Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Theaters: ROGUE ONE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O'Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Fares Fares, Valene King, Anthony Daniels, Spencer Wilding, Daniel Naprous, Guy Henry, Paul Kasey, Warwick Davis, Ingvild Deila, Ian McIlhinney, Michael Smiley, Angus MacInnes, Drewe Henley, voices of James Earl Jones, Stephen Stanton. (PG-13, 134 mins)

The first standalone STAR WARS film chronicles the events leading up to Princess Leia getting the plans for the Death Star at the beginning of A NEW HOPE back in 1977. ROGUE ONE had a notoriously troubled production, with a major script overhaul by BOURNE series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who was also rumored to have supervised extensive reshoots, with a particular focus on the last 30 minutes, after no one was satisfied with director Gareth Edwards' rough cut. Indeed, many shots and some dialogue ("I rebel") from the first teaser trailer are nowhere to be seen and heard in the finished film, and with three credited editors along with an "additional editing" credit for veteran Stuart Baird, who's long had a reputation as Hollywood's go-to guy to work his magic in salvaging a wreckage, it's obvious to anyone schooled in today's cinema that the making of ROGUE ONE was far from smooth sailing (post-production ended on November 28, 2016, 18 days before the film's release date). Edwards, whose MONSTERS was a monster movie with very little in the way of monsters, and whose GODZILLA relegated Godzilla to little more than a cameo, is a director who takes unpredictability to a detrimental extreme. He seems to go out of his way to avoid giving the audience what they came to see, and for some reason, this has earned him accolades. Right from the start, it's apparent that Edwards is attempting to make ROGUE ONE his own by not including the iconic opening crawl that's been a staple of the STAR WARS canon for nearly 40 years.

The film gets off to the clunkiest start this side of RULES DON'T APPLY, jumping from location to location until the pieces are in place and the plot finally set in motion. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist involved in the creation of the Death Star, the Imperial Forces' "planet destroyer" and a project with which he morally disagrees but worked on it since it was going to be built with or without him. Erso's wife is killed and he's taken prisoner by Imperial weapons director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), while his young daughter Jyn is taken in by Rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). 15 years later, the grown Jyn (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner given a shot at freedom if she agrees to accompany Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find her father. Believing Erso is working with Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, whose face has been replaced by a CGI recreation of the late Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in STAR WARS and died in 1994), Andor's actual orders, unbeknownst to Jyn, are to kill Erso. Assembling a ragtag motley crew of outcasts and miscreants--reconditioned droid K-2SO (motion-captured by Alan Tudyk), Zatoichi-like blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and defector Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)--they embark on their search for Galen Erso, with Andor having a change of heart once it's known that yes, Erso took a major role in designing the Death Star, but he included a flaw in its exhaust system to give it a major weakness and render it ultimately ineffective.

ROGUE ONE has a lot of shout-outs and callbacks to the rest of the franchise, whether it's appearances by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) or Dr. Evazan (played here by Michael Smiley), who was famously bounced from the Mos Eisley Cantina in the 1977 film, or the decision to use outtake footage of actors Angus MacInnes and Drewe Henley (who died in early 2016), who played the Gold and Red leaders, respectively, in A NEW HOPE. Darth Vader (played by both Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous, and again voiced by James Earl Jones) appears, and there's a very brief walk-on for C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. The epic battle between the Imperial Forces and the Rebel Alliance fleet recalls some of the best moments from the original film and Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY) put forth a concerted effort to match the look and style of the nearly 40-year-old franchise kickoff. But Vader's intro is weak, and 85-year-old Jones' legendary voice just doesn't have the rumbling power that it possessed in his younger years. Vader's big scene at the end is most likely a reshoot (perhaps that explains why two actors are credited with the role when the character only has two scenes), and I'd be willing to bet that the most crowd-pleasing elements of what's on display here were the work of Gilroy rather than Edwards--things that were added after it was determined that what Edwards was doing simply wasn't working (it's also worth noting that one of the credited editors is Tony Gilroy's brother John).

One thing that doesn't work in ROGUE ONE is the CGI recreation of Peter Cushing, done with the blessing of a trust overseen by his secretary and personal assistant. The face is convincingly done on a technical level, but the ruse is up the moment Tarkin starts talking and moving and it just doesn't look quite right. It's not a matter of it being done out of necessity, like when Oliver Reed died during the filming of GLADIATOR and Ridley Scott used outtakes to have his face CGI'd onto a double's body to finish a handful of remaining shots. 2004's SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW infamously used digitally manipulated footage of a young Laurence Oliver, who died in 1989, to function as the film's villain and it wasn't met with a favorable response then, so it's a mystery as to why a full-on CGI version of a long-deceased actor is being done here, unless the goal was just seeing if it could be done. Like almost all CGI, it comes close at times but generally misses the mark, primarily because we see too much of it. Tarkin doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the digital Cushing is seen enough that it's a distraction. We also get a CGI version of young Carrie Fisher for one scene as Princess Leia (played on set by Ingvild Deila), but at least it's brief enough to serve its purpose without becoming completely off-putting. At 134 minutes, ROGUE ONE is occasionally sluggish and could use some tightening, but it comes alive in the second half with the action and battle scenes. However, other than Jyn Erso, the characters aren't very fleshed out and we never feel the closeness to them that we did with Leia, Luke Skywalker, or Han Solo back in the day (I didn't even know Wen's character was named "Baze Malbus" until the closing credits). It does earn some points for ending on the most grim and downbeat note for the STAR WARS universe since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but that sense of fatalism--this can't end any other way--was a given considering the circumstances under which Leia gets the Death Star plans. In the end, ROGUE ONE has its moments, but won't go down as anyone's favorite STAR WARS film, and while I like the idea of standalone STAR WARS films, this never manages to feel like much more than big-budget fan fiction.

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