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.

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