“There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You’re confusing peace with terror.” – reluctant Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen)

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” – power-hungry Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

It’s December again. And in the new merchandise-mad, money-hungry cycle that Lucasfilm’s corporate parent Disney has established, it’s new Star Wars movie time too. May is now Marvel’s month, and that makes me a little sad. Summer was Star Wars season when I was a kid, so I equate that long-stretch of warm weather as the period you escaped the rigid confines of public school and caught up with Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Darth, and friends, reenacting big screen adventures in the backyard or poolside. Unless we all plan to ride Tauntauns across Hoth’s frozen tundra (#nerdjoke), ain’t too much role play happening in the backyard this holiday season.

The latest entry in the series is being dubbed a standalone “Star Wars story” in that it is not tied into any particular trilogy of films. Rogue One fleshes out a throwaway reference in the original 1977 film (now known as A New Hope), explicating how the plans for the original “Death Star” make their way from Imperial architects to the shiny dome of one bee-booping droid R2-D2.

It’s a clever (and wisely capitalistic) conceit, and, for the most part, the film satisfies the inquisitive fifth-grader in us all, acting out a scenario many may have tried to imagine 30-some years ago using piles of Kenner action figures.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have concocted a blockbuster that is one part The Guns of Navarone with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan and one part The Wizard of Oz with a dollop of Little Orphan Annie, blended with a whole heaping helping of deep geek references to the infrastructure and mythology of the original Star Wars films – heavier on the 70s/80s entries, but not entirely neglecting the better parts of thee 90s/00s flicks. Rogue One is a darker journey (in a-not-terribly-shocking SPOILER alert, let’s just say things don’t end particularly well for the new characters), exploring the bowels of the Star Wars universe and setting up the oppressively fascistic milieu of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I mean the Rebel Alliance has to rebel against something, right?

Much has been made in the news (well, FoxNews … ironic, since Fox used to own the franchise) about the filmmakers’ social media critique of President-elect Donald Trump and of their allusions to the frightening similarities between the fantasy world concocted by George Lucas and the hateful xenophobic power-grabbing of our real-world politicians. Let it be said that there is nothing in this film that satirizes directly the shenanigans of this past fall as we head toward January’s inauguration. How could there be? The film was shot in 2015, with a mountain of special effects to achieve in post-production until now. However, in these fraught days of dubiously motivated cabinet appointees, tumultuous international relations, heartbreaking Middle East conflict, and cyber-attacks of an unprecedented (NOT “unpresidented”) scale, I found it difficult to enjoy the escapist “fun” of a band of scruffy rebels fighting unscrupulous bureaucrats, planet-hopping at a dizzying pace, engaging in bloody street battles across crowded and dusty marketplaces, and hacking into monolithic computer systems to release state secrets. But maybe that’s just me.

Rogue One is entertaining and gives us longtime fans a lot of intriguing backstory upon which to chew for months to come. I fear that the casual viewer will find it too talky and somber by half, waiting for the trademark space dogfights to kick in. And they do – the last 45 minutes are a doozy. For us Star Wars nuts, the “palace intrigue” will be a hoot, albeit a bleak hoot, with effective reappearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (creepily CGI-reincarnated Peter Cushing, looking like a refugee from The Polar Express).

The series newcomers blend in well, if not leaving any lasting impressions. Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything,  is haunting if a bit dour throughout as protagonist Jyn Erso. She is yet another in the long line of Star Wars orphans, abandoned by parents more invested in political statements than child-rearing; consequently, she has a reason to be rather glum. Like The Force Awakens‘ Rey (Daisy Ridley), she is a welcome addition to a series that hasn’t always celebrated strong, independent, adventuring women. Her father Galen Erso (a soulful Mads Mikkelsen) is the chief designer of the much-vaunted Death Star, and his change of heart puts both him and his family at great peril when he flees the project, hiding out as a moisture farmer on some forgotten planet. (The Roy of 30+ years ago would have been able to remember all of the planets named/visited in Rogue One. Present-day Roy? No clue. Nor do I care.) The Empire, led by Orson Krennic (a rather forgettable Ben Mendelsohn in a stiff, starchy, heavily-creased white cape that implies there are neither fashion designers nor irons in space) tracks Galen down and drags him back to work, leaving Jyn effectively orphaned for a really long time.

Eventually, the nascent Rebel Alliance seek the adult Jyn out. Jyn is now a felon, living the Lucasfilm equivalent of Orange is the New Black after being raised by cyborg Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker in his typical scene-killing-ham mode). You see, the Rebels want Jyn to help them find her pa, get the plans for whatever the Empire is cooking up (“That’s no moon!”), and save the day. Along the way, Jyn meets cute with Cassian Andor (a pleasant but uncharismatic Diego Luna) and his comically nihilistic robot buddy K-2S0 (voiced delightfully by Alan Tudyk, proving that he is always the MVP of any movie in which he – or his pipes – appear). The trio collect a band of good-hearted and refreshingly diverse misfits (actors Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen – all turning in credible, nuanced character turns) on their way to the inevitable denouement, setting up neatly the opening sequence of A New Hope.

Rogue One is stingier with the whimsy than other Star Wars films. The humor is sardonic, not Saturday Matinee side-splitting. As the Death Star baddies use their new toy for target practice, noble Cassian scans the incoming cloud of debris and destruction and mutters, “There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” It gets a laugh, but not a hearty one. Perhaps, we in the audience are just a bit too worried about our own horizon these days to find the humor any more.

Maybe I will go play with my old Kenner toys in the backyard, frostbite be damned. I need the escape.

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when asked how can she live in a world where Imperial flags oppressively dominate the landscape


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Godzilla (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Godzilla, Warner Brothers’ reboot of the classic Japanese movie monster, is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. I was highly entertained, even entranced, but I also feel like I was just hit over the head by a 2X4 for the last two hours.

Like the similar postmodern reinvention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or even, for that matter, this spring’s Noah), Godzilla, directed with a surprisingly sure hand by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is positioned as pointed popcorn allegory for how abysmally we humans treat this planet and the ungodly vengeance Mother Nature should unleash on us self-important ants.

In all fairness, Toho Studios’ original Godzilla series took its cues from a mid-century world traumatized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon (as evidenced by the real-life bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), so Edwards is just following that argument to its logical post-9/11, post-global warming, post-Inconvenient Truth conclusion.

The 2014 edition (let’s all just agree to forget the inane Jurassic Park-meets-Independence Day debacle that was 1998’s Matthew Broderick-starring effort) is a tension-filled marvel. Edwards wisely gives us plenty of footage of the titular “monster” and his battles with the Mothra-esque MUTO creatures, but he keeps the shots murky and smoke-filled, the pacing methodically coiled, and the shocks Hitchockian in their “did I see that or didn’t I?” simplicity. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brain-thumpingly martial.

The narrative is straight-up Saturday afternoon matinee with a healthily cynical gloss of 21st century ecological nightmare. The first half of the movie is all set up as we are introduced to a scientist (a hammy Bryan Cranston saddled with an epically bad hairpiece … guess the budget got eaten up by CGI) who loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a tragic nuclear power plant accident that may or may not be giant-lizard-related. Flash-forward 15 years, and Cranston’s now-adult son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all grown up from his Kick-Ass years and looking like a steroidal Joaquin Phoenix) has tired of his papa’s conspiratorial theories as to what really offed mama.

There’s a gibberish-spewing Japanese scientist (an awfully wooden Ken Watanabe) and a gibberish-spewing British scientist (the always crackerjack Sally Hawkins) and an authoritatively gibberish-spewing American general (the genius David Strathairn who could make tax code seem fascinating).

At one point in the film, Watanabe says to Strathairn: “The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” (I loved that!)

I kept expecting Kevin McCarthy or Gene Barry to show up wearing fedoras covering up their sweaty brows as they rattled through unnecessarily expository dialogue (see: 1953’s War of the Worlds or 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers… but preferably if you are 10 years old and it’s 1982 and there is nothing else on television).

Of course, Taylor-Johnson has chosen a military career, much to the chagrin of his academic dad. He is returning from service in some unidentified locale, eager to reignite all-American family time with his perpetually anxious wife (Elizabeth Olsen, spinning gold out of a thankless role) and his toddler son. As mayhem ensues and the various screaming creatures destroy Honolulu … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco … somehow Taylor-Johnson’s character managers to be in every setting, save the day, and find another means of transport to get him closer to home. Ah, Hollywood logic.

But, here’s the thing … it all works, pretty marvelously. There are no winky-nudge-nudge sexist/racist/xenophobic Michael Bay-style jokes/asides/quips and the carnage (while PG-13 friendly) is believable and haunting (and any movie that blows up Las Vegas is ok in my book). The pacing is ominous and steady and relentless, and, without being a shrill polemic, the film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that how we treat (or mis-treat) this planet has dire consequences for us all …

In this case, primordial creatures who’ve lived in the earth’s core for eons until the lure of radioactive weapons and waste draw them out will obliterate us all in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft/Ray Bradbury fever dream … but, hey, I said it was an allegory!


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.