Monday, December 19, 2016

WWII with Aliens and X-Wings: Rogue One, Reviewed

In the interests of keeping this spoiler-free, I will be brief: if you have any love at all for the Star Wars franchise, you really do want to go see Rogue One, the first of the "Star Wars Stories" anthology series. And quickly, so you can avoid spoilers.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "But Stephen," you think, loudly (but reasonably), "How can there be spoilers in a film that is an ancillary prequel to a movie made nearly four decades ago, and where we know the outcome?"

I don't think it is a spoiler to say that at the end of Rogue One, the plans for the Death Star are in the hands of the nascent Rebel Alliance. But beyond the telling of just how it happened (similar to Episodes I-III), this movie is all about counting the cost, and it does so tremendously well.

Of the eight theatrical releases in the Star Wars universe thus far, Rogue One is the first one to feel like a war movie to me, and that cost is a big part of that.

Certainly the original trilogy has a lot of the trappings of a war movie: the  briefing room and underground hangar of Star Wars, the uniformed troops fighting against lumbering war machines in the snow of Hoth, etc,. In the end, though, these are adventure films, less concerned with the cause and the conflict, and more about leveraging them to provide a suitably dramatic backdrop for the hero (of a Thousand Faces).

Rogue One is not an overtly political movie, but does a wonderful job showing both sides squaring off for their inevitable confrontation, from the machinations of an Empire building the ultimate WMD to the disparate and squabbling elements of the Alliance as they try to determine whether or not to commit themselves.

There is adventure too, obviously, but the final set piece, showing troopers with unbuckled helmet straps running through the surf under withering fire, while explosions framed by palm trees loom in the background, made me feel like I was watching a remake of Guadalcanal Diary with extra-weird-looking Marines and X-Wings playing the part of F-4 Corsairs for ground support. And in all the right ways, too.

That's not to say there is no adventure, far from it! Intriguing characters, fascinating creatures, exotic locales and cool vehicles (both familiar and new) abound. There is gunplay, martial arts, daddy issues, quippery, and humor galore, but all of it under the umbrella of a galaxy about to commit to civil war.

If you haven't watched Episode IV in a while, you might want to before going to see Rogue One. You will have a greater appreciation for just how neatly they have tied this story into the larger saga, and you are more likely to catch the immense amounts of fan service the filmmakers managed to cram in without feeling overtly nostalgic.

Director Gareth Edwards has done a masterful job giving a just slightly darker and grittier take on a universe that started out as a re-working of Flash Gordon, without wallowing in cynicism or losing the wonder of the original movies.

The initial pitch for Rogue One came from Lucasfilm visual effects supervisor John Knoll, but writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have done an even more amazing job; in filling in some of the details of this galaxy before and after the arrival of the Death Star, they have made the original Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope) an even better movie than it was before. Don't ask how; just go see it, and we'll talk later.

If the rest of the Star Wars Stories are as respectfully arranged and as deftly executed as Rogue One, fans of this far, far away galaxy are going to be enjoying themselves for some time to come!

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