Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Rogue One: Star Wars just can't help itself

On paper Rogue One was a great idea; a scrappy little stand alone movie built out of a single throw away line in the very first Star Wars movie about how a lot of brave resistance agents died to get the plans of the Death Star. There was such a lot packed into that line for a generation of kids who had grown up on WWII movies; agents behind the lines skipping from shadow to shadow, never knowing when betrayal will cut the operation out from under them. When I heard about Rogue One, I imagined it was going to be that kind of movie; low key and menacing, full of character moments and the kind of personal tension that makes things like the sacher torte scene in Inglourious Basterds so iconic.

This was not that movie. Its DNA comes from things like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, with a generous dash of the downbeat fictions of the same era where the bad guys killed all the good guys before losing anyway. There is a lot of action. Damned nearly non stop action. And the movie chews through the cast like an unfenced buzz saw. Nobody is getting out of this alive, even though it takes a while for the movie to hammer home the point that it’s committed to delivering on the idea of lot of brave resistance agents dying.

The problem with non stop action is that it doesn’t really give the characters enough time to develop their relationships, whether with each other or with the audience. By the time a whole platoon of jaded special forces commandos follow Jyn Erso to certain death, we ought to have some idea why they thought that was a good idea. But she’s done nothing to earn that loyalty yet, at least nothing that the audience has seen. She’s been too busy running and ducking and occasionally fighting. We get a pretty good sense of Jyn as a person - what we never see is how anyone else would have been inspired by that person, or even made a connection to her. 

And, you know, we’re running flat out here. There isn’t a lot of time to think, hey, that doesn’t make all that much sense. But I saw Rogue One twice in the space of four days, so I could come at it the second time in a more reflective frame of mind. And of all the many little niggles which I would inevitably have with a blockbuster, that’s the one which sticks with me. Felicity Jones is really good; probably the one actor given enough room to build a character with more than one note in it, and good enough that you can tell from squinting through a gap in her helmet visor that she’s terrified of what’s coming next. No-one else gets the time to hit more than one note. I’m pretty sure they could have done more; they just don’t get the time or they don’t get the lines.

But wow, in places it looks great. The last three quarters of an hour are spent on the beach, and it’s a look Star Wars has never tried before, all greenery and fine sand and clear blue light instead of the dusty desert planets and dreary bog worlds of other movies in the series. I think it’s supposed to be a contrast with the combat scenes, but it’s also a huge contrast to everything else in the film canon. 

But there are things which it seems Star Wars can’t resist. There’s a space battle. Which of course requires something impossible to be hit somehow by star fighters (spoiler, they don’t hit it). It’s lavish and spectacular and probably cost a fortune, and it looks completely out of place in what ought to be a gritty movie about an undercover mission going massively wrong. This should have been a Star Wars movie which wasn’t like a Star Wars movie, but it’s like they couldn’t stop themselves from putting in the familiar business for the climax.

None of which is to say that this is a bad movie. I enjoyed it and it gets a lot right. There’s a scene stealing performance from Alan Tudyk as K2-SO, a deadpan droid who is funny without being a catchphrase machine. It would have been so easy to make him another C3-PO and source of comic relief, but instead he’s a grumpy presence who gets the occasional barbed line (personal favourite “I’ll be there for you. The Captain said I had to.”) And although the plot doesn’t really make all that much sense, the movie does come up with a convincing reason why the Death Star was built with a massive vulnerability, which kind of makes up for the fact that the Imperial plan for everything seems to be “blow it up and to hell with the casualties”. I could take that in my stride when it was an occupied moon that was clearly more trouble than it was worth, but it got a bit harder to understand when it involved demolishing a key data storage facility full of their own men and priceless information. And although it seemed kind of forced, the closing minute stitches the movie almost seamlessly into the opening of the original Star Wars. If it had been a Marvel film, it would have been an after the credits scene. Luckily Lucasfilm aren’t jerks.

The story goes that there were massive reshoots and rewrites towards the end of production, and I can’t help wondering what the movie might have looked like before the money men panicked and asked - I imagine - for more of what the audiences are used to. Maybe the DVD release will clear some of that up. Maybe the quieter movie I wanted will be hiding in the extras.


Post-script: Maybe the extras will also cover the writerly joke embedded in Ben Mendelsohn’s job title. The bad guy that even the other bad guys despise; hemmed in by bigger bosses looking for results; depending on real geniuses - who he exploits, humiliates and eventually kills - if he’s to get anything done; eclipsed by archetypal monsters and at the mercy of a CGI villain whose whims decide what he can do, before being destroyed in the end by the thing he ruined everything to build, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Director Krennick.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Adam Hamdy: Pendulum

Sometimes a book is good, and sometimes it’s not good. And sometimes, it’s something which feels like it could have been good. Pendulum  is one of those books. There’s a perfectly good book in there about how much it would suck in real life to be the victim of a botched serial killing. It opens with the protagonist being hanged by some obvious loon, dodging death by sheer chance, and jumping out of a window before the killer makes up any ground. Jumping out windows hurts, which is why it hasn’t been on my to-do list in simply ages, and running off to the police to explain that some loon tried to hang you leads to stays in hospitals of various kinds, not to mention strait jackets and all kinds of drugs which might be fun if you were taking them at your own preferred pace.

As long as the book is about how a pretty ordinary schlub is out of his depth dealing with lunacy, it’s a pretty good idea. It’s not super-well-written, but at least there’s something here which hasn’t been tried before, and Hamdy is doing his level best to get across the sheer awfulness of the character’s predicament.

If only Hamdy had stuck to that. But there’s more, much much more. On the one hand - spoiler alert - the book is really about the menace of a social media, and specifically Facebook. On the other hand, about every forty minutes all hell breaks loose and a whole bunch of people get killed. Every forty minutes? That seems curiously specific. Was I sitting there with a stopwatch? No, I was sitting there with a lifetime’s worth of pop culture, shaking my head wearily as Hamdy kept thinking it was time to end the episode on a cliff hanger. Just as the world is filling up with people telling us that TV is becoming more novelistic, someone wrote a novel which felt the need to pace itself like a low-budget TV show. I don’t know what was going on there. Did Hamdy get told to cram in more action sequences, or did he get told to put some kind of novel either side of the action sequences? Or did he really think that both belonged together?

It’s a shame. There could have been a good book here. A much simpler book. A book set in England with a simple cat and mouse game with a loon and an ordinary guy trying to catch each other. Instead, there’s massive gunplay, an ocean spanning plot, a villain who is simultaneously omnipotent and an idiot, and a game of bingo for anyone who wants to read it going “Oh, that bit’s totally taken out of Speed!” whenever the plot goes into high budget mode.

Instead, the books can’t make its mind up about what it wants to be, and it winds up making no sense in all kinds of different directions. If the serial killer is just a creep getting his rocks off hanging people, then of course he needs a superhero costume and a mask. But if he’s actually a tortured anti-hero taking a complex revenge on people he despises, then it doesn’t make sense for him to dress up. He doesn’t really care what his victims think, and a costume is more trouble than it’s worth. And sure, it makes a great last act twist for the villain to be a guy with a bigger plan, but the bigger plan doesn’t make any sense of what’s been done up to now. And round and round it goes in circles.

I complain about all this because the book is at its best when it’s about the impact of wickedness. There’s a lot of work done here on the impact of trauma and the way the people are marked forever when they’re victims of violence. It ends on just that note. Hamdy had something to say here - something which doesn’t show up often enough in fiction - and it’s a shame that the fireworks are getting in the way.