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In film, Sci-Fi has often been divided into two categories: adult science fiction, stories that capture the mind and are more philosophical and questioning in nature; and pop culture Sci-Fi, stories that are more escapist and less challenging where the grey cells are concerned.
Perhaps no better year can define this dichotomy than 1977 when the original Star Wars was released the same year as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Critics often claim, or have a prejudice, that adult sci-fi is inherently superior or preferably to pop culture sci-fi. And I do have to admit, if truth be forceably told, I tend to prefer the former to the latter. But there is never a guarantee that one is going to be better than the other. In fact, in the end, the one that is better is simply the one that is better, and the reason why it is better is because, when all is said and done, it’s the, well… better one.
But two other films have now opened that represent the two opposing subgenres. On the pop culture side we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a prequel to A New Hope, and on the adult side we have Passengers.
And they prove, if they prove anything, that, as I previously suggested, there is no guarantee that one type is inherently better than the other, and the better film is always the one that is, well, better.
There has been an interesting genre of fiction in which a writer takes a supporting character or situation that may seem somewhat minor in the overall plot of a work and makes it the centerpiece of a new work. In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, we discover how Mrs. Rochester ended up mad and imprisoned in an attic in Jane Eyre. In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we see the story of Hamlet by two of the lesser characters who never seem to understand exactly what is going on.
And now we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in which we basically learn how Princess Leia got the plans for the death star that enabled Luke Skywalker to blow it up.
Now, I don’t know who exactly came up with this concept (John Knoll and Gary Whitta are credited with the original story), but I have to admit, it’s a pretty nifty one.
I am not sure what it is about pop culture, but better critics than I have pointed out that for some reason, it can have a deeper emotional effect on people than more serious art that is more critically accepted. The Mona Lisa is one of the greatest works of art of all time, but it’s the painting of street urchin with saucer eyes that cause people to tear up and it’s pictures of dogs playing poker than make them laugh.
And that is the effect that Rogue One had on me. Yes, I suppose I might as well tell the truth and shame the devil. At the climax, I found it a bit difficult to fight off the tears. Laugh if you must, but as embarrassing as it may be to admit, that is what happened.
This doesn’t mean that Rogue One is a great movie. Though it comes close to rising above its pop culture underpinnings, it doesn’t quite make it. And any Star Wars film is going to suffer from never having something the original film had: a freshness, the arrival of something unique, that hadn’t really been seen before.
However, it is quite possible that despite such a limitation, Rogue One could possibly be the best Star Wars movie to date.
I don’t know whether it’s due to the success of Game and Thrones and The Hunger Games, or to the harsh political atmosphere that’s been growing for some years now, or a combination of both, but Rogue One is a movie whose themes about what is takes to win a revolution is driven by a dark moral ambiguity.
This is not the bright and cheesy Menachian universe of the original film, photographed with a 70’s flatness, in which the basis of the story is The Force, a spiritual drive that is either good or evil, with little room for a grey area in the middle.
But Rogue One takes place in a world in which the good guys will calmly kill a wounded compatriot if he suddenly becomes an inconvenience to escaping the bad guys; it’s a world where a defector to the good side is treated harshly and brutally interrogated to get to the truth; where a splinter group has broken off from the Alliance and is far more ruthless in how it conducts war and is led by a madman; and one where a soldier is ordered to hunt down a scientist who may or may not be working for the Empire, and is ordered to assassinate him, not find out whose side he is on (and it’s also a world of irony because it’s only the soldier’s last minute decision to disobey orders that ultimate allows the Alliance to find out the death star has a flaw that can enable it to be destroyed).
It certainly doesn’t quite reach the heights of amorality of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, a story about the French underground during Nazi occupation in which morality has to be made up as they go along.
But the movie does highlight a central overall irony: here, the Alliance must use morally ambiguous actions in order to help a spiritual faith survive and succeed, a faith that is based on moral absolutes.
Rogue One, like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, takes a more realistic look at revolution. In reality, people have to sometimes take awful, at times horrendous, actions for the cause; individuals, even whole cities and planets, must be sacrificed (in an ending I didn’t see coming); and the true hero of the fight is not necessarily the ones that actually blow up the Death Star, but an unknown soldier who finally gives up trying to save himself and passes on the plans while sacrificing his life.
Rogue One is grittier and darker than all the other Star Wars films combined. In the original film, a planet is destroyed, one of the most emotional moments in the movie. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, three planets are blown up, but with almost no emotional effect on the audience at all.
In Rogue One, a single city is extinguished in images reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the emotional effect is devastating.
The characters are more vibrant than in any of the previous films. The dialog has a more satisfying sound and rhythm to it. The acting is far superior to any of the others.
It even has an android far more interesting than R2D2 and C3PO combined.
And it has an unexpected ending that sums up everything the movie is trying to say.
With an impressive cast, led by Felicity Jones (channeling Hayley Mills at her most tomboyish), Diegan Luna, Alan Tudyk, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and a cast of thousands, as well as an impressive recreation of the late Peter Cushing’s General Tarkin through CGI. There does seem to be some slight jerkiness to the character, but overall, I suspect if I hadn’t known what was going on, I’m not sure I would have guessed.
Directed by Gareth Edwards who has somewhat redeemed himself here after following up the intriguing film Monsters with the monstrously unintriguing Godzilla and with a strong and solid screenplay by Chris Seitz and Tony Gilroy.
Passengers, a film that is essentially a pas de deux between the two leading players, Chris Platt and Jennifer Lawrence, quite possibly ties the Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard Allied as the stupidest film of the year.
The basic premise revolves around a spaceship headed toward a distant inhabitable plant that has a large number of passengers in suspended hibernation since the actual trip is too long to be conscious for.
Due to an inconvenient meteor shower, one passenger (Jim Henson) wakes up ninety years too early and has no way of getting back to sleep. He has, as his sole companion, a bartending android (played by Michael Sheen) who has a far more interesting personality than the other two characters put together because, for no other reason, than he has an English accent (why is it that a British drawl can give a character, robotic or not, more depth than might otherwise be there?).
After a year of playing basketball on his own, and desperately depressed and lonely, he decides to wake up another passenger and he has, in his crosshairs, a beautiful and sexually attractive writer (Aurora).
It has already been pointed out, and by critics greater than yours truly, that this action on Jim’s part is not only creepy, but in many ways falls under the umbrella of violence toward women. He’s basically woken up a woman to imprison her and attempt to make her his sexual partner. After all, in the end, the only real difference between Jim and the abductor in the film Room is that Jim doesn’t rape Aurora, but waits for her to fall for his charms and seduce him.
Yes, there is a difference here, but for me, it’s a difference without a distinction.
But surprisingly, this really isn’t the place where the story goes off the rails. It begins to train wreck when Jim, after a year of being able to think it over, never once asks the onboard computer whether anyone asleep is an expert in hibernation and pod mechanics. He asks questions that kind of sort of dance around it, but I don’t recall that specific question.
Even Aurora never thinks of asking this question.
This is the turn that I think makes it a near tie for dumbest film of the year.
I know, I know. The set up is supposed to be the conceit of the story, as in the movie The Martian where the hero is stranded on Mars due to a sandstorm, something that never occurs on the red planet. And so you go with it or you don’t.
But this causes a further issue. This set up is so manipulative, dependent on dozens of convenient circumstances of chance happenings, that it’s not just Jim who is coming across as creepy, it’s the filmmakers who had to go to all this trouble to get a woman alone with this man.
It probably doesn’t help that neither of the characters are particularly interesting and there is no real chemistry between the actors. And Pratt was probably miscast here as much as he was in Jurassic Park.
Perhaps the most unintentionally humorous aspect of the plot is Aurora being described as a great writer, but when sections of her journals are read, it’s clear the world didn’t miss out on a budding Nobel Prize winner.
With Lawrence Fishburne in a part whose only existence is to force the final act. He’s the guy, who, if either character had asked the computer for an expert on hibernation or running the ship, would have been named, cutting the plot of the movie down to a couple of hours, rather than years.
Directed by Morten Tyldum in a step down from Headhunters and The Imitation Game and written by Jon Spaihts in a step up from Prometheus.