Sunday, 31 December 2017

film review: Rogue One

Now, that’s what a prequel should be like!

As a young girl, Jyn Erso sees her mother shot and her engineer father taken by Imperial troopers. A decade later she is an embittered young criminal, on the run from everyone. The Empire wants her to put pressure on her father. The Rebellion wants her to stop the Empire getting her. Then a pilot defects from the Empire with news that could mean a new hope for the Rebellion. Jyn Erso, along with a motley crew of rebels, finds herself engaged in a desperate race against time.

This is written for, and by, Star Wars original trilogy fans. There are lots of little call outs to events in those films, and a couple of space battles in the original style. The plot explains two big questions from the original: How did Leia get hold of the Death Star plans? Why did the Death Star have such a ridiculous weakness? And it manages this without introducing too many new questions, although it does introduce a new series of gloomy muddy planets. Nowadays it is a bit harder to fully engage with an armed insurrection quite as whole-heartedly as in the more innocent days of 1977, though.

One great piece of continuity is Peter Cushing reprising his role as Grand Moff Tarkin from the 40-year old original. Not a bad trick given that Peter Cushing died in 1994. That’s what CGI can do nowadays: take one actor, and plaster the face of another over the top. The face worked brilliantly, but the eyes seemed a bit glassy. They played the same trick at the end with Leia, but that was more uncanny valley territory: a grizzled old face in the gloom is easier to fake that a young unlined face in full light, it seems. Mom Mothma also recurs, recast with a good look-alike. Darth Vader was a bit easier to recast behind that black mask, but still has his great James Earl Jones voice.

Speaking of Leia and Mom Mothma, does this film, with its female lead, pass the Bechdel test? Opinion is divided: the young Jyn does briefly talk with her mother at the beginning, but they are talking about her hiding from the men coming for them. Later, Jyn addresses the Rebellion council headed by Mom Mothma. Are they talking to each other, or is Jyn just addressing the assembled, overwhelmingly male, crowd? Even if it can be argued a technical pass, it does needs to be argued. The crew Jyn flies with is all male. About the only other women are another council member, and a couple of fighter pilots, who get a few lines. Would it have killed them to have had another woman in the crew? Or even to have had Jyn’s mother be the abducted engineer? Ah well. Baby steps.

Technically, and plot-wise, the film is great. Not as good as the original (but what is?), but much superior to the prequel trilogy. (We probably should have watched it in the cinema to better appreciate the space battles and mushroom clouds, though.) The plot of Rogue One finishes just before that of Star Wars starts. It’s a very satisfying prequel that adds to the canon.

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