Rogue One: A Star Wars story, definitely.

Gareth Edwards, not choking on his aspirations in creating a stylish, canonical companion piece.



“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!”

– Jyn Erso, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One, the bold and gritty new addition to the Star Wars canon, hit UK cinemas on Thursday, telling the story of the rebel alliance clambering to find the plans for the secret new “planet killer” super weapon, currently under construction by the Empire. The film takes place directly prior to the events of A New Hope, as a group of rag-tag criminals and assassins find themselves odd bedfellows aligned against the greatest destructive threat the galaxy has ever faced, the Death Star.
The film introduces us to a new character to the franchise, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a renowned scientist working for the imperial weapons program and the mind behind the construction of the Emperors new space station.

Jyn is a courageous and hardened young outlaw in keeping with the now well ingratiated motif of the powerful, almost regal female lead. Echoing the spirit of Leia and Rey, she is recruited by the Alliance to undergo a covert mission to steal the plans after receiving a secret message from her father, warning her of the immanent danger.

Directed by Britain’s Gareth Edwards (Godzilla – 2014, Monsters – 2010), in many ways Rogue One is at once not a Star Wars film as we’ve come to understand them, and at the same time more Star Wars than anything we’ve seen since 1983. Familiar and yet alien in the context of what we’ve come to imagine, treading that fine line that all new SW releases will have to from now on, appeasing the true believers while not leaving newbies lost in space (although seriously, everyone has seen at least one Star Wars film by now, haven’t they?).

From the moment you catch the iconic “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” you’re instantly transported back to every moment you’ve ever sat down and enjoyed any one of the seven prior feature releases (ignoring the 80s Ewok films), but straight away the film waylays you with a break from form, ignoring the rolling blurb that signals the start of every new chapter in the saga. The audience is thrown directly into what the film has to offer, giving hope that this could be the film that brings something new to a universe of potentially limitless value, the much needed breath of fresh air filling the void left missing by last year’s The Force Awakens.

As solid as it was, the main problem with episode seven was that really, it felt like more of an homage to the original trilogy. We all know why this was, in that J.J. Abrahams had a huge task ahead of him in building confidence after the Lucas tainted prequels, and TFA had to be a Star Wars film that fans globally would recognise and accept as home territory. We had the new Empire, the desert planet scoundrels fighting against unfeasible odds, archetypal super weapon No.3, new shady dark force users, plenty of cameos, even the beloved death of a main character reminiscent of Obi-Wan circa A New Hope. The Force Awakens was definitely a Star Wars film, quintessentially so. It had the magic and spectacle of the universe it told the story of, and paved the way for other directors to fill in the narrative and take it in new and original directions. It restored much needed faith in the franchise, and for that we should all be grateful.

Rogue One however, is comparatively a film that does a lot more with substantially less in terms of scope of story arc. It’s a very specific moment in time located in and around catalytic events on which the entire rest of the universe is fixed, so shaky territory to try and navigate with any saga, but Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy pull it off.

From the surprise opening sequence (we assume the rolling credits are reserved now for the main episodes) the film doesn’t shy away from flexing it’s muscles stylistically. It opens with a very Interstellar-esque sequence following Security director Orson Krennic gliding through the mist of new planet Lah’mu’s celestial rings in a sleek new Imperial shuttle, the Delta-class T-3c. Like the more traditional Lambda-class vessels but with larger bat-like wings, it’s one example of the subtle call-backs and expansions scattered throughout the film. Rogue One is a cameo and reference heavy feature, placing many more Easter eggs in front of you than a first watch could adequately pick up on; blue milk shows up, the Imperial Royal Guard watch over Vader inside his bacta tank, AT-ST walkers fight the rebels on Jedha, and Vader’s early Star Destroyer ‘Devastator’ even makes an appearance.

Notable cameos include: C-3P0 & R2-D2, as yet present for every major SW release, Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan, Mon Mothma (realised wonderfully by Genevieve O’Rielly), General Dodonna, Bail Organa, “General Syndulla” (a name many will recognise from the Rebels series) even gets called out over the intercom on the rebel home base of Yavin IV. Notable classic ships and armor, and even famous shots from the old films are echoed by Edwards and crew, for example the Rogue One shuttle leaving the Yavin base is an exact mirror of the counterpart entry scene in A New Hope, and there was more than one “whoop!” Of excitement in the cinema during the Squadron role call prior to the final space battle above new planet Scarif, where Jyn and crew are scrambling to find a way to get the plans to the Alliance.

With so much to make you feel comfortable, it’s amazing that the film manages to keep it’s pride of place as being so very different than anything we’ve seen before. While certain scenes indulge us all as fans, it’s never quite carbon copying it’s predecessors, from it’s implication of practical effects but with darker tones in new environments, the different armors and ship classes thrown in just for fun (The Death Troopers are well worth the year long wait we were all put through from the initial teaser) speak of a logical expansion of the universe we know already, which is kind of the entire point of the ‘Stories’ series, something we hope further standalone endeavors will do as competently.

The ominous score from Michael Giacchino, while reminiscent of John Williams’ iconic soundtrack, never quite hits the same notes, lingering for longer on certain parts, giving you the feel of the classics without the obvious payoff of the well known crescendos, the only exception to this being a perfectly placed Imperial March when Vader first appears on-screen.

Intrinsically, Rogue One is a war/insurgency film, something Star Wars had yet to fully dive into despite space and land battles being featured in every release. It’s less polished and more hard-hitting, not shying away from death and sacrifice. All of the characters in it have scars and none are all powerful lightsaber wielding Jedi or Sith warriors. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his partner droid K-2SO provide a close but more brooding facsimile of the Han / Chewie comic relief dynamic. K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) is a re-programmed Imperial enforcer droid, unable to filter his thoughts as a bi-product of his re-programming at the hands of the Alliance. This makes for some very glib assertions on the state of the characters predicaments, without falling into anything too laugh-out-loud. Cassian is in the style of Han, a ruthless when needed hired gun, whose secret mission to kill Galen Erso runs parallel to Jyn and what she thinks will be a rescue mission. Donnie Yen and Forest Whitaker both take on roles as the displaced temple guardian without a purpose and extremist rebel militant respectively, both battered characters carrying the memories of many battles fought across decades. It’s an impressive roster by any standards, and each brings his or her own to the table. All allegiances are thin, and nothing is clear cut, as made obvious by even the interactions between the Imperials. Krennic and his rival, Grand Moff Tarkin, are locked in a bitter power struggle, something we know from extended canon as something the Emperor actively encourages (see Xizor Vs Vader) and it’s refreshing to witness it in action. It gives us a much better glimpse of a galaxy still in turmoil following the end of the Clone Wars, but it’s ground level focus frees it from both a cliché light / dark divide or from getting bogged down in convoluted and tedious trade agreements which nobody cares even slightly about. It’s a war film, but with all the trimmings of the Spielberg / Lucas collaboration, without the need for definitive conflict /resolution at the end or even throughout. We know where the journey is going to take us, so the joy really is in how we get there. In this way it makes itself aware of it’s audience, without pandering to them.

Rogue One stands out as not only a great Star Wars film, but a decent film generally. While not perfect: the emphasis on the father daughter relationship could have been a lot stronger, and some of the characters could have been fleshed out a little more, the film stands up as having deftly reinvented the wheel, so you can forgive the little things. The need to cover such a large amount of space in relatively little time, at points fell into the same trap as Lucas did with the prequels. Less can be more. Sometimes you got the sense that the film was getting carried with it’s world building opportunities, dragging you from location to location arbitrarily (although the set design was fantastic throughout). And people have commented on the reincarnated Peter Cushing, flawless if Dr Doom levels of sinister. A bold move, but it was damn good seeing Tarkin again, and a young Carrie Fisher donning the white robes of the first film.

Well cast, original, familiar, and loyal to the saga, Rogue One just works. It’s not Empire but more of a polished fighter in the fleet, cruising artfully alongside the flagship vessel.
Oh, and you know that cheesy “I rebel” line from the first trailer? It got scrapped for theatrical release. Good job. The force is with Gareth Edwards, and he is one with the Force.

 

– Max Colbert

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