Yavin A Laugh – A Star Wars Essay by Mitch

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”

So began the opening crawl of Star Wars in 1977, and flung us into the midst of a pre-existing conflict with barely the chance to draw breath for the next two hours. The singular vision of George Lucas, it was a tale of swashbuckling space opera that hinted at a much wider universe but never strayed from its thrillingly simple tale of a callow farmboy, driven from his backwater planet to rescue a princess from the clutches of a planet-killing space-station and become an intergalactic hero.

For thirty-nine years the story of the Rebel spies has lived only in our imagination, but soon after the $4billion acquisition of LucasFilm by Disney we learned that as well as continuing the saga of the Skywalkers, there would be a series of stand-alone stories from elsewhere in the Star Wars universe, beginning with this one.

The prospect of a ‘guys on a mission’ movie set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away had me very excited and I was almost more interested in this than in the continuation of the main story. We were promised no lightsabers, but plenty of blasters. This was almost exactly the kind of scenario I’d repeatedly dreamt up for my Star Wars figures as a kid.

From the team of one fairly inexperienced director, four credited writers and three editors (plus one ‘additional editor’, whatever the hell that is) comes the full story behind that opening crawl set-up. It’s fairly safe to say that I was disappointed. Instead of a rip-roaring adventure we got a grimdark dog’s dinner, that astonishingly managed to combine some of the worst elements of the prequels (far too many characters & locations), Lucas’ Special Editions (badly misjudged CGI & in-jokes) and Expanded Universe/Fanfic (forgettable characters with poorly sketched motivations).

In theory, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a good enough protagonist, but I wish we’d stuck with her story from the beginning. Seeing her time training with Forest Whitaker’s somewhat demented Saw Gerrera, experiencing his abandonment and perceived betrayal along with her, and then assembling the team around her as time went on. For all the movie’s attempts to tell me this was Jyn’s story of redemption and heroism, I never once felt it. By contrast, The Force Awakens allows us to spend time with Rey, showing us her strength and decency in the face of desperate circumstances. By the time she’s facing off against Kylo Ren, her struggles have become ours too and that showdown is as dramatically charged as they come.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The casting is excellent. Mads Mikkelsen & Ben Mendelsohn are two of the most exciting actors working today, bringing much needed conviction to their under-written roles. The aforementioned Whitaker adds some delightfully batshit craziness to his extended cameo, as if he’d stumbled in from a David Lynch movie – equal parts Blue Velvet’s Frank & Dune’s Baron Harkonnen. Donnie Yen is always good value too, his Chirrut Îmwe provides some real soul whose wholehearted devotion to the Force is infectious and provides some of the movie’s best moments. Along with his trusted, but disillusioned, companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) who proves once and for all that blasters need not be clumsy, nor random. Sci-fi stalwart (and personal favourite of mine) Alan Tudyk’s mo-capped performance as reprogrammed Imperial Droid, K-2SO has some genuinely funny moments, though for every zinger there was sadly at least three clunkers.

For all his faults, Edwards does have a talent for bringing both a sense of scale and reality to fantastical settings. Working with Director of Photography Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) there’s a return to the hard-worn, lived-in feel of this Universe that was so lacking in the Prequels. The Rebels taking on the Empire genuinely feels like a guerilla conflict taking place in a believable world.

Ultimately, perhaps there were just too many voices involved in the production, crying to be heard over each other and resulting in a chaotic garble when what was needed was a clear authorial maestro. Or perhaps the whole enterprise was doomed from the start – some stories really are better left to the imagination.

Next up for the Star Wars side-movies is Young Han Solo, a project that is fraught with potential traps and obstacles. Though fear not – Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, who served us well in the 21 Jump Street & Lego movies are at the helm, and with Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) writing the script, Bradford Young (Arrival, A Most Violent Year) as Director of Photography and the truly inspired casting of Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) as Han and Donald Glover (Community, Atlanta) as Lando, it has a far greater chance of success than many a movie.

All hope is not lost.


Rogue Wrong – A Star Wars Essay by Cross

Is it just me? Or has the whole world gone mad? No, I don’t mean Syria or Trump or Brexit; I mean the near universal acclaim for the new Star Wars film, Rogue One. At the time of writing it’s currently sitting at 85% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now, I’m a Star Wars fan. Return of the Jedi was my first cinematic experience, I left work early to see The Phantom Menace on the day of release and I saw the opening midnight show of The Force Awakens. I own two Star Wars t-shirts and a hoodie. I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ previous films. I was looking forward to Rogue One. In short, I was excited. A tingle went down my spine when the Lucasfilm title came up on the screen…then nearly everything that followed was, for me, disappointing and far, far too unwieldy.

I think the disappointment was made worse by the fact that the idea and bones of a great film were there. The story contained in the opening crawl of the original (’Rebels spaceships, striking from a hidden base…etc) is an instantly appealing premise. But it failed to really deliver.

There are merits to the film but there are also major fundamental flaws which seriously undermine it.

The first and most in your face was the resurrection of Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin. Why? Impressive in the sense that the actor is no longer here but compared to the real life actors…? It was severely distracting and entirely unnecessary.  It was not at all essential. If the filmmakers were so keen to knit this film into the period just prior to the original then surely they could have used a CG version in a more sparing way, maybe from behind  in a small scene with minimal dialogue. Or perhaps as a hologram which would have been far less of a distraction . Every scene with Tarkin, of which there were quite a few, took you out of the film instantly. Not ideal when you want to wallow in the Star Wars universe for a couple of hours.

A second major flaw to my mind was the abundance of characters (new and old) who were ultimately redundant as far as the story was concerned. While they, for the most part, were initially intriguing, they didn’t really gel together as a team and their character development was practically nil.

The two leads lacked any real depth, which subsequently meant their actions lacked any real emotional heft. Cassian Andor’s (played by Diego Luna) morally debatable and unflinching commitment to the Alliance was an interesting start but went nowhere. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) never felt real, the death of her father seemed to barely register and her relationship with Cassian never had time to build into something genuine. Their relationship was sacrificed at the altar of the Plot which has them bundled from planet to planet.

Elsewhere, Riz Ahmed’s defecting pilot had some spark but again was short changed by the narrative. Forest Whittaker’s crazed and militant freedom fighter was also intriguing but the story also had nowhere for him to go. The blind warrior played by Donnie Yen and his partner were striking characters but ultimately for nothing. One fight scene aside, these two characters and their function to the story were minimal. If they were deleted from the film, it would not make a jot of difference. Did their relationship change between their introduction in the film to their end? Did they significantly affect anyone else in the film? Plenty of film characters are inconsequential to the plot but if there is no satisfactory character arc and they play no real part in the plot mechanics why are they really there? Rogue One has more than enough characters to contend with and it would be far better if there were fewer but all fully rounded.

There is an awful lot going on in this film. The first half hour zips around from world to world with accompanying captions (to no doubt try and avoid too much confusion!).  Star Wars films do best when they stick to two or three striking locales establishing the mood and character of each place. So when the action/ human drama finally occurs we feel embedded in the moment. Think Tatooine, Hoth, Endor. The destruction of Jedha is memorable visually but emotionally hollow as we’re there so briefly. Scariff itself is also a great environment but again we barely have time to catch breath before it’s guns blazing.

John Williams; His music IS Star Wars. You could erase the dialogue tracks and the films would still be great. The opening crawl is iconic for a reason. I understand the ethos of trying to get away from the episodes and have it stand apart but the choice feels wrong. Michael Giacchino’s score seems underwhelming and thus diminishes the experience. (which was especially disappointing as I enjoyed his music to Star Trek).

Finally, much was made about this film being a war/team on a mission. Such films are only as good as the cast of characters and their mission. The characters don’t have enough time to become meaningful. There was no camaraderie. The plan to steal the information was well, not really a plan. It’s more ‘we have an old code to get to the landing pad and then Godspeed…’ I was expecting a bit more strategy and thought and well, suspense. For me the ultimate sacrifices made by the team became far less emotive as a result.

I have seen it once. I may watch it again to see how a second viewing fares. There were things I liked. It was dark and brutal in places, probably as brutal as Star Wars will ever get. The cast were very good (see Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn) and some of the scenes revealing the politics of the Alliance were interesting. Sequences involving pilots from the original were a nice unobtrusive touch and the scenes which lead directly into the first were good, though I feel they massively betrayed Darth Vader’s character by having him rock up with sabre in hand to take out some Rebels soldiers. It felt far too much like it was done for the fans eager to see some lightsabre action. It didn’t fit. It doesn’t belong. Vader would never get his hands dirty in such a way…

…but that’s just my opinion. As is this whole piece. Maybe I’ll watch it again and like it as much as everyone else. But I’m pretty sure I’m right…the world is wrong!