Rogue One: A STAR WARS Story (2016)

In my humble opinion, ‘Rogue One’ makes ‘The Force Awakens’ look like REALLY high-budgeted fan fiction. Actually, as time has gone by, since it’s muchly ballyhoo’d release last year, my opinion of JJ Abrams opening ‘kick start’ to a new, nostalgia-driven franchise for Walt Disney Studios, hasn’t exactly dropped…but it has changed. I understand that Disney would be keen on hitting a ‘home run’, right out of the starting gate, to make sure that their staggering $4 billion investment into the purchase of Lucasfilm, from The Man himself, was well worth it. So a certain level of ‘safe’ was to be expected. But, c’mon people…let’s not bullshit here…’The Force Awakens’ really is, in MANY respects, merely a rehash of ‘A New Hope’, just with a new, more expensive coat of paint. It’s undeniably more ‘Star Wars’ than Lucas’ deservedly maligned Prequel trilogy and really, that’s all us true SW fans wanted. Just getting us closer to the old- school aesthetic and story style of the classic ‘Original Trilogy’ was good enough, to be shown that the ‘new’ Lucasfilm would listen to the disgruntled fans who felt that the creator of ‘Star Wars’, ironically enough, had seriously shit the bed with his ‘I’m in charge so I’ll do what I want’ Prequels; movies that seemed to spit in the face of everything that made the classic late 70’s / early 80’s series so cool. So after the resounding success of Episode 7, it was natural that Disney would want to strike while the poker was hot. Along with the new ‘Saga’ trilogy, Lucasfilm plans to bombard us with potential SW overload, through a series of anthology films that will be released in the years around Episodes 8 and 9…and undoubtedly beyond, till the End of Time. When I first heard that ‘Rogue One’ was to be the first, I thought that was a great idea. The base premise is a story that we fans have known about, and been curious about, going back to ‘A New Hope’s initial release in the ‘way back’ of my birth year, 1977. We’ve always known that a group of Rebel spies were responsible for stealing the plans to the Death Star, but now we’re actually going to get to see it! Added to which, the two films director Gareth Edwards had done prior to this were the impressive, micro-budgeted genre entry ‘Monsters’ (2010) and mostly cool ‘Godzilla’ (2014), both of which I felt had some very strong, visual elements that would fit in nicely to the Star Wars Universe, particularly in the manner with which Edwards shows ‘scale’. So that gave me hope. As with many of us geeks out there, I followed the production as closely as I could and, in doing so, was surprised and concerned when I heard about extensive, last minute reshoots and edits being ordered by Disney, apparently under the new direction of director / writer Tony Gilroy. Word around the campfire was that after the first test screening, Disney felt that the film that Edwards turned in was too dark, too much of a war film (kinda hilarious, considering the name of the entire fucking franchise), with an ending that may have lacked the punch they felt this story needed and they wanted some things changed. They wanted more ‘Star Wars’, less ‘Saving Private Ryan’. This concerned me. First off, I love a good combat film. And dark in tone? Hell yea!! Give it to me! This is the down-n-dirty covert operation that pretty much EVERYTHING, at this point in the ‘Saga’ timeline, depends on…so why shouldn’t it be dark? Despite the fact that a rumored 40% of the film was being reshot and recut, I did have enough faith in Disney to not get overly worked up about it. Their track record with putting out solid material, despite the ‘committee’ approach, had thus far worked out well for ‘The Force Awakens’, and nearly the entire Marvel Studios roster. So yes, I was miffed by what I was hearing, but I was also curious. I simply didn’t think that The Mouse House would allow a bad film to be released under their banner, and would probably make sure that enough attention and resources were given to ensure that that didn’t happen. So instead of bracing myself for a repeat of ‘Suicide Squad’, another high profile release that underwent extensive, not-so-successful tinkering, I went in cautiously optimistic.
‘Rogue One’ differenciates itself from the ‘Saga’ films right away, with the exclusion of the traditional Star Wars title crawl. We get the Lucasfilm logo…’A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’…and BAM! Straight into the action. In the first prologue of the franchise, we meet three of our main characters right away. ‘Imperial Director Orson Krennic’ (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on a barren, wind-swept planet to locate former Imperial scientist ‘Galen Erso’ (Mads Mikkelson), to pull him back into the operation to create the super-weapon that we’ll all come to know as the Death Star. Having anticipated this, ‘Galen’ has made arrangements for his 6 year old daughter ‘Jyn’ to be swept to safety and hidden by an old comrade of his named ‘Saw Gerrara’ (Forest Whitaker). After ‘Galen’s wife tries to stop what is essentially a kidnapping and is tragically cut down by ‘Krennic’s sinister ‘Death Troops’ as a result, ‘Galen’ is taken into custody and ‘Jyn’ flees. We then leap ahead many years. ‘Jyn’ (Felicity Jones) has somehow run afoul of the Empire and is now a prisoner. During transport to a new detention center, Rebel insurgents attack and she gets free…only to find herself now a prisoner of the Rebellion. They are aware of her true identity and announce that they need her to help them locate her still-missing father so that they can find out if the rumours about a deadly super-weapon being developed by the Empire are true. She’s teamed up with a ruthless and dedicated Rebel intelligence officer named ‘Cassian Andor’ (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid ‘K2SO’ (Alan Tudyk) and together, they strike out to follow the bread crumbs to ‘Galen Erso’, and the evidence they need, amassing a motley crew of operatives along the way.
For all my fears about the behind-the-scenes drama and changes to the film, I’m happy to report that this is definitely a solid, gorgeous-looking entry into the Star Wars franchise and the changes that were made, aren’t blatant and intrusive…unless you’re intimately aware of the imagery in the promotional material that preceded the release. Everything flows pretty well and I walked out feeling almost entirely satisfied with what I had just seen. On my initial viewing…I think I prefer ‘Rogue One’ to ‘The Force Awakens’. That being said, something that I’ve mentioned in previous reviews is my distaste for marketing material that includes key footage that somehow doesn’t end up in the final product. THIS…is probably the worst offender of that that I’ve ever seen. SO much of what we saw leading up to the release, via the trailers and promotional imagery…is NOT in the final film. There are a number of articles out there on the InterWebz right now that go into this in detail, but if you want an idea of what was altered, just watch the main 3 trailers…then go watch the film. There’s footage that we all saw that was destined to become iconic Star Wars imagery…that vanished. It’s gone. Nowhere to be seen. No bullshit, one of the trailers we were given is almost entirely footage that was either deleted or reshuffled in the final product. It’s readily apparent that the 3rd Act, as was rumoured, was the material altered the most. It seems that, with the exception of the setting, the entire sequence-of-events is now different than what was originally there. I know that Disney is not in the habit of releasing Director’s or Extended cuts of their properties, but I hope that they choose to include the missing footage on the Blu Ray release. Would I like to see Gareth Edwards original version? Absolutely! But I doubt that we will…at least not as a ‘new’ complete cut of the film. It would be sweet if they gave us the original last Act as it’s own deleted scene among that treasure trove of other material we KNOW was removed. So…having got that little observation out of the way, I have to say again that ‘Rogue One’, in it’s current version, IS a kick-ass Star Wars movie that actually does a lot to add to the 1977 original, as opposed to detracting from it like George Lucas’ mostly moronic Prequels did.
The Cast is great, though slightly underused. While most of the characters we meet are admittedly somewhat flat, they still manage to step up to give us characters worth rooting for. I was unfamiliar with Felicity Jones before this flick, but that may have helped me buy into her rebellious character ‘Jyn’, as our main protagonist. I’ve liked Diego Luna (‘Elysium’) in the handful of roles I’ve seen him in and I appreciated his portrayal of a rebel operative who sometimes has to make difficult and deadly calls in favour of the Rebel Alliance, but isn’t always ok with the actions he’s forced to take. Alan Tudyk (‘Firefly’) was awesome as the snarky new droid in the SW universe, the hilariously blunt ‘K2SO’. He was definitely a highlight and was welcome every time he was on screen. Forest Whitaker (‘Platoon’) adopted a weird speaking pattern for the character of ‘Saw’ that may get on peoples nerves…but I thought it worked well. He’s not in the flick a lot, but he’s good in what we get. Ben Mendelsohn ( ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’) was a good, mustache-twirling villain who I felt fit right into the already established roster of Imperial assholes. We also get Jimmy Smits reprising his role from the Prequels as ‘Bail Organa’, as well as Asian superstars Donnie Yen as the blind Force ‘sensitive’ ‘Chirrut’ and Wen Jiang as his heavy weaponry-toting buddy ‘Baze’. These two had a cool relationship that I would’ve liked to have seen some backstory on, but was ultimately ok with what I got. Riz Ahmed (‘Nightcrawler’) turned out different than I expected from what I saw in the trailers, but as I already mentioned…those trailers lied! He was just fine as the Imperial pilot / defector that kicks things off. The rest of the supporting cast also stepped up and filled out the background nicely.
Visually, this movie is awesome! I definitely appreciated the continued attempt to bring practicality back to the franchise, after George Lucas’ soul-crushing over-use of green screens and CGI in the Prequels, and the blend of ‘location’ shooting and CG worked like a charm here. When it does become all CG…it’s beautiful. The action taking place in space, especially during a key sequence toward the end, looks fantastic and is some of the best SW action I’ve seen out of the entire franchise. As I predicted, Gareth Edwards deft hand at showing large ‘scale’ was put to great use here and made the ‘universe’ seem vast and dangerous. Now having said that, there is one CG effect that’s bound to polarize audiences. There is a key character who, given the required continuity leading into ‘A New Hope’, needed to be included. Problem is, the actor who originally portrayed this character died in 1994. So what we get is a fully CG version interacting with the live action performers on set. Personally, while my eye and my mind instinctively knew that what I was seeing was ones and zeros, I still think that the effect mostly worked, and the continuity between the two films was effectively retained. The detail on the CG version was impressive and it was really only in a couple mouth movements that I could blatantly tell that this was a computer creation. This was nothing like the shitty attempt to bring a young CG Jeff Bridges to the table as ‘Clu’ in ‘Tron: Legacy’; an effect that damages the overall solid quality of THAT film with just how fake it looks. Money and time was put into this effect for ‘Rogue One’ and like I said…it mostly worked…for me anyway. In a nutshell, the visuals, both cinematic and CG, were terrific and looked great on the Big Screen. I saw it in 3D and while I think that effect was a bit flatter than it needed to be (‘The Force Awakens’ did 3D better), it still added something to much of the action and spectacle.
Something that’s always been a constant in the Star Wars cinematic universe is the iconic music of legendary composer John Williams. This is the first SW film to feature someone else’s music as ‘the final piece of dialogue’. Originally, a composer named Alexadre Desplat was brought on to do the score (some of his music was apparently featured in one of the first trailers), but when the expensive, structure-altering reshoots were ordered, he was replaced in favor of JJ Abrams’ usual composer Michael Giacchino (‘Star Trek’), who had just 4 weeks to get a completely new score put together from scratch. Mostly, what he provided is just fine, with little hints of John Williams influence clearly emerging at times. That being said, there’s something merely serviceable about the music that we get. No one part sticks out as ‘amazing’ or ‘unforgettable’. Williams’ music is iconic, and it’s iconic for a reason. It’s fucking amazing, and is of such a high calibre that I can easily listen to his compositions on their own (I currently have several cuts from his excellent ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ score on my MP3 player in my car). Giacchino gave Disney what they needed for the film that they ended up with, but knowing the story of how rushed he was to turn in the completed score, you can hear it in the final product.
One of the complaints I’ve seen popping up is the somewhat clunky, follow-the-bread crumbs structure of the First Act, which I do understand. It didn’t really bother me too much (as there’s so much cool detail in the backgrounds), but it was noticeable. I don’t know how they could’ve gotten around it with the story they were telling, but there’s a ‘rushed’ feeling to some of the pacing and edits, which again would make sense, given Disney’s 11th Hour decision to change a large chunk of the film. I hope that they go back prior to the Home Release and tweak a couple glaringly sloppy edits that I caught. Again, this is another area where I’m very curious to see what Edwards originally had for the narrative structure. That being said, the film does noticeably smooth itself out as it leads to a genuinely tense and engaging 3rd Act.
I’m sure there’s a ton of other elements that I could write for days about, but all in all, what we got for ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ turned out to be pretty damn awesome. I walked out genuinely impressed and like I said earlier, I think it comes out on top of ‘The Force Awakens’, as ‘new’ Star Wars goes. It’s simply a better, more interesting story that is removed from the Saga films…while being definitely connected (and complimentary) to them too. The settings, costumes and props are cool, with that worn, lived-in aesthetic that really helped bring the Original Trilogy to ‘life’, the new characters (while a little thin) worked as fresh additions to this ‘universe, the CG effects were almost all of an extremely high quality, and the connections and ‘Easter eggs’ to the rest of the franchise, especially ‘A New Hope’ were fun and effective, without being blatantly ‘in-your-face’. I would still like the chance to see how this was originally going to turn out via Gareth Edwards original cut, but since I doubt that’ll ever happen (fingers still crossed, though), what we did get is certainly not lacking. ‘Rogue One’ is a triumphant continuation of the ‘new’ franchise, that’s actually more of an appropriate Prequel than anything George Lucas attempted, and a sweet kick-off for the anthology films that we’re going to get, whether we want them or not. I can easily recommend seeing ‘Rogue One’ on the Big Screen, to Star Wars fans and to casual movie goers alike…and I personally can’t wait to see it again.

*Everbody knows that Darth Vader turns up in this film and while he is used sparingly, what we get of him is really cool, with small expansions on what we know about him already (loved his ‘residence’). We get two destined-to-be-classic Vader scenes, one involving a tense interaction between him and ‘Krennic’ and a geek wet-dream of a sequence that finally truly demonstrates, after all this time, what a terrifying bad-ass Darth Vader truly is. It’s a scene that tons of fans have always wanted…and it’s clear that Disney and Gareth Edwards took note…and gave it to us in all it’s awesome glory. Believe me…you’ll know the scene when it happens.

**Another small difference between this and the Saga films was the first-time use of Title Cards to establish locations, something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars film. At first it seemed weird and out-of-place, but then it became just part of the ‘fabric’. If they choose to use that exclusively for the Anthology Films, as part of their own style…I’m totally ok with that.

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