Sunday, February 5, 2017

Rogue One: Review

How fitting it would be for Gareth Edwards were hired to direct a DC movie. He loves the dark. He hasn’t any particular sense of humour. His ear for dialogue is about as finely tuned as Christopher Nolan’s: exposition, clunky stirring line, repeat. After his no-budget breakthrough Monsters, he made Godzilla—occasionally spectacular, but lacking in wit and rather a slog to get through. The same is the case with Rogue One, the first Star Wars spinoff, of which DC’s favourite villain might reasonably ask, “Why so serious?”

Rogue One begins with a sequence that’s reminiscent of the protracted opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. This is not a useful comparison for Rogue One to bring upon itself: Tarantino has penned few better things than that initial pas de deux, while the writing in Edwards’ film has, at best, a meat-and-potatoes solidity. Perhaps there were too many writers involved—the screenplay is credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, the story to John Knoll and Gary Whitta. Then again, Casablanca had a roomful of writers and that worked out fine.

Rogue One is set in the period preceding the events of A New Hope. The film is built around a solid kernel of an idea: the Death Star is being conceived and for that, the Empire needs a former employee, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s hiding out on a deserted planet with his wife and daughter, Jyn. An Imperial squad, headed by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), tracks him down, but Jyn manages to escape. Years later, she’s tracked down by the Rebel Alliance, a ragtag group battling the Empire. An Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) has defected and is carrying a message from her father concerning the Death Star. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is sent to track him down with the help of Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna).

Anyone who’s seen A New Hope will have an idea where this story must end. This makes Rogue One more of a ‘how’, rather than a ‘what’, film—nothing new for the franchise, which includes George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, the longest ‘how’ in cinema history. We know that the Death Star was eventually constructed, and that details of its weakness were eventually smuggled to the Jedi. The only questions left are mundane ones. Will Jyn ever crack a smile? Can you fell multiple Stormtroopers with a stick, as Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) does so spectacularly? Is Moody Cassian the new Emo Kylo Ren?

It’s rare for Hollywood franchises to sport genuinely multiethnic casts (the Fast and Furious films are exceptions), so all credit to Rogue One for including British Asian (Riz Ahmed), Mexican (Diego Luna), Danish (Mads Mikkelsen), Australian (Ben Mendelsohn), Chinese (Jiang Wen) and Hong Kong (Donnie Yen) actors in key roles. Yet, very little comes of all this. Luna and Jones are fine dramatic actors, but they can’t seem to access the lightness of touch necessary to power a film like this; the charm of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in The Force Awakens is sorely missed. Mikkelsen is too subdued; Whittaker could do with some subduing.

I did enjoy Yen, one of Asia’s biggest action stars, as a blind man who wields a mean stick—his character seems to be a tribute to Zatoichi, the classic blind swordsman of Japanese cinema, though it also returns the Force to its zen-wuxia roots. There are also a couple of city- and planet-levelling explosions that are incongruously beautiful. But moments like these, when the screen comes alive, are rare. Maybe fans of the franchise will appreciate Edwards’ attempts to add to Lucas’ universe without playing spot-the-reference, as J.J. Abrams did shamelessly but entertainingly in The Force Awakens. Speaking for myself, by the time the galaxy was done being saved, I’d drifted far, far away.

This review appeared in Mint.

No comments: