Friday, 23 December 2016

Rogue One

Rogue One launches itself at you without the Star Wars films' traditional opening crawl of exposition or John Williams' rousing theme, and it's simultaneously disconcerting and exciting. But almost immediately there's a shot inside a rural family home which prominently features a large glass of blue milk, instantly recognisable to fans from the franchise's '77 vintage. That's the tone of Rogue One in microcosm, efficiently distilled in the film's first minutes. This isn't going to be a Star Wars movie as you know them, but fans needn't worry: it's still Star Wars. That glass of blue milk is a sedative; a relaxing, reassuring tonic for anxious geeks.

Metaphorical glasses of blue milk litter the landscape of Rogue One, from mouse droids and a Dr Evazan cameo to a certain popular Sith lord (who even retains the reddish tint in his mask's lenses which disappeared post-Episode IV). But it's not just a conveyor belt of distracting nods and winks; this is very much its own thing - a scrappy, grubby, gloomy adventure that perfectly captures the mood of its place in the Star Wars timeline. The rebel alliance is fractured and flawed, and there's no sign of a magic wizard or his young apprentice on the horizon to save the galaxy from the tyrannical Empire. Ordinary grunts are going to have to get wet and dirty if they're going to root out any kind of hope for peace, and we're going to have to watch it through a handheld camera. Aesthetically, Gareth Edwards has absolutely nailed the attitude here, complementing his film's outsider status perfectly.
When Rogue One does go all Star Wars, it is properly, hair-raisingly belting. Watching new and inventive ways to blow up stormtroopers, AT-ATs and Star Destroyers is one of this miserable year's single greatest pleasures, and as the climax barrels headlong into the opening of A New Hope it falls over itself to provide one ridiculously thrilling shot after another. But there's much to admire in what's new, too: nicely-drawn characters whose backstories are only vaguely hinted at; a new and satisfyingly amusing droid in Alan Tudyk's scathingly honest K-2SO, and a more complex portrayal of the rebellion than we're used to, with militants and defectors threatening to destabilise the fragile alliance. Anyone with a favourite entry in the Expanded Universe who wishes it could be turned into a film (I'd plump for Claudia Gray's terrific 'sidequel' novel Lost Stars) will appreciate what's being done here.

But where Edwards conducts his effects sequences and space-based thrillery with the same brio he displayed in Godzilla, his work with actors is as disappointingly rote here as it was when he failed to get anything interesting out of the likes of Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna's plucky heroes don't have anything like the impact of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in The Force Awakens, despite the former pair being the more accomplished actors, and there's a tragic sense of missed opportunity in the precious few scenes shared by Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn, two actors who should, by rights, set the screen ablaze when pitted against each other.
Despite this, most of Rogue One works perfectly well as an above-average sci-fi action adventure with the added bonus of being a Star Wars film. But its third act heist - the actual theft and transmission of the plans that will lead to the destruction of the Death Star - is where things start to fall apart. Chris Weitz's script (apparently heavily reworked during reshoots by Tony Gilroy) throws countless unnecessary hurdles in front of our heroes, and the convoluted machinations they must go through to achieve their goal are frustratingly complex: one character has to do one bit of the job from this room, another has to do the other bit somewhere else, someone else has to throw a master switch which is way over there for some reason, that guy is doing something else but I can't remember what, and an antenna has to be aligned or something before another thing can happen. It's an awful lot of effort to go through to send what is essentially a bloody email, and the whole shebang comes across like a poorly-plotted Mission: Impossible film. None of this is helped by disorientating leaps between locations; at times it's unclear which base, spaceship or even planet we're on, and it's never long before we're bounced off somewhere else.

As a gap-filler between Episodes VII and VIII, Rogue One is a perfect reminder of how deliriously enjoyable and occasionally frustrating the Star Wars films can be. Technically on point for the most part (David Crossman's costume design flawlessly segues into the original trilogy and Michael Giacchino's score is skin-prickling at all the right moments, but one heavily CG-reliant character is overused and distracting), there's enough to tide fans over for another year as long as their The Force Awakens Blu-rays are close at hand. But there's also enough sloppiness to warrant concern about the rest of the franchise (Colin Trevorrow's appointment, in particular, often brings me out in a cold sweat), and all the blue milk in the galaxy won't ease that anxiety.

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