Sunday, December 18, 2016

Scoundrels and Rogues

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a cinematic version of what used to be called the "Star Wars Expanded Universe." Dozens of books told us about what had happened in the Star Wars universe before we met the characters in Star Wars, what happened in and around the events of the first three movies (and then those icky prequels) and then many ventured into the future of the far, far away galaxy's long time ago.

When Disney and J.J. Abrams brought forth last year's The Force Awakens, the Expanded Universe was more or less erased from "official" Star Wars continuity. The continued story would now take place onscreen, and while some of the events that took place before the original movies might still have happened in the Star Wars history, most of them would be excised also.

So although there were a half-dozen or so different versions around of how the Rebel Alliance managed to get the plans to the Death Star, officially no one knew how it happened, or why the Empire built a superweapon that was so easy to blow up. Until now, that is, as director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll and Gary Whitta lay out the courageous actions and daring mission of the people who made Luke Skywalker's "one in a million" shot do what it did.

Ne'er-do-well Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) finds herself rescued from prison transport by members of the Rebel Alliance on Jedha. They want her to lead them to her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the Imperial scientist who designed the Death Star. But Jyn has not seen her father since he was "drafted" by Imperial official Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and she escaped to avoid being used as a hostage, so the search will be complicated. It will be more complicated because Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance officer leading her mission, has his own orders. And it will be still more complicated because Cassian's reprogrammed Imperial Enforcer Droid K-2SO (voice by Alan Tudyk) hates her. Along the way the quest will gather up two drifters who may have ties to the Force (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen) and an Imperial pilot whose defection set these events into motion (Riz Ahmed).

It's not as complicated as it reads, especially for people who are already versed in Star Wars lore. And for them, there are some great callouts to that lore, such as the Kyber/Kaiburr Crystals from the book Splinter of the Mind's Eye that power the Death Star and Yen's character being one of the Whills, from George Lucas's earliest version of the Star Wars story being "from the journal of the Whills."

The Force Awakens had a big problem overcoming the "so what" question -- Return of the Jedi left the Emperor and Darth Vader dead, Luke a full Jedi Knight and Leia and Han united, so what was there left to do? Although it scaled part of the way up the slope, it left some of the rest of that climb to subsequent episodes. Rogue One doesn't have that problem, but it does need to overcome the reality that we know the Death Star plans will get through to the Alliance, because otherwise there's no Star Wars to begin with. Since we know what, it will have to make us care about who and how, and it partially succeeds.

Jones and Luna create two deep and well-realized characters who are driven as much by their inner conflicts as they are by their hatred of the Empire. But the rest of the cast is basically a Crayola fill-in of the remaining story picture. Yen and Wen are cool fighters and have some trademark Star Wars funny battle quips but little else. Tudyk seems to be doing his best "Anthony Daniels before his morning coffee" impression. Darth Vader's brief but important role is a neat part of the story, and even though James Earl Jones at 85 does not sound like James Earl Jones at 45 he's still Darth Frikkin' Vader. CGI versions of the late Peter Cushing's Governor Tarkin and a couple of other characters jar their respective scenes.

I've seen several friends offer their ideas about where Rogue One ranks in the movie lineup, and I'd put it in the top half myself. There can never be another "first Star Wars," so the smart play isn't to try to recreate the magic as much as it is find some magic of your own amid what's already there. The Rogue One crew manage that not too badly. Given that projected future "Star Wars Anthology" movies are about how Han Solo and Boba Fett came to be the people we met in the original trilogy and will have to carry a heavy "so what?" burden, then it might be safe to bet it's going to stay in the top half for some time to come.

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