Friday 23 December 2016

Review: Rogue One (fifth-pass)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (fifth-pass / 3D/ SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 134 mins / Dir. Gareth Edwards / Trailer

Previous reviews:
First-pass (spoiler-free)
Second-pass (spoiler-free)
Third-pass (**spoilers**)
Fourth-pass (**spoilers**)

This, once again, is a spoiler-break. The main body of this review covers an area you may not be familiar with before you see the Rogue One. Don't read anything after this unless you've seen the film. I mean, you know that by now, though. It says 'spoilers' at the top, and if you followed a link here from Facebook or Twitter, it'll have said 'spoilers' in that, too. Plus, the film's been out for over a week and even if you haven't managed to catch it yet, you've probably seen/heard someone talking about it. And if you're avoiding spoilers like the plague, you won't be reading this in the first place, now will you?

Anyway, let's get to it...


As you know, dear reader, Rogue One: A Staw Wars Story is set immediately before the events of A New Hope. And as you also know, the absence of Palpatine in that first movie lead to another high-ranking Imperial official striding around like he owned the place, just to make sure that audiences didn't think Darth Vader was actually in charge of everything. That cheeky Imp was Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, portrayed by the magnificent Peter Cushing.

And because this latest installment in the timeline features some of the same characters and locations, it'd be a bit weird of Tarkin was nowhere to be seen in the twenty five minutes leading up to that story. But Mr Cushing is no longer with us, having shuffled off this mortal coil in 1994. And obviously, even if he was still around, he wouldn't look like he did forty years ago. To this end, the digital wizards at ILM have created a CGI Tarkin for Rogue One.

A New Hope, Revenge of the Sith, Rebels, The Clone Wars, Rogue One

Full disclosure, I'm not a fan.

I mean, I'm not going to be 'that guy' about it, and the resurrection of the Grand Moff doesn't detract from a film which I absolutely adore. I love that the character's in the story, and I love that the technology exists to enable that. But y'know, less is more.

The first time we meet Tarkin in Rogue One, he's standing at the viewport of a Star Destroyer, back to the camera as he looks on at the soon-to-be-completed Death Star. We instantly know who it is before he even speaks, and as the audience's angle changes, his face becomes reflected on the window in front of him; slightly distorted and shown in highlights-only against the blackness of space, outside. A slight turn of the head so that we see the profile of the face. There's no doubt, it's Tarkin.

That would have been enough for me. That would have been perfect. The head keeps turning and we see the full extent of ILM's expertise. And it really is an outstanding job. I may not love it, but I can't deny the craftsmanship which has gone into its creation (contrary to popular belief, good CGI is never quick, easy or cheap). In fact, if I'd seen a still image of the fully rendered character before watching the film (perhaps crucially, I hadn't), I'd have agreed that this was going to be a great - if slightly controversial - thing. My problem is that it's a bit too much. The-near continual movement of the facial muscles, the seemingly exaggerated micro-expressions, the flatness in the eyes which separates flesh and blood actors from their computer-generated counterparts. All of these just shout that this is a simulation of Peter Cushing.

And that's the other part of the problem. Had this been an alien (there's a reason I'm not typing a lengthy post complaining about the Bor Gullet creature), a replicant-type droid or even a new never-before-seen human character, none of this would matter. Our brains would be telling us it's just one more guy in the room and he's not happy with how his project's coming along. But those brains don't think they're meeting someone for the first time, they're trying to reconcile the character with one of the most prolific and recognisable genre-actors of the twentieth century. A lot of people in that auditorium are very familiar with the looks, mannerisms and sounds of Peter Cushing. He's Van Helsing, he's Baron Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and even The Doctor. He's the grandfather we'd probably have been too scared to want; he's Grand Moff Tarkin.

And for ILM's version to be so damned close and still be stuck firmly in The Uncanny Valley feels even worse than getting it completely wrong, somehow. Recasting the role so close to the original timeframe would be hugely problematic, I know (Mon Mothma's still got about four years from the events of Rogue One to how she looks in Return of the Jedi), and while I realise that CGI is the perfect solution, I don't believe that this is the perfect execution of it.

And now the genie is out of the bottle, where does it end? The subject of Tarkin (and Kenobi) being digitally re-created for live-action has been discussed at length for some years now, and the real question has never been if it could be done, but if if should. Lucasfilm have, as I hope I've made clear, done an outstanding job with a great level of respect to a performer who's no longer with us. But the seal has been broken; will rival studios be as gentle with other stars? But that's another discussion for another film (hopefully, not a Star Wars one).

To confound matters further, Lucasfilm already have an actor on their books who can do a solid vocal performance as Tarkin, yet they didn't cast him for the movie. Stephen Stanton voiced the character in the Clone Wars animated series, and has reprised the role in Rebels...

And if you listen to Stanton's work, you'll notice he has the rhythm and intonation of Cushing's speech spot on, but lets himself down a little on the words activity and warrior. I'd seen the 'back view' of Tarkin glimpsed in the trailers for Rogue One and figured with slightly firmer direction, Stanton would be perfect for the voice. But it's not his voice we hear, it's the performance of Guy Henry, the actor who plays Tarkin's 'body' in the film. I know this because Mrs Blackout is a devotee of the TV show Holby City, which features Guy as Henrik Hansen. And after watching the movie for the first time, she'd recognised his voice without even reading the credits. And Guy Henry does a passable impersonation of Cushing, but it's not quite as precise as the Tarkin we met in 1977. The closest lines are the ones which have the pacing (and key words) of dialogue from ANH, but obviously they don't all fit into that bracket*1.

So, we end up with a face which is slightly too much Tarkin and a voice which is slightly not enough. The two don't meet in the middle. And his is a supporting role in the film, but still an important one. And ultimately, a distracting one. If it's any consolation (and to me, it's not), he looks far better in IMAX; but that's not going to help everyone watching it in boring old regular high-definition digital cinema projection, now is it?

And for the record? All of the above pretty much applies to Princess Leia, as well. A half-glimpsed profile shot as she was handed the plans would have been more than adequate.

But I still love this film.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
All of The Star Wars.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's a strong showing.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: It is Star Wars.

Although if you really wanted to go the long way round with it…

Rogue One stars Riz Ahmed of course, who also rocked up in 2010's Centurion alongside Michael Carter, who had a role in An American Werewolf In London, as did a certain Frank Oz, who lent his voice to Inside Out along with John Ratzenberger, who had a small role in 1982's Ghandi, along with Geraldine James, who appeared in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, a film which also featured Richard Cunningham, who starred in 2016's Una along with Riz Ahmed… who's in Rogue One.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 That said, a couple of James Earl Jones' lines from Darth Vader's meeting with Krennic don't sound right either. And that guy is Vader. He's just Vader that's forty years older than he was when he first laid the tracks down, vocal cords change over the years. And if I'm criticising Darth Vader for not sounding like Darth Vader, I can hardly expect a doctor from Holby City to be the governor of the Death Star, now can I?

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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