Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

(Also published on The Completist.)

Tarkin Dead with Chris Hardwick

It's interesting to discover your moral thresholds. In an oft-referenced review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò (1960), Jacques Rivette takes issue with a tracking shot that glides over the freshly deceased body of a character played by Emmanuelle Riva. Writes Rivette: "The man who decides, at that moment, to have a dolly in to tilt up at the body, while taking care to precisely note the hand raised in the angle of its final framing -- this man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt. … There are things that should not be addressed except in the throes of fear and trembling; death is one of them, without a doubt; and how, at the moment of filming something so mysterious, could one not feel like an imposter? It would be better in any case to ask oneself the question, and to include the interrogation, in some way, in what is being filmed; but doubt is surely that which Pontecorvo and his ilk lack most."

I wonder if there were any doubts expressed, during the production of the Star Wars stand-alone film Rogue One (which answers the really-didn't-need-to-be-asked question about just how those Death Star plans got into the hands of the Rebel Alliance), about resurrecting Peter Cushing as A New Hope's tyrannical Grand Moff Tarkin. This isn't Robert Zemeckis digitally diddling with archive footage in Forrest Gump (1994), nor is it the blessedly forgotten pseudo-revival of Laurence Olivier for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). This is a full-on cybernetic grave-robbing: Scanning 1977-era footage of the Hammer Horror old-reliable, putting it through the data processor, allowing an army of anonymous techies to churn/knead/sculpt/airbrush, and passing off the sickening full-bodied result—which is treated as, but conspicuously lacks the uncapturable subtleties of true humanity—as a fresh performance from a great, giving talent who passed away in 1994. Further insult: Cushing isn't credited…his estate is, which raises the ghastly thought that we've now reached a point where everyone's likeness, even beyond the grave, has its price. Not even those to whom we commend our legacy can be trusted to honor it.

A real genie-out-of-the-bottle/Pandora's Box moment (The Congress is coming to pass), and I'll fully admit that the second Cushing's dead-eyed digital facsimile appeared (about half-an-hour into Rogue One), I became ill and off-put, and never recovered. Clearly this is my moral threshold—the reanimating of a cadaver via electronic means or otherwise, for the purposes of entertainment, for what amounts to a sustained hit of fan-servicey nostalgia, is a bridge too far. Yet Cushing's undead corpse (for what else is it?) is actually the perfect embodiment of the sorry, soulless thing that is Rogue One, which completes the Mouse House corporatization of Star Wars that began with last year's J.J. Abrams-helmed The Force Awakens.

Another threshold: It seems that prosaic competence is the low bar most globalized Hollywood blockbusters must now clear. Like The Force Awakens, like almost every Marvel movie (and even with that digital desecration goose-stepping about), I'm loathe to think of a single performance or scene in Rogue One that doesn't "work"—in the sense that expectations are met and base desires fulfilled, like quotas at a factory. In the process, however, personality is leeched.

Masses-appealing mediocrity being the ultimate goal, people become product: Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed and Felicity Jones can appeal to the Euro markets, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen the Chinese, Diego Luna the Hispanic, Ben Mendelsohn the Aussie. It hardly matters if they play or even manage to suggest memorable characters, which none of them do. Just one example: Jones's Jyn Erso is a loner rebel one moment, plucky group leader the next…and there and back again throughout a monotonous 135 minutes. The pro-forma narrative (variably authored by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) dictates who Jyn is supposed to be in any given scene, regardless of what came before—always and ever an action figure posed always and ever by boys. (It's arrested development! Go see a Star War.) Truly, this is the kind of "diverse" casting I can't stand, where the gender and race variations come off like a cynical sop to the progressive-minded (quite often a whole other breed of fanperson). It might be argued that the mere fact of gathering such a panoply of faces and nationalities is enough, even if founded on disingenuousness. After all, isn't something that's ostensibly on the right side of history better than nothing at all? So why does it feel like we're constantly selling our souls to the devil in order to see a rainbow?

I'm not surprised, but I am saddened that Gareth Edwards is the in-name director behind it all. His great Godzilla (2014) seemed hard-fought and barely won, as if it was constantly tipping toward commodification and compromise, before pulling back into its own cramped yet defiantly personal playspace. That's part of what made it so thrilling, and I adored the way Edwards placed the humans in that film in cowering contrast to the giant monsters without ever diminishing their varying (melo)dramas. The Godz didn't give a damn who was crushed underfoot, but Edwards did, and he made sure to emphasize (especially via a few vivid throwaway vignettes—e.g. the father who comes to pick up his delinquent son in the Tokyo police station) that this world was bigger than what the lily-white protagonists might normally conceive, and what films of this sort (with their cavalier dismissal of human life) might typically portray.

Here, however, despite an inspired stray shot or two (such as the Death Star eclipsing the sun before its attack on a defenseless, vaguely Middle Eastern alien city), Edwards is slave to the machine. And the asides that might otherwise open up this expansive world actually shrink it, close it off, limiting it to the things (all those mass-market inundations) we already know. See, for example, the moment when Jyn and Cassian Andor (Luna's character) cross paths with Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the ill-fated hotheads destined to meet the wrong end of Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber in Mos Eisley Cantina. It's all very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, right down to Cornelius hissing "You just watch yourself!" at Jyn and Cassian, in one of those self-aware repetitions that Star Wars majordomo George Lucas might have once laughably likened to poetry, but which pales even further when it's imitated by someone (or an army of someones) with a vision in thrall to a broad bottom line.

I'm on record as saying, in regards to The Force Awakens, that I'll gladly take Lucas's failed idiosyncrasy over Abrams's slavish devotion. And so it is here. The much-derided prequel films are inconsistent and irritating in almost every way except for the overarching sense that they spring from a singular consciousness. Best to consider them mostly botched transmissions from the Xanadu known as Skywalker Ranch (and perhaps also point out that Lucas's mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, has been showing up his protégé in recent years when it comes to personally-funded projects with a distinctive, rebellious edge.)

Lucas gave barely an inch to the increasingly resentful viewers who made his multi-episode space opera a new religion. His selling of the property, in full, to Walt Disney Studios seems, in part, a calculatedly callow reaction—ceding control to (somewhat) regain it. ("Don't like what I did? Well…you do better!") I'm gathering from the general reactions to The Force Awakens, as well as from pre-release appraisals of Rogue One, that many viewers think Lucas has been bested. To my eyes, though, he's won the day, because these new films are merely buffed, burnished and bloodless carbon copies of stories, characters and situations that he's done before, the only real variation being that they are now no longer square pegs stuffed insolently into round holes.

Every object fits how it's supposed to, where it's supposed to, when it's supposed to—a strange thing to say about a movie that's effectively about a ragtag suicide mission. Cassian has a Greedo-like encounter early on in which he kills an informant in cold blood, though the way Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot the scene plays as anemically evasive as any of Lucas's Special Edition revisions. There are shallow allusions to our current geopolitical hotbed; see, for example, the blackout hoods forced over the heads of the prisoners held by Forest Whitaker's half-cyborg Saw Gerrera and his band of ISIS-like desert insurgents. There's a battle that hyperactively intercuts action in three locations (so imitation Lucas, even down to the X-Wing pilot banter, that it thuds), not to mention an extended, lightsaber-wielding cameo from a certain Sith Lord, punning like Stallone and Schwarzenegger in their prime, that seems to exist purely to show Butt-Numb-A-Thon'd fanboys that "Lord Vader's got his balls back!"

Rogue One eventually syncs up cleanly with the beginning of A New Hope, in the process indulging in some more creepy digi-resurrection of a beloved Star Wars character/actor—though at least the princess diarist in question is still out there in the real world, pithily kicking and screaming.* Yet as with poor Peter Cushing, there's something about this virtual female Lazarus (who gets the film's self-consciously optimistic closing line) that unnerves and repels. All her edges have been sanded, all her eccentricities countered for minimum impact and maximum appeal. She is how we remember; but she is not who she is. How appropriate that this scrubbed-up simulacrum exists at the precise second that the story of Star Wars officially begins. Finally, we see the moment (so frequently obscured), where the snake chomps greedily on its own tail—that astonishing, appalling instant in which our eternally recyclable culture devours itself and dares us not to choke.

*Update 12/27: Jesus Fucking Christ, 2016!