Starring: Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Diego Luna (Elysium), Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly), Donnie Yen (Ip Man), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), Alan Tudyk (Serenity), Jiang Wen (Red Sorghum), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland)
Director: Gareth Edwards (Godzilla)
Writers: Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Ultimatum)
Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes
Release Date: 15 December (UK), 16 December (US)
We are now getting a Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future. In the eyes of a fanboy, that can seem either exciting or worrying. You can certainly have too much of a good thing, and there is always the risk of running out of ideas fast. Then again, Marvel Studios has managed to keep things fresh despite now releasing two or three films a year, and Lucasfilm’s approach of exploring stories beyond the Skywalker saga in these anthology films is the best way to stave off staleness. Rogue One serves as the company’s first attempt to broaden the universe in ways only seen in expanded fiction beforehand, and if future efforts can be as solid as this then the experiment is on the right path.
Rogue One now serves as the official story behind the Rebellion’s mission to steal the Death Star plans, erasing all previous versions of the events (apologies to Kyle Katarn). In tone and structure, it follows the template of the war movie more than Star Wars’ traditional hero’s journey, giving it a unique style right from the word go and cementing it as the first movie in the series aimed more at adults than kids; it’s like Saving Private Ryan mixed with The Dirty Dozen but with lasers and spaceships. It most closely resembles The Empire Strikes Back with its portentous atmosphere, but with the modern sense intensity and charm that The Force Awakens brought to the franchise. The film is a little slow and clunky to start as it introduces the characters and exposits the stakes, but once our band of rebels are out on their first call of duty the action only ramps up from there. Once the final act rears it gloomy head, Rogue One plunges into easily the biggest and fiercest action climax in a Star Wars movie ever before weaving itself into the original trilogy in a satisfying way that the prequel trilogy never really accomplished. There is some tension taken away considering we know where certain pieces fall into place, but it’s like a good history lesson: you know how it’ll end up, but finding out what had to be done and how is what makes it interesting.
The characters of Rogue One are a bit different to the usual noble Jedi and swarthy smugglers we’ve gotten used to. These are the grunts relegated to the background in the saga films, and though they prove to be fun and memorable heroes they aren’t quite as deep. Felicity Jones is a solid and relatable lead as Jyn Erso, probably the most immediately capable protagonist in Star Wars history, but her character lacks the definition it deserves. Her character is brought into the plot too quickly for us to get a beat on her personality, and her shift from reticent miscreant to devoted rebel soldier happens a bit abruptly. By the film’s climax she feels more complete and you’re rooting for her immensely, but a more gradual introduction and character arc would have given her more clarity early on. Similarly, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is given an interesting moral dilemma we haven’t really seen in a Star Wars movie that gives him an interesting conflict with Jyn, but again it gets resolved before it has a chance to breathe. The rest of the supporting rebels are given just about enough for the status of their characters, and they add a lot of heart and humour to the dourness of the picture; Donnie Yen as badass blind spiritualist Chirrut and Alan Tudyk’s hilarious Imperial droid K-2SO are constant highlights.
Ben Mendelsohn makes for an imposing threat as Orson Krennic, channelling Peter Cushing’s performance as Tarkin in some ways but with a relatable sense of hunger for respect. He could have done more to be a bigger personal threat to Jyn, especially considering his relationship with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), but the two only encounter each other a handful of times throughout the story. Forest Whitaker as EU standby Saw Gerrera is fun to see realised on screen, but his screen time is brief and Whitaker’s voice for the character is distracting at first; he practically wheezes all of his lines. There are also a few familiar faces from the previous films, both original and prequel, who make small appearances and for the most part they are well-handled. I’ll keep most of them secret for you to enjoy, but considering Darth Vader has been all over the marketing, I can safely say his scenes are small and not completely essential to the story but are totally awesome; they almost completely redeemed the character to me after the menace was sucked out of him in the prequels.
Gareth Edwards has a much more rough-and-tumble approach to filmmaking compared to previous Star Wars directors, and he applies the same attention to scale and grandeur that gave Monsters and Godzilla a lot of their appeal to the Star Wars universe. It perfectly recaptures the look of the original trilogy but through a trodden and dirty lens, painting a picture that perfectly aligns with the characters’ lower status as cannon fodder amongst the larger conflict. As said before, the action sequences in Rogue One are its major highlight and finally give us the epic skirmishes on land and in space the original trilogy couldn’t accomplish and that the prequels couldn’t be bothered to. Every solider gunned down or starfighter destroyed hits far more than ever, which is exemplified by the glorious sound design and impeccable visual effects; definitely see this in a cinema with the best projector and sound system you can. The only note that unfortunately falls flat is Michael Giacchino’s score, which just doesn’t match the film’s tone most of the time. It feels caught between Giachinno’s style and John Williams’ and never finds a comfortable spot to call its own. It needed a darker and more sombre score that original choice for composer Alexandre Desplat certainly knows how to deliver, and I really wish I could hear what he would have brought to the table for comparison.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a promising beginning for a new series of tales to be told in this galaxy far, far away and delivers a fresh spin on familiar material by simply changing the perspective; those who found The Force Awakens too derivative and safe should hopefully be quelled by this. It really puts the “wars” of this franchise front-and-centre like never before, and what it lacks in depth and polish it more than makes up for with spectacle and grit. Gareth Edwards has essentially crafted the greatest fan film ever made, but the way it compliments A New Hope in ways that improves that film is wonderful after seeing three movies that only detracted from it. If the characters were a little more fleshed out, this had a chance of being as good as The Empire Strikes Back, but as is it still more than meets the lofty expectations.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10