Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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There is little time for informed optimism in the galaxy.  The Empire is expanding their grip on each star system, the Rebellion is not agreeing on any tactic for counterattack, and the agents working against the Empire in secret can't recognize allies in the dark of their activities.  But hope comes in unexpected ways, and the discarded agents of the Rebellion stumble on the one thing that might bring light back to the galaxy.  Gareth Edwards directs Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with the screenplay written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, starring an ensemble cast led by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna.

"How come I've never seen you people before?"
"Because we are the people you do not see."
-Dirty Pretty Things-

The Force Awakens (TFA) had one too many weights on it keeping the images from soaring.  The most detrimental was how TFA held responsibility in bridging the old and new worlds of the Star Wars universe together.  Flashes of inspiration, most notably in the trio of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver, kept the rebooted Star Wars series promising if not successful artistically.

I was completely unprepared for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Rogue One moving forward).  Friends exalted Rogue One, and I read their words mystified at how many loved ones reacted strongly to a one-and-done Star Wars film about a mission I know could not end well.  Even if I had embraced their words and gone into Rogue One full of optimism I would have been surprised.  Rogue One isn't powerful because of the courage in facing up to a seemingly invincible opponent, but because of its focus on unseen population of the Star Wars universe, the ones who work the camps, pilot the ships, and toil in squalor.  This is the cry of the unsung, and will not be ignored.

A considerable chunk of Rogue One's success is how director Gareth Edwards, working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, understands both the original and prequel trilogies were critiques of American politics.  Because each film of the original trilogy was directed by different people, A New Hope bears the strongest stamp in how our benign liberal heroes are one step away from working for the Empire while ragging on the aliens and droids that make their lives bearable.  The prequel trilogy was a sustained critique of Clinton-era liberalism, paralleling the rise of New Age feel-good selfish spirituality with the obliviousness of the old Jedi Order, while rooting our emotional investment in the one person who realizes the harm in the Jedi code but lacks the vocabulary to explain it.

While Edwards smashes the climactic action set-piece of Rogue One, I was chilled by the stark power of his simpler compositions.

Keeping those viewpoints on the original and prequel trilogies in mind, it is damn near impossible for me to ignore that the backbone of Rogue One is a collection of maligned PoC whose sacrifices end up claimed as victories for two largely unseen white women politicians. The PoC who are spat on and treated poorly by the side they're supposedly standing with, and an authoritarian opposition who might have swayed them to abandon the Rebellion if the Empire could stop demeaning those same PoC and their own disabled personnel.  Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie I've teared up at, largely due to the empathy Edwards treats their stories with.

Fitting this story about the unseen population of Star Wars, each character is a negative imprint of characteristics commonly associated with the Star Wars universe.  The most blatant of these is Saw (Forest Whitaker), one of the characters who suffers off-screen trauma and we see in two vastly different ways.  Saw's costume design is a marvel, going from a proud resistance garb in the earlier sections of Rogue One, to a cobbled together shell of machines that replaced lost limbs after the time jump.  In his hopes for the Rebellion, Saw becomes an anti-Darth Vader, one who eschews smooth body reconstruction and keeps his damaged black skin exposed to serve as a defiant reminder of the pain he has suffered.  Whitaker modulates his performance beautifully, speaking in a sonorous tone of defiance at the beginning, while wheezing his way through high-pitched commands later.  The difference is in wisdom - the Saw at the beginning thinks he can be the mythical hero, the Saw later on no longer has that luxury.

I could write a paragraph each about the complexity of the characters in Rogue One, but I want to make special mention of one more.  It's not Felicity Jones' Jyn, or Diego Luna's Cassian.  Both are great performances but lack the overwhelming emotional punch of Riz Ahmed as Bodhi.  Ahmed has the trickiest role in Rogue One as he is the one we witness transition from plucky wannabe hero to PTSD-riddled survivor.  His enthusiasm when he thinks he's going to be the hero is hard to witness as the Rebellion places a bag over his head and tortures him to ensure he's telling the truth.  This is another moment where it's hard to discount the critique of modern liberal politicians as the specter of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo linger in our cultural DNA.  Ahmed's performance is courageous, becoming a barely conscious ghost of himself after leaving such a strong impression in his first few moments, and suffers tragic flashes back to the person we're introduced to as he wills himself to complete his objective.

Riz Ahmed did more quality performing with just his eyes in 2016 than other performers do their entire career.

All of this leads to the second half of Rogue One where Edwards crafts a masterpiece in modern action cinema.  Earlier moments trade action for simple visual power, such as the outline of Darth Vader piercing the sterility of an imperial facility, or Jyn becoming parent to her father in a baptism of rain as he lay wounded.  Great as those moments are, I was astonished at the clarity of the action in Rogue One's second half.  For almost one hour, we watch the discarded members of the Rebellion band together for a suicidal stab at the Empire, and because of the strong writing behind each character we aren't left wondering who is doing what and why.  There's a moment where Rebellion attack craft in space soar forward and Edwards smash-cuts to a similar push on the ground, only to cut again to interior action inside the facility, with no loss of momentum in any of the parallel lines of action.  That's the norm, not the exception, for the action in the second half of Rogue One and dunks on every mass scale action spectacle of the last decade.

Some of Edwards' visual choices may not play well with the audience.  There's already been significant pushback to the way he recreates A New Hope's Grand Moff Tarkin with Guy Henry's physical performance and digitally superimposing Peter Cushing's face.  Whether this is appropriate is not my place to decide, and Cushing's surviving family should be given priority over everything else.  That said, it's a genius bit of storytelling via special effects.  Grand Moff Tarkin is a homogenized terror of the Empire, a perfect white specimen acting in the interests of the oppressive machine, and his digital effects recreation recalls that of the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith.  The other recreation?  You'll know it when you see it, and I'm not as big a fan of that.  This is partly because the special effects don't help the characterization, and because at that point Rogue One probably should have ended two minutes earlier.

Those are the only two minutes I felt of Rogue One.  The remaining 2+ hours soared on by as I was engrossed in the lives of the desperate few who were willing to take a stand.  Rogue One is a rare joy, all spectacle and all nuance, nearly perfect in its balance of character and action.  Even if you don't like Star Wars, give it a try.  Maybe you'll well up with the same surprise tears as I did.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards.
Screenplay written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna.

Posted by Andrew

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