star wars

IN THEATERS – “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

rsz_160401406_7888dbRogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Dir.: Gareth Edwards)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens everywhere December 16.

After the joyless vapidity of the prequels, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens rebooted the franchise back to its original settings, honoring the past while also building infrastructure for innumerable future additions.  It was a throwback and a step forward at the same time, almost pathologically rehashing visuals and story beats from the original Star Wars trilogy, but also righting past wrongs by expanding the racial makeup of the ensemble and making the female characters more active.

But it was not a great film.  Abrams tried to serve so many masters that A Force Awakens ultimately became a little faceless and overstuffed, and in the end it succeeded more as an exercise in Star Wars-isn’t-lame-anymore optics than as a fully rounded movie experience.  At best, it made the Star Wars universe feel tactile and human again, refocusing on the characters while remaining vague and anonymous enough to allow future franchise directors to make some corner of the galaxy their own.

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of what will no doubt be literally tens of thousands of Star Wars extended universe movies, a sort of Episode III and a Half one-off designed to fill space between Episode VII and next year’s Episode VIII.  And although Rogue One thankfully continues the trend of character-based stories, tactile visuals, active female characters and diverse ensembles, while also taking the franchise to some new and fascinating places, it definitely feels like filler.rsz_4maxresdefault

The first of several key diversions from the classic Star Wars form comes right away, when instead of a story crawl we get a shock cut, followed by a series of eerily beautiful shots tracking a single spacecraft across a lonely planet.  These early scenes establish the backstory of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, capable but unmemorable, especially following Daisy Ridley’s breakthrough role in The Force Awakens), a prisoner and outcast haunted by her past.  Years later, Jyn joins with a shifty Rebel spy (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid (Alan Tudyk) to learn more about the Empire’s newly built Death Star.

Rogue One takes place after the fall of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith and before the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, but it only associates itself with the latter film, even offering creepily spot-on recreations of beloved characters from that 1977 classic.  Maybe it latches on too tight – there are a number of striking and singular shots in Rogue One, and it’s less busy than The Force Awakens, but beyond adding some interesting visual texture and moral dimensions to the Star Wars universe, it’s hard to get over the fact that the story is a foregone conclusion, with the one-note characters to match.

Ultimately, this is a film about stealing plans, which is almost as lame as the trade embargoes and Galactic Senate resolutions of the prequels.  At this rate, how long before we get an entire film built around the origin story of Chewbacca’s bandolier?

IN THEATERS – “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”

imagesStar Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Dir.: J.J. Abrams)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”

With those four words, strategically chosen by director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt to begin the opening crawl of Episode VII, the Star Wars franchise returns to the world of things you give a rat’s ass about.  Nothing about trade embargoes.  Nothing about filibusters in the Galactic Senate.  No parliamentary procedure bullshit at all, just a terse and mysterious setup largely focused on characters that you like.

Anyone who goes way back with The Barnesyard knows my tortured history with the Star Wars franchise.  I won’t rehash it here, but sufficed to say that the words “George,” “Lucas,” “is,” “dead,” “to,” and “me” would probably dominate a word cloud made from my mid-2000’s movie blogs.   The infantile fussiness of the prequels flattened the Star Wars universe to the point of discouraging imagination, but The Force Awakens turns it back into a tangible and dimensional cinematic world.

imagesIt’s a real Star Wars movie; it’s just not a great Star Wars movie.  The Force Awakens is built on the framework of A New Hope, and there are innumerable callbacks to the 1977 original, at least several dozen in the opening twenty minutes alone.  There’s a real sense of overcompensation – it’s telling that while the prequels eschewed any sort of “Han Solo figure” (i.e., a clumsily charming rogue in a cool jacket) and focused almost exclusively on the monotonous, self-rubbing mysticism of the Jedis, The Force Awakens features at least three different Han Solo figures, including the actual Han Solo (Harrison Ford, making more of an effort than in Crystal Skull).

Abrams doesn’t set out to make or break myths, but rather to keep the old myths in circulation.  He takes the same irreverently respectful approach to Star Wars that he brought to his Star Trek pictures – it’s everything you loved about the original with a half-twist.  Abrams isn’t what I would call an “idea machine” – he takes an existing invention and puts a clock in it, and the tease is always better than the follow through.  After watching The Force Awakens, I’m actually somewhat excited for future Star Wars movies, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine children playing Kylo Ren vs. Finn the way that I used to play Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker. But for a film tasked with kick-starting a theoretically infinite number of sequels and spinoffs, and burdened with setting up stories and characters that may or may not ever pay off (Hi, Poe Dameron!  Bye, Poe Dameron!), a decent tease is good enough.