Sunday, December 18, 2016

SPECTACULAR SUICIDE SQUAD: a review of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta
Screenplay Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Directed by Gareth Edwards
**** (four stars)

Outstanding!! Absolutely outstanding!!!

Dear readers, I have made no secret of my skepticism regarding this new phase of motion pictures set within the "Star Wars" universe, now that creator George Lucas has sold his company to Disney. I have worried about a possible decline in quality as I feared the prospect of solely raking in the commerce would outweigh the artistry and imagination necessary to create a "Star Wars" film. Additionally, as Disney's plans to release a new film once a year rather than once every three years as executed by Lucas' original six films, I have been fearful that the sheer ubiquity would threaten overkill and overall disinterest.

I also wondered if Director J.J. Abrams' wondrous and richly overwhelming "The Force Awakens" (2015), Episode VII in the on-going Skywalker saga set along time ago in a galaxy far, far away was even possibly a fluke, with subsequent entries bound to fall considerably short. And then, there is the idea of having stand-alone films being released in between the official saga entries, also the sheer ubiquity being a potential negative factor, but would these films also just exist as money grabbing exercises in nostalgia for the original trilogy, certainly not something really worthmaking movies over other than for box office rewards.

I know. I know. I have given terribly too much thought about this enterprise but like so many of you, "Star Wars" has meant so tremendously much to me throughout my life as George Lucas' original 1977 film was indeed the movie that made me fall in love with the movies and also like you, I just feel so protective of it and its legacy, hoping nothing will taint its power (Let's not get into Lucas' unfairly maligned prequel trilogy--I loved them. You didn't. Let's move on.).

With "Rogue One," Director Gareth Edwards' stab at Lucas' "Star Wars" universe yet the first to not exist as an official Episode but serve as a stand-alone feature, I was just more than ready to receive a film that felt to be made entirely for fans and not for any sense of storytelling, essentially making the precise type of film that Lucas  himself was never interested in making as a cinematic storyteller. I worried it would end up being a crass, soulless experience, like far too many big budget event movies these days and despite the intriguing concept and the equally intriguing trailers, I kept my hopes to a minimum as I expected to be let down.

How incredibly thrilled I am to have been proven so dramatically wrong!

Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One" is a richly spectacular experience, one that looks and feels firmly of the "Star Wars"  universe but has taken some smart, risky detours in its overall presentation and tonality that makes the film stand powerfully on its own two cinematic feet and very unexpectedly, the film works to a towering effect.

Briefly, "Rogue One" conceptually positions itself shortly before the events of "Star Wars-Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977), as the Jedi Knights are all but extinguished due to actions of Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones) and the Empire possesses an iron clad rule over the galaxy and is in the midst of completing construction of the Death Star.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a maverick captured and detained by the Empire but is soon freed by members of the Rebel Alliance who wish to recruit her to aid them in their pursuit of her long lost Father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the scientist who first engineered the plans for the Death Star and has since been a reluctant participant, forced to continue his devastating work under the command of the beleaguered Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

After grudgingly joining forces with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and soon becoming inspired by her former guardian, renegade freedom fighter and Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) plus mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), his sidekick, the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected to aid the Rebels, Jyn eventually discovers her purpose as she decides to covertly infiltrate the Empire to steal the Death Star plans and aid the Rebellion.

With "Rogue One," Gareth Edwards has made a self-contained "Star Wars" chapter that functions not only as a prequel to the original 1977 film but also as a sequel to Lucas' "Star Wars-Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith" (2005). Yet, what Edwards has accomplished so remarkably is to create the period within the "Star Wars" universe where the magical, mystical element of the Force and Jedi Knights are essentially relegated to the background and the fringes while placing the plights of ordinary individuals and warriors at the forefront. This tactic essentially honors the entirety of George Lucas' original conceit (and yes, that includes the prequel trilogy) of telling the tales of ordinary people who find themselves in the position to accomplish something extraordinary, thus becoming unlikely galactic heroes in the process.

With the more esoteric and even fairy tale elements of "Star Wars" stripped from the proceedings, this aspect frees Edwards to create a film that is decidedly more stark, tougher, grittier, and unquestionably darker than nearly any other "Star Wars" film that has arrived before now, while also remaining faithful to George Lucas' original conceptions and vision. In addition to elements of a heist caper, and a "Mission: Impossible" styled adventure, "Rogue One" powerfully functions as a true war movie starring a reverently spectacular suicide squad where the deliriously staged and ferociously paced aerial dogfights recall World War II films and the brutal skirmishes upon the jungle planet mirror Vietnam war movies.

On a purely visual level, "Rogue One" is a veritable triumph, where hand held combat footage merges beautifully with the graceful cinematography that we have become accustomed to with this series. Much has already been written about the film's final third which finds Jyn and her companions in the heat of their mission with the Rebel Alliance following suit against the wrath of the Empire and to that, I will have to add my voice in expressing that it is flat out sensational. While we now exist in a period where we are more than used to--and for some like myself, increasingly bored with--the protracted, extended, bombastic CGI drenched climax upon climax, Gareth Edwards miraculously avoids any such pitfalls by helming a war film of such sustained, relentless and wrenching intensity, where the stakes actually build upwards in power into sequences of audience cheering successes and tear inducing tragedies and even one sequence of flat out honest horror all culminating towards a conclusion that beautifully links directly to the opening moments of the original 1977 film. At times, even James Cameron's iconic "Aliens" (1986) came to mind for me--that is how strong Edwards has conceived and executed his film!

And of course, none of that grand achievement could even arrive without having delivered the story and characters first and "Rogue One" is filled top to bottom with a great new cast to become attached to and most certainly revisit. As the intergalactic Joan Of Arc Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones fully earns her stripes as a "Star Wars" heroine as she is completely armed with a commanding presence, a terrific physicality plus a haunted, cynical psychological quality that works extremely well when the film delves into her backstory and relationship with her Father plus her eventual realization of her life's purpose. Jones is aided superbly by the entire cast who all come equipped with a more grounded quality compared with the more operatic by way of 1930's serial aesthetic of the official Episodes, therefore giving "Rogue One" a certain sense of realism the series has not possessed up until this time. This is a risk that actually pays off better than it may seem as it does provide a certain visual link between the ornate dreamworlds of the prequels and the more lived in dilapidated environments of the original trilogy. Yet, conceptually, the pay off is even better.

"Star Wars" as we have known it for almost 40 years now, is a fairy tale, a myth, a child's storybook odyssey that utilizes archetypal figures and concepts to explore aspects of the human condition from choices and consequences, spiritual matters of faith and belief, and even allegories to political events and eras. With "Rogue One," and despite what any of the Disney top brass may express in the press, what we have in this film is the most overt political allegory and statement thus far for a "Star Wars" film and it turns out to be the very one we just may need to see in our increasingly turbulent and precarious times, post Presidential election.

Of course, Edwards and his team would have had no knowledge of the outcomes of our election and events thereafter during the filming but it is truly eerie how in tune with the current political and emotional landscape "Rogue One" happens to be, especially when some of us are wondering just how to carry onwards and fight for one's beliefs and for the common good in the face of odds that feel to be insurmountable due to the comparative amount of money, media, influence and political stronghold the opposition holds. Just as Saw Gerrera, Cassian Andor and Chirrut Imwe's words and actions inspire Jyn and her words and actions re-inspire in turn, "Rogue One" intensely explores the nature of grass roots rebellion for all of us within the audience as it shows how once people realize the amount of power they have once they band together, only then is true revolution and potential victory possible.

Honestly, what else is the name Saw Gerrera (a George Lucas creation for the animated "Clone Wars" television series) designed to conjure but the name of the real world counter-cultural revolutionary figure Che Guevara (and fully adorned with an almost Frederick Douglass hair style)? Furthermore, it is of no coincidence that this film carries the most multi-cultural cast of characters in a "Star Wars" film to date and how those particular individuals band together to rise up against a White Nationalist organization as depicted by the Empire. As speaking of the Empire, I also felt that it was an extremely savvy move to depict Orson Krennic's own struggles with his superiors, suggesting class issues within the fascistic organization, ultimately demonstrating that when push comes to shove, the Empire is a massive snake willing to eat its own tail in pursuit of complete power.

Yes, there is quite a bit of planet hopping in the first half of the film and seeing how the various parts connect does take some time, but every element contains its purpose and once everything snaps into place, we are all set for an onslaught that is bristling, captivating, exhilarating and terrifically exhausting to behold. And, I must say that as with "The Force Awakens," Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One" contains some of the most seamless and photo-realistic special effects of the entire series with ships, laser blasts, creatures and explosions all appearing to be so tangibly real!!

But perhaps the very best thing that I am able to say about "Rogue One" is that once everything was all said and done, what I desired to do the very most was to walk to the end of the ticket line and immediately purchase a new ticket to see it all over again right away. Out of a year of big budget films where most of them were derivative beyond belief and wholly underwhelming, "Rogue One" represented this style of film and filmmaking at its very well as it should because really, this is "Star Wars" we're talking about.

Can the new films keep up this tremendous pace and quality? I certainly hope so. But for now Gareth Edwards' astonishing "Rogue One" is one of my favorite films of 2016.

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