December 19, 2016
Many Bothans died to bring us this movie review
by Ian Dreiblatt
Just as it’s getting impossible to look at the news without ralphing, at last comes something I actually want to read: ten bazillion reviews of the new “Star Wars.” It struck me that a new “Star Wars” movie is a big opportunity for a film writer — that’s your moonwalk moment, I think, as the largest film audience in the known universe begins trying to sort out where the latest offering fits into a nostalgia-diversion manifold Mandelbrotted with nuance and generational contentiousness, and turns to you for critical guidance.
To test my theory, I made up an imaginary film critic. I named them Cherjo Shpini, because that is preposterous and felt to me vaguely Star Wars-y, and then had them write a review of Rogue One. (There may be spoilers below for those who want not to know when Rogue One is set or what its heroes’ names are.) Here it is:
There’s a new hope for the “Star Wars” franchise. Nothing less than the fate of the universe depends on Jyn Erso’s ability to steal the blueprints for the Death Star.
It’s a solid space adventure, teeming with exciting action sequences, peppered with laugh-out-loud one-liners and made all the more memorable for the darker turns of the plot. As a movie, it can feel alternately slow and rushed, cobbled together out of spare parts, and in need of more time on the drawing board. But the damn thing is alive and bursting with the euphoric joy of discovery that caught us up in the adventurous fun nearly four decades ago.
There are no unanswerable questions in George Lucas’s “galaxy far, far away,” just untold tales. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first stand-alone chapter in the franchise, tells one of those untold tales. Director Gareth Edwards, working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, occasionally goes a little far in trying to please fans; at least one cameo is unnecessary and one is kind of… odd.
But don’t expect complaints.
As promised, Darth Vader’s back, with a box-fresh helmet and cape: three scenes only, though each one’s very worth it. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a courageous, fugitive rebel who happens to be the daughter of Galen Erso, the brilliant scientist, designer and Oppenheimer figure behind plans for the Empire’s terrifying new weapon, called a “Death Star”: he is played by Mads Mikkelsen with his familiar air of martyred machismo. Abandoned in childhood to the care of a radical extremist (Forest Whitaker, in amazing cybergarb) who ultimately also gave her up, Jyn’s as disaffected as a Bernie Sanders voter until she gets a look at the Empire’s capacity for sheer evil. Hunted, imprisoned, freed, captured, freed again, Jyn is a character in constant peril.
Much of the film’s middle section, in which Jyn and her father reunite after many years, takes place in dark, glum, rainy settings that out-“Blade Runner” “Blade Runner” in terms of precipitation. In lieu of another hero’s journey, it presents a motley crew on a desperate mission.
At the opening of the last “Star Wars” picture, Lucas murmured words to the effect that the fans would like it, but it was clear he was clenching his sphincter. For audiences with any degree of affection for “Star Wars,” the elasticity of time and narrative in this cinematic cosmos—as well as the digital malleability of some characters’ faces—has become a significant part of the fun.
The movie races forward with little variety in pace, and it offers more details of interoffice politics among the squabbling factions of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than probably anybody but a mid-level manager cares for. By no stretch is this a disaster on a par with Lucas’s misbegotten prequel trilogy. Fortunately, even an underwhelming Star Wars is a pretty decent Star Wars, but Rogue One misses a real chance to turn the familiar into something remarkable.
The film’s look is a kind of intergalactic dishwater fugue. Masquerading as a heroic tale of rebellion, its true spirit is Empire all the way down. It features countless and confusing explosions on the ground and in the air, like so many Lego sets exploding into millions of pieces, without showing enough heart at the centre of the film to emotionally animate it. The character work is dutiful rather than inspired. Rogue One is the first “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t open with a blast of John Williams’s symphonic score (the music is by Michael Giacchino).
Even the climactic battle scenes, in which the band of rebel warriors risks all to disable and destroy the Death Star according to Galen’s instructions, pivot on an unintentionally comical plot point—centered on the transmission of an exceptionally large packet of data—that seems ready-made to be reprocessed as a series of commercials for an Internet-service provider or a cell-phone plan.
Rogue One is strictly for completists, for the type of “Star Wars” fans who hated Phantom Menace and yet watched it more than twice.
The way Cherjo Shpini wrote this is that they looked at a long series of reviews of Rogue One, arranged in descending order by Metacritic score, and excerpted a sentence from each (occasionally making very small alterations for continuity’s sake).
It seems to me that Shpini is all reviewers in a way, and catches our film criticism at both its lyrical and wry best, and its ham-fisted, paid-to-be-tepid worst. (As for me, I liked Rogue One plenty, though I wondered why, if its point is to be an extracurricular standalone, they didn’t just give it its own single-movie-sized mission to follow, rather than suturing its ending right onto the celebrated, rad beginning of Episode IV.)
The reviews Shpini consulted appeared in: the New York Daily News (by Ethan Sacks), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (by Calvin Wilson), the Chicago Sun Times (by Richard Roeper), Rolling Stone (by Peter Travers), Entertainment Weekly (by Chris Nashawaty), the Arizona Republic (by Bill Goodykoontz), the Telegraph (by Robbie Collin), the Guardian (by Peter Bradshaw), the New York Post (by Sara Stewart), the AV Club (by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), the Seattle Times (by Soren Andersen), the Chicago Tribune (by Michael Phillips), Vulture (by David Edelstein), the LA Times (by Justin Chang), the Boston Globe (by Ty Burr), the Washington Post (by Ann Hornaday), USA Today (by Brian Truitt), Time (by Stephanie Zacharek), the New York Times (by A.O. Scott), the Globe and Mail (by Kate Taylor), the Village Voice (by Bilge Ebiri), the Miami Herald (by Rene Rodriguez), the New Yorker (by Richard Brody), and the San Francisco Chronicle (by Mick LaSalle).
Coming soon, a Casablanca spin-off in which we see Ugarte get the traveling papers he will later entrust to Rick, through what turn out to be an exciting series of events.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.