Reviews

Star Wars 'Rogue One': The Force Is Weak With This One

Felicity Jones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Director Gareth Edwards’ disappointing sci-fi actioner has little merit beyond its famous pedigree.


Star Wars: Rogue One

Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Year: 2016
UK Release Date: 2016-12-15
US Release Date: 2016-12-16
Website
Trailer

The first spin-off from the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: Rogue One, is a largely unsatisfying mess about the origins of the Death Star. Actually, it’s not about the origins of the Death Star, but about obtaining the architectural blueprints. If this sounds dry and uninteresting it’s only because it’s dry and uninteresting. Flat characters scurry from planet to planet, occasionally stopping to give boring speeches or have uninspired laser battles. It appears that the renewed sense of fun (re)awakened in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is dormant once again.

Rogue One has a single mission objective: Bridge the gap between the Star Wars prequels and A New Hope. It accomplishes this mission with such ruthless efficiency that there’s scarcely little time for anything else. To ensure that every possible loose end is tied off, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) skimps on small luxuries like character development and escalating tension.

The Star Wars universe has always been content with wafer-thin archetypes, but these characters are like absentminded scribblings on a cartoonist’s notepad. Our hero is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); an orphan girl whose father (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist, is forcibly enlisted by the Empire to build a new weapon system. Abandoned and alone, Jyn is adopted by the Rebel leader, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who, apparently, teaches her to fight, shoot, and kick all manner of butt. We don’t see any of these potentially interesting scenes because it might slow down the plot.

Fast-forward 15 years and a jaded, disinterested Jyn is living on the outskirts of society. She spends her time between stealing things and sulking in jail. A Rebel pilot named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) gives Jyn a simple choice; help us find your father so he can reveal the Empire’s secrets or go back to the pokey forever. It’s not exactly La Femme Nikita, but it’s an acceptable motivation to start raising hell around the galaxy.

There’s really no polite way to say this… Jyn is a zero. She has no discernible personality or goals. We feel no connection to her whatsoever, despite the considerable acting chops of Felicity Jones. She exists, like everything else in Rogue One, only to further the plot. Jyn feels like the young Sarah Connor from Terminator Genisys, who knows how to do everything because fate (and the screenwriters) deems it necessary. She sure looks spiffy in that flight suit, though.

What follows is basically, ‘The Magnificent Seven in Space!’ A group of ragtag Rebels unite to put a burr under the Empire’s saddle until it’s time for them to go out in a blaze of glory. Only, we don’t spend enough time with these characters to understand their individual foibles, strengths, or weaknesses. It makes for a decidedly passive viewing experience, in which we simply watch things happen without feeling any particular way about it. There’s no sense of adventure, only an air of inevitability.

Rogue One is a puzzle comprised of only corner pieces. Each scene dutifully fulfills its purpose, with anything that resembles ambiguity and tension being jettisoned in favor of easy solutions and convenient melodrama. Every plan works to perfection… unless it needs to end with a tearful goodbye. If the heroes need a security code in order to land on the planet’s surface, you can bet that the code will work… but only after we hear how terrible things will be if it doesn’t work. If there are 90 Stormtroopers to dispatch, you can bet the first 89 will be dispatched like proverbial flies… until the 90th kills someone of consequence (but not too much consequence). There are no surprises or thrills here, just a puppet show that makes no attempt to hide the strings.

Nearly every line of dialogue in the second half of Rogue One consists of characters re-stating their objectives. It’s repetitive, boring, and unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that reiterating their purpose over and over again could mask the complete lack of drama? On a positive note; there's a great drinking game to be played around the phrase, “We need to lower that shield!”

All is not lost for true Star Wars fans, however. Rogue One looks the part of a Star Wars movie. The planetary landscapes are diverse; from a rain swept Imperial fortress that looks like something out of Mordor, to a lush, desert oasis that resembles an exclusive Middle East island resort. The CGI and practical effects are seamlessly blended, with many familiar Star Wars spaceships featured prominently. There are also cameos sprinkled throughout, including a certain iconic villain who feels disappointingly tame some 40 years after he first thrilled audiences.

Whereas Star Wars: The Force Awakens could be forgiven its unoriginality because it was a soft re-make of previous classics, Star Wars: Rogue One is more like the gooey connective tissue between those classic films. It’s too grimy and relentlessly bleak to be any fun, and lacks the substance and drama to be taken seriously. Those willing to remove their blinders are going to find a disappointing sci-fi actioner that has little merit beyond its famous pedigree.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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