Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Gareth Edwards
Running Time: 132 mins
Synopsis: During a time of galactic turmoil in which the rising Rebellion wage war against the evil Empire, rumours gather that the enemy is building a new superweapon. Jyn Erso (Jones), a young rebellious fighter herself, finds herself drawn into this violent struggle when it becomes apparent that her father helped to build said weapon. Plans are made, teams are formed and the Galaxy glimpses hope again.
Despite having the words Star Wars in the title, Rogue One is very much a risky endeavour for the newly revitalised Lucasfilm. Not only does it find itself labelled with that dreaded term all SW fans hate, namely a prequel, but it also has to stand apart from the regular saga stories, whilst trying not to be too different and risk the ire of a deep rooted and temperamental fan base. Throw in too many references and callbacks, and you risk accusations of fan fiction, but forge a completely new path filled with new ideas and wholesale changes, and you potentially put off an audience of very driven nerd-nazis. It is very pleasing to say that director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) has, apart from one or two minor setbacks, delivered a film of bracing energy, well sketched characters and huge action.
Foregoing the usual opening crawl for a meaty and emotional prologue, introducing us to a young Jyn, who with her father Galen (an intelligent warm Mads Mikkelsen) and mother lives a quiet life on a distant planet. Into this tranquillity steps Imperial stooge Director Krennic (played by a never more smarmy Ben Mendelsohn) and his army of Death Troopers. Faced with a shocking loss a fearful Jyn seeks shelter and finds herself taken in by nutso Rebel fighter Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). It is a terrific opening and sets the film apart from its numbered brethren with its elemental setting, grounded cinematography and quietly powerful emotions.
After that cold opening we jump forward a number of years to find Jyn locked up and alone. Clearly reeling from the separation of her from her family, Jones conveys this feeling with a steely determination. It is in this first act, though, where some of the films flaws come into play. Jumping around from planet to planet in a desperate nature to set up the characters as quickly as possible means rather than settling into the film we lurch about in an awkward fashion. First to be introduced of the remaining players in this band of rebels, we have Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor. A brutal callous spy for the Rebels, his stern manner and stand offishness become a little frustrating at times but come the end he becomes someone you truly root for. His opening scene sees him coldly killing a nervous informant and adds to the films delicious blurring of the lines between good and evil. Something which the main saga films actively avoid with their clear differentiation’s of black and white. Rogue One is much more happier to blend into the grey in the middle.
Leaping sideways once more to another member of our gang. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook (one of many inspired names here), an Imperial deserter. It is him that sets the films events into motion. Ahmed is a tightly wrapped ball of nervous energy, but it is a shame we never truly dive into his motivations for wanting to disavow the Empire. We meet him on the planet Jedha. Something akin to the John Ford westerns of old, it is a dusty red tinted world. It is here that the team first come into contact. Thrust by the Rebellion into locating her old pal Saw, Jyn and Cassian have to navigate the dangerous roads of the main city. Leading into the first major battle in a film filled to the brim with them. It is a gritty, beautifully shot melee of carnage, with the arrival of blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (a captivating Donnie Yen) adding a nice layer of kung-fu mastery. Alongside his buddy Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) they are the beating heart of the film. Showcasing a great affection and respect for one another in the smallest of lines.
We, however, must not forget the final member of this party. The dryly sarcastic and always honest droid K2-SO, mo-capped by a delightfully sardonic Alan Tudyk. His gangly elongated arms and height give him a enthralling interesting look with Tudyk’s characterful line readings adding a layer of unexpected soul to some of the later scenes. Battling together they reach the home of Whitaker’s Saw. The normally reliable Last King of Scotland actor is just a tad on the wrong side of hammy in this, resulting in a few of his scenes evoking some unintentional laughs. The relationship between him and Jyn, however, is nicely drawn with the barest of lines. In fact one of this films biggest strengths is the relaxed, fun and well judged connections the team have with one another. These are all people you’d love to spend time with, let alone go into battle with, and makes the later scenes all the more powerful.
All this talk of the heroes and I forget to mention the villains. Mendelsohn shines as the egocentric Krennic but manages to elicit some genuine complexities as we watch him grasp the bureaucratic power plays that conspire to belittle his achievements. That being said it isn’t quite enough to make him worthy of our sympathies, he is still a loathsome sleazeball. It is no spoiler to say a particular dark lord makes an appearance and although his role is brief, he certainly makes his presence felt. One third act moment will no doubt end up on a lot of fans’ favourite Darth scenes. Unfortunately the reappearance of another original trilogy baddie is mired by some pretty poor CGI. At times it works and the voice work is exemplary but too often it takes you out of the moment and risks damaging the effectiveness of the scene. Thankfully his role is small and insubstantial.
This is a shame because throughout the rest of the film the effect work is truly awe-inspiring. Building on the work of JJ Abrams, there is a noticeable reliability on practical make up work, and in camera shots. It all adds up to the grounded tangible nature of things, and will result in many a repeat watch in order to pick up the little details within the frame. ILM more than match the on-set work though with some of their finest CGI shots I’ve ever seen. The third act is just overflowing with wonder. But an especial callout to the planet Scarif, a tropical world brimming with colour and life. It is a joy to look at. Keep your eyes peeled also for some nifty integration of actual shots from A New Hope in the final space battle.
The aforementioned third act is where this movie soars though! After their encounter with Saw, a detour into the heart of the Death Star building facility and the emotional fallout of Jyn’s fathers return, and some final hand wringing from the Rebel Alliance, the party land on Scarif for a last ditch attempt to find the Death Star plans. A wonderfully constructed and immensely thrilling extended set-piece. It never lets up, with AT-AT invasions, huge space battles and one on one shoot ups, you’ll find yourself whooping, crying and above all else entertained. It is by far one of the best action moments in the entire franchise culminating in a scene of soul-crushing sadness. The way it all segues into the opening of A New Hope is utter genius, and although it does feel a little abrupt in the moment, the effectiveness of the ending plays in your head for hours after. It made me want to rush out and watch Episode 4 again immediately.
There is just so much of this film that works, it is hard to tell just how much of an effect the rumoured reshoots had on the finished article. Although I will say 70% of the trailer footage does not show up in the end product, whether to protect its secrets or simply because vast amounts were reshot we’ll never know but the film we have left does not reek of compromise and feels very much full formed. Except in maybe the opening scenes, with their haphazard overly energetic scene changes. Sadly it appears that some of the more flagrant franchise references were born out of these reshoots. A number of them work, a barely heard character name here or a background familiar visitor there, whilst others are far too gratuitous to really grab you. JJ used the nostalgia and franchise callbacks as a chance to refresh what was once lost, to find the new in the old, here they are pointless sideshows.
The writing is nifty and clever, if a little clunky in moments. The score by Michael Giacchino is breathless fun mixing in old themes with operatic new ones with grace, remarkable when you realise he only had 4 weeks to compose it all. The acting across the board brilliant. Felicity Jones continuing her ascension of capable strong female heroines, but with an inner core of vulnerability. One hologram based scene is the first time I’ve ever found myself crying at a Star Wars film. She is just one cog in a machine of fully realised heroes. Each find themselves on a personal journey to discover who they really are, and each conveying that with the barest of effort. It is a pity there won’t be a Rogue Two as this is one bunch of people you’d happily fly into space with.
To say anymore would be to rob you of the experience of letting it unfold in front of your eyes, but just know that Gareth Edwards has crafted a film of real weight and skill. His camera to the floor filmmaking style gives an almost verite nature to the grunts on the ground scenes. Finally someone has put the War in Star Wars!
Verdict: A bold, energetic (too much at times) and heartfelt slice of sci-fi. It enriches the original films whilst also forging its own path, it is quite frankly a soaring piece of entertainment!