By BOB GARVER
A particular hurdle a genre picture needs to clear, whether the movie is a western, a musical, a horror film, science fiction or fantasy, is how to make it accessible to an audience member who’s not necessarily a fan of that genre.
That might not be so much of a problem for “Rogue One,” the latest picture in the Star Wars franchise. The raw numbers seem to suggest that nearly everyone in the civilized world has seen one or more of the Star Wars movies since the 1977 release of the original picture. And the collective gross revenues from the Star Wars franchise long ago entered the rarefied air of literally trillions of dollars.
Since the release of the first historically popular picture in the series, even the weakest among the six subsequent entries can claim the distinction of being the unquestioned vanguard of the fantasy genre, just by virtue of its solid platinum heritage. Because even when a Star Wars picture is laughably bad (remember Jar-Jar Binks?) it inevitably becomes a blockbuster — a money-minting success.
In the Star Wars lexicon, the new release “Rogue One” — not designated with an episode number but subtitled “A Star Wars Story” — inhabits a time roughly 30 years after the conclusion of 2005’s Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, and just prior to the beginning of the original 1977 picture.
The oppressive Galactic Empire has designs to build a massive new spaceship called the Death Star, a craft already familiar to fans of the original picture. The Death Star will contain a weapon capable of reducing an entire planet to rubble with one single shot. But the primary architect of the Death Star escapes from the Empire’s service before the weapon is functional.
Sometime later, the Empire tracks down the architect and conscripts him to return and complete the weapon, leaving behind his young daughter. Years later the daughter, now an adult, is recruited by the anti-Empire Rebel Alliance to locate and enlist the services of the father in destroying the weapon, toppling the Empire, and restoring peace and liberty to the galaxy.
And as it happens, “Rogue One” is a fairly impressive movie in the fantasy genre, not as good as the best entries in the Star Wars series, but better than many. Actress Felicity Jones is cast in what is nominally the leading role, as Jyn Erso, the adult daughter of the Death Star architect. Jones’ colorful resume includes an Academy Award nomination for her role as the wife of physicist Stephen Hawking in the 2014 biographical picture “The Theory of Everything,” and also recent appearances in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and this past summer’s “Inferno,” directed by Ron Howard.
Jones’ Jyn Erso is consistent with the Star Wars tradition of strong female leads, from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original pictures to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in last year’s “The Force Awakens.” Erso is seemingly a little more indifferent to the niceties of good versus evil, but the character’s carefully-maintained ambivalence seems to inspire the audience to desire even more her eventual conversion.
But Jones is only the headliner in a strong ensemble cast which includes Mads Mikkelsen from “Casino Royale” and television’s “Hannibal,” the always-engaging Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen and Genevieve O’Reilly all contributing memorable characterizations. Mexican actor Diego Luna is effectively cast in the swashbuckling role of Cassian Andor, a resourceful pilot working for the Rebel Alliance.
There’s very much a sense of unification about “Rogue One,” with appearances by a variety of characters from both previous trilogies. At least one character from the original 1977 picture reprises his role posthumously, via the not-quite-persuasive magic of computer animation.
And since his image figures strongly in certain of the film’s publicity, it’s no great spoiler to reveal that Darth Vader also appears in the picture, albeit briefly. That popular villain’s big scene is preceded with a buildup worthy of a Wagnerian opera, but with the strains of John Williams’ “Imperial March” from Episode V trumpeting forth from the soundtrack during his entrance instead of “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Certain of Williams’ familiar musical themes are reprised from the previous seven pictures, although the actual music score for the picture is credited to composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino, who also scored the recent Star Trek pictures and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” already seems to have been so influenced by Williams that his name in the closing credits instead of Williams’ is a mild surprise.
“Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards has proven his mettle for putting legendary film characters through their paces with his work on 2014’s “Godzilla” remake. And certainly Edwards’ sure hand keeps “Rogue One” moving along at a pace brisk enough to almost disguise some of the more preposterous turns in the film’s script, credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy . . . although 20 minutes could’ve easily been trimmed from the picture to bring the running time to under two hours.
In October of 2012, seven years after the release of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” — which Star Wars creator George Lucas assured us would be the last installment in the franchise —the entertainment world was stunned to learn that a deal had been finalized for Lucas to sell his Lucasfilm Ltd. corporation to the Walt Disney Co. As part of that transaction, the Disney organization also acquired ownership of the Star Wars series of films, released originally by the 20th Century-Fox film studio.
Simultaneous to the Lucasfilm acquisition, the Disney company announced the production of new entries in the Star Wars series, beginning in 2015 with “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” The new picture would reunite most of the cast of the original three pictures, and Lucas’ services would be retained by Disney as a creative consultant.
The first clue that “Rogue One” is not a typical entry in the Star Wars canon comes in the picture’s opening seconds. Although the Lucasfilm Ltd. logo appears prior to the opening shot, as well as the familiar legend “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” there is no opening stab of John Williams’ iconic theme music, no words crawling from the bottom of the screen to the top explaining the story so far.
But the differences between “Rogue One” and the earlier Star Wars pictures are not limited to the modified opening moments. Since 1977 the pictures in the series have grown progressively more somber, developing a mythology almost as complex and challenging as Tolkien’s novels. Last year’s “The Force Awakens” seemingly only barely avoided an R rating, with a My Lai-style massacre at the beginning of the picture and the violent death about halfway through of one of the saga’s most enduring and beloved characters.
Parents conducting young children to a “Rogue One” screening should be warned: Even the darkness of vision revealed in “The Force Awakens” doesn’t completely prepare the viewer for the unflinching loss of life and disturbing images in the picture.
“Rogue One” works hard to earn its PG-13 rating: Characters we grow to like are killed onscreen, and the graphically depicted results of the Death Star weapon are more reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust than the bloodless big bang we remember from the original picture. Darth Vader also engages in some genuinely frightening antics.
Those who professed wonder or surprise at the 2012 sale of Star Wars to Disney shouldn’t have been — Lucas always did profess admiration for that studio’s entertainment heritage.
More perplexing at the present time, and especially while viewing “Rogue One,” is the knowledge that when the Star Wars saga began to explore its darkest and most disturbing themes and images, it did so under the Walt Disney flag of wholesome family entertainment.