Wednesday 4 January 2017

Market forces: "Rogue One"

The empire expands. What we're getting with the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One is a stopgap in two senses: a multiplex placeholder, set down so that Disney can sustain a brand and hoard more money in advance of next year's Episode VIII, and a narrative bridge between the events of Episode III and Episode IV (which is to say the first Star Wars). You could resent the series just for forcing grown critics to have to explain such hairsplittingly trivial, odorously nerdy minutiae, but one of the foremost logistical achievements of Gareth Edwards' film is how it manages, with (or in spite of) copious digital firepower, to tesselate with the clunky analogue look and feel of the 1977 Star Wars. Rogue One isn't going to look at all out of place in the inevitable boxset when it emerges ahead of Christmas 2017, yet even this speaks more to a desire to fit in and conform rather than push the envelope or attempt anything challenging within the established template. Another way of approaching the film would be as a billion-dollar afterthought, conceived a long, long time after Peak Lucas by men (and it could, perhaps, only be men) who couldn't bear the thought of putting childhood things away - certainly not if there's a nice percentage deal in it for them.

Two clicks into this "new" Star Wars cycle, it's become apparent that the films aren't going to be greatly more substantial than their immediate predecessors, those prequels renounced by even the most devout of fanboys. It's true The Force Awakens and Rogue One have recruited a better class of actors to waste - you'd take Riz Ahmed over Hayden Christensen in most circumstances, and Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones make feistier heroines than Natalie Portman's 97%-facepaint Queen Amidala - yet wasted they are on such dramatically weightless spectacle. Once more disengaged from the playground-level goodies-versus-baddies runaround of the plot, I began looking - really looking - at the actors' faces, and saw there not the hopped-up excitement of fans getting to enact their wildest childhood fantasies, nor the determination of committed thesps keen to fashion a grittier, more realistic, more credible Star Wars worthy of the 21st century, but acute embarrassment - the embarrassment of men and women obliged to direct endless expositional claptrap or windy platitudes about "the Force" towards the tennis balls on sticks that pass for giant squid creatures or oddly named planets at the green-screen stage of shooting.

What's particularly irksome is how this Disney/LucasFilm mega-production co-opts resistance imagery in order to lay the path to the first movie's raid on the Death Star. At every step, Rogue One is geared to grinding down resistance, much as its ideal audience would popcorn kernels. Where cinephiles once took up arms against the threat of reviving dead performers (Bogart, Chaplin, Monroe etc.) as digitally rendered "synthespians", here we're meant to thrill to the sight of a pixellated Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin because, well, Star Wars. (As it is, the cyber-Cushing is an especially ugly effect, dredged up from the lower depths of Uncanny Valley.) And while such setpieces as the early freedom-fighter attack on a marketplace have set some to considering Rogue One as a serious study of guerilla warfare - positioning the film as the series' very own Battle of Algiers - this seems as spurious as the claim Avengers Assemble has anything to do with Shakespeare, intended to reframe a cold hard commercial proposition as vastly more complex and pertinent than it is. (Of the anti-Trump rhetoric rumoured to have been edited into the film at a late stage, there is, of course, nothing.) As our ragtag heroes dash from one massive Lego set to the next, there is a large and loud explosion every thirty minutes on average, if that's all you're after - but if action-figure horseshit with interminable footnotes attached is the only radical art we have left to fight for, and the basis of the only projects our best and brightest young filmmakers are aspiring towards, perhaps it's best if civilisation is left to sink into the ocean.

Rogue One is now showing in cinemas across the universe.

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