Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 31, 2016 4:11 pm 
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Camaraderie and derring-do somewhere out in space

In principle writing properly about "Star Wars" movies calls for expertise I lack and a viewing history I haven't had. I approach them as a stranger in a strange land, not infrequently unable to stay the course. And yet I was present at the inception, sort of. Nearly four decades ago I remember watching the first "Star Wars" movie at the Senator Theater on York Road in Baltimore, with my father, who'd had wine with dinner, dozing at my side. Unable to discuss with him a movie he hadn't really seen, I myself retained only memories of booming music and flashing laser beams. Drawn much, much later into Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (or was it the sequel, Revenge of the Sith?) by the prospect of Hayden Christensen wielding a "blaster," I wound up bored senseless by the ponderous dialogue, and walked out.

Now, this time I made it through to the end of Rogue One, but I can't promise that I understood much. Certain features come with the universally known legacy of the franchise, which somehow I have absorbed. But the creator of "Star Wars," George Lucas, sold off the franchise to Disney four years ago for four billion dollars. The original characters are gone: wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), the boyish Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the gruff, macho Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the adorably silly little robot, a kind of metallic butler, R2D2 (Kenny Baker, who also died this year). There was also a gaggle of memorable monsters gathered around a bar and that reliable critter-ally, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), the "faithful 200 year-old Wookiee."

"Star Wars"is called a "space opera," which seems to mean a legend of intergalactic power struggle filled with space creatures, wit, charm, derring-do, and romance. Those original characters established themselves as iconic, and there isn't much to replace them. Fans of the legend may cut the new characters some slack, filling gaps with viewing memories. The cast bursts onto the scene in this movie without signs of much of a life. They have no childhoods, homes, family backgrounds, or clear-cut areas of expertise. They are evildoers, fascist dictators standing robed and barking out angry orders to robotic squadrons in shiny shells of white. Or they are escaped prisoners carrying on a rebellion to save the good and live by The Force. What the heck is "The Force"? I don't know exactly, but it can repel bullets, or at least make its followers face them bravely, as one does here, briefly rivaling Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) in Mel Gibson's true-life battle tale Hacksaw Ridge, a character surpassingly brave in battle who does, and did, very much have a life, and dodge bullets (and survive wounds). "The Force" is a phrase that had an air of mystery and a resonance about it in "Star Wars's" early days (was it the same thing that fueled all those laser beams?) that it loses this time through rank overuse.

The cast spend much of their time in a space ship, or in imaginary corridors of power with vast windows looking out over sci-fi landscapes. Or they run about on a landing area dotted with palm trees and water where space ships come down and men and machines do battle. That palm landscape is my favorite image in Rogue One because despite its CGI add-ons, it's seems so obviously real (it's not: the palm trees were imported from Spain to an airstrip in Britain). It's both exotic and welcoming - better than the velvety spacescapes with floating orbs that just seem like a highschooler's gouaches given a slight hi-tech finish. Likewise the big white obviously unreal space castles. In some ways there's been no progress in space mockups since Kubrick's 2001, and Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, though otherwise a noisy bore, creates a better sensation of being out in space. I do like the glowing green linear designs that are all over the place (see illustration). But "Star Wars," absent the iconic characters, is out for heroic action, a battle for freedom, and derring-do. Rogue One is best in its fleeting suggestions of camaraderie.


And this involves new people, though the faces may be familiar. At the center is the plucky Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, a British Jennifer Lawrence type), already a leading light of several blockbusters, a versatile young lady who was Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything. She appears to be fulfilling the role of Rey (Daisy Ridley), the plucky young English girl of the 2015 "Star Wars" reboot, The Force Awakens, who will reappear in next year's official installment, Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017). Her chief ally is our old friend from Y Tu Mamá También, Diego Luna, who always has a slightly seedy, slightly sexy quality, but here he's a brave soldier who does a lot of running around, a bit more careworn and less boyish than in earlier days. He is Jyn's helpmate (though there's no time for mating, of course), and his chief ally is the bug-eyed Pakistani-English actor Riz Ahmed. Riz's character's name's Bodhi, right out of Point Break, and since he's not only a rapper and comic actor (in Four Lions) and action star (in Jason Bourne) but has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Christ Church, Oxford, a title denoting wisdom may not be out of place. What a guy! He exudes wild energy in his role here.

There are other characters, of course. I ought to explain what Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen, who have prominent roles, are doing in this picture, but they did not engage my affections. Rogue One's stated aim is to "set up the epic saga to follow." It's only a link in a great chain. And we are but pawns in its blockbuster game.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 133 mins., debuted in the US 10 Dec. 2016 and the UK 13 Dec.; opened in dozens of countries worldwide 15 and 16 Dec., earning lots of money, number one in ticket sales three weeks running, grossing over $706 million.


©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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