Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The world is coming undone
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilropy, story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta
134 minutes, rated M
In the history of movies, there has never been a story with quite so much story as Star Wars – nor a cash cow that gives so much milk.
When a desperate George Lucas sat down at a low ebb in a house in San Francisco in the early 1970’s to map out a saga in space, he foresaw a canvas on which he could project all he had learned about life – from nearly killing himself in a souped-up car outside Modesto in the early 1960’s (that gives us Luke’s love of speed) to his determined study of anthropology and mythology (which gives us both the cute little Ewoks who want to eat Han Solo and the central place that warfare takes in the stories). There was also his troubled relationship with his father, which turns up again and again in the relationships that matter in the films.
What he could not foresee then was that he would ever get to make it all – if he even wanted to – but unprecedented profits took care of that. Now we have an industrial machine behind Star Wars, the might of Disney, who in 2012 bought the rights from Lucas for US$4 billion he didn’t need and promptly changed the series’ direction against his wishes. Episode VII, The Force Awakens, was ‘for the fans’, said its director JJ Abrams, and huge fun it was. Lucas grumbled about selling his baby to ‘white slavers’, but the fans did not care. They just wanted more: more spaceships, more fighting, more jokes, more mumbo-jumbo religion, more of the holy excitement they had experienced from the ages of zero to 40.
Rogue One demonstrates yet again to be careful what you wish for. It delivers all of what I just described and more: the second half is exciting, full of the best effects money can buy, harking back to the original 1977 movie with a satisfying completeness – and yet, it’s still a deeply disappointing movie.
As the first of the ‘Anthology’ series – films that may not have any of the main characters, but connect parenthetically to the main storyline – it bolts onto the original film with a fine logic. This is the story of the rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star – taking us up to where we came in in 1977. No need for Luke or Han or Chewbacca, and only a fleeting glimpse of a digitally-created young Leia (perhaps the most startling technical achievement of the whole film).
Instead we get resourceful young Jyn Erson (Felicity Jones), kidnapped by the rebellion in order to get to her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the designer of the Death Star. Cassian Endor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the rebellion, has orders to kill him. Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the director of weapons research, might do it first if he finds out Galen betrayed the emperor. En route to the extended finale on a tropical planet, the plucky Jyn hooks up with up two Asian sidekicks and a mouthy droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind seer in whom the force is strong; Baze Malbus (the great Wen Jiang) is the warrior who protects him with a huge gun. These two are the best newcomers in the film – although the reason they are there is entirely to do with the rise of the Chinese market than any desire to return to the Asian mysticism that Lucas wove into his original plans.
On paper, there is plenty to work with. Part of the problem is that director Gareth Edwards, an Englishman with an effects background, is unready for the challenge. His touch is sure with action, fighting and pyrotechnics. Anything to do with character, dialogue and drama either bores or mystifies him. That means the first half has to plod through forests of exposition worse than even the second series of Lucas-directed films. The rainbow coalition of rebels is left chewing on pages of dialogue that makes even great actors like Forest Whitaker (as a rebel among rebels) look silly.
How you tell a story is as important as the story you tell and Edwards just wants to get to the battle. That is indeed impressive, and many will forgive the sloppy start, but there is a deeper malaise here. The series is now divorced from its origins, its father figure, and Rogue One shows how the separation from meaning weakens the fabric. Emulation and adoration and ‘for the fans’ are not enough. The milk is now grown watery, tainted by greed. The Force is weak with this one.