Ingenuity Takes A Holiday In "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Of all the undesirable side effects of George Lucas’ incorrigible tinkering with the original “Star Wars” trilogy, the most sinister might be the obfuscation of how and why the films shifted pop culture fault lines in the first place. The original films were pulp magazines turned glossies, at once backward and forward thinking bites of escapism that prioritized audience elation. Although novel in 1977, looking back it was very much of the time – a natural progression from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” the first proper blockbuster, just two years earlier. In a time of massive horror hits and violent crime epics, filmgoers required a movie, and ultimately a franchise, that took real life into account but didn’t give it precedent over the present, over getting lost in a moment.

The “Star Wars” films filled that void.

But the theatrical cuts of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return Of The Jedi” have been versions non grata for nearly two decades now, buried by Lucasfilm in favor of the ever-changing Special Editions. You know the ones: where Han no longer shoots first and 70s special effects are awkwardly salted with 90s special effects and entire musical passages have been replaced. Each is a garish, mashed-up monstrosity – not inherently the worst thing, but a poor fate for some of the most influential fiction of the twentieth century. What said revisionism means long term for the trilogy’s legacy remains up in the air (high definition fan edits are the best alternative out there until Lucasfilm decides to right a two-decade wrong), but in the interim Lucas’ attempt to make the originals bigger and more modern is bad news for new “Star Wars” films.

2015 saw the now Disney-owned franchise reborn with “The Force Awakens,” a labored attempt to correct course from Lucas’ mostly maligned turn-of-the-century prequels. The J.J. Abrams film did a couple of things right and a bushel of things wrong, splashing around in the waters of fan service a little too often and under-delivering on story, offering but a pale redo of the 1977 original. Fans of the film deny it, but Lucas’ singular touch was missed. At the same time, the picture doubled as an indictment of how the Special Editions and prequels warped the very idea of what a “Star Wars” film is: a small, swashbuckling sliver of a never-ending space opera.

Abrams, and now Gareth Edwards with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” have fundamentally misunderstood the breadth of this galaxy far, far away. There are many, many stories to be told in this universe, a vastness belied by strictly conventional storytelling and endless nods to fans. An early cameo in “Rogue One” from two Mos Eisley Cantina regulars suggests the scope of a multicam sitcom instead of a sci-fi saga, making an entire galaxy feel like your local Starbucks. Add to that some egregiously bad CGI done to resurrect a long-dead thespian (Peter Cushing as Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin) and audiences have nowhere to look but to a cast of new characters to carry a suspense-less story to which we’ve long known the ending.

The events of “Rogue One” unfold between 2005’s “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith” and 1977’s “Star Wars,” telling the story of an early band of Rebels looking to steal the plans to Darth Vader’s Death Star – the heist that will ultimately allow Luke Skywalker and company to destroy it.

The film clangs out of the gate. Felicity Jones (“The Theory Of Everything”) stars as the adult version of Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), former Imperial research scientist with Rebel leanings. A visually astute but sorely by-the-numbers prologue sets up Jyn’s path from youngster to second-generation Rebel. Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kills Jyn’s mother, kidnaps her father, and returns him to the Death Star, leaving her an orphan under the care of Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

From there, the film mechanically zooms around introducing us to Jyn’s eventual team: Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), his ex-Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior and Force enthusiast Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his heavily-armed partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). They make for a splendidly diverse cast of characters stunted by mostly dull introductions, thin motivations, and an absence of forward momentum. The first hour is remarkably chatty, setting up a war film without much in the way of war. Îmwe is the only player given an action-oriented intro. Then he’s reduced to repeating a cornball mantra for the next hour and change (“I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”) while those around him quarrel about their next move.

When the action finally ramps up, Edwards gets to flex the special effects muscles that brought him to prominence with 2010’s “Monsters” and landed him 2014’s “Godzilla.” But aside from a dozen or so imaginative shots and some lovely 1970s-style production design, the upshot is a routine CGI extravaganza primarily interested in creating a Pavlovian response every time someone or something familiar appears.

Take, for instance, the screenplay’s unthinking use of Darth Vader. Writers Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz use the all-time great baddie for all the cool Darth Vader things audiences might expect, but little Vader does is consequential outside of his two scenes. He’s extraneous on top of extraneous (the second extraneous being CGI Peter Cushing’s wildly distracting Tarkin), marking a franchise record in audience pandering. Vader’s last moments of screen time are such transparent wish fulfillment that they seem plucked from an overexcited gamer’s Playstation 4 hard drive. (Tarkin’s appearances are more Playstation 2.)

All of these disparate parts corroborate the rumored mass reshoots ordered by Disney (widely reported as nearly half the film) and the idea that Edwards wasn’t quite in control of his film. Composer Michael Giacchino’s rushed score (he stepped in for Alexandre Desplat who dropped out just months before release) adds to the feeling of discontent, his score strangely eschewing John Williams’ classic themes in favor of allusions to “Across The Stars” from “Attack Of The Clones.” (Giacchino doesn’t quote it but hints at it frequently.)

Through all of this, we know where the film is going, even if we don’t know the details – details that aren’t exactly worth sticking around for. Edwards and company haplessly pin a hopeful coda with more bad CGI onto lots of death and destruction. (How is it that effects shots Gareth Edwards composed by himself for “Monsters” are more convincing than some of the effects in a $200 million “Star Wars” movie?)

Fans will be fans and embrace large chunks of “Rogue One.” Despite the curious lack of an opening crawl – this is a Death Star story, after all – there are enough elements associated with the franchise that no one will mistake it for anything but a “Star Wars” movie. The cast is great on paper, offering both charisma and representation, even if their characters end up wafer-thin, their fates sealed before the movie even begins. And it is a rush to see Darth Vader again and get a tiny glimpse of a side of him as yet unexplored.

But well-intentioned parts do not a successful whole make, and “Rogue One” is a crumbly mess whose first half is dull and second half erratic. Like “The Force Awakens,” it has the backward thinking elements of the original trilogy down pat, but apart from its diverse cast it has zero interest in moving the modern blockbuster forward. Films in the “Star Wars” sandbox have the unique opportunity to be the everything-to-everyone hits that Hollywood execs dream of, so seeing them stripped down to vehicles for cheap callbacks is doubly painful. Gareth Edwards might not be to blame, or his writers, or even Disney, but together they are culpable for fashioning such a nonstarter of an action movie out of some of the world’s best source material.

In his way, George Lucas is responsible for all of this, his brilliant, addled mind and his current absence from the franchise forever both a boon and a bane. None but the following epistle has ever been at once so sincere and so sardonic: Thanks, George. Thanks for everything.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 16, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriter: Tony Gilroy, Chris Weitz
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)