Space opera’s evil has earthly res­o­nance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(M) he mag­nif­i­cent Aus­tralian ac­tor Ben Men­del­sohn dom­i­nates the pre-ti­tles se­quence of Gareth Ed­wards’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in­stal­ment of a series of stand-alone films that are re­lated to but sep­a­rate from the galac­tic gang­buster cre­ated by Ge­orge Lu­cas, and which he sold to Dis­ney for $US4 bil­lion in 2012.

Men­del­sohn is an Im­pe­rial com­man­der, Or­son Kren­nic. Wrapped in a white cape, grey of hair, gaunt of face, he oozes au­thor­i­tar­ian ar­ro­gance and per­sonal vul­ner­a­bil­ity. He never quite loses his un­cer­tain smile and he speaks like, well, an Aus­tralian, which is ter­rific to hear. Per­haps we will be the big­gest bad guys in space one day.

Kren­nic has led a group of heav­ily ar­moured troops to a re­mote and bar­ren planet to con­front for­mer Em­pire sci­en­tist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, al­most as in­tense as he was in TV’s se­rial killer series Han­ni­bal). He tells Galen it’s time to come back, to help de­sign and con­struct a planet-oblit­er­at­ing weapon. Of course, we view­ers know this is the Death Star. He tells the sci­en­tist that such a weapon of mass de­struc­tion will lead to peace in space.

“You are con­fus­ing peace with ter­ror,’’ Galen de­clares. “Well,’’ replies Kren­nic, flash­ing the Men­del­sohn smile, “you have to start some­where.’’

Galen is taken, but his young daugh­ter Jyn flees and hides. Her mother Lyra (Ir­ish ac­tress Va­lene Kane) puts an amulet around her child’s neck and tells her, “Trust the force.” Then we see the ti­tle credit and the $US200 mil­lion ($270m) movie launches. We meet the adult Jyn Erso (Os­car-nom­i­nated English ac­tress Felic­ity Jones). She’s beau­ti­ful and tough, and we soon learn she was saved — and trained — by ex­trem­ist rebel fighter Saw Ger­rera (Os­car win­ner For­est Whi­taker, look­ing as de­ranged as Dennis Hop­per in David Lynch’s Blue Vel­vet).

The open­ing se­quence goes to one of the strengths of this first so-called an­thol­ogy film. The next two are said to fo­cus on the sto­ries of Han Solo and bounty hunter Boba Fett re­spec­tively. Kren­nic’s know­ing com­ment about ter­ror and peace taps into present global frac­ture lines, adding hard, ter­res­trial re­al­ism to what un­folds across the next two hours. As he makes that re­mark in fic­tional space, in the real world Aleppo is a hu­man disas­ter zone.

In a sim­i­lar sense, the bru­tal battle scenes look mod­ern, not fu­tur­is­tic. An am­bush of Stormtroop­ers by rebel fight­ers could be hap­pen­ing in Iraq. The long, ex­cit­ing cli­mac­tic air and ground war, while full of orig­i­nal Star Wars mo­ments, has dis­turb­ing echoes of the Viet­nam war. It’s not quite as dev­as­tat­ing as Mel Gib­son’s Hack­saw Ridge but it is about men (and women) putting their lives on the line in close com­bat, usu­ally un­der or­ders or be­cause of a loy­alty to a di­vided cause. The body count is high and of­ten fu­tile.

In a chrono­log­i­cal sense, as far as that ap­plies to Star Wars, where the 1977 block­buster is the fourth in the time­line, Rogue One is set soon be­fore the events that brought Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and of course Darth Vader to the big screen. Jyn is co-opted into join­ing the rebel al­liance. The mis­sion is to find her long-lost fa­ther, and stop the com­ple­tion of the planet-van­ish­ing WMD.

Well, that’s what she is told. An­other strength of this civil war drama is that it is a stark re­minder of the volatile na­ture of re­bel­lions. There is a cause, and a lot of rebels in it, not all of whom have the same mo­ti­va­tions. The leader of the mis­sion is Cas­sian An­dor (Mex­i­can ac­tor Diego Luna), and the con­fronta­tional scene between him and Jyn at one telling point is a pow­er­ful re­minder of how revolutions work and why they of­ten fail.

An­other depth to Rogue One (we learn the rea­son for the ti­tle late on, and it’s im­por­tant yet in­ci­den­tal) is that be­cause it’s a stand-alone off­shoot from the main fran­chise, not a pre­quel or se­quel, the main char­ac­ters can live … and die.

I don’t want to re­veal too much but it’s fair to say main char­ac­ters cark it, which is al­most in­no­va­tive in mod­ern cinema. Now, Star Wars fans may be able to work out who sur­vives and who does not (and in­deed what will hap­pen to the Death Star), but that doesn’t mean they won’t care about them. The script and act­ing put us into their lives.

Some char­ac­ters ob­vi­ously will keep go­ing be­cause we’ve al­ready seen them in the fu­ture. Darth Vader, voiced by (who else?) James Earl Jones, ap­pears in just three scenes, each bril­liant, es­pe­cially the fi­nal one where he draws his lightsabre. The first one, where Kren­nic seeks his help, is also ter­rific, with Men­del­sohn show­ing in one hard-to-breathe, quiet mo­ment the bor­der­line in­san­ity of this com­man­der. There are also nods to other fa­mous char­ac­ters, which I’ll leave uniden­ti­fied as view­ers will en­joy it more if these come as a sur­prise.

The rebel mis­sion is to in­vade an im­pe­rial strong­hold and steal the plans for the WMD. It’s car­ried out by a brave and un­cer­tain mot­ley crew: Cas­sian, Jyn, a blind war­rior-priest and his pro­tec­tor, a large man who about knows guns. There’s a de­fec­tor pi­lot (Riz Ahmed from the su­perb TV series The Night Of).

The one au­di­ences will most love, though, is a re­pro­grammed im­pe­rial droid, K2SO. He is tall, strong, in­tel­li­gent and aware of the ad­van­tage of his non-hu­man­ness. Voiced by Amer­i­can ac­tor Alan Tudyk, he sounds up­per-class Bri­tish, smart, snobby and a bit peev­ish. When the rebels are warned that if some­thing goes wrong they will all be va­por­ised in space, he cor­rects: “Not me. I can sur­vive in space.” He’s good for the laughs, and for more than that too.

Ed­wards’s most suc­cess­ful film to date is the Godzilla re­boot in 2014. He is a di­rec­tor who knows how to do new things with old sto­ries. The spe­cial ef­fects and cin­e­matog­ra­phy are a high, as is ex­pected from Star Wars. It’s also good, for the sec­ond film in a row (af­ter JJ Abrams’s The Force Awak­ens last year), to have a strong fe­male as the lead char­ac­ter.

One dis­ad­van­tage with this film is that as it’s set in the Star Wars past, it’s a set-up for the 1977 orig­i­nal, so view­ers who know the canon will be able to work out what will hap­pen. As such it doesn’t add much to the Star Wars story, though there is some neat spack­ling of gaps, in­clud­ing in­volv­ing the Death Star. But where it suc­ceeds is in adding depth, re­al­ism and a timely re­verse sense of moder­nity to this al­most 40year-old space saga. Watch­ing it today, you may feel the galaxy is not quite so far away, that its trou­bles are all too fa­mil­iar, and I sus­pect that was Lu­cas’s plan from the out­set.

Ben Men­del­sohn, above, and Felic­ity Jones with Diego Luna, left, in

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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