Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rogue One: A “Star Wars” Story (Lucasfilm, Allison Shearmur Productions, Black Hangar Studios, Walt Disney Studios, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Rogue One, the last DVD I bought at Vons and one I was interested in because it takes place in the Star Wars universe but is a free-standing story and not part of the endless “saga” that began way back in 1977 with the film that was then simply called Star Wars but is now officially known as Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. I must confess that New Hope remains the only Star Wars film I’ve seen except for this one — when it came out in 1977 I liked it enough to see it three times but I didn’t go nuts about it the way a lot of people did, and I missed the immediate sequelae, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, because when they came out I was with my then-girlfriend Cat and she had hated the first one so much she wasn’t at all interested in the sequel. (Both of us were militant atheists then — we’ve since mellowed out a good deal on the concept of God and the possibility of His/Her/Its existence — and whereas I’d read the obvious religious metaphor of “The Force” as annoying but not disqualifying, she was so put off by it she couldn’t stand the entire movie — but then I don’t think Cat likes science fiction that much as a genre: she also hated 2001: A Space Odyssey and I’d regard that as one of the two greatest movies ever made, Citizen Kane being the other.) Neither Charles nor I were all that interested in the three “prequels” that started coming out in the 1990’s, and so far we’ve bypassed The Phantom Menace or whatever it was called — the one that was supposed to pick up the story after Return of the Jedi ended — and the upcoming episode, The Last Jedi, isn’t exactly on our must-see list either. Charles and I had watched Mark Hamill on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show last week and, while he spent most of his time there savoring the irony that he was there to promote a movie he couldn’t talk about (George Lucas and the mavens at Lucasfilm and Disney having decreed they wanted nothing out about the film’s plot until it’s actually released December 15), he said that he didn’t particularly like science fiction as a genre when he was offered the lead in the first Star Wars back in the 1970’s but he took the part anyway because he was attracted to the humor in it. 

Alas, as the Star Wars saga has continued, spun off and grown prequelae, sequelae and spin-offs like Rogue One it’s taken on a grim seriousness and the moments of levity that livened up the first film have become just silly. About the only laughs in Rogue One come from the robot — excuse me, “’droid” — K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and he’s just doing a lamer version of the prissy act the original C-3PO did 40 years ago. It took me a while to realize it, but Rogue One is basically a ripoff of World War II commando movies in general and The Guns of Navarone in particular — the bad guys have a super-weapon and the good guys have to send in a commando team to blow it up. That’s about all the plot there is, though there’s an admixture of King Solomon’s Mines in that the lead character is a young woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who in the opening scene has to hide out from the Empire’s own commando squad, led by Orson Krennick (a quite nice villainous performance by Ben Mendelson, even though he seems to be channeling Raymond Massey as well as Peter Cushing, who was actually in the first Star Wars in a similar role), which is there to kidnap her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, the actor who had the hopeless task of playing the villain in the re-remake of the James Bond story Casino Royale, a part previously played by Peter Lorre and Orson Welles!). Galen is a former Imperial scientist who had come close to perfecting the Death Star when he fled with his wife Lyra (Valerie Kane, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to a young Mick Jagger in drag) and became a farmer on a remote planet. Not remote enough, as Krennick’s squad finds him, kidnaps him and takes him back to Empire Central to force him to complete his work on the Death Star. Jyn gets away — her mom is presumably killed, since we never see her again — and she’s raised by rebel leader Saw Guerera (an almost unrecognizable Forest Whitaker, a first-rate actor ill-used as usual: Bird, for which he should have won an Academy Award, and The Last King of Scotland, for which he did, are his only truly great films). Naturally she wants to join the rebellion against the Empire and also to see her father again, so she ends up on the planet where the rebellion against the Empire is headquartered, where she encounters Senator Pamlo (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), political leader of the rebels. 

One of the ironies is that before this film was released, various radical-Right nut-cases in the U.S. decided that this movie was a propaganda piece against Donald Trump and even alleged that just before it was released, the actors were called back for reshoots of additional scenes quickly written after the election result to make the film even more anti-Trump than it was originally. The irony is not only that the film isn’t particularly anti-Trump — the closest it gets is an early scene in which Krennick says that they need Galen Erso back because his weapon will bring peace to the universe, and when Lyra says, “You’re confusing peace with terror,” Krennick says, “Well, you have to start somewhere” — but Senator Pamlo (the only female principal besides Jyn) is clearly an unflattering portrait of Hillary Clinton, anxious to appease the Empire and settle the war while Jyn’s foster-dad Saw Guerera is the Bernie Sanders-esque voice of progressive militancy who arranges for Jyn to fly with captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a crew of rebel hard-liners aboard a stolen Imperial cargo ship to the planet where the Death Star is being built and destroy both the weapon itself and the plans for it. (One annoying aspect of the Star Wars saga is the ugly names Lucas and his writers have come up with for their characters; as a New Yorker critic noted when one of the later episodes came out, if you’re going to create a universe you have to name everyone and everything in it, and as a linguistics professor in his day job J. R. R. Tolkien had a professional advantage over George Lucas in this department: if you want a name for absolute evil, the New Yorker critic argued, “Mordor” works a lot better than “Sith.”) The original rebel headquarters are destroyed by an Imperial force wielding an early version of the Death Star — it can’t yet blow up an entire planet but it can take out a giant fortress, which for some reason, like all the rebel headquarters in this movie, looks like a Mayan temple: at one point, when this film made one of its repeated and annoying cut-backs from one confusing location to another, Charles joked, “Meanwhile, back at Chichen Itza” — but the commandos get away successfully and eventually, after a lot of boring exposition occasionally livened up by some surprisingly dull “action” scenes, the rebels blow up the original Death Star and Jyn gets the obligatory King Solomon’s Mines reunion scene with her dad just as he’s dying. 

There are cameo appearances by Carrie Fisher and also by Darth Vader, who still speaks with the voice of James Earl Jones (Jones gets a special credit in the final roll) but seems far less imposing and intimidating this time around — Charles was disappointed at how brief Fisher’s cameo was, but I pointed out that Lucas probably has enough outtakes on her he can keep putting her in new Star Wars movies even now that she’s dead (much the way Marlon Brando was still playing Superman’s father, Jor-El, a decade after he died via leftover clips) — and overall Rogue One struck me as being in that middle ground of moviemaking, not good enough to be great but not bad enough to be camp, either (though I suspect the Rifftrax, formerly Mystery Science Theatre 3000, crew could have a good time with it) and hardly the sort of film the hard-core Star Wars devotees would want from the franchise. The script was written by Chris Weitz (director of New Moon, the second film in the Twilight series and, I thought, the best of them) and Tony Gilroy (who for once kept his penchant for jaw-dropping, neck-snapping “reversals” in check) from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta (his last name looks like that of a Star Wars character) based on the characters created by George Lucas. The director was Gareth Edwards, whose two previous features, the low-budget indie Monsters and the latest reboot of Godzilla, are, like Rogue One, movies that take a potentially compelling idea and fall short of its potential, but still manage to entertain. But the really big problems with Rogue One are the sense that we’ve seen it all before and the awful, mind-numbing seriousness with which it’s made, almost totally lacking the enlivening bits of campy humor that made the original Star Wars so much fun.