MAD: Rogue One
(2016 Disney/Watched in the Cinema at Midnight)
[Mostly Spoiler-Free] This is going to be many people’s favourite Star wars movie, since it delivers a differently flavoured brand of adventure extrapolated by the more (I’m not going to say “gritty” ever again if I can help it) military-realism focused scenes from Empire. It’s also a Star Wars movie that’s going to leave many audiences looking for that sprinkling of magic that came with every previous iteration (even arguably Clone Wars). This is a movie that tries its damnedest to be magic-free. Even the scenes where it seems The Force is being invoked, it appears more as a system of devout belief than a miraculous source of telekinesis, a source of comfort in the darkest times.
To exemplify this in pie chart terms this movie is 45% “This ain’t your Mamma’s Star Wars” delivering an edgy, shaky, dark, slightly-too-close-up version of the same galaxy, where characters are grim and determined with hunger in their eyes, filmed in every quarry that could be found. Around 20% of it is classic Star Wars, with action scenes that feel dangerous, but with a taste of the thrilling that we associate with this series. 15% is references to previous films, almost always standing to the left or right of centre and presented with little fanfare so you either get the blue milk or you don’t notice it. 12% could be defined as pure wish fulfilment, and the fellow sitting next to me got infectiously excited at these moments. 5% impressively incorporates concepts George was working with before he finished the Original Trilogy (which I have taken to calling The Orij Trij) these feel fairly wonderful for lifelong fans who will feel giddy that something that was never canon, now, somehow is. This reminds me of the use of Ralph McQuarrie designs for Star Wars: Rebels, which makes those wonderful drawings not only come to life but furnish the worlds in an appropriate era just prior to Episode IV. Finally 3% is a death-defying plunge right into the uncanny valley.
Back in the mid-90s when the first production rumours about the prequels were circulating on the bronze age internet (a slate green, square place of chat-rooms and message boards) one of the oddest was the casting for Obi-Wan. Apparently George wanted to paste a computer graphical facsimile of Alec Guinness’ younger face (circa The Lavender Hill Mob) onto the body of a willing double, presumably to have an impressionist pipe in the vocals later. Now in Rogue One, though it’s not Obi Wan who gets this treatment, George’s dream has finally come to pass. And thank God, because it’s been proven that modern audiences will simply never accept a contemporary actor playing a younger version of a beloved and established character. Unlike the mental processes involved with assimilating a face straight out of Zemekis’ Christmas Carol when it’s surrounded by real people putting in serious performances, to ask a person to accept that someone else with a similar face and voice and mannerisms, perhaps with their own take on the role is the same character will just about break the film’s immersion outright; just ask James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Martin Freeman.
What struck me the most though, was the bleak tone. The script has recently been declared by Disney bigwigs as not the least bit political, but ultimately intent doesn’t matter in this case, what matters is the context the film is released into. It’s a movie with a female hero (that’s never made issue of, Jyn Erso could have been a young man) who shows astonishing strength and determination leading a gang against not just impossible odds, but baleful, doom-laden, harsh, cold and black odds. The Empire have never been so cruelly fascistic and depersonalising. And this is unleashed in the last days of one of the worst years imaginable, a span of torturous months when families and friends were divided, screaming, aggressive babymen got to have their way, won their hollow victory on multiple continents and precipitated a time of horror and hardship, choking with fear and resentment.
That this film ends with just the tiniest sliver of Hope is kind of perfect. Right now you can take refuge in fantasy or spend periods staring into the black mirror.
Viva La Resistance!