By Stefan Wilkinson (Virginia, USA)

 

Rogue One Bleeds – and Where There’s Blood, There’s a Heart

There is inherent risk that comes with continuing a film series long after its origin – particularly when such a task falls to a different director. Connecting a new vision with the theme and tone set by its predecessor, ensuring continuity among the related stories, and selecting a cast that can carry meet and exceed the previous standards have seen even well-acclaimed filmmakers fall short of impressing loyal followers and new audiences (the importance of which varies greatly from artist to artist). Even more elusive is the creation of a movie within a preexisting series that can stand on its own and be respected for its own merit rather than its nostalgic tributes to the old favorites.

Gareth Edwards rises to face these challenges and meets them in astounding fashion with his latest film. Rogue One carries a far greater burden than extending a series, however; it carries the Star Wars name, a title whose magnitude reaches the outskirts of many other realms besides the cinematic. And despite all of this weight on its shoulders, the film moves with a smooth yet fierce determination to tell the story of the grass roots, blue collar rebels who made resistance against the Imperial forces more than an impassioned, futile cause. And much like that cause, such an ambition involves taking chances while respecting those that came first. Edwards recognizes the need for balance between these two factors, and realizes it by once again fueling the franchise with an everyman’s sense of humanity – a planet-scorching, force-infused humanity.

Rogue One demonstrates many of the characteristics that could have greatly benefited The Force Awakens. Where the latter often feels as if it was shot on a small theater stage (the camera seems to always frame the central action and characters tightly together to emphasize their significance), the former allows more room and gives the audience time to breathe in the decrepit, desolate, and often beautiful planetary landscapes that serve as the setting for its story. It reminds viewers that the ongoing rebellion holds greater significance than a few select Jedi and royal figures. And when such grand implications can be so fully appreciated, the efforts of every rebel is even more greatly valued.

And these rebels are different than those in with which we might be familiar. Not among them are princesses, Jedi Knights, or people of some grandly professed destiny. In fact, Jyn Erso is at first apathetic to the cause of those struggling against the Galactic Empire – her own survival is far more important, as is her willful ignorance to the ruthless reign of the Imperial Army. In fairness to her, the Rebellion is also quite rough around the edges. It has splintered, and one of its factions led by the “extremist” Saw Gerrera (played with brooding mastery by Forest Whitaker). One of its primary agents, Cassian Andor, has admittedly made large moral concessions from time to time, allegedly for nothing but the good of the Rebellion. These would-be heroes are clearly far from perfect, as is true of the warriors in any resistance movement – or any that feels as real as this one does.

The effort to renew the series with a youthful cast portraying self-reliant characters is both apparent and welcome. The Force Awakens portrayed Finn as almost comically helpless and Kylo Ren as a confused and frustrated youth in constant need of encouragement and support from his master. Jyn and Cassian are both flawed – she at first struggles with directionless ambition and he with often unrestrained ferocity. However, like the rest of the cast, they complement one another and help each other’s characters grow respectably. Gone is the presence of an aging former hero such as Han Solo taking the lead in the field. Nostalgia is replaced – but not nearly eliminated entirely – in favor of a refreshing realism that engages the audience. Even the ruthless Director Krennic (played by the hard-to-recognize Ben Mendelsohn) feels authentic, with his insecurity and helplessly conceited nature seeping through his overtly distinguished presentation. These changes bring the story closer to the audience, and simultaneously draw captivated viewers even further into this once far, far away galaxy.

No Star Wars film is complete without the presence of the Force, and “presence” is the best way to explain how it is embodied in this installment. It is portrayed more through feeling than force, a spirituality that can be recognized by anyone, not only Jedi Knights who battle with lightsabers, wield the ability to control others’ minds, or alter the laws of physics around them. Almost forgotten in the Holy City on Jedha, some still recognize the truth of its influence. One such character is Churrut Îmwe (portrayed by Donnie Yen whom many viewers will recognize and appreciate as the titular character in the Ip Man series), physically blind but seemingly prescient and able to overcome this handicap because, as he repeatedly states, he is “one with the Force, [and] the Force is with [him]” – a sentiment that most of the main characters come to share. Subtlety aside, the brief but utterly menacing appearance of Darth Vader at the peak of his power is a both unsettling and satisfying reminder of the power that exists, whether it is harnessed by the good or the dark side.

Another difference from the Force Awakens is the sense of urgency that comes with every battle scene, all of which are very well-shot and fit nicely where they fall chronologically. Perhaps this, too, stems from the emphasis on humanity and the importance of unity that permeates the screen. This also benefits the depth of the characters and how they relate to one another, and in turn to the audience. Cassian and Jyn’s similar back stories (both lose their loved ones at a young age) provide plenty of room and temptation to force a romance between them. Their relationship, however, remains platonic but warms over the course of the story as they learn from one another. Their rugged chemistry further perpetuates the notion that “we” can be a part of the Rebellion rather than merely watching as “they” fight it in front of us.

Despite its many nuances and originality, there is a great reverence to the themes of the original series – and a satisfying amount of nostalgia to satisfy hardcore fans. Hearing “The Imperial March” and Vader’s iconic breathing alone stir up a childlike wonder that reminds one of younger days when seeing the first Star Wars films. There are several other notable appearances and cameos that serve to both tie this film in with the others and serve the audience a few pleasant surprises (a couple of beloved droids are around to witness the moments preceding the movie’s most important battle).

What’s more impressive than how it connects to the franchise, however, is what it does that allows it to stand on its own. Believable performances (and excellent and quietly diverse casting), effective cinematography and, beautiful scenery, and well-choreographed action sequences (honestly, would any Star Wars film would feel right without some very inaccurate Stormtroopers?) blend to build an appealing – and culturally relevant – narrative. Whatever end of the political spectrum you stand on, Rogue One recognizes that behind many of the victories fought at the highest levels of government are a dedicated and passionate working class whose actions – or lack thereof – sever to build the legacy of the uniformed officials who are meant to represent them. The film is not perfect – occasionally shallow dialogue interrupt its rhythm, and a usually meaningful musical score at times becomes repetitive. As the film’s story teaches us, though, hardly anything is ever perfect, and what drives forth seemingly futile efforts is initiative and commitment. There are flaws, absolutely, and yet in the bigger picture, they seem miniscule because of the power at the core. So yes, Rogue One bleeds – and where there’s blood, there’s a heart. And this heart is strong enough to make this the best standalone motion picture of this grand franchise since the original trilogy.

Rating: 4/5

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