Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One review

I used to be a huge Star Wars fan when I was a kid. So big, I burnt out about 15 years ago and haven't gone back. Watching the trailers for this movie made it look interesting, like a sci-fi version of The Dirty Dozen with Ip Man and Darth Vader. Sounds good.

Spoilers to follow.


If you've seen the trailers, you know the deal. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a rogue Imperial science officer who has hidden himself and his family to avoid working for the Empire. At the start of the movie, his boss Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn) finds him and takes him back. In the process, his wife is killed and his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) runs away.

Years later, Jyn is an Imperial prisoner. She is freed by rebels, who want her to help them locate her father and what he has been working on. Accompanied by a ragtag group of rebel fighters, Jyn and Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) are in a race against time to locate the plans to this super weapon, before the Death Star is operational.

This movie has a weird case of uncanny valley, and I'm not even talking about CG Peter Cushing. The whole movie looks impeccable. Everything looks big and feels tactile, but that feeling dissipates whenever people start talking. It's not that the dialogue is that bad (although whenever anyone starts monologuing, set your eyes to 'roll'), but there is a humanity and empathy lacking from the early part of the movie which makes it hard to get invested.

For the first 40 minutes or so, it is impossible to latch on to anything. Scenes and locations zip by before they have a chance to land. You don't get a bead on the characters for a while, and it makes a good portion of the movie un-involving and dull. And then, as soon as the mission clicks into focus, and the story stops bouncing from place to place, the movie starts to resemble the one we were promised in the trailers.

And by the time the third act begins, with a guerrilla assault on an Imperial archive facility, the movie  revs up. The action works, but more importantly the characters begin to gel -- and all die. I was really worried that they were going to pull a fast one and save (some of) the cast, but no. It's great.

A word about the familiar players. Governor Tarkin returns for a surprisingly meaty role. The motion capture is generally pretty good, but human characters remain the hardest to do -- the focus on his face becomes distracting, especially when he's in scenes with Ben Mendelssohn, a human actor.

Darth Vader's role is small, but pretty effective (apart from the pun. Really?). This may be a result of the decision to shoot digital rather than film, but his mask and uniform do not look real. He looks like a guy in (good) cosplay. That aside, James Earl Jones' vocals are good, and Vader's appearance in the final battle is glorious. Gareth Edwards is terrific at giving icons great showpiece moments (think back to Godzilla), and he pulls out all the stops for Vader's set piece.

Overall, the cast do a decent job, despite the inadequacies of the script, but I doubt whether any of these characters will stick long in the memory. The worst done by in this regard are Jones and Mendelssohn. He's ostensibly the film's villain, but he is often relegated behind the franchises' more iconic characters. Considering he is supposed to be the object of Jyn's vengeance, that does not help the movie dramatically.

But the real black hole is our protagonist. The first act zips by so quickly, we never get a lock on who Jyn is. Jones does what she can, but the script never grounds her as a real person. 

On the bright side, all the supporting Rogues do get a little bit of character. Riz Ahmed is really good as the Imperial defector who helps the team get where they're going, Donnie Yen is fucking awesome as a blind man with unshakable faith and Alan Tudyk steals the show as the movie's resident droid. 

In the end, Rogue One is not as great as its marketing campaign. It's a decent movie, hampered by Gareth Edwards' weakness with characterisation and a terrible opening act. However, the movie does manage to get more exciting as it goes along, and by the time the movie enters the home stretch it's genuinely great. 

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