Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: Plenty of thrills in this Star Wars entry

Rogue One (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.16

The Force is strong with this one.

Rogue One is a crackling entry in the Star Wars canon, perhaps most accurately subtitled Episode 3.95. It takes place immediately preceding 1977’s original Star Wars, and in fact can be viewed as the events abridged in that film’s opening text crawl.

Once Jyn (Felicity Jones) agrees to join Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on a mission to find
and rescue her father from the evil Empire, she's startled to discover that her new
partner's companion droid, K-2SO, is a former Imperial Enforcer Droid ... with a
distinct inferiority complex.
The fast-paced script — credited to John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy — is equal parts heist thriller and down ’n’ dirty war film: a fairly grim escapade, by this series’ usual standards, taking place at a time that finds the severely overmatched rebel Alliance without much of the “new hope” promised by the eventual arrival of Luke, Han and the many others destined to enter the fray.

This film’s essential place in series continuity notwithstanding, director Gareth Edwards and his scripters manage the neat trick of making it a solid stand-alone adventure, for the benefit of any first-time Star Wars viewers (assuming such individuals still exist). This adventure builds to a terrific climax, while also delivering an unexpected degree of emotional gravitas.

The prologue and first act are a bit top-heavy with exposition and the need to introduce a lot of new characters, but — once beyond the information dump — it’s smooth sailing.

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), once a respected scientist with the evil Empire, became appalled by the weapons of mass destruction he’d been fabricating for his masters; he fled to an outworld planet with his wife Lyra (Valene Kane) and their young daughter Jyn, hoping to remain beneath the Imperial radar. As the film opens, they’ve just been found by Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a former colleague, and now an implacable enemy determined to put Galen back to work on a massive new project.

From the moment we meet him, Mendelsohn oozes the “foul stench” that has characterized the best of the Star Wars middle-management villains. His curled-lip sneer and quietly condescending tone make him the pluperfect martinet.

Krennic succeeds in his task, but little Jyn manages to escape and hide in a bolt-hole, where she’s eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a rebel guerrilla fighter given considerable exposure in TV’s animated Clone Wars series. (It’s nice to put a live-action face to this character.)

Flash-forward a number of years: Jyn (Felicity Jones), now a young woman, is shackled in a military transport — for minor crimes, most likely trumped-up — and scheduled for servitude on an Imperial prison planet. She’s rescued by the Rebellion’s Capt. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who brings her to Alliance leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly, last seen in this role in 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith”).

Word has reached the Rebellion of an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has defected with information about a heinous weapon — a “Death Star” — soon to be unleashed on uncooperative worlds. Galen Erso is known to have designed and overseen the construction of this horrible device, and rumor suggests that Bodhi knows where Galen can be found. The Alliance desperately wants the plans to this Death Star, in order to determine any possible weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the defecting pilot has been captured by Saw Gerrera, whose increasingly unstable behavior — and ill-advised incursions against the Empire — have estranged him from the Alliance. The hope is that he’ll still regard Jyn as a friend, thus granting access to Bodhi, and subsequently to Jyn’s father.

Jyn, who professes no “political views,” reluctantly accepts this mission as a means of reuniting with her beloved father, and perhaps proving that he has been coerced into building this awful contraption. She therefore joins Cassian and his companion droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a former Imperial Enforcer Droid that has been re-programmed to be sympathetic to the Alliance cause.

What Jyn doesn’t know is that Cassian has received additional secret orders from a hard-line Alliance officer: to execute Galen Erso on sight.

We’ve already seen that Cassian is morally ambiguous at best, with a seasoned mercenary’s vicious pragmatism. Diego exudes coldly latent menace, and we can’t help feeling that Jyn — despite her considerable pluck — is destined to have serious trouble with him.

K-2SO, on the other hand, serves as the film’s comic relief. The statuesque droid has a brittle sense of humor and a gloomy inferiority complex worthy of Marvin, the “paranoid android” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. K-2SO is given plenty of hilarious one-liners, Tudyk delivering them with considerable timing and panache.

After arriving at the Jerusalem-esque holy city of Jedha, in search of Saw Gerrera and Bodhi, Jyn and Cassian encounter Chirrut Înwe (Donnie Yen), a spiritual Jedi whose oneness with The Force proves quite impressive, despite his being blind; and his hulking companion, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), a freelance assassin with the droll habit of bringing a cannon to a gun fight.

Yen and Malbus give Chirrut and Baze a mildly prickly, Mutt ’n’ Jeff dynamic, but it’s immediately clear that both men are devoted to each other.

The pieces now assembled on the board — allowing for the infusion of several hundred Imperial Storm Troopers — Edwards and his writers kick the film into full throttle. Once beyond the first hour of this suspenseful adventure, the pace never flags; editors John Gilroy, Colin Goudie and Jabez Olssen keep the action sharp, employing the usual “Star Wars” practice of cutting between multiple simultaneous narratives.

Meanwhile, back at Imperial HQ, we see the odious Krennic reporting to an immediately recognized superior ... and this won’t be the last familiar face to pop up, as events build to their action-packed climax.

Jones remains front and center throughout, deftly shading her performance to reflect Jyn’s emotional and intellectual arc: from reluctant tag-along to full-blown Rebel warrior (once she gets a serious taste of Imperial atrocities). She’s another plucky, resourceful and courageous fighter in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, in the master narrative that resumed with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As was true of that film, it’s once again nice to see the crucial central role being played by a young woman.

At this point, it’s almost redundant to mention that the special effects are superb; that’s always true of a Star Wars entry. The action scenes aside, though, Edwards and the SFX crew also manage moments of thrilling poetic splendor. As the film opens, with Krennic’s Imperial ship skimming across the ocean-lapped beach of an obviously distant planet, the gorgeous vista stirs a romantic frisson akin to the scene, back in 1977, when Luke Skywalker stood and stared at his planet Tatooine’s setting binary suns.

The ocean-laden planet of Scarif, setting for the all-stops-out climax, is equally impressive, with island-based cities stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Pure magic.

The emotional resonance is augmented further by the stirring orchestral score, supplied this time by Michael Giacchino, nobly standing in for John Williams. While delivering plenty of fresh themes for these new characters and situations, Giacchino is careful to reference long-familiar Williams cues such as the “Force Theme,” the “Rebel Fanfare,” the “Death Star Motif” and the “Imperial March” ... the latter cueing the arrival of a certain black-helmeted baddie.

Rogue One offers plenty of surprises en route to its exciting finale, about which I’ll say no more, except this: People are gonna be talking about this one ... so see it quickly, in order to avoid spoilers.

Then see it again ... which I’ll certainly be doing!

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