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Star Wars Expands Its Universe

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“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a new type of motion picture for the nearly 40-year-old franchise, and it is appropriately a major callback to the original 1977 film without imitating its plot. Certain places, characters and even subtle music cues that have not been revisited since that first entry take part in this movie. The idea behind these new “Star Wars Story” films is to tell original stories that take place at any desired point in the history established by the Star Wars Universe. What’s more interesting is that they are not stylistically beholden to the traditional filmmaking characteristics that define Star Wars.

The film’s ambivalent heroine is Jyn Erso, played with effective screen presence by Felicity Jones. She is a drifter in and out of trouble living under an alias ever since her mother was killed and her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by the Empire to take part in the planning of a super-weapon.

The rough tutelage of a guerilla warlord (Forrest Whitaker) has taught her self-reliance, but no sense of direction to take aside from running and hiding to avoid the reach of the evil Empire. While imprisoned in a labor camp, she is taken to a familiar Rebel base where she is informed that the super-weapon of her father’s forced involvement is rumored to be complete. Using a lead, they want her on a team that can track down her father’s whereabouts and find some key to destroying the construction of technological terror: The Death Star.

The team of heroes this movie brings us amusingly subverts George Lucas’ good-versus-evil vision and explores the gray area of war. Diego Luna portrays a morally questionable rebel spy/assassin. Riz Ahmed is an Imperial pilot in the process of defecting to the Rebel Alliance. Through voice and motion-capture, Alan Tudyk plays a sardonic and brave reprogrammed Imperial droid working with the Rebels that seems like the result of listing everything the cowardly C-3PO would never do. Donnie Yen is a blind warrior who religiously regards the force as his protector while his doubting arsenal-clad friend, played by Wen Jiang, covers him at all times.

The excellent Ben Mendelsohn brings the most personality we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars villain as Imperial science director, Orson Krennic, a man who answers to characters we haven’t seen on the big screen in quite a long time – one of whom is a digital recreation of a deceased character actor that is probably more astounding than any previous attempt at something similar, but still eerily distracting. This brings to mind my gripes with the movie.

I think “Rogue One” could have ventured further away from Star Wars familiarity. It is said that this film went through heavy re-writes, reshoots and changed composers rather late into production. I don’t know what the original shooting script or score were like, but I have the feeling that they were meant to be darker.

Michael Giacchino’s score is fine, but it’s easily the weakest one I’ve heard in a series that has always used the immense talent of John Williams. My problem is that it feels like a pale imitation of the Wagnerian tone Williams was known for when this project presented the opportunity to go for something refreshingly different.

As for the characters and story, the plot is a little convoluted and the characters seem like they’re missing some important moments that clarify their motivations and bonds with one another. The preoccupation with inserting moments of unrelated fan service costs this movie a bit in terms of its own development – particularly at the very end.

To its credit, the film probably contains the best action in the entire franchise and lives up to the title “Star Wars” more than any other entry. This movie immerses itself in the feeling of danger when violence breaks out between a heavily armored military and an ill-equipped rebellion. In other words, don’t expect a goofball CGI creature luckily dodging laser blasts in this film.

John Knoll is the brainchild behind this film’s concept, which is pretty cool considering how long he’s been realizing the concepts of others as an innovative special effects supervisor who helped bring CGI to cinema and invented Photoshop with his brother.

The film’s director, Garreth Edwards (“Monsters” and the 2014 “Godzilla”) may not improve his lacking ability for character and story emotion, but I really respect his gift for producing atmosphere and this film proves that he knows and loves Star Wars.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is inspired by love and slightly tainted by some pandering but I think Star Wars fans have every reason to watch it over and over, because I will… I’ve already seen it twice inside of a few days. VT