Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Regular People Can Be Heroes Too

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story has been called the first “standalone story” set in the galaxy far, far away. This is only partially true: it tells the story of the theft of the Death Star Plans, essentially paragraph two of the opening title crawl from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) turned into a movie. Two other classic films got this “retroactive prequel” treatment: The Thing (1982) had a 2011 follow-up which told the story of the Norwegian Antarctic research station which discovered the alien spaceship and initially thawed out the shape-changing alien. Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) chronicled the events which brought a carnival magician to Oz and set him up as the ruler of the Emerald City.

This new film, directed by Visual Effects artist turned director Gareth Edwards, is a very satisfying action film and one of the finest additions to the Star Wars universe yet. Co-scripted by Tony Gilroy (writer of most of the Jason Bourne films) Rogue One is a gritty, serious, surprisingly dark caper film. It tells the story of group of ragged fugitives and hardened resistance fighters gathered by a desperate Rebel Alliance and given the task of somehow disrupting or stopping deployment of the Death Star, the Empire’s terrible new weapon. Along the course of this film we see this task change and evolve due to changing contingencies, and in the end this modest little spy story becomes a tremendous and consequential battle against the Empire as bold as any in the preceding films.

The Death Star never looked so evocative.
It is without a doubt the most beautiful-looking Star Wars movie yet made. The monumental visuals that we saw glimpses of in The Force Awakens— Rey climbing out of an immense wrecked Star Destroyer, Starkiller Base— are perfectly integrated into Rogue One. A Star Destroyer floats serenely yet menacingly over a walled city. The Death Star, creating an eclipse as it crosses in front of a sun. A pitched battle incongruously playing out on a warm tropical beach.

There is also a lot of fun stuff in Rogue One. It is set in the early days of the Empire and the film is rich with callbacks and easter eggs. Look hard enough and you will see crowd scenes filled with characters and creatures from other Star Wars movies. Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) has a part to play, as does Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) a surprisingly major character considering the actor has been dead for 22 years.

K-2SO, voice and motion capture by Alan Tudyk. This droid
is the 21st century update to C-3PO. Instead of a fussy,
mannered, somewhat feckless British butler, we have
a very capable robot with a habit of gracelessly
saying everything it thinks. K-2SO provides the
funniest and suprisingly touching dialog in Rogue One.
My favorite moment from the film— the scene which shows how unique this franchise installment truly is— happens early on in Rogue One. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), our main protagonist, has seen her mother killed and father apprehended by authorities literally dropping out of the sky, in the form of Imperial stormtroopers lead by Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Having witnessed this, and being a life-long fugitive from the Empire, Jyn has led a criminal’s life. The scene I love takes place on Wobani, at an Imperial labor camp. Jyn is sitting in a transport, being taken to or from some job site, covered with dirt and in worn-out clothes, ankles shackled to the floor. We then see other prisoners, looking dirty and defeated, sitting around her. We then see an Imperial Stormtrooper guard sitting on a bench near the hatch— his white armor smeared with grime and dust, body language broadcasting as much depression and defeat as everyone else in the transport. This is the moment where I realized this was truly a street-level story. We are not going to see the machinations of royals and elites: we’re going to see how regular people live in this universe-- those working for the Empire, those fighting it, and those who are simply caught in it’s grip— and how some of them will themselves out of this obscurity and rise to heroism and greatness.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones): Fugitive becomes hero.
Science Fiction author David Brin has long criticized the Star Wars saga as an exercise in anti-democratic cinema: they concern themselves with the internal conflicts of a single dynastic family. Every other Star Wars franchise entry has centered on the Skywalker clan, a bloodline created by The Force itself which has had a strong hand shaping the history of an entire galaxy and all the creatures in it. Even last year’s The Force Awakens is primary about a new protagonist joining the search for Luke Skywalker with the help of Luke’s brother-in-law Han Solo. Much of the fan speculation about Rey is how she is related to the Skywalkers: is she a daughter? a cousin? Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter? Or— my favorite crazy theory— is she a clone of Luke Skywalker, taken from his hand lost in Bespin, probably found still clutching the same lightsaber that Rey takes up?

In any case, the main franchise storyline is about a family of highly superior, Force-empowered individuals, fighting for governmental power over an entire universe of essentially powerless citizens. Rogue One isn’t about these people at all. It’s about the people they oppress: the Rebel troops Princess Leia sent to their deaths, Luke Skywalker’s wingmen blown out of the sky, the innocents on the planets Darth Vader and his grandson Kylo Ren had a hand in destroying. Because it’s a story about ordinary people fighting for freedom from the oppression of the Empire, it is both a noble and inspiring hero’s saga, and a tale of the frailty and ambiguity of ordinary lives.

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