Saturday, December 31, 2016

Another Star Wars Story

Rogue One
Beware Spoilers

A Star Wars Story is the first installment in the Rogue One trilogy. Inspired by the blockbuster Star Wars movies made by George Lucas it is directed by Gareth Edwards. Set before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, It tells the tale of how the Rebellion got the plans to the first Death Star. A key character in this story is Gyn Erso. She is the daughter of the weapon's architect and is the only one who can retrieve said plans to expose a fatal flaw in the station's design.
Right of the bat I'm annoyed by the subtitle. Will every side story need that little bit of extraneous info? This is a story of Star Wars, unlike all the other's you've seen and heard.
Rogue One opens up well enough, evil space Gandalf Orson Krennic, director of the death star program, comes to reclaim the last peon to finish the construction of the battle station. True to tradition the progression of the big project lags behind schedule. Much like every governmental program in history, in any galaxy. Krennic seems amicable at first, but a lie escalates the whole affair into cascade of shouts, violence and death. Unstoppable like a wedding band of a past marriage circling down the drain of a sink, slippery and inexorably as it slips towards its sewery doom. What I mean is that it happens too fast and is really tragic.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso

From there the story is pretty straight forward as the film takes the universe into wider focus. Showing the state of the universe. Once again, the Empire are clearly space Nazis. Oppressive, , exploitive, ignorant. It has all the (correct) traits it had in Star Wars: A New Hope. I say space Nazis, but the Empire could quite clearly be some other state found in the world today.

Jedha is the site of an ancient Jedi Temple

Our eye travels to Jedha, a planet whom's culture resembles a mix of eastern and middle eastern, its veiled and robed freedom fighters branded terrorists by the invaders. In the streets storm trooper in parade ensure the populace that they are there for safety and employ justice as their means. Two minutes later there's blaster bolts blurring the lines, rebels shooting rebels, concussion explosions, thermal detonations and a lone child crying out in agony.
All this, only moments before the Empire blows the place up with a moon-shaped drone. Sorry old chaps, all we needed was fuel!
It's a bit on the nose. We all get it.

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Yes, this is a war movie.
Should come as no surprise, it's right there in the title! But it's quite unlike the prequels. There the troops fighting the war are either throw-away battle bots or throw-away clones. In the clone wars only the heroes actually mattered. In Rogue One the heroes are the throw-away troops (sadly, in more way than one). This rather sets the tone to tragedy. Don't bring you children to watch this movie if you were expecting Jar Jar's silly antics. Don't expect the plucky bantering of Solo vs Organa. Don't expect old fashioned romance of rogues and princesses. Funny lines are rare, involve guns and shooting people and are made by a robot on a suicide mission. These aren't the swashbuckling space adventures of old man Lucas, this is war. This is World War 2, this is the Vietnam War... in space! The rebel forces even look the part. If the movie tried to make a point about war, it even gets a little twist here.

Walks on snow, sand, forest ground and surprisingly: water

Oddly, it also has a few of war game elements to it. One I'm thinking of is one scene set in a tropical beach locale... By the way: add that to the level 'theme list' too after: space, desert, ice, lava, swamp and forest. So this one scene takes place in front of a hangar bay: closed doors, an open space and then some chest high crates for the rebels to crouch behind. Ideal for dishing out potshots with the witless Stormtroopers as they run out from their spawn closets and into the enemy crossfire. This fight takes ages before Empire troops wise up and attack the rebels from one of their three exposed flanks. Akin to virgin players experiencing a round of Battlefield, not aware of their surroundings. A handful of Stormtroopers would have done the job but Command sends in a handful of AT-AT walkers, I guess to show that Rogue One speaks fluent Starwarsian, but more on this later. I laughed out loud when I saw the setup of the scene, because it reminded me of the silliness of simplistic, video game inspired action sequences. It broke my suspension of disbelief. That's not how combat works, especially not in a "war movie".
Sure enough this tactical error on the rebel's part costs them the match, but this foolishness doesn't take away one iota of drama as almost all of them die a hero's death. At least they would have, if I could remember their names and/or character. Their last utterances absorbed by their still unvanquished colleagues, just moments before they too are slain.

Saving Private Ryan is another war movie. It too had nameless soldiers that died in puddles of their own viscera. We did feel for those men, so what's the difference? Well, in the preceding shot we saw them getting seasick, puking, praying, getting themselves ready, fighting nerves. They were human beings, relatable. We would do the same things if it was us in those troop carriers. It makes the troops into nameless but unique characters. Rogue One barely even does this with its leading characters. This is one of its weakest points, in my opinion. For starters, I thought the antagonist, Orson Krennic, was a more interesting character than the protagonists: Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. The two ambassadors to China, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, while not bad on their own, felt tacked-on. Their scenes may have been more believable without their near jedi-like feats and aimbots. The pilot Bodhi Rook was introduced 3 times one third of a time.

Oh.

Also starring: Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (source: www.imdb.com)

It feels like we are to care for too many characters at any given time. The focus from Jyn Erso is diffused by the presence of all the others. Cassian, the ambassadors. Then there's the sarcastic robot, the defected cargo pilot, and the extremist freedom fighter. I have to look up their names because I didn't remember them. I feel that some of these could have been cut from the story to benefit the protagonist, because as a result I ended up caring for none of them. No time is given to make them really stand out in any memorable way. You won't find anything close to a blowhard, laser brained Han Solo. There's very little sci-fi fantasy going on here. The only one is Darth Vader, who is a larger than life villain. All the first billing rebels keep it very real. They're very serious and bland, 'gritted teeth' isn't a character trait.
I even have a bit of a problem with Jyn's motivations. At first she wants to deal with neither the Empire, nor the Rebellion. She even states that she kind of likes the order the Empire has brought. Her father dies due to a rebel bombardment. In a turn of events that are now lost on me, she is willing to sacrifice her life for the rebellion. It seems to me that the Death Star's threat is largely overstated in Rogue One. It's weapon of terror, not a weapon of mass destruction - yet, and only becomes so because of rebel actions. We as an audience know it will blow up a planet. That's why we buy the argument why she would make the sacrifice. Jyn doesn't know that she should. I'm not sure what's in it for her other than proving to the Rebellion that she can get the plans. Or revenge for what's been done to her. Or that her father told her so, would he have wanted her to die for it too? Seems like a big price to pay.

Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny!

In any case 'new' characters are about to fulfill their destiny. Dramatically introduced, shot from the back as they speak, letting us wonder... Ah, CGI versions of Tarkin and Leia on vacation from the uncanny vally, are here to accept the baton. Known quantities are here, because it's Star Wars.
I could have done without the X-wing pilots that were pasted in from A New Hope though, for some reason they specifically shrink the size of the universe. Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny! The many cameos also shrink the universe.
We could say that the ideas of X-wings and Tie fighters limit the scope too, but I think that isn't as much of a problem. Ordering in bulk saves funds.
This stems from a greater problem with Star Wars as a whole, and that is that the visual and ideological vocabulary of this universe is rather limited. Especially after the Disney acquisition all extra world building from the expanded universe was deemed non-canonical. So we're back down to brass tacks. Logical, how else could you expand upon the existing films? Forget the Ebon Hawk, there's only the Millenium Falcon. But this means we need to stick with what we know: X-wings, Tie fighters, the Imperial walkers, etc. Only small elements expand this vocabulary: like the newly added hammerhead corvettes, which - to my knowledge first appeared in Knights Of The Old Republic - a role playing video game.
Another new element, another tweak, is the black elite death troopers with their distorted voicecomms. So elite that they need to mask their communications from any bystanders? But the sounds they make with the scrambled grunts and wheezes, sounding very much like the combine soldiers from Half Life 2. Talking as if they had swallowed a white noise Morse code machine. It works very well, the result is an other-than-human appearance, which instills fear and makes one uneasy. Nice to see the an addition to the Empire that instills fear (and isn't Darth Vader) next to the comically incompetent regular Storm Troopers. Those almost look out of place in a war movie.

introDeath Troopers, as the name suggests, are scarier than regular Storm Troopers

This is one of the downsides of the Star Wars vocabulary, change too much and it starts to sound different and unfamiliar. It makes some sense to pick and choose from the former expanded universe to see what fits well enough to carry over.
This, if nothing else, is something that could be attributed to the prequel trilogy: it quite literally expanded the universe, there was a smattering of ideas thrown into the mix. Even going a too far some cases (mi-di-chlo-ri-ans).

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Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars: A New Hope in every way.

Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars in every way. I don't think this movie can work without A New Hope existing. Compare this with last year's The Force Awakens, that movie carries more weight and is allowed to come up with new ideas. In contrast, R1 is slanted towards Star Wars fans, panderingly so. "Remember how awesome this or that was?" So while it can't come up with much new, it can elaborate a bit on vested ideas.
Remember the Force? Here Rogue One sheds a bit more context on how it still exists under the Empire. The line in A New Hope "Your sad devotion to that ancient religion" suddenly makes more sense now. With the passing away of the Jedi, the force has changed from the practical to the mystical, and with the mystical comes religious belief. It validates the common use of "may the force be with you" too. A common use of well-wishing and wishfull thinking, which starts to sound hollow the more it is used, and turns into just something people say.

Remember Darth Vader? Because I simply can't let this post go without mentioning Darth Vader. Neither can any Star Wars movie, really.
I find that the position Vader is put in interesting if a bit problematic. There's a clear discrepancy when it comes to Vader in Rogue One and Vader in A New Hope. In the former he's met with fear and respect because of his acumen, in the latter he is mocked for being a relic and a bully.
In A New Hope it comes as a surprise that he force chokes the general. Didn't this general know that Vader is a big deal? Didn't he see the prequels?
Of course we need to remember that A New Hope (1977) was written as a stand alone. There had been no mention of the Sith. The concept of the Sith didn't exist in the movie. The Emperor might as well been a force-less tyrant. Vader at that time was nothing more but a 'Dark Jedi' in comparison to Obi Wan, a 'Light Jedi'. Both follow the same "ancient religion". Vader also doesn't have much more use than being a strongman for the Empire. A special unit, a powerful tool. A commanding officer, an ace in the hole. He seems valuable, but still expendable. Only by sheer luck does he survive the end of the first Death Star.

DARTH VADER!!¡!

In Rogue One (2016) we have the entire prequel (1999 - 2005) baggage to consider. Vader is regarded as the stand-in person of the Emperor. Which he is in a way - he's Sith royalty. He's the one who should, if all goes as to tradition, replace Palpatine by way of regicide. Therefor he is much more akin to the crown prince of the Empire, if the prequel stated goal of the Emperor is for the Sith to rule the galaxy.
In this story it seems pretty much affirmed that Vader's power is well known. In a callback to Return Of The Jedi, Tarkin even warns Krennic that he is the more amenable of the two, shielding him from Vader's ire should things go wrong with the super weapon.
But then, in Rogue One, he is also shown here in the super unit, strongman role of ANH. Granted, its awesome to behold. Not only that, his opinion matters when it comes to military and political issues. Krennic asks Vader if he is still in charge of the Death Star project - over Grand Moff Tarkin. Who's really in charge here? Did Vader get demoted in ANH for failing to get the plans back, so now Tarkin gets to hold his leech? Did Imperial military command campaign against Vader with propaganda for being a costumed clown? It seems to me that connecting the dots from 'awe-inspiring' to 'ridiculous' could be very hard.
Honestly, I do like how the movie portrays Vader as an unstoppable, unnatural force. Why he should be feared. That red light saber igniting , which it thankfully only does once, is a sign of an impending slasher scene... in space!
Quite a contrast with the 'hands on hips, assessing the mess the boys made on the blockade runner'-vader we see mere moments later in ANH. Presumably the battery on his suit runs low that late in the day. In short, the final Rogue One scene with him is straight out of a comic book. It is awesome, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.

~

Some (battle)scenes feel very much like those in Return Of The Jedi

I was surprised to see the movie ends mere moments before A New Hope Starts. Accept the new cast of characters and keep rolling. The old cast... well I had a feeling they would be expendable and I wasn't wrong. No lose ties means no breaks in consistency. The Death Star is a convenient way to clean up the mess the movie makers made in Rogue One. No stone is left unturned to ensure that none of the new characters make it past the credits and into Episode 4. It's a tease too, since it doesn't blow up any planets yet. That reveal is left to the main attraction.
I liked the plot's simplicity. No obvious plot holes. Nor unexplained mysteries, which would be fine for a "new" story, but would makes this one ask questions that would remain unanswered in ANH. In fact I thought it felt very much like the final part of Return Of The Jedi, minus the Luke storyline. There's a space battle happening as ground troops complete their mission.
Ultimately Rogue One rectifies one of the slights you could make against the story of A New Hope, "why would the Empire let be such an obvious flaw" by answering "It was done on purpose". Which is one of the best reasons to excuse yourself of anything is saying you meant to do it like that all along. In this case: embed a subtle flaw into the Death Star Systems.
To me A New Hope always felt a bit more unique to the rest of the trilogy, and therefor a bit more distant when compared to its sequels. If nothing else, Rogue One helps to tie its spiritual second act to connect with more with the universe it spawned. Makes it feel like a focused chapter in the bigger story.
Just don't think of it as a snake eating its own tail...

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