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---“Star Wars: Rogue One: Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Photo: Giles Keyte. © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved” and “ (L to R): Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). Photo: Jonathan Olley. © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved”.

Diverse cast breathes new life into the sci-fi action franchise

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel
134 mins. Rated PG-13. (Released December 16, 2016)

Though described by Lucasfilm as “the first of the Star Wars standalone films”, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is big-budget fanboy-fanfiction direct prequel to the original Star Wars (1977), that was later placed within the multi-film epic franchise as Episosde IV: A New Hope. While fans will get a kick out of cameos by familiar droids, creatures, and humans (that I won’t reveal here to keep the surprise), the new characters carry on similar roles and themes culminating in an old-fashioned, new SFX by Industrial Light & Magic land and air battle. Male white characters now sound British, women are given some centrality but are unfortunately bland, compared to the dynamic, now more racially diverse, appreciably fulsome characters.

Women here don’t really hold up their end. Felicity Jones seems to be miscast as this main new hope “Jyn Erso”. She has potential when she’s first seen grown-up, after being saved as a child from the Empire – dirty in jail for thievery. Though she goes through some character growth and several arduous adventures, she’s not very convincing to inspire rebel fighters into a dangerous mission, let alone to elicit a decorously romantic hug fade-out with the more dashing hero. (Daisy Ridley would have seriously considered leaving her behind in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) The Rebel Alliance seems to be weakly chaired by the scolding “Senator Mon Mothma” (Genevieve O'Reilly), whose passivity gets spurred by an impassioned, African-dressed “Senator Pamlo” (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). There are a couple of women rebel pilots; perhaps they all got killed off before “Episode IV”.

As befits a film with intentions of global domination of the box office, the casting diversity is one of its greatest strength. Forest Whitaker is at first almost unrecognizable as “Saw Gerrera”, who rescues “Jyn” when her scientist father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, who could have kept his Danish accent to emphasize some planetary diversity) is forced by “Director Krennic” (Ben Mendelsohn, who likewise could have kept sounding Aussie) to design the dread Death-Star. (Didn’t you always wonder who did that for Darth Vader? – and he’s still voiced by James Earl Jones.) With a contemporary touch, “Gerrera” has split from the Alliance for more direct action, what the Empire doubtless would call terrorists. While in crowded markets his fighters hide their weapons under Arab-looking burnooses before violent attacks, some have compared their relation to the Alliance like the Irgun was to the Haganah in attacking the British Empire. As a rebel extremist parallel to Vader, the metallically armored “Gerrera” dedicates “What’s left of me” to the cause, and has to keep breathing through an oxygen mask.

As “Captain Cassian Andor”, the pilot assigned to take “Jyn” to her father and his plans, Diego Luna is a genuine heart-throb, enthusiastically dashing hero, all while keeping his native Mexican accent. He manages to make fervent excruciatingly cliché lines, like “Make ten men feel like a hundred,” helped by the quick exposition “I've been recruiting for the rebellion for a long time”, apparently as a child soldier since age six, so he isn’t like Han Solo despite the audience’s murmurs about the comparison. (The fan boys next to me were not familiar with the actor.) His re-programmed imperial droid “K-2SO” looks black, but its amusingly sarcastic lines are memorably voiced by Disney’s go to voice-over specialist Alan Tudyk. (The fan boys next to me didn’t know from his rooster in Moana - maybe I should have mentioned Firefly.)

Riz Ahmed sympathetically portrays the most complex character “Bodhi Rook”, the cargo pilot who is sent to deliver the crucial message from “Galen Erso”. That the actor is of Pakistani heritage and frequently portrays Muslims adds a Gitmo-feel to his torture-for-information scene. Just when he seems to be lost to mind-sucking, he shakes off his shell-shock to actively and creatively join in the rebellion with his navigation and technical skills, and provides the title. (The fan boys next to me did not know him from HBO’s The Night Of.)

In an apparent tribute to the story’s original Asian inspiration, Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, “Chirrut Imwe” (Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen, who has portrayed the legendary Ip Man) is a blind Jedi priest from the destroyed temple of The Force. He is always accompanied by the shaggy, dedicated bodyguard “Baze Malbus” (Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen), who like Toshiro Mifune in so many samurai films, is self-sacrificially converted to the cause. (The fan boys and the father-son duo behind me were unaware of the series’ Japanese roots.)

The long, climactic final battle will thrill fans, even as it pays tribute to George Lucas’s fondness for World War II action-in-the-Pacific movies, complete with the palm trees surrounding the imperial Citadel that stores the plans for the Deathstar (filmed in The Maldives). As the bodies pile up on the ocean shore, the commanders of both sides order: “Take the beach!” (Not that younger fans have seen many movies in this genre.) There are also a lot of visual and dialogue references to the closing battle in Episode IV, inside the tower and up in the sky. As usual for Disney, the press screening was not in 3D, RealD 3D nor IMAX 3D to judge the effects’ impact in those formats.

As someone who saw the original Star Wars opening weekend and, then for the first time in my life, immediately sat through to see it again (and has seen every entry since), I liked how the new diverse actors from around our world breathed new life into a prequel that just entertainingly, and barely satisfactorily, repeats the tried and true themes and expensive action.

NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.

December 13, 2016

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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