Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Rogue One"

 2.5 / 5  

In a masterful display of narrative economy, 1977's Star Wars dropped viewers in the middle of an ongoing story by orienting them with a written prologue (fans know it as the "opening crawl") that is by now the stuff of cinematic legend -- if not actual legend:

"It is a period of civil war," it began. "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil galactic Empire.  During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star ..."

For the record, I typed that from memory (though checked it with a quick Google search, I admit), which gives you some idea of the level of awareness I have of the Star Wars films.  I'm not a Star Wars know-nothing.

Those 42 words, a little miracle of backstory, are also the entire plot of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the new not-quite-a-Star-Wars-film-but-really-a-Star-Wars film -- the first one, it is no small irony, that opens without an opening crawl.

Rogue One is about two and a quarter hours long, which is approximately two and a quarter hours longer than it takes to read those first 42 words.  It has a lot of characters, a lot of action and a lot of talking, but essentially the story is: Rebel spies manage to steal secret plans to the Death Star.

That bit happens in the last 20 or 30 minutes of Rogue One, which are about as good on the action and visual effects front as you could ever, ever hope a Star Wars movie to be.  They're a little too good, as they make the 1977 movie look, by comparison, clunky and sparse.  But there's a huge distinction: Forty years ago, it was possible to watch the very first Star Wars movie with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about the characters or the setting and come away massively satisfied.  Its creator, George Lucas, knew that the larger story was unimportant -- it wasn't until many, many years after seeing the first film that I even wondered, "What were the star wars even about?"  It didn't matter, nor did it ultimately matter in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, as the tale of Luke Skywalker and his rise from mere farmboy to savior of the galaxy was the real through-line.

In Rogue One, on the other hand, the story and the film's first hour (maybe more) are borderline unintelligible to anyone who does not know what a kyber crystal, a Whill or a Saw Gerrera is before going in.  As I said, I like to think I have a certain level of Star Wars literacy, but Rogue One lost me almost from the get-go.

The movie exerts no effort to orient the audience, either narratively or spatially, a problem exacerbated by the "realistic" and "gritty" look of the film -- as it's often described -- and by the use of 3-D.  These two things do not go well together; the shakiness and the 3-D combined, for me at least, to deliver a physically uncomfortable viewing experience.  If you must see Rogue One, try the good-old 2-D version -- and study up on your Star Wars.

But, really, should a film require this much foreknowledge to deliver enjoyment?  Certainly the audience I saw it with was in on every single reference -- and there are many, many references to other Star Wars movies throughout Rogue One, to the point that it is exclusionary.

It also makes an entire galaxy seem like a very small place -- everyone wears the same basic styles of clothing, every planet seems to have the same style of homestead and the same sort of bustling marketplace.

It's odd, really, how the two most recent Star Wars movies reduce it all into a really specific and narrow field of view.  Despite having a whole galaxy of potential stories to tell, everything keeps coming back to a particular set of characters and a particular timeframe.  For all of their many faults, George Lucas's Star Wars prequels attempted to tell a more theatrical, more formal (many would say more stilted) and sweeping story, which is not what is in the interests of building the marketable franchise.

It's quite a surprise, to me at least, how specific Rogue One insists on being.  It aims to be the prequel that Lucas himself failed -- to the derision of fans -- to deliver, to tell the story of what happened right before the first movie.  And I do mean right before.

If the prequels' greatest miscalculation was to try to tell a large-scale backstory of villainous Darth Vader, Rogue One's primary goal is to show him on screen again, and finds a way to do exactly that -- not worrying, I guess, that his one scene of dialogue provides an uncomfortable Star Wars first: Vader delivers a zinger, a line of dialogue actually calculated to get the audience to giggle.

It's a peculiar choice for the film, but it makes a certain sense.  The audience I saw Rogue One with laughed appreciatively, a few people even clapped, when he said the line, because they got the joke.  And that's the major problem I had with Rogue One.  A movie has to be more than an in-joke, it has to do more than satisfy an audience who can read between each line of dialogue for themselves.

As it told its paper-thin story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a girl who is part of the rebellion against the Empire and ultimately leads a the aforementioned attack on Imperial facilities in order to steal the aforementioned plans to the aforementioned space station, it all seemed ... unnecessary.  Rogue One isn't a film calculated to stir many more emotions than recognition.  It takes the long and circuitous route to get to the final attack, filling Erso's adventure with characters like Diego Luna's morally ambiguous intelligence agent, Riz Ahmed's earnest pilot, and Alan Tudyk's sassy droid, K2SO.  He's the best character in the movie, but he's also the only one who really registers a strong personality.

When it finally happens, though, that extended final battle sequence generally succeeds.  If nothing else, it's certainly one of the most eye-popping and visually satisfying spectacles of any of the Star Wars movies.  And for anyone who grew up on Star Wars movies, there will be a certain satisfaction toward the end.  But mostly, Rogue One seems intentionally custom-made for those who are thoroughly steeped in Star Wars lore.  It is not a film for the uninitiated.

Is that enough?  I suspect that for many people it will be more than enough -- they will understand every frame of it, and will gasp and applaud at all of the right times.  But if you don't inherently know who Grand Moff Tarkin is, why his appearance is so noteworthy (which explains his odd and disquieting appearance), or what his functional role in the overall story is, Rogue One will feel ... puzzling.  You'll may, quite literally, not know what's going on.

For the Star Wars faithful, a roomful of Rancors couldn't keep them away.  For everyone else, Rogue One will be a genuine challenge to sit through.

And for those of us in between?  I guess it depends.   I never imagined that I would rate only a C-minus on a Star Wars literacy test, but that's what Rogue One felt like -- and barely passing left me feeling deeply, hopelessly inadequate.

Viewed Dec. 15, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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