Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


















In its early passages Rogue One: A Star Wars Story manages to present something as dispassionate and mechanical as a holiday season blockbuster in personal, perhaps even obsessive terms. It's fitting that Rogue One explicitly stands outside the numbered instalments, the story is smaller, the telling more obviously coming from a place of deep affection rather than brand maintenance. Shots and digital effects are framed to capture the obscure, visual affectations of analogue home video; the story revolves around the kind of people that had action figures you had to mail away for.

Gareth Edwards begins with broken 'scope homesteads then switches street level, weaving in and out of exciting background players while rebel spies actually act like they're under extreme stress. Edwards' approach is reminiscent of the one Genndy Tartakovsky took with Star Wars: Clone Wars, a fan's work that accounts for their own disparate influences, using them to compliment and mutate George Lucas' core product. So while Tartakovsky amped up the Akira Kurosawa influences and smuggled in some Sergio Leone and John Milius for flavour, Edwards shoots a desperate information exchange like one of Sorcerer's early exposition interludes then gives an alliance extremist a character tic on loan from Blue Velvet's Frank Booth.

Rogue One toys with a real sense of danger in these moments. The Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire are both shown to require a certain amount of savviness to navigate, neither ruling with absolute consensus. They're messy. There are factions within factions, each trying to make their voice heard, to seize credit and take control. George Lucas' disappointing prequel trilogy gave us something similar, a sense of how dangerous it was for an individual to exist within the various machines that ruled the galaxy. Unfortunately, Lucas' precariousness tended to track towards petulance and tantrums, Rogue One's filmmakers aim for motor.

This uncertainty is best expressed by Ben Mendelsohn's Orson Krennic, an ambitious middle-manager trying to stake a claim and be noticed by his monstrous overlords. Krennic pursues gain in anxious, selfish terms, he wants to stand out in a system built on uniformity. He wears white and a cape rather than the typical grey tunic; his entourage are cast in black and called Death Troopers. He is a human personality trying to bend totalitarianism to his own ends, building bigger and bigger mega-weapons to score himself a nice apartment on Coruscant. Krennic is a new kind of character for the saga, an opportunist jealously guarding his achievements, aware that CG seniority will gobble them up given the slightest provocation.

Before long though Rogue One has to start tidying itself away. Characters must shed their doubts before they can be summed up in the series standard, three-front battle. It's an understandable development, given the franchise and release date, but the way it is communicated feels synthetic. This tonal shift is more of a lurch, transforming the piece from a war film that just happens to be set in the Star Wars universe into an organised, contextualised shot at the latest, bleeding edge action noise. For a long stretch Rogue One is dramatically distinctive, fulfilling the promise of  'A Star Wars Story' sub-brand as a place for individual voices to exist within a wider product slate. Then the third-act happens and the plotting reverts to type, using shell-shocked loners to nakedly state the film's emotional objectives at each other.

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