Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Rogue One, 1979

Off to the cinema to see Rogue One, a new film from the mind of Hollywood wunderkind George Lucas. Eighteen months ago Lucas was a nobody, at least outside the United States, where American Graffiti was a smash hit. Now he is the saviour of cinema, and all because of one film. A charming space fantasy adventure that takes place in "another galaxy, another time".

Conventional wisdom had it that the top flicks of 1977 would be Airport '77, The Other Side of Midnight, and perhaps Sorcerer. Instead they failed to entice crowds, and it was up to George Lucas - and close friend Steven Spielberg, with some help from our very own James Bond - to give Hollywood something to be cheerful about.

Few films have given Hollywood more cheer than Star Wars. Two years later it is still a phenomenon. Toys based on the film's characters were the must-have Christmas presents last year and the soundtrack album remains a best-seller. George Lucas has talked about an epic "trilogy of trilogies", with Star Wars as episode four in a nine-film saga. He is currently working on episode five, and time will tell whether his ambition will get the best of him. Star Wars told a complete story but the characters were engaging and the simple good-vs-evil plot was a breath of fresh air in these cynical times.

On the surface it was a simple film - but it was also a bold experiment in post-modern cinema, a homage to the Flash Gordon serials of yore; a clever exercise in constructing a modern mythology out of plywood and plastic. Rogue One is an experiment too, but of a different kind. Instead of continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals, Rogue One is instead "a Star Wars story", a prequel that exists outside the series' nine-film arc.

Lucas claims that this gives him the creative freedom to tell stories that would not fit in the series otherwise. Personal stories, with a mature tone. With its "A" certificate Rogue One is noticeably grittier than its parent, although it's hardly A Clockwork Orange. If Star Wars was a compendium of fantasy clich├ęs, Rogue One takes its cues from war classics such as The Guns of Navarone and Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (or in this case The Neutral, the Evil, and the Droid). A less charitable reviewer might point out that Rogue One is a quick cash-in designed to give 20th Century Fox another sip at the well, especially given Lucas' decision to self-fund his next adventure; but who am I?

With Lucas busy elsewhere Rogue One is directed by Briton Ridley Scott, more famous for his television commercials than The Duellists, his sole theatrical film. With that film Scott demonstrated that he could imitate Stanley Kubrick as well as anyone, which is presumably why Lucas gave him the nod. For Rogue One Scott has toned down his cinematic mimicry. His direction has none of Lucas' artistic flair, but he does a tremendous job at making the Star Wars universe seem real, especially given the film's reportedly modest budget. Each shot is lit with a wash of colour - blues and oranges predominate - and if the characters spend too much time running down corridors, they are at least visually interesting corridors. Despite the fact that there are no cigarettes in the distant universe of the Jedi, the sets are usually bathed in smoke, which if nothing else disguises the gaffer tape.

The producers have also shaved costs by filming the desert scenes in Spain, doubling for the planet Jakku, rather than Tunisia. The effects of evil villain Darth Vader's moon-sized superlaser are stock footage from the original, and although there is one exciting albeit brief space battle, for the most part the action is earth-bound - or "planet-bound", because this is set in space after all. Gone too are the original film's distinctive light swords, and almost all of the hippy mysticism surrounding The Force, as Lucas called it. The Force was embarrassingly twee, but I miss it; Rogue One suffers from a lack of magic. Ridley Scott has talked of his distaste for supernatural deus ex machina, but Rogue One feels small, dare I say anonymous without Lucas' muddled spiritualism.

But what's it like? The film follows a band of heroic spies, who are sent on a desperate mission to capture the blueprints of the aforementioned Death Star. Peter Cushing returns as the villainous Moff Tarkin, although with Darth Vader presumably busy elsewhere the chief baddie is this time Designer Krennic, played with gusto by Oliver Reed, who by all accounts enjoyed himself immensely during filming, to the extent of joining the production in Spain, even though he does not appear in that section of the movie. Beyond Cushing, only Carrie Fisher returns from the original cast, in a sequence that cleverly matches the very beginning of Star Wars. I'm not sure if the little man inside R2D2 returns, or if they simply moved the prop around the sets with invisible strings.

What of our heroes? Much has been made of screenwriter Alan Dean Foster's unisex names; Scott likened the casting process to "throwing darts at a Ouija board", albeit that yet again the board appeared to be whites-only. The decision to give the film a female star - in a gritty war picture, no less - has been met with incredulity, but newcomer Debra Winger is convincingly weather-worn as wayward spitfire Jyn Erso. Only one year older than Star Wars' Carrie Fisher, she carries much of the film's emotional backbone, although perhaps inevitably she is nonetheless captured by a mini-villain (played by Omar Sharif, almost unrecognisable in a gas mask), and has to be rescued. Of her merry band of brothers Harry Dean Stanton stands out as an Imperial pilot who has been artificially aged under torture, while a bearded Tom Skerritt plays ruthless agent Cassian Andor, who develops a platonic respect for the supposedly inexperienced Jyn. And I stress platonic; in one amusing scene the film acknowledges the obvious age difference between them.

Of the rest of the cast Ian Holm has a neat turn as reprogrammed Imperial robot K2SO. It's curious that the clunky "mechanicals" in Star Wars are less advanced than Holm's convincingly humanoid robot - presumably another cost-saving measure - but his world-weary performance won me over. By now John Williams' score is almost a character by itself, but beyond a new theme for Tarkin and some desert music it is noticeably more spartan than the original (the famous Star Wars theme does not appear until the end).

Will children like it? The new cast are older the originals, and although the action sequences are plentiful they tend to follow the same basic formula. Our heroes journey to a local warlord, but are interrupted by Imperial stormtroopers and escape in the nick of time; our heroes attempt to rescue a key characters' father, but are thwarted in the nick of time; our heroes attack an Imperial installation, and actually do manage to achieve their goal - but to say any more would spoil the ending. Despite a first half that takes place in the desert Rogue One lacks the weather-worn aesthetic of the original, and of course the ending owes a lot to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Parents will have to explain to their children that sometimes victory has a high price. It will be interesting to see if the toys are as popular, given that fate of almost all of the characters.

Nonetheless, as both an experiment and a solid action film, Rogue One is a success. It convincingly demonstrates that the Star Wars universe can carry a film by itself. Of course it has strong immediate competition from Moonraker, which cost much more and has a lengthier space battle, but doesn't look any more expensive, and there is the looming threat of Paramount's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Disney's The Black Hole, both scheduled for release later in the year. Will they spoil the public's appetite for Star Wars V?