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Rogue Fun

Rogue One: The Prequels Strike Back

(A totally spoiler-free review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

Let’s sum it up for the Twitter crowd:

Pros

  • A good prequel
  • Hardcore Fan service
  • Casual fan service
  • A more adult kind of Star Wars movie
  • Puts the “war” in Star Wars
  • Focuses on new characters
  • A crafted puzzle piece that fits well with the other episodes, particularly Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Adds more depth for certain returning Star Wars characters
  • Shows off some really good special effects

Cons

  • Not a “saga film” and isn’t about main saga characters or their their conflict
  • The Michael Giacchino soundtrack is good, but not very memorable
  • Some of the fan service scenes felt gratuitous. As in: “that’s cool, but is there a logical reason for that?”
  • Feels like a studio “fan film”
  • Some scenes depended on contrivances that felt phony

I was very impressed with Gareth Edwards’ first feature film, Monsters (2010), shot on a shoestring budget down in Costa Rica by a then-unknown Edwards. The film used home-made-on-my-PC special effects sparingly, but to great effect. The chemistry between the main characters during an alien invasion of Mexico was a story worth telling, and had a great payoff. His second film was the more tedious and forgettable Godzilla reboot starring a sprawling cast of cameos (which was frankly overproduced and poorly written).  But Edwards delivers the goods in Rogue One; the end result feels like Lucasfilm contracted him to make the world’s most expensive Star Wars fan film.

And what a fan film it is! Instead of the usual home light-saber battles found on YouTube, Rogue One combines a more modern, gritty, science-oriented realism to the Star Wars universe, while retaining the production design that seems to fit the aesthetic foundation established by George Lucas’ original Star Wars (Episode 4: AHN). The film’s pervasive use of Easter eggs and callbacks to other SW films and even the TV shows makes it feel like vital connective tissue between the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy.i heard it compared to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and that’s a really good comparison in more ways than one: it’s gritty sci-fi, and it’s about a crew of outlaws hopping planets fighting The Man.

If you’re just casually acquainted with Star Wars, as most people are, you’ll find this movie either awesome or disappointing, depending on what you expect from, and what you like about Star Wars. George Lucas was first and foremost a student of Joseph Campbell’s hero myth, and his Star Wars films are really more fantasy than sci-fi, and were heavily guided by the hero’s journey. As such, the Jedi, Sith, the Force, and their back stories were very archetypal. Their light saber duels and their codes of conduct made them more “space samurai” than sci-fi characters. If this quintessential to the Star Wars experience for you, you may be disappointed.

Now, there is also a sci-fi component to Star Wars: space battles, hyperspace, ray guns, and galactic politics. This is what Rogue One focuses on: the science behind the fiction. Ok, they gloss over plenty; this isn’t science-based fiction the way Andy Weir’s The Martian, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are. We’re not getting an explanation of how the potatoes were grown on Mars, just that potatoes were involved. Rogue One makes real the people, engineering, and resources behind the creation of the Empire’s most important military asset: The Death Star. It also makes the Rebellion (who are mostly background characters in the saga film) the primary characters. No midichlorians, no Force Ghosts delivering exposition, no space samurai. Just a motley crew of misfits, rebel scum, and troublemakers and their fight to free the galaxy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Darth Vader is in the film. While his scenes are few, they are absolutely some of the best in the film, and not just for fan service. He’s an important side character involved in the events surrounding the theft of the Death Star plans, which, (non-)spoiler alert: is the plot of this film. James Earl Jones’ creamy bass tones is a touchstone of the Star Wars movies, and worth the ticket price alone. Other character(s) from the saga trilogies make cameo appearances, courtesy of some groundbreaking special effects–to say who would be a spoiler. But I was both geeked out and delighted by what they did. Yes, I’m adult moved to tears by digital special effects what the hell is wrong with me.

And that would be OK, as this film is a more adult version of Star Wars. Gareth Edwards had described it as a “war movie,” inspired by the classic films from the 50s and 60s depicting daring WWII combat adventures. And it is. Besides being gritty in production design, it makes war look and feel gritty, ugly, tragic. Rogue One solves one of my biggest complaints about the George Lucas-directed prequels: that the combat was too sanitized, bloodless, and kid-friendly. Most of the conflict was between keystone-cop silly battle droids and disposable clone army who were born slaves to the Republic. As such, the death and destruction were centered on manufactured military assets, not innocent civilian casualties. War felt like a video game. I will give both Disney and Lucasfilm huge props for letting the writers and director take the film in this direction. The movie has the right mix of levity, adventure, and a dark tone. I wouldn’t describe the ending as dark, nilhilist, or sad, but that could be because I already know what happens next. If someone new to Star Wars saw Episodes I-III, then Rogue One before seeing Episode IV, they might find this movie kind of a downer.

The new characters have good chemistry, and I really enjoyed the space battles, particularly the one at the end. I didn’t think they could top the space dogfights from the previous Star Wars movies, but they did. You don’t need to have a trench run, pod race, or asteroid chase to feel a rush from a space battle. I found a few POV shots looked really good in Rogue One in 3D; I also saw the film in 2D and trust me: you’re not missing anything. The 3D conversion looks OK, no weird parallax effect, but mostly wasted in the vast majority of scenes.

There was a running joke in this season of South Park in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone shit all over last year’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. They criticized the film and/or the audience for liking it because it seemed to rehash classic elements of A New Hope. What would they make of Rogue One, an actual prequel set before the events in A New Hope? Does it get a pass for rehashing original trilogy material because it’s set during the time of the original trilogy? Or are we the audience victims of the “member berries” and deserving of meta-scorn for craving more from the same buffet of Star Wars characters, themes, and story lines? My opinion is that the audience has expectations about anything called Star Wars, and Disney is not going to ignore that, Parker and Stone’s metacriticism notwithstanding.

Disney and Lucasfilm say that how well Rogue One is received will help them decide whether they need to keep making saga films. Personally, I prefer saga films, so I was a little disappointed by what wasn’t in Rogue One. But having seen it a second time, I can say that it’s grown on me, now that I know what I’m going to get. I hope they continue make saga films, as long as the right filmmakers are involved in filling George Lucas’ proverbial shoes. But if this is the future of Star Wars, I’m in as long as they can continue to find good characters and stories to tell. 8/10

My rankings:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. Attack of the Clones
  8. The Phantom Menace

 

 

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INTERSTELLAR in 70mm

Interstellar (2014) one sheet

Interstellar (2014)

…a grand science fiction film out of Hollywood with verisimilitude of science.

There are some ideas left in science fiction which have yet to be sufficiently explored in a serious way on the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of those films, and it takes a very simple “what if” idea from the realm of scientific theory, and explores all the dimensions of what would happen if that idea were to come true. In short, this is a film that any die hard science fiction fan (such as me!) should not hesitate to see. You will not be disappointed. If you’re a sciencey, brainy type person, if you enjoy watching every episode of Cosmos (either the Carl Sagan series or Neil deGrasse Tyson), you will probably enjoy Interstellar. The movie assumes the audience knows what a black hole is, what a (space) wormhole is, and what time dilation is according to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. And don’t worry if you don’t because the characters provide just enough exposition to explain what is going on. The important thing here is that if you’re even casually acquainted with cosmology, you’ll appreciate that writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan did their homework and limit their story to the laws of plausible physics. And that makes this movie all the more a rare gem: a grand science fiction film out of Hollywood with verisimilitude of science.

Interstellar is surprisingly restrained for a Christopher Nolan film.

What is it about? It’s an end-of-the-world story mixed with a space adventure to find another planet to colonize in another solar system. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a farmer who was a former astronaut before the new dust bowl threatens to wipe out the food supply. Set in an indeterminate near-future, perhaps a generation from now, the world is slowly dying. Cooper is recruited to join a mission to save humanity from extinction, the brainchild of NASA physicist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Brand sends Cooper, his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), two other scientists and a wisecracking, origami robot named TARS on a mission to fly a spacecraft into a mysterious wormhole in orbit around Saturn, in search of a new home. Telling you anything beyond that synopsis would be a spoiler. I can tell you that there are some really cool sciencey things in the movie, and the wormhole is probably the least interesting of them(!) Cooper is also a widowed father, and his two teen-aged children, Tom and particularly his daughter Murph are the emotional anchors for Cooper and for the film.

Interstellar is surprisingly restrained for a Christopher Nolan film. I was consciously thinking that to myself several times while watching it. For example, the score by Hans Zimmer (who also did the soundtracks for Nolan’s last two films, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception) is subdued, accompanying the scenes for support, instead of trying to take control of every scene, pounding recurring themes into your skull. It’s as if Nolan lets the actors and the story simply unfold organically onto the screen. It doesn’t feel forced. Those other two films were loud and bombastic and full of expectations, but Interstellar never carries the weight of its own importance; it just has a good story to tell.

Despite the nearly 3-hour running time, Interstellar never feels slow and there are no wasted scenes. In fact, at the end of the movie, I wanted to see more, I wanted to see what happens next, and that’s a good sign. There is quite a bit of exposition throughout, but it’s not particularly overt. It’s woven in cleverly enough that most viewers won’t notice, and it makes the film easy to follow for general audiences, unlike, say, Inception which got too entangled in its own fictional rules that they created Ellen Page’s “outsider” character solely so that other characters can constantly explain things to her (and the audience). There is no such character in Interstellar, and I’m thankful for being spared that trope. The Nolans assume the audience can keep up.

In comparison to other sci-fi films, Interstellar stands with the more classic type. In other words, it’s not the typical practice of Hollywood passing off some other type of film dressed in science fiction veneer. Take Ridley Scott’s Alien for example. Alien is really a serial killer in a haunted house movie. Star Wars is a western in space. Blade Runner is gumshoe noir in a dystopian future. Avatar is “Dances with Smurfs.” Interstellar, thankfully, isn’t something else dressed as sci-fi. It is a real science-fiction adventure. It’s about exploration and the human condition. Although Christopher Nolan can be quite a cerebral writer, this movie deftly weaves action, drama, and thought-provoking story with the right energy and pacing to make its 189 minutes seem shorter.

I see parallels to three other sci-fi films in particular: The first act reminded me of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact. The second and parts of the third act had many parallels to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a hint of alien intelligence, a secret mission, realistic futurism, and acid-trippy scenes. And parts of the second and third act reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (my review), as space flight can be very, very perilous. Interestingly, all three of those films lean heavily on science fact or scientific speculation about space travel.

Film aficionados will like that it’s available in 35mm and 70mm and IMAX prints, along with the now-typical digital cinema formats. I had the opportunity to see the first (early) screening at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sixth Street Tuesday evening, which was presented in 70mm. Christopher Nolan is one of the “new old school” directors who want to shoot on Kodak film stock (along with Tarantino, Wes Anderson, JJ Abrams, and Spielberg). The look is… retro, analog. It feels like watching a movie through an artsy Instagram filter. The 70mm projector had motion judder, softer focus, the little burn marks in the top right corner at the end of every reel, and a distinctly noticeable flicker in bright scenes. Other than that, it was the best looking 70mm print I’ve ever seen, with the film grain barely noticeable. I like it, flaws and all. If Peter Jackson wants to make his movie look like digital HDTV, that’s fine with me. I’m not going to say you have to go out of your way to see it in a film print, but it’s like vinyl records: it’ll never completely die to those who care enough for the analog stuff.

Overall score: 9/10

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