Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (Movie Review)

     As a kid, “Star Wars” was the very first franchise that I became of fan of, and for the longest time, I’ve always wanted the series to branch out into an expanded film universe. There was already an expanded universe of sorts with various video games and novels, but the movie’s have only been set in specific trilogies that, while mostly good, would still recreate a familiar formula. If the series was going to grow and thrive, it really needed to break away from the familiar, and do something different. The closest we ever got was the animated 2008 movie “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, which obviously wasn’t that good, but at least it launched a outstanding TV series. Finally in 2016 my prayers were answered with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. This was the first live action theatrical “Star Wars” movie to be completely self contained, didn’t follow the same narrative structure of its predecessors, and was a real breath of fresh that the franchise needed. This was the first time a “Star Wars” movie came off as obviously recognizable, but felt very different, and unique. It gave me renewed hope that this longstanding franchise could give us new exciting things, and it’s got me very excited for the possibility of other spin-off movies. Now unlike other installments in the franchise, “Rogue One” isn’t a fun space adventure, it’s a strait up “War” movie, with a distinct dark, gritty tone and feel, but I mean that in the best possible way.

       Chronologically, our story is set years after the events of “Revenge of the Sith”, and only a phew minutes before the events of “A New Hope”. Seriously, this movie leads right into that opening, which makes it significant to the series. At this point in the saga, the Empire is securing their grip on the galaxy, and are ready to unleash their secret super weapon called the Death Star. The chief architect of the dreaded weapon named Galen Erso hated his creation, but sense he built the machine under force, he secretly installed a small weakness that can give the hero’s a winning advantage over the Empire. Surrounded by enemies, Galen sends a message to his daughter Jyn, hoping that she can prevail where he couldn’t. Jyn, after being separated from her parents at a young age was forced to grow up on the street under the tyranny of the Empire, but once she finally gets her father’s message, Jyn goes on the offensive, and aims to do her part to bring hope back to the galaxy. Thus she leads a small band of Rebels on a desperate “one way” mission to retrieve the Death Star blue prints, and exploit the weakness placed by her father.

    I hate to spoil things this early, but it’s important to know what kind of movie this is. If you’ve seen “A New Hope”, you know how this story will go, and thus the film is admittedly predictable in its execution. However, this is not a movie about clever twists and turns, this a minimal story revolving around an epic last stand. Even though it’s a completely fictional universe, the movie still creates this atmosphere, like I’m watching the historical records of this small team of hero’s that valiantly gave their lives in this “Metaphorically Speaking” ... “Alamo” esk battle. Now in order for a premise of this sort to work, it needed to handle the characters very carefully. Obviously we need to care for them, but they also can’t be too interesting either. To say this cast of characters isn't as interesting as those of the originally trilogy or even the recent “Force Awakens” really isn’t fair. Those characters were all meant to grow, change and develop over the course of several films. These characters are here for just this movie alone, and that’s it. There not supposed to be on par with those of the other installments, but the movie gives us more than enough to care for them as we watch them go on their mission. In short, I liked these characters a lot, they all worked in the setting of the film, and I genuinely didn’t want to see any of them die.  

     Felicity Jones plays our main hero Jyn, and I feel that she conveys the emotions of the character very well. Whereas some characters intrigue me through their back story, or their complexities, this character held my attention through the simplicity of her emotions and feelings. The scene in which she gets the message from her father was the moment in which I was 100% invested in this character, as the look on her face said more to me then words ever could. The secondary main character is called Captain Cassian Andor, and this guy comes off as the complete opposite for me. I didn’t think this character had a very engaging screen presence, but I at least liked his story arc. This is a “good guy” that doesn’t hesitate to take some dark and violent action against both his foes and even his allies. Right from opening, we see this guy gun down one of his comrades in what he believed was his only option, but it clearly wasn’t an action that he took pleasure in. The arc of this character is learning when to pull the trigger, and when to let someone live. This leads into one of my favorite moments in which he has the opportunity to kill someone, but he refuses to go through with the assassination. His arc also paints an interesting light on the Rebel alliance. In the original Star Wars trilogy, we had a very narrow view of good guys fighting bad guys, it was the white hats against the black hats. “Rogue One” by contrast illiterates that even the hero’s have shades of grey, that some enemies aren’t inherently evil, and that war isn’t so one sided.  

     The main villain of the movie is an imperial officer named Director Krennic, and he’s serviceable at best. Ben Mendelsohn gives an amusing performance in the role, but as far as villains go, this guys just “OK”. Other note worthy hero's include a pilot defected from the Empire, an armored mercenary who talks with his big gun, and a blind warrior who’s one with the force but not a Jedi. This character is played by Donnie Yen, and he absolutely shines in every scene, with a great personality, and it’s just really cool to have a “Force User” that’s not specifically a Jedi. There’s a character played by Forest Whitaker called Saw Gerrera, who originally appeared in both “The Clone Wars” animated series, and the animated “Rebels” TV series, which is interesting, but there’s not much else to him then that. Without a doubt my favorite character is the robot K-2SO, who’s an Imperial droid reprogrammed by the rebels. This character is made of awesome, and single handedly steals the movie with his charisma and sense of hummer.    

        Of course I have to talk about Darth Vader, arguably the greatest villain in the whole franchise, and personally my all time favorite. Now I didn’t want the movie to over utilize this character, I wanted the film to impress me on its own without relying solely on the novelty of Darth Vader’s presence. So I was very pleased that Darth Vader’s involvement was kept to a minimum, and I was especially pleased that for as little as we see of him, it’s still some of the best Darth Vader material I’ve ever seen on film. Of course we have the distinguished James Earl Jones supplying the voice again, which is great, but aside from that we also discover some new aspects of the character. 

For example, in this movie we see Darth Vader’s home which is located on the very volcanic planet he battled Obi-Wan on back in “Revenge of the Sith”. As a kid, I always assumed that Darth Vader just lived on his star ship, so it was really cool to see that he lives in this castle that looks like it came right out of “Lord of the Rings”. I was also under the impression that Vader could never leave his costume, but this episode shows how he occasionally slips out of the suit to take baths, and that was another cool touch. There’s a stand out moment in which a door slowly opens, and the light behind causes Vader’s shadow to drape across the room, and that was just a thing of visual beauty. The most surreal moment of all is when Darth Vader used his force technique to strangle Director Krennic, which is followed by Vader saying “Don't choke on your aspiration!” Yeah, that just happened, Darth Vader, the most iconic movie villain of all time made a Mr. Freeze style pun ... and it was awesome. Of course the best scene of all comes near the end, in which Vader invades a star-ship and engages a small team of solders. It was scary, thrilling and just plain awesome to see him cutting down all these armed troops, and it’s a feat that we’ve never seen from the character before. 

     Aside from Darth Vader, there’s several other familiar faces and references to the original trilogy that worked very well. Naturally some big characters like C-3PO and R2-D2 make quick cameo’s, which made me smile. Then there were cameo’s from smaller characters like those to criminals that Luke Skywalker got into a bar fight with back in the first movie, and that was a really cool touch. There were some familiar faces among the Rebels including Bail Organa and Mon Mothma played again by jimmy Smits and Genevieve O’Reilly from “Revenge of the Sith”, and those were welcomed additions. It’s a tradition for every Star Wars movie repeat the fraze “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”, which is always welcome, but “Rogue One” is the first movie to put a twist on the classic line, and that was great. My biggest surprise was the appearance of Governor Tarkin, who was played by the late Peter Cushing back in “A New Hope”. Through some very impressive effects, this movie re-constructed Peter Cushing’s face on the character, and it looks very good. I really liked that Governor Tarkin had a big part in the film, and wasn’t just a walk by cameo. I always found him to be one of the more underappreciated villains from the original films, so it was just a real treat to see him in a big role again. It was also a treat to see Princess Leia make a cameo, and once again through some very impressive effects, the movie was able to recreate the face of a young Carrie Fisher.


     On a side note, the Death Star itself has never had a more commanding presence then it dose in this movie. I love when it hovers above a planet, the size of the station is so big that it blocks out the sun. I especially love this one moment in which our hero's are detecting something big emerging out of hyperspace, they look over and we see the Death Star arising over this cloud line, which just gave me chills. On that note, the movie looks gorgeous, with practical sets, lots of details, elaborate costumes, and space ships that look like the classic models from the original trilogy. It’s hard to explain but there’s something about the overall look and direction of the film that feels very adult. This clearly isn’t a cutesy fun space adventure like the original films, and is very dark, but it helps make the film stand apart from the others. That was one of the main things I wanted the film to accomplish, which is look and feel different from the other films, even though it’s recognizably “Star Wars”. 

Now personally I do prefer the lighter fun-adventure feel of both the original movies and even the recent “Force Awakens”, so I can’t say that I like “Rogue One” more, but that doesn’t make it bad by any means. This may sound like a random analogy, but for me it’s kind of like comparing drama's to adventures. I love watching a good dramatic film, but even when at their best, I still prefer watching adventure flicks. “Rogue One’s” darker, joyless tone is perfect for this kind of film, and didn’t need to be any different. But do to personal taste, I’ll still prefer the tone and feel of both the original films and “The Force Awakens” instead. My only real fault with “Rogue One” is that the first 15 minutes are a little unorganized, introducing a lot of unfamiliar characters, locations and planets in a short span of time. This made it a little challenging to get invested from the start, unlike other installments in the series which got me hooked from the beginning. There's also some small scenes that should have been cut from the film entirely, especially this one moment involving a prisoner and a squid monster. Aside from that, I really don't have much to complain about.    

      More then any previous film in the franchise, this one made me feel submersed in the "Star Wars" galaxy, I felt like I was really there with these characters, and in the thick of the action and excitement. 

It really makes the viewing experience feel unique and special from the others. Also, the action scenes are great spectacles, and some of the best I’ve ever seen in “Star Wars”. There’s a space battle which is arguably the best sense “Return of the Jedi”. Many of the recent movies over cluttered the space battles, but this one gave me just enough to make it easy to follow, and aesthetically, it just looked beautiful. Half the time, I couldn't even tell in the spaceships were models or CGI, and that's when special effects are at their best. The climactic raid on the beach is probably my favorite battle sequence of the entire series. The stakes were high, it was more tragic and it’s the closest that Star Wars ever felt like a real war movie. Of course it was great to see Imperial walkers again, ever sense I was a child those were my favorite battle vehicles, and it just brought me joy to see them in action again. The beach setting was also a perfect location that we’ve never really seen in this franchise before, and it kind of felt like a call back to other classic war movies like “Saving Privet Ryan”. Looking back, this is the kind of war movie I was hoping to get from “Attack of the Clones”, and while that movie had some riveting battles, it wasn’t nearly as powerful as this epic finale. I also love that every hero dies accomplishing something heroic, and when all the fighting is done, it just leaves this incredible weight, like I just watched all these hero's die valiantly, and knowing that their sacrifice will lead to a meaningful change to the galaxy at large. The music is effectively somber, it's shot beautifully, and even on repeat viewings, this ending leaves me with chills all over. Without a doubt, this is my second favorite "Star Wars" climax behind the final battle of "Return of the Jedi".     

     Beyond the films spectacle, it's the over arcing themes of "Hope" and "Sacrifice" that make this one of my favorite entries in the franchise. While the theme of hope has always been present in the saga, this was the film that really hit the message home, especially when seeing these noble war hero's lay down their lives for the cause. It was a film with the courage to break away from the familiar, and delivered a poignant statement without skimping on some first rate action and excitement. preaching. Combine that with the films submersing atmosphere, and ... I really love “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. It also got me very excited for the idea of other “Star Wars” spin off movies that can potentially be explored. The action was phenomenal, the characters were all very good, the natural human emotions were captivating, the morals were deep, and Darth Vader alone made the movie worthwhile. Even though this film isn’t exactly "perfect", I still loved it, and would rank it among my top 3 favorites. Now, I’m more excited than ever to see what kind of expanded material “Star Wars” has to offer next. 

All my "Star Wars" movie grading's reflect how I personally feel when comparing this film to other installments in the franchise, and not movies in general, so with that said ... I give “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” 4 ½ stars out of 5.                                      

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