Rogue CGI

A look at the film ‘Rogue One’ directed by Gareth Edwards.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a ‘Star Wars’ person. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s meant that I only ever got to see the first three films, or the ‘original three’ however you decide to look at it.

I was one of those guys who poked fun at the films for starting with episode 4. I also found them to be a bit too silly for my liking; sword fights with glow sticks and villains in helmets with particular emphasis on respiratory volume just didn’t jibe with me.

I turned to the many incarnations of ‘Star Trek’ instead. The episodic format with focus on character rather than action had greater appeal. But then things went off the rails a bit with Trek. The last film, ‘Nemesis’ was a shambolic mess that made me embarrassed to admit that I was once a hardcore trekkie and the ‘Enterprise’ series felt horribly disrespectful to the entire franchise.

And then my arch-enemy himself, JJ Abrams, rocked up and torpedoesd the history books and decided to rewrite Trek history by starting all over again. It takes some nerve to piss all over forty years of legacy and say, “Y’know what? Sod it, let’s redo it MY way this time,” and render the original creators vision nothing but a dusty collection of DVD’s on some shelves in a handful of houses of the old-school fans.

But, by jove, he did it and he brought ‘Star Trek’ to a new audience, a younger audience that gets bored when a room full of people with wrinkly foreheads discuss peace treaties and politics and instead, get giddy and excited when big ships shoot things at each other and explode in exciting ways after much to and fro or when Spock is having a fistfight with someone on a floating platform.

It’s trash, junk food cinema; appeal to the lowest common denominator and remove all thought and finesse. It’s a Big Mac in a cardboard container compared to a freshly cooked Thai curry served in a banana leaf.

So when I heard that Abrams was getting his filthy little mitts on ‘Star Wars’, I wasn’t all that bothered, but I was saddened that yet another pice of cinematic history was potentially going to be forever sullied with his influence. It was at that point that I realised I’d probably never see another ‘Wars’ film… And I was okay with that.

My friends, apparently, had other ideas for me. For when I had a Blu-ray thrust at me with the words, “Interested to know what you make of this,” it just so happened to be ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ and a part of me actually was quite pleased to have the chance.

Call me childish, but I was quite looking forward to sitting through the film with an incredulous frown etched on my face for the full two hours along with the occasional disapproving head shake to signify that this is a stupid film not worthy of an educated person’s time.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I think what impressed me the most was the sense of identity. It must be twenty years since I saw episodes four, five and six, and yet I was instantly drawn back into that familiar and comfortable old place within seconds of the film starting.

The space-scapes, the music, the tone and atmosphere, the sound effects… All new, crisp and sharp, high definition, clean and original, but perfectly carried in from the original era. I appreciated that.

It still stands squarely on its own two feet, but it has sufficient support to make it a very strong pice of work. It would appear that the Abrams effect didn’t grip this franchise like it did others.

Long-serving Abrams stalwart, Michael Giacchino, provides the musical score and shows, once again, that when needed, he can be a capable composer. While he may lack a sense of identity that Goldsmith, Horner and other ‘older’ composers had/have, he shows here an uncanny ability to do John Williams almost as well as Williams himself.

And while this is good at helping us to fit in with the sounds of the ‘Star Wars universe, it also means that, at times, there’s an almost ‘Harry Potter’ like feel to it when the faux-Williams-a-tron is dialled up to maximum and composers own flow is drowned out. Williams was always excellent at being himself but maintaining separation between his scores. Watching a squadron of X-Wing fighters and having the Quidditch theme playing over the top sends mixed messages.

While I’m at it, the music is both one of the strongest and the weakest points of ‘Rogue One’. It’s authentic and faithful but there’s far too much of it. This is not the composers fault but rather a design flaw in the DNA of the franchise. To have such an excess of music in a film is tiring and unnecessary.

The script holds up and the performances, mostly are above par. The story is rock solid and rolls nicely into the start of the original 1977 film. As prequels go, this feels more honest and true than anything else. Even down to the attention to detail on costumes and set, everything feels so authentic that you could go from this to the original and feel that you were still in the same time frame. It’s not like going from ‘Prometheus’ with its huge, complex glass wall displays with smart graphical interface to ‘Alien’ where the nerve centre of the ship is a padded room adorned with fairy lights, a chunky-clickety keyboard and a seven-inch black and white CRT monitor with only basic text capabilities.

There are two notable questionable but necessary casting choices. Peter Cushing, who sadly died in the mid-nineties and Carrie Fisher who was forty years older than she needed to be to reprise her role. Both characters had a big roles to play in episode four and for the them to be absent here would have been wrong. But the end result is a little… off.

Maybe it’s because I’ve played so many video games, that I just instinctually recognise a CG face, maybe it’s a case that human faces are just so complex that nobody will never perfectly recreate one using a computer, but the way Peter Cushing’s face moved, the muscles round his mouth, the way he blinked, it was all ever so close, but not quite right.

I’m delighted they tried, I really am, but I wish they could have spent an extra couple of months polishing the end result so it was even more impressive and less jarring when you had real faces on screen next to him behaving so much more naturally.

And it was the same for the young Carrie Fisher appearing as Leia; while they did a good job of it, there was still something a little freaky about the cameo. Fortunately, it only lasts for about two-hundredths of a nano-second so it’s less of a stretch to accept.

Though the film would literally be four scenes of some dudes in a dark meeting room if it were not for the use of CGI, it doesn’t feel abused. Compare this to episode one where the CG is actually a detriment to an already poor script and acting performances that could only have been less enthusiastic had they been telephoned in.

Another casting dud comes in the form of Forest Whittaker as a rebel extremist. His role, though small, grates and feels shallow and silly next to all the others. Stumbling around and wheezing his lines like a poor mans version of Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price from ‘Unbreakable’.

Alan Tudyk manages to get another gig voicing a frenemy robot. He nicely bridges the gap between ‘iRobot’ and C3PO by delivering a soothing and thoughtful but brilliantly camp performance. Most importantly though, his performance feels fluid and dynamic and he has the opportunity for some good lines to lighten the mood. C3PO was so often used as an expositional tool for people who weren’t paying attention that the character lost most of its charm pretty quickly.

It aso helped that Tudyk could perform in a motion capture suit which would be snug fitting and easy going allowing him to put everything into his delivery and chemistry with fellow cast. Anthony Daniels, on the other hand, had to clump around, hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, in a heavy, metal suit so while the original scripts for his character might have been weak, he most likely wasn’t feeling particularly ad-libby or dynamic while on set.

‘Rogue’ gets a great number of things right and does very few wrong. The same just can’t be said for several of the last ‘Trek’ outings. So for the first time, I have to adjust to a world where ‘Wars’ has surpassed ‘Trek’. Both have had their shaky moments and both have continued to press ahead with trying to stay current and relevant.

While ‘Trek’ ran for so long before floundering and falling so hard that it’s still on its hands and knees, scrabbling along desperate not to die on its arse, ‘Wars’ has now taken the lead as the most stable and most likely to endure for years to come. Thanks largely to the Disney influence and the brands ability to take a good thing and milk it for everything it has with their seemingly bottomless moneybags keeping the old money-mill turning over, I don’t see the ‘Star Wars’ name being consigned to the history books for the foreseeable future.

I’m not going to go as far as saying I’ve been converted. Given the choice, I’d prefer to go back to my ‘Next Gen’ and ‘Deep Space Nine’ box sets than catch up on the adventures of the Skywalker family, but I’m no longer adverse to the idea of living alongside ‘Wars’.

A reason why you should watch it: A masterclass on the perfect prequel.

A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because James Kirk would spin in his grave if you did so.

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