Off to the cinema to see the exciting but overlong science fiction adventure film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, starring top British thesp Felicity Jones as a lady spacewoman. Sometimes I feel sorry for American men; why can't filmmakers give them leading roles? The film also features a band of Rebel scum who will no doubt delight us once again in adventures to come, plus Peter Cushing, who is dead.
I saw the film at London's The Science Museum, in glorious IMax, almost a year to the day after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the same venue. Disney is now churning out Star Wars films on an annual basis.
Back in December 2015 Disney's share price was $107 per share. Now it is $104 per share, which suggests that financial professionals have a dim view of the Star Wars saga. The Force Awakens was a commercial titan everywhere except China. It was accompanied by a huge number of spin-off products, enough to fill my review with photographs; Rogue One's marketing has been relatively subdued. It is an official Star Wars product but is something of an experiment, taking place in the Star Wars universe but only tangentially involving the characters we know and love from the original films. It doesn't have an opening crawl or an episode number. The film was held back for reshoots, and several scenes that appear in the trailers do not appear in the end result; the film's ending sequence underwent a mass of post-hoc tweaking. Despite all this the result is generally seamless and, since I wrote the first draft of this review, Rogue One has done boffo business at the b/o.
Rogue One is a prequel set slightly before the events of Star Wars, the 1977 original that began the series. Back then writer-director George Lucas tantalised fans with his vision of a "trilogy of trilogies", but after continuing the saga with the classy Empire Strikes Back and concluding it with the competent but perfunctory Return of the Jedi, his filmmaking organs deflated. There were some half-hearted attempts to continue the series - some novels, a couple of television movies, a cartoon series - but in the wake of Robocop and Predator I remember that the Star Wars films felt very tame by the end of the 1980s.
Nonetheless children of my generation retained a fondness for it, and once we were in charge of the economy the Star Wars machine came to life again with some top video games and special edition cinema re-releases of the original films. Hollywood however is slow to act, and there was still a 32-year gap between Jedi and The Force Awakens. We will never know what kind of creative inertia or financial woes prevented Lucas from revisiting his pocket universe, and alas he is no more. In his absence Disney has grand plans to make up for lost time; in addition to Rogue One there is another film in the works that will tell the story of charming space smuggler Han Solo. I worry that over time every little detail of the franchise will be explored and then it will be boring.
If George Lucas had made Star Wars prequels, would they resemble Rogue One? It's impossible to tell. Perhaps it's better that the early history of the Star Wars characters is shrouded in mystery. We do not need to know how Darth Vader came to be evil, or how the Empire came to defeat the benign Republic; we can imagine it in our dreams.
Rogue One has a darker tone than The Force Awakens; the battle sequences resemble a bloodless Saving Private Ryan, and there is a suggestion that the heroes are not so much idealists as fanatics. The tone reminded me a lot of the Star Wars video games, which have traditionally been darker and more cynical than the films. The internet will probably generate floods of slash fiction involving assertive butch Jyn Erso and simpering crybaby Rey, her counterpart from The Force Awakens, but although they are cut from the same cloth they belong in different universes. On a visual level the film maintains the series' mixture of fantastical elements and environmental verisimilitude, notably in an almost surrealistic, Magritte-esque shot in which a giant starship hovers above a North African market in much the way that bricks don't.
This sequence is set on a planet called Jeddah, which confused me, because Jeddah is a real place, isn't it? It's in Saudi Arabia. Beyond that the film begins with a short sequence in Iceland, which is very dark, and ends in the Maldives, which looks like a pleasant holiday destination, albeit that by the end of the film it is not so pleasant. An Imperial facility was shot in Canary Wharf tube station, on the Jubilee Line, as if to hammer home yet again the fact that in the Star Wars universe the British are the bad guys.
I've written before about the look of the Star Wars films, and I don't want to repeat myself. George Lucas wanted to show us a visually rich universe as it might seem to the locals; people for whom starships, robots, and aliens were commonplace. Rogue One's beauty shots appear just long enough for us to acknowledge them, not so long that they distract from the story. There is a strip of green in a landscape of burned rocks; an enormous fallen statue of what must be a Jedi warrior, almost too large to comprehend; a slow-motion sequence in which two enormous space vessels quietly collide with a third, generating a shower of debris reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. The Star Wars films would not exist without special effects, but I suspect that anyone who is given the job of directing a Star Wars film is told on Day One that the characters are king and effects are always a means to an end.
Beyond the science fiction visuals Rogue One gives us something else. For the first time in almost forty years, Peter Cushing is back! And so is the 20-year-old Carrie Fisher (the 60-year-old Carrie Fisher is still with us). Which raises the question of whether Disney has a digital model of Carrie Fisher's body somewhere. Imagine the havoc that would arise if the model was leaked to the internet. Peter Cushing less so.
Daniel Craig is in films. Rogue One is a film. That's the connection. NB as far as I know Daniel Craig doesn't have a cameo in Rogue One. As far as I know.
What is the essence of a man? To what extent is Rogue One's Peter Cushing actually Peter Cushing? His vocal performance is delivered by actor Guy Henry, his body is CGI, and he is of course not supposed to be Peter Cushing - he is Grand Moff Tarkin, director of the Empire's sinister Death Star, a moon-sized weapon with a giant laser that can blow up planets. Disney owns the rights to the character's likeness but in the past this would have restricted them to churning out action figures and posters rather than full performances, and presumably Cushing himself was forbidden to dress up and act as Tarkin at conventions. All of these issues have been worked out in science fiction many years ago but it's actually happening now, to us, right now.
Alas the CGI used to generate Peter Cushing doesn't work. It almost works. It's a few percentage points from working, but it's still obviously CGI. As a human being I am genetically programmed to recognise faces; it's ingrained, it helps me survive in a hostile world, and I can tell when a face is wrong. The CGI wasn't bad enough to throw me out of the film, but from the instant Cushing appeared I was conscious that I was watching a CGI recreation. The problem is that Tarkin has a major role, with more lines and I believe more screen time than for example Mads Mikkelsen's Galen Erso, who drives the plot but only appears in three scenes, or Forest Whitaker's drug-addled mood-swinging armour-wearing Saw Gerrera, who seems to be channelling Dennis Hopper from Blue Velvet. I am prepared to believe in Peter Cushing's resurrection, but not yet.
It is only a matter of time, computing power, and artistry before Peter Cushing lives again. And then, a few years later, the computing power will be available to everyone, not just Industrial Light and Magic, and we will use it for porn. Cushing will be ignored, and over time the torrents of his digital model will go unseeded, and fewer people will remember him, and he will finally die. You or I will have died long before then. Peter Cushing will outlast us. Let them resurrect Christopher Lee next. This train of thought has gone on long enough. Next paragraph. Also, the Imperial armoured personnel carrier that appears at one point seems to be based on the old Kenner Mini-Rigs. Next paragraph.
The Force Awakens was competent throughout but Rogue One isn't as good. In fact it has a couple of bits that are downright bad. Darth Vader appears again. His first sequence is superfluous and ends with a pun; Vader had a dry sense of humour in the first three Star Wars films, but he was not a comedian. Puns do not become him. It's a pointless scene that undercuts his next and final appearance, in which he is evil incarnate. It would have been far better to introduce him at the end of the film. Also, if I'm being picky, the suit looks wrong. The helmet is too big.
James Earl Jones is once again the voice of Vader, which raises the question of who will do the voice when 85-year-old Jones dies. But then again computers can simulate voices, and perhaps they have asked Jones to record all of the words in the dictionary with every possible emotion, in which case they can just create his performance in the editing suite. Vader's physical presence could have been CGI, but isn't; they used a man in a suit. Two men, according to the IMDB, but presumably not at the same time because Darth Vader is not a pantomime horse. Neither of those men were David Prowse. Of the original cast only Anthony Daniels re-appears, and only for a couple of lines. Princess Leia is credited to Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila, who perhaps only supplied the motion capture acting; the credits are vague on this matter.
Is the film any good? The Force Awakens entertained me and after a year I have fond memories of it, albeit that I rarely think about it. So much that could have gone wrong went right. The characters were winning rather than irritating, and if the film was staggeringly derivative of the originals it was at least executed well. Rogue One has a tiredness about it that upset me somewhat. The Star Wars universe is rich, deep, and wide, but with the exception of Empire, all of the films have involved a gang of commandos infiltrating a poorly-guarded Imperial installation in order to mess up the Empire's superweapon, and I'm getting sick of it. Wars, Force and now Rogue have the additional burden of introducing a new set of characters, and so the first hour is spent getting the audience up to speed.
Of course all the characterisation pays off in the longer term - after two hours spent with Jyn Erso and her chums I can't wait to see what they get up to next - but it's still a slog. This is one aspect where the Half-Life computer games are actually smarter than Hollywood; they begin in the middle of the action and slowly introduce the characters over the course of the story. Why can't the Star Wars films do that?
Rogue One tries to do this by showing us Jones' origin story and then skipping her action apprenticeship, but the film still has a very slow start. A lengthy subplot with Forest Whitaker's guerilla leader goes nowhere. He is set up as a Colonel Kurtz figure, a rebel whose methods are beyond the pale. He has a big psychic monster that gives people bad hugs. After a confusing introduction he turns into Forest Whitaker, e.g. a big blubbery sentimental guy. A similar thing happens with Diega Luna's Cassian Andor, who is essentially Han Solo as a spy; he is introduced as a stone-cold Provisional IRA type but quickly turns into a wuss and actually ends the film holding hands with a girl! I can't imagine the Provisional IRA holding hands with girls.
Rogue One does however pick up after a slow beginning. The action sequences rely on implausible coincidences whereby our heroes end up in the same place as the villains, but this is par for the course with the Star Wars films. The Empire has access to the latest technology but its surveillance and security computer systems are less advanced than our own; time and again our heroes sneak into military facilities that are guarded less well than a modern-day data centre. In fact they end up sneaking into a military data centre - the Death Star's plans are stored on a Quantum Bigfoot hard drive - by essentially causing a distraction and dressing up as Imperial soldiers.
While I'm listing the film's implausibilities, why does the Empire need a tower of hard drives given that the same data is later shown to fit on a Toshiba SmartMedia card? The Empire seems amazed by the city-busting destructive power of the Death Star's laser, but surely they already have city-busting hydrogen bombs, surely? Was the blind Jedi actually a Jedi, or a quasi-Jedi? Was there a contractual reason that no-one besides Darth uses a light sabre? Etc.
Dot dot dot does however pick up. The film builds to another one of those multi-stranded land-space-face-to-face battles a la Jedi, where there is a battle in space, a fight on the ground, and some character drama. It's a formula; a good one. As befits the film's darker tone the Rebel victory is bittersweet, but this just makes the climactic events of Star Wars seem even more satisfying.
Will they ever remake Star Wars? It has aged well, and the makers of Rogue One have tried hard to ease the transition from their film's final moments to the beginning of Star Wars, which takes place only a few minutes later. A few minutes for the characters, thirty-nine years for us, during which the language and technology of cinema changed dramatically. Rogue One throws in the crude CGI and cel animation of Star Wars, and of course the X-Wing fighters and Star Destroyers still look awesome, but some gaps cannot be smoothed over. The post-modern wipes, relatively static camerawork and stiff space battles of Star Wars belong to a different era, as do the zooms, the 1970s-style sound recording, and the middle-aged actors. They all betray the gap between the two films.
Star Wars was also notoriously lily-white - even in racist old 1977 people complained that there were no non-white characters. Even the whiteness of Star Wars has aged. The white people of 1977 were old-fashioned white people, tanned and weathered-looking; in contrast the white people of modern-day Hollywood are increasingly picked for their whiteness, and so although white people are no longer the overwhelming default race in Hollywood films, the white people that remain are if anything even whiter than the whites of times gone by. Does that make sense? Compare the white people of Jaws or Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or The Wild Bunch with the white people of modern Hollywood - the likes of Jennifer Laurence, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and so forth. As casting directors are increasingly asked to provide white actors, they naturally gravitate to the whitest of white actors. This paragraph should really have been in the box-out above. I'll edit this review later on.
John Williams does not do the music this time although the score uses some of his old cues, notably the Imperial March. Given his uninspired work on The Force Awakens it's no great loss. I assume he is busy working on the next instalment in the series proper. The music was instead by Michael Giacchino, who was given a month and a half to write it after original pick Alexandre Desplat pulled out, which raises the possibility that Desplat has an alternative score lurking somewhere on his hard drive. Giacchino's main theme is generic but the incidental music is fine. None of it stands out - it doesn't even feel particularly Star Wars-y, but in my opinion this matches the grim tone of the film. A set of heroic action cues would have felt inappropriate.
My generation likes to believe that everyone has Star Wars in their blood, but generations of children have grown up without caring for the original films, and now we live in a world that has other countries such as China and India. They exist now, they are a thing, and over there in otherwheresville Star Wars was never a major cultural event. Rogue One itself has Chinese actors in two major roles, perhaps because The Force Awakens was not a great success in China; fifteen years from now perhaps there will be essays from young Chinese writers who decided to follow up their screening of Rogue One with Star Wars and Empire etc, who then became hooked on this mysterious world. As a white man writing in 2016 I am conscious that the future no longer belongs to me, that it will belong to others; and so on forever until we are all dead.
TL/DR Rogue One takes a while to get going. Howard Hawks said that a film should have three good scenes and no bad ones; Rogue One has one good long extended action sequence, lots of competent sequences, and a couple of stinkers. It is notable perhaps for its attempt to make the series even more gritty, although unless Disney decides to be brave and make an R-rated Star Wars film this is probably going to be a dead end. The film nonetheless answers one of the questions that has tormented Star Wars films for decades; who would win in a fight between X-Wings and AT-ATs? If X-Wings would win, why didn't the Rebels use X-Wings at the Battle of Hoth? Why didn't the Rebels put X-Wing guns onto their Snowspeeders? Conversely why don't AT-ATs have ack-ack? Does the Empire have self-propelled AA guns, or do they only use AT-ATs in situations where they have air superiority? If a portable rocket is capable of badly damaging an AT-AT, why don't the Rebels have more of them? Hmm? Hmm?
Nonetheless I eagerly await the further adventures of Felicity Jones and her band of chums. After building them up for two hours I can't wait to see what they do next, this happy band of survivors. What exciting missions they get up to in the next film, when they reappear, as inevitably they will after being in Rogue One. What will they do next?