Rogue One (2016)

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Jumping into hyperspace is this Star Wars story, slotting before ‘A New Hope’, it’s a fantastically expansive kick-start to the Lucasfilm and Disney anthology series, with the overall feel of this operatic space blockbuster being somewhat different to what has come before.

After being freed by Rebel Alliance officer Cassian (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) comes to realise her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been building a powerful weapon for the Imperial Army. Hoping to find some plans to destroy the Death Star, Jyn leads a troop of fighters to do just that and avoid the evil grasp of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

A film such as this is obviously going to arrive with trumpets tooting and hype at an all time peak, so it’s always a task to live up to expectations. Mostly, this movie does succeed if not having a few minor weaknesses. The detail and visual splendour of every planet alone is enough to delight and even more so when seen on the IMAX screen. The new characters are engaging enough to take us on this rebel journey and they’re written with that classic Star Wars code of either bad or good to fit this standalone story snugly with the other movies.

What works so nicely and what I liked the most wasn’t just the impressive scale of the hero’s mission but the attempt at a different tone set up here. It’s not exactly darker but threat is certainly on the line and with everyone’s favourite masked baddie back again it’s clear that the good guys need to watch out. The narrative we receive is unique enough in not tripping fully down nostalgia lane and it has us thrown into a murkier spy-like sci-fi with lives very much on the line.

It’s a simple focused story which is why it’s easy to follow this film and immerse yourself amongst the new creatures, wonderful Michael Giacchino score and fan pleasing links to the Star Wars galaxy. Gareth Edwards directs confidently and with his team the structure of the movie is sound, it all works well, maybe too well because there’s times when the movie feels safe even when it’s treading down an unexplored road of danger and rebellion.

For me at least, the ending is orchestrated greatly, sky fights and ground battles combine in harmony but there comes a time when casualties of war become commonplace and drastically lose impact. Also a near end deus ex machina is totally cliched and felt lazy. Everything just comes to a head, it’s like they tried set up but it didn’t quite work and thinking on it the simple story is non-daring and tightropes the line of being not Star Wars but yet a thoroughly Star Wars picture.

Felicity Jones is brilliant in this, she portrays a gritty determination and hopeful look for a better Empire. The wavering teary eyes give great character emotion and then she can do steely Lara Croft action or engaging empathising smiles to round Jyn Erso as a cool addition to the Wars World. Ben Mendelsohn does a fine job in almost stealing the show, snarls and calm villainous stares make him a marvellous antagonist. Forest Whitaker is a believable guardian yet with a shaky moral core being good yet having a mean streak for intruders. Diego Luna pairs nicely with Jones, the writing¬†of an affection is lame but he’s a rough and ready soldier and a capable male lead. It’s great to hear James Earl Jones voicing Vader once more and trust me, Darth does force choke his way to bad-assery during the film.

Mostly, Rogue One is an entertaining change to the galaxy we know, as it tries to conjure up something a bit different which is almost 100% successful and aside from a couple of near-end niggles, this is a movie to excite all ages and comfort you whilst blasting you with new faces and new worlds.

7.5/10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Better late than never, I finally got myself around to seeing this spectacular addition to the Star Wars franchise. The feel of the movie is nostalgic and that classic wonder runs throughout even with the injection of new faces and special effects.

As the scrolling yellow text states, this seventh Star Wars feature sees the First Order risen from the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on a mission to find the map leading to Skywalker’s location. He doesn’t count on Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) teaming up and discovering both the Resistance and the Force.

Scale wise this movie is immense, from the aerial dog-fights between TIE fighters and X-Wings to the planets visited along the way. All of this really sucks you into a new and exciting world still in that memorable Star Wars galaxy. It’s this glory of old that makes this film so good, the look of the new bases and villains speak out as classic Death Star/Vader imagery, the introduction of the Force by a tiny creature is akin to master Yoda and the humble yet potential filled beginnings of Rey draw up hopeful connections to Luke Skywalker. This film does brilliantly right what all three prequels did wrong, it shoots back to the feel good simplistic story telling of good versus evil and doesn’t rely heavily on CGI. Of course it’s there but it aids the scenes and it boosts the vision of the spectacle.

The special effects are quality, gone are the days of obvious green screen and in come detailed and lush worlds, fantastic immersive motion capture performances and explosions that serve purpose and not a Michael Bay wet dream. The little things like the sound and lights of the lightsaber spark nerd delight as the Luke blue bolt shines up, the new tweaks also excite even if the red hilt of Kylo Ren’s weapon could be self damaging. I guess for me the only CGI that gnawed at my head was the overbearing hologram of Snoke which felt perhaps too overbearing, more like a LOTR character than anything else.

J.J Abrams pulls back on lens flares and crafts a near perfect entertaining blockbuster. The way the characters interact and the stories meld are directed efficently leading us to further buy into the continuing saga. It’s his direction that adds a new quality, an almost shakier dark tone that helps a lot, of course the screen wipes and smooth panning shots over deserts raise a smile but the hand-held camera on Stormtroopers or the pacy back and forth cutting during battles makes everything more dramatic and energetic. He has managed to retrieve the joy of Star Wars and lets hope the new directors for 8 and 9 can continue that feeling.

John Williams rightly gets a nod for Original Score at the Oscars because his control and music making is always reliable for bringing in the hair raising emotion. The moment you hear the classic score you feel right at home. The brooding factor is there also as we meet new villains Kylo Ren and General Hux. Sound design too needs a mention as robotic bleeps from old favourite R2-D2 react with what will be the stand out point for most in rolling dude BB-8.

I didn’t expect the movie to make me laugh as much as it did. Obviously it isn’t a comedy but there a lot of moments that truly make you chuckle out loud. There’s an endearing push towards the lighter moments that work in making this a bold and exciting family film. A lot of the laughs emenate from Boyega’s turn as Finn who is a riverting addition and the writing for his character is believable and comedic. The moment a pair of Stormtroopers turn and walk away from a raging Kylo Ren is also classic Star Wars humour which made a lot of the audience audibly cackle.

Daisy Ridley has been plucked from virtual obscurity and thank goodness because she’s a breath of fresh air as this driven scavenger with a talent for something bigger. She’s powerful, not a damsel in distress, stunning and interesting in seeing what’ll happen next. John Boyega is fantastic, like a lad born out of an evil past he brings the funny as I wrote but also develops into a more frustrated and vulnerable character which is acted well. Adam Driver is fantastically despicable as Kylo Ren and luckily he does get the chance to remove the mask so we see into his fleeting troubled eyes before the true villainy sets in. Oscar Isaac is a great watch as he shuttles into the opening and proves his worth as untampered Resistance fighter. Harrison Ford may do a lot of bad things but coming back as Han Solo is not one of those, it feels as if he never left even if he is older. The wry and arrogant manner is back but there’s fear in the mix too. Carrie Fisher makes her comeback too and does well as a general and leader but a worried mother also. Mark Hamill is the actor I was most looking forward to as he shies away from the limelight now but his late reveal is very much the wait in what can come. It’s a sizzling ensemble cast of actors either live action or in mo-cap they all work together in creating a delightful starry universe.

It’s more than worth a watch because it shows how CGI and 3D can be done right and that the Star Wars saga is nowhere near dead. Disney but more importantly Abrams and his unknown actors have revamped this franchise with the satisfaction of retaining what we all adore about the first three.

8/10