Rogue One – The Prequel You Always Wanted

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When Disney/Lucasfilm announced a series of stand-alone films – away from the main trilogy – there was some speculation that this was not perhaps such a great idea, and when the first film announced was the story of the stolen Death Star plans which would lead straight into the beginning of Episode IV (or just plain, old Star Wars to those of us at the front of the queue back in 1977) that speculation turned to dismay in some quarters.

How could you make a successful and exciting film when everyone knows the ending? I suppose we could let James Cameron answer that one but in his absence, I’m here to tell you that those fears were completely unfounded.

British director, Gareth Edwards (he of the 2014 Godzilla reboot) has fashioned a thoroughly exciting and remarkably fresh feeling yarn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, one that will excite and astound in equal measure. Double that up if you’re a confirmed Star Wars fan.

Featuring a fabulous (and fabulously diverse) cast, including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker, beautifully shot by Grig Fraser and marvellously scored by Michael Giacchino (utilising some of John Williams’ iconic themes, of course), Edwards gives us a good old, rip-roaring night out at the cinema that’s part war movie, part heist movie and 150% Star Wars movie.

The plot really is straightforward: Jones plays the daughter of Mikkelsen’s Death Star engineer, and the Rebel Alliance use her to try to steal the plans for the battle station before it can become fully operational.

That’s pretty much it, but that’s pretty much all we need. Everything else is a case of wind it up and let it go.

There aren’t vast swathes of depth to most of the characters, one or two performances don’t really work (hello, Forest Whitaker, I’m looking at you… just what the hell was that voice!?), and some of the dialogue is clunky (it’s a Star Wars film, of course there’s clunky dialogue), but there are so many more treasures here it’s hard, if not impossible to let these slides stand in the way of your enjoyment.

As always, Edwards’ sense of scale and scope is magnificent, he really knows how to frame a scene and open up the world with depth and focus. And boy does he know how to throw us into the trenches of war, we’re really allowed to feel the thrum of battle around us – both on the ground and in some of the most thrilling space battles ever put on screen (this is where a 3D screening really pays off, by the way).

The characters are introduced deftly and without fuss, meaning we hit the ground running and rarely pause for breath. Of these new characters, the two standouts are definitely Alan Tudyk (voicing K-2SO, a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid) and the mighty Donnie Yen (who kicks major ass as an almost-Jedi).

There are some neat and very timely shades painted into the dialogue which could be seen as a reflection of political attitudes surrounding us now (that’s definitely how I read them). When asked if she’d be happy seeing Imperial flags planted across the galaxy, Jones’ Jyn Erso replies: “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” It’s a small, simple moment, but it resonates, with so many people in our own world who don’t seem to want to look up.

And, best of all, Rogue One is fully immersed in the Star Wars universe – from blue milk (you either get it or you don’t) to the surprise appearances by… well, let’s leave that open until you’ve seen the film. When you have meet me back here and we can discuss the various merits and demerits of these added touches. Some work better than others (you’ll understand what I mean) but all are introduced for the right reasons and add a certain sense of playfulness to the film. One in particular (if you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who I mean) gets a moment so magnificently brutal and wonderful that you can’t help but hope this won’t be our last return visit with him (…oh yes, it’s a him).

What I can tell you without fear of spoilers is that for the final forty-five minutes of Rogue One I genuinely sat with a huge grin spread across my face, caught up in the machinery of the plot and basking in the warm glow of a very familiar and a very welcome return to a galaxy far, far away.

And really, after Rogue One you’ll never need to watch those other bloody prequels again.

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Marvel’s Masterful, Mystical Doctor Strange

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Many who know me might suggest I was always going to give this movie an easy ride. Doctor Strange has been one of my most beloved characters since I was first introduced to him sometime in the early 1970s. Let’s face it, I’m an easy mark for a movie featuring anything to do with Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts, right!?

But, as excited as I’ve been about seeing the good Doctor onscreen, I was always going to be this movie’s worst enemy, sitting in the dark of the theatre daring it to take a wrong step with the Sorcerer Supreme, challenging it to weigh up against forty years of expectation.  Doctor Strange has lived and breathed in my imagination for decades, so my warning to director Scott Derrickson and the Marvel team might have best been summed up by Yeats: Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Thankfully, I needn’t have worried, Doctor Strange delivers as faithful a translation of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s creation as a fan could ever wish for, and embellishes it with thoughtful meditations that give this version of the character some important textures.

The thrust of the plot follows that of the comics, and sees talented but arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange lose the use of his hands in an accident but gain a new life as he travels to the mystical Kamar-Taj to study the teachings of The Ancient One.

As Strange learns to use his newfound powers he comes into conflict with one of The Ancient One’s ex-students and uncovers a threat to the very existence of our reality.

Ultimately what makes Doctor Strange work is that beyond the far-out visuals and imaginative sparkle, Derrickson and the Marvel team have crafted a remarkably human story. Director, script and cast combine to give us a set of characters we care for and the storytelling is gifted with many grace notes of humour and small, human moments. Benedict Cumberbatch shines (sometimes literally) as he enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, breathing a fully formed life into Doctor Stephen Strange even before the event that takes him on his spiritual journey.

Likewise, both Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are magnificent as The Ancient One and Karl Mordo respectively, both actors doing a lot of heavy lifting to fill in their unscripted humanity. Likewise, out of necessity of script mechanics, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, fills in a lot of blanks through sheer will of performance. I can only hope she is given more to do in the sequel, because here she teeters dangerously on the edge of being wasted, and McAdams deserves far better than that. Benedict Wong is superb value too, as a version of Wong thankfully and necessarily much developed from the early comics.

The one actor given short shrift is Mads Mikkelsen, which also highlights the film’s one unfortunate weak point. With so much screen time given to introducing Strange and his supporting cast of characters, we’re never allowed to creep beneath the skin of Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius. This is a charge often levelled at Marvel villains of course, and unfortunately Doctor Strange isn’t going to buck that trend.  Thankfully, this is balanced out by the long game developed for Ejiofor’s Mordo, and if you want the full effect of this you should most definitely stay in your seat until the very end of the credits for the vital scene which will no doubt kick off important events for the sequel. Also of note is the final title card, which promises that: Doctor Strange will return.

For a megalithic blockbuster, Doctor Strange has also emerged as a rather personal movie. Director Derrickson’s well documented faith and spiritualism both shine through and inform the film, adding fascinating and thoughtful layers to the story that needs to function for the franchise. The plot is playful with any number of ideologies and both studio and audiences should be happy that such an intelligent, contemplative fit was found for the character.

This thoughtfulness spills through into the climax of the film, which veers beautifully away from the usual CGI slam-fest (though it involves plenty of CGI) to bring about a truly unusual (oh go on then… downright Strange) resolution, true to the character and true to the notions of ego and selflessness at the heart of the mysticism which propels the film, care of Derrickson (and scriptwriters John Spaihts and C. Robert Cargil).

Of course, the real spiritual heart of Doctor Strange in the comics lies in the astonishing visuals envisioned by co-creator, Steve Ditko, and it’s from here the film truly dazzles. In this age of CGI bloat and fix-it-in-post visual effects, it’s increasingly rare to walk out from a movie feeling you’ve seen something wondrous and fresh, and Doctor Strange delivers both feelings in bucketfuls: from travels through glorious LSD landscapes of the psychedelic multiverse to breathtaking battles across ever-expanding M.C. Escher cityscapes, the film is a treat for the senses.

Those senses include your hearing, as Michael Giacchino (composer of wonderful scores for films such as Pixar’s The Incredibles and the recent Star Trek reboot – as well as, allegedly, Marvel’s forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) lavishes the film with one of the studio’s most effective scores, including a Doctor Strange theme (all harpsichord, Hammond organ, sitars and jingle-jangle guitar) that you’re sure to be humming as you leave the theatre.

They say you should be careful what you wish for, but as an almost lifelong fan of the good Doctor, I could not have hoped for a more thrilling, magical and human translation of the story that’s played out in my psyche for so long.

Buy the ticket, take the ride, you’ll be glad you joined Marvel and Doctor Strange for this trip.