaming handle held camera moves. Moreover, it is also shown in the following two ways.

The first is in an excellent opening sequence that takes place on an ashen barren planet called Lah’mu, which seems stripped of all natural beauty. A young and ambitious imperial officer called Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) lands on Lah’mu to take the scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and his family into custody.

The scene has echoes of Sergio Leone’s directorial style with Edwards allowing the scenery to loom large and his understanding of the drama leading up to the gunfight being the most crucial aspect that makes it exciting and meaningful. Moreover, Leone’s reliance on sound is also echoed here in two ways. The first is the Death Troopers whose indistinct radio chatter is an unnerving reminder of chaotic nature of war. The second is the sound of a hatch to a minuscule tunnel entrance being used as a source of salvation and later emerging tension as a young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon) attempts to hide from the Empire. Finally, the scene is impressively punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s admirably composed score which was written in the short time span of a month. In the opening scene, his percussive use of drums and fascinating array of unusual small sounds accentuates the underlying dramatic weight and tension.

The sequence predominantly illustrates that war is not a simple black and white affair with clearly defined notions of good and evil as a father’s loving act can be seen as a traumatic touchstone moment for a child that stays with them and shapes their views for the worse. The scene compounded with another one that happens in the first act serve to explore an idea that has permeated the saga which is of failed father figures. With this in mind, there is also a strong sense of atoning for past sins with a lot of characters in Rogue One, which on the one hand represents a sense of temporary hope and on the contrary their lives in service of a utilitarian cause that is much larger than themselves.

Rogue One also showcases the brutalising effect of war by exploring the Rebel Alliance and exposes that their practices in conflict are suspect. For example, for any extreme defectors of the cause they deem it necessary to send someone to kill them which is shown in the first act with the plot involving Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Saw Gerrera. (Forest Whitaker) Ultimately, like the Jedi Council in the Prequel Trilogy, the Alliance are portrayed as a bickering and short-sighted organisation who fail to see the forest for the trees, which inherently echo Lucas’ exploration of the failure of civil institutions in the face of dealing with the problems of evil in society.

In fact, the most powerful reminder of this idea comes towards the middle of the film when an X-Wing squadron are sent to kill Galen Erso. The usual triumphant showcase of the pilots preparing for flight is subverted and replaced with an acute sense of the foreboding as they fly amongst the black, rain-soaked and mountainous terrain of Eadu. In the aftermath, Jyn venomously remarks that the bombers of the squadron might as well have killed her father.

Felicity Jones performance as Erso is captivating because of how the actress effortlessly conveys the subtle change in her worldview through the course of the film. In the beginning, Jones portrays Jyn with a caged steeliness, grumbling reluctance and a relatable cynicism that encapsulates most of the people in the galaxy. Whereas, towards the end of the film, Jones imbues her character with a fearlessness and an endearing sense of optimism.

Nevertheless, Rogue One becomes problematic whenever it is relying on its past. At best, the nostalgic tendencies come across as precious virtual museum exhibits that are attention seeking because they ask the audience for a relishing and adoration of the technological advancement. At worst, they come across as inept choices that nearly undermine the newfound maturation of the series. The first example that presents this criticism comes from the CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The ethical and cultural debate can be had another day however in the context of the film the choice is fundamentally troublesome.

The scenes with the effect go beyond the point of evoking the Original Trilogy and moves in the direction of ghoulish recreation that seems pandering and disingenuous of the film’s vision. The picture wants to separate itself from the rest of the saga. With this premise in mind, the producers should have been bolder and recast the part as opposed to carrying out this expensive effects endeavour. Star Wars has always pushed the boundaries of film technology with its use of CGI and Digital, but this intrinsically clashes with the rigorous Guerrilla ascetic of the picture.

In the final battle when a group of X-Wing pilots take on the Empire’s forces, the moments where the new pilots state their call signs are mixed with archive footage from A New Hope and Return of the Jedi where the pilots declare their designations. The tiny moments felt head-scratchingly awful due to the nonsensical evocation of the past.

The real centrepiece of the sobering atrociousness of Rogue One comes in its final moments. The last three to five minutes of the picture infuriated me in a way that no other motion picture did this year. I sincerely detested the concluding two scenes of the film.

The first involves Darth Vader igniting his lightsaber and proceeding to kill a large group of rebel soldiers in a single contained room. The sequence felt like the producers and filmmakers were placating a deeply rooted and ravenous, insatiable adolescent bloodlust of the people who think that Darth Vader is only meaningful or impressive if he utterly destroys a considerable amount of people. Presence, restraint, tone and most importantly sense seemed to have been thrown out of the window when this scene was initially concieved and it was replaced by several variants of excited squealing and high fives.

The second depicts the Darth Star plans being handed to a character, which turns out to be Princess Leia who is brought to life with CGI which freakishly gives the illusion that Carrie Fisher has not aged a day beyond twenty-one. She proceeds to turn around and directly says to the camera that the plans represent hope. The moment ends with Leia’s ship whizzing into light speed.

The sequence is bothersome because it lessens the primary theme of the film which is disenchanted characters gaining optimism in the face of devastating bleakness and hardship. The whole point of Jyn’s character arc was that she gained some semblance of hope again in the face overwhelming odds. Having Princess Leia express what the film was about made for a terrible souring of the whole experience.

Both scenes ruin the potential ending shot of the film which showed Jyn and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) holding hands while looking on at the destruction that the Death Star has laid in its wake as it is about to destroy the planet. That moment would have left the audience with a bittersweet feeling of the characters succeeding in their plight which came at the cost of their lives.

For all the criticism that has been levelled at George Lucas over the years, he at least understood the importance of crafting a singular shot. As the films went on, the final visual moments of his pictures never lost their cinematic potency or encapsulation of the mythical underpinnings of the Star Wars saga that came from an introspective nature of the scenes in question. They allowed the audience to reflect on the characters’ current emotional state and their future on a grand scale. The ending of Rogue One makes the entire endeavour feel like it is taking baby steps towards shedding its fanboy skin.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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