Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rogue One review

By Marcus A. Roberts

The metaphor almost comes too easily: the Galactic Empire that is Disney determined to crush the life and creativity out of a small band of Rebel filmmakers . But it is truth, for Rogue One is nothing if not a struggle for supremacy between studio and director, industry and artistry. 

At Tuesday night's special IMAX screening you didn't even need to wait for the movie to start for the laserfire and lightsabre slashes - the director and studio boss on stage in the pre-movie Q&A were locked in verbal conflict from the outset. 
Rogue One director Garry Edwards said that as a child he "always wanted to be a Rebel". This prompted studio movie exec Kathleen Kennedy to agree a little too heartily describing Edwards as "the original Rogue One because boy did he go Rogue a lot on this production."

The contretemps didn't stop there. Kennedy spat out the ultimate Hollywood studio insult "artistic" at Edwards whilst Edwards, with insincerity that reeked worse than a Tauntaun's insides, near screeched into his microphone that: "Kathleen Kennedy is the best producer in the world. The best producer in the history of movie making!" 

And so the stage was set for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - a movie at war with itself from the very outset. 

The film opens with a light speed tour d'horizon of the planets/characters of the movie. The method establishes the players and their natures rapidly and effectively: Galen Urso - scientist who loves family hiding on a farm with rock covered secrets. 
Captain Andor - at home in a wretched hive of scum and villainy and unafraid to shoot first. 
Director Krennic - vying for power with Grand Moff Tarkin and near salivating over the austere gunmetal lines and brutal potential of the Death Star. 

As the movie slows in its second act the studio's likely influence becomes more clear. Humour lightens the mood at key moments; a crowd pleasing cameo by the Dark Lord of the Sith sees Krennic force choked in what can only be described as the very same model that Peter Jackson used for the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr; politicians bicker and succumb to cowardice whilst brave manly men volunteer to fight manly-ly instead. Quite. 

But the film thankfully does not linger too long in such two-dimensionality. Rather as it moves into its third and final act Edwards again takes control and three forces come into play: World War II, the theme of sacrifice and, for want of a better term, Star Wars-iness. 

World War II: from the tech itself like transistor radios (complete with "master switch" and Atari 8 bit graphics) to Iwo Jima-esque beach firefights, here Edwards fully realises his oft-stated aim to make "a Star Wars war movie". The combination of heroes and regular joes doing the killing and dying is as accomplished and realistic as anything Spielberg achieved. 

And this takes us to sacrifice. For unlike Star Wars before where the death of any character is a singular, crucial dramatic moment which contains within it deep meaning and consequence (think Obi Wan or Yoda or Han) here Edwards dispatches our heroes with gruesome, casual realism. They give their lives not just for the cause but for their buddy in the unit. They die knowing not that their ultimate sacrifice has enabled ultimate victory but rather that they have contributed to a chain of events of which they are but part. And yet they sacrifice willingly. 

Indeed the mirroring of the chain of sacrifice that makes up the finale was for me the movie's most potent artistry. For just as the heroes die one by one to enable the metaphorical baton to be passed of their contribution to the mission so too do the Rebel troopers running through the flagship sliced down by Vader even as the pass the non-metaphorical baton of the Death Star plans from sacrifice to sacrifice until it reaches success. 

And success looks so Star Wars! Because interweaved in this painful sequence of death and heroism is a space battle of rare style. From the capital ship engagements to the squadron furballs Edwards' denouement is breathtaking even for an audience jaded by CGI overdosing and offers a sense of fun to the Star Wars factor utterly different in emotional tone from the ground combat and yet in keeping with any classic WWII dogfight movie. 

Clearly Rogue One was a fight between Edwards' vision of a realistic Star Wars war movie and Disney's desire for an Xmas popcorn pleaser. But despite losses along the way in the decisive battle of the final act Edwards has won an Endor-like victory. He took on the Galactic Empire of Disney and his plucky little Rebel filmmaking force overcame all odds and made a real movie about real people and real sacrifice that still will bring pleasure to fans. It is a remarkable victory and one that critics and fans should applaud and reward. 

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