Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: The Dark Side Of The Rebellion


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Ever wonder how, exactly, the Alliance was able to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia uploaded into R2-D2, thus setting in motion the events of A New Hope?

Now you have your answer, and it's a surprisingly dark, gritty answer.

Welcome, Rebels, to the first Star Wars Anthology movie: Rogue One.

"I am one with the Force, the Force is with me."

The title alone has so many meanings - referring to the Rebel callsigns used in The Empire Strikes Back, and also to the first canonical usage of a "Rogue" callsign in this movie, on its climactic final mission - the very mission to steal the Death Star plans. It also refers to how different this one is from all previous Star Wars movies. Not only in a few superficial details - most notably, the lack of an opening crawl, the lack of a lightsaber-wielding and/or Force-using main character, Michael Giacchino lending his signature style to the score as he updates the time-honored John Williams themes, an intro sequence taking place years before the movie's main action...and, as mentioned above, a dark, gritty tone not matched by any previous film in the series, except perhaps Revenge of the Sith or The Force Awakens.

From the beginning, Rogue One promises the viewer something completely different, showing us a look at the childhood of new heroine Jyn Erso (wonderfully played by Felicity Jones, aka Felicia Hardy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.) When she was young, her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen in a rare non-villainous role), was taken away by Imperial science officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), and she also witnessed her mother dying trying to protect her husband - though not without getting off a shot that winged Krennic's shoulder.

Years later, Galen Erso has helped the Empire build their ultimate weapon, the Death Star, which is now nearing completion. However, Galen has plans to bring it down, using a backdoor he built into the system, like all good little engineers and/or programmers. The trouble is how to get the word out to the Rebels. So he sends an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to the planet of Jedha, where he hopes to meet Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), a man so rebellious, even the Alliance disowns him. That's when the Alliance, after picking up Jyn from an Imperial concentration camp, send her along with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk in a wonderful, and wonderfully humorous, motion-capture performance) to Jedha to make contact with Gerrera themselves. There, they lay waste to some hapless Stormtroopers, and also make a couple of new friends in not only Bodhi, but also two local warrior types: the devoutly religious blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his buddy with the big-ass gun, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

Jyn hears a message from her father telling her where to find him, and also where to find the Death Star plans. And that's when the Death Star arrives, under orders from Krennic and from Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing's face is CGI-ed onto a body double, and his voice replicated equally digitally) to test the weapon on the planet. This is when we learn that the Death Star actually has a less powerful setting than the instant destruction we saw with Alderaan - they can launch a shot that doesn't destroy the entire planet, but sets off a massive nuclear-looking explosion all the same, which leads to one of the movie's most intense set pieces as a slow-moving cloud of destruction shakes the place to pieces. It strongly resembles the Yellowstone eruption in 2012.

In fact, Rogue One benefits a lot from being a more modern creation than the original trilogy to which it's closely linked. Even more so than The Force Awakens, its visual style tends to harken back to the old days, with a lot of Star Destroyers that look like Lego models - not that that's a bad thing. But there's a lot of modern-day CGI work as well. Some of it doesn't work - like, say, this weird tentacle monster thing that Saw Gerrera uses as a biological torture device (it reminds me of the ugly tentacles and beak they unnecessarily added to the Sarlacc pit in the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, or those god-awful Rathtars from The Force Awakens), or Tarkin's 1977-Peter-Cushing face, which looks like they pulled it from a video game and is painfully distracting every time he appears on screen. But then there's the aforementioned test of the Death Star, as well as the combat scenes - especially the big one at the film's climax. The latter allows us to actually see one of those impenetrable energy shields for the first time, and to see what happens when a Rebel X-wing collides with it. Even Independence Day beat the Star Wars franchise to showing that on screen. And also, in that final battle, we get the most glorious shot of Star Destroyer destruction ever put to film. You'll know it when you see it.

On a story front, Rogue One is aggressively different from the rest of Star Wars because of its far less clear-cut divisions between heroes and villains. Obviously, we're supposed to root for the Rebels - they win the day in two of the next three movies chronologically anyway. But here, we get a look at some of the Rebels who are a little less virtuous than Luke, Leia, or even Han Solo. Some of these Rebels are ready and willing to kill anyone who stands in their way, even if they may be helpful to their cause. Some are unconvinced of the strength of their own cause, and come across a bit cowardly as a result. And on the Imperial side, well, there's a lot of internal strife, particularly with Krennic and Tarkin's power plays against each other, and also with Galen Erso, who's working with the Empire only under duress.

The Rebels may not be perfect, but the ragtag band that leads the Rogue One mission proves to be the most heroic of them all in this movie. Everyone has their own reasons to fight, all of them pretty disparate, but they band together anyway for the greater good. And they liven the movie up with surgically-precise humor, especially Kay, the droid, an instant favorite for me and my friends (especially my robot-loving best friend). Also Baze for basically being Drax the Destroyer minus the terminal literal-mindedness, Bodhi for being a bit of a jittery geek and a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, and Chirrut, who gets one of the best lines in the movie when Gerrera's forces bag everyone's heads, and he deadpans, "Are you kidding me? I'm blind!" Even Darth Vader gets in on the humorous action, if you can believe that, with a one-liner so lame it's awesome. (No, I will not spoil it.) But beware - all that humor belies an emotional sucker-punch of an ending, an ending that puts this movie squarely in Amazing Spider-Man and Big Hero 6 territory with its full-spectrum feels.

No spoilers, of course.

Rogue One continues the Star Wars franchise's huge comeback with an always-compelling, and extremely thought-provoking, narrative. Though marred at times by spotty, even glaringly bad, CGI, this A-grade movie is an absolute must-see in theaters.

May the Force be with you, Pinecones.

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

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