The dirty half dozen
(Warning: story and plot twists discussed in explicit detail!)
Gareth Edwards' one-off take on arguably the most successful movie franchise ever--good? Bad? Iredeemably ugly?
It's...okay. First hour is dullsville--lot of implicitly momentous developments for the faithful brethren well-versed in the lore I suppose, but mostly murky talking heads referring to stuff you never heard of (and don't much care about) for the rest of us mere mortals. Gist of this initial sixty minutes is that the Rebels fighting the Empire have heard stories of an Imperial secret superweapon (But aren't they always?); a MacGuff--sorry, an oversized flash drive containing plans for this weapon (including a secret built-in flaw) has been smuggled out of research facilities by none other than the superweapon's designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to be stored in a high-security databank ("But if Galen meant to give that info to the Rebels why allow it to be stored in a high-security databank?"* "Because otherwise this would be a very short movie silly").
Second half is somewhat more interesting: a bunch of misfits including the designer's daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) scheme to break into the bank to steal the crucial data. Thanks to their plan we're treated to aerial dogfights, gunfights, the rare martial-arts fistfight. Beach-based war scenes (Stormtroopers in surf! All that's missing really is a soldier on a board, riding waves a la Apocalypse Now), mortar shells detonating on beaches, a near-space naval battle raging over a narrow orbital orifice (the passage through which seems crucial--not to mention considerably Freudian--to the story). Big explosions for a climax (the filmmakers are nothing if not literal-minded), the end.
Doesn't sound too appetizing and for the most part isn't--we're asked to care for Jyn's ragtag band of brothers (couldn't she have at least one sister?) who come off onscreen as cardboard types, distinguishable mainly through facial hair and the occasional tinted contacts (to indicate blindness). We're asked to care about the blossoming attraction between Jyn and glorified chauffeur and part-time body guard Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) but are never given a moment of intimacy between the two, much less a scene that explains Cassian's suddenly inflamed desire ("Page 69 EXT. NIGHT. RAIN. CASSIAN falls for JYN; fadeout before movie loses PG-13 rating"). Significantly the only relationship detailed enough to leave any kind of impression is between Jyn and a droid named K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), both bonding over a coveted blaster--the rare believable moment of trust and respect not to mention implicit kinkiness (see Demon Seed (not very good) or more interestingly Kurosawa Kiyoshi's bionic dildo in The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl for other onscreen examples of mechanobiological sex)--sorry I digress the only believable moment of trust and respect I remember in the movie's one hundred and thirty-three minute running time.
To be fair, how many human moments or characters have there been in the series anyway? I remember two at best: Alec Guinness playing the last survivor of a fading order (come to think of it playing the last survivor of a great if fading acting tradition); and Frank Oz puppeteering a fuzzy funny green fool who turns out to be wise as well. The rest is a blur of loud blaster fire and whirring lightsabres, the experience of watching sliding off one's memory like a burnt egg from teflon.
O and the digitally added actors? Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin fares slightly better since all he's asked to do is glower in the relative darkness of the control room; I do miss Cushing's slyly underplayed cruelty, paired intriguingly with his always sad shimmering eyes. Carrie Fisher's Leia though is a grotesque horror, complete with lantern-sized eyes and heavy makeup. The filmmakers spring her on us in the final shot, like a shock image we're asked to take with us out the exit doors.
Pretty much it, only Edwards unlike Lucas or J.J. Abrams is a director with a fair amount of filmmaking talent (his Godzilla arguably being his best work to date), and invests the movie with more visual sizzle than it really deserves: Donnie Yen as the blind Chirrut Imwe dispatches a score of armed stormtroopers with nothing but a staff (the fight--evoking Kurosawa and Lau Kar-Leung--captured mostly in long shot to better showcase Yen's choreography (though the editing could have been less frantic)). The superweapon fires an energy blast (a small one) to destroy not an entire planet but a city, and the surrounding rock and earth climb higher higher high into a clear blue sky where aforementioned weapon hangs in serene majesty. The space battle has little one-man fighters like mosquitoes buzzing the larger vessels, the fighters shot as if they were swarming in World War 2 dogfights; more interesting are the larger ships that sail towards and past each other like pirate frigates looking for an opening, a sequence that was done better and to greater dramatic effect in The Wrath of Khan.
The final explosion (I did say I'll talk about the plot in detail, though don't most movies in this series end with a bang?) is invested with more drama and beauty than any other moment in the picture, which makes you wonder at the kind of aesthetics that would glorify the death of billions without acknowledging the terrible cost (some tears are shed at the loss of Jyn and Cassian who are caught in the blast, a bit that I thought Paul WS Anderson's Pompeii did much better (for one thing we actually cared about Anderson's lovers)).
And that's about it, or as much as the movie deserves I'd say. Not necessarily the best since The Empire Strikes Back, no; actually it's the only other movie from the franchise I ever liked, along with Irvin Kershner's film (not a big fan of the first installment). Which isn't saying much but I suppose is saying something.
*(Apparently Galen has never heard of a plan or charger: a suppository designed to hide money, crucial documents, whatever)
First published in Businessworld 12.22.16