You’ll undoubtedly have heard many good things about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Since the Force Awakens, Star Wars can do no wrong.
The first of presumably many many standalone Star Wars films, Rogue One had been mostly shrouded in secrecy. Talk of reshoots last summer, had the fanboy armchair producers speculating into whether or not the film was in trouble. But as soon as the first impressions started flying in from the premiere, there was a cavalcade of good things being said about the movie from your trusted fanboys Chris Hardwicks to your Kevin Smiths.
— Chris Hardwick (@hardwick) December 11, 2016
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) December 11, 2016
Out of all the good things being said about Rogue One following it’s immediate release the one sentiment to go ‘viral’ was that it was on a par with the Empire Strikes Back in quality. Perhaps boldest statement you possibly make about a new Star Wars movie. The best possible statement a Disney marketeer could hope for to percolate through the internet
Aside from being the best Star Wars movie, Empire Strikes Back is without question one of the best movies of all time however and you cannot simply throw around such outlandish statements.
After the relative innocence and swashbuckling romance of A New Hope in which everybody was awarded medals, Empire turned everything on its head. The scale was smaller, our heroes were separated across the galaxy, the stakes were raised, the conflict was more personal, the visuals and setting complimented the evolution of the hero’s journey to form a sort of cinematic poetry.
The opening snow battle shows the rebels being mercilessly crushed under the might of the Imperial war engine in broad daylight. The reveal of the super death star casting a shadow over all other Star Destroyers proving that the Empire’s resolve and resources were as strong as ever. Han and Leia’s fledgling romance within the impossible odds of being chased across an asteroid field. Luke hitting rock bottom stranded on Dagobath with some old coot who can only laugh at his misery and steal his shit. The requiem of hope as Yoda emerges as the wisest of all mentors, the restlessness of Luke as he trains within the swamp, the dark vision that comes from descending into the hollow. The initial bubbles, preceding Yoda lifting the x-wing out of the swamp. The hope before the fall, as our heroes approach a perfect city in the sky for refuge, a city that is rotten and hollow behind the walls. The literal feeling of the ground disappearing below you on that bridge as Vader tells Luke the truth of things. The final shot of Luke, Leia and the Droids staring out over the galaxy, so small and inconsequential within the grand scheme of things, but even at the darkest point of the story, Luke places his one good hand on Leia’s shoulder and like that there is still a slither of hope that things will turn out okay. All of it powered by John Williams absolute best work on a film to date.
When people liken Rogue One to Empire, they refer to how dark and unrelenting it is. A war movie in which a band of jedi-less rebels without hope must steal the plans of the Death Star. The important distinguishing fact however is that whilst being dark, Empire was also sweepingly romantic and magical, which makes it seemingly immortal in it’s greatness.
And Rogue One simply does not have that crucial, nay vital, component.
That’s fine however. The whole of coming back to the Star Wars universe ought to be that you can open it out and go in different directions to what is expected of a Star Wars movie.
Rogue One is an experiment in the future sustainability of Star Wars. It is an exercise in – can Disney get away from the formula of the core heroes of the Episodes that are forever etched in stone and go forge a prosperous future spinning out Star Wars Gaiden to a ready and willing fanbase? The good news, is that this experiment shows extremely promising results for the most part.
For Star Wars fans who got deep into the Expanded universe of novels, comics and videogames during the 80s and 90s, and even the more recent generation who grew up with the prequels and Clone War cartoons throughout the 00s, Rogue One is the movie both parties have been waiting for. We get a wider view of the state of the galaxy at the time of a New Hope, we see the Empire in control and the downright shady lengths the rebels must go to oppose them. We see the infighting between both camps, the hierarchy of each side and the political delegation involved in getting things done.
Though every Star Wars movie must contain ‘a war’ or some kind of intergalactic conflict, Rogue One is more of a war movie in the style of the Dirty Dozen. Star Wars has always been built on the image of a gritty used universe, but Rogue One applies this to the story itself. It aims to delve into the greyer areas that inevitably come with conflict but have scarcely been a fundamental part of the Star Wars universe.
Early on into the movie, there is a sequence in which a band of rebels ambush an Imperial patrol within a dusty market place within the ‘holy city’ of Jedha. The setting is very familiar to the kind of conflict we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, except the scrappy guerrilla fighters in this instance are the good guys and the heavily militarised occupying force with the tanks and costumes are the bad guys. As the rag tag bunch of rebels stand by as the convoy enters the killzone you could be forgetting you are watching a Disney movie.
It’s kind of unreal when you think about it.
To summarise the plot, Rogue One is basically set in the days that directly preced Episode IV: A New Hope. The Empire rules over the Galaxy with fear and subjugation. When the rebel alliance learn of the Empire’s secret weapon with the power to destroy a planet, they endeavour to steal the plans in the hopes to reveal a weakness so it maybe destroyed. The rebels recruit Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the man held captive by the Empire to build the super weapon known as the Death Star before it’s devastating power can be unleashed.
As Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones provides a brooding if understated performance. It’s entirely humourless, but that’s kind of the point. Similarly, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) could be mistaken as the Han Solo of the group, but is so entrenched within the Rebellion as a soldier, he doesn’t have time for swaggering around the place, boasting about Kessell Runs. He in particular gets up to some shady stuff, but the film never really gives the character any time for us to truly empathise with him.
It is K2SO (Alan Tudyk) that provides much of the comic relief. A hulking security robot with arms long enough to drag his knuckles across the ground that acts as a more sarcastic version of C3PO who has no problems hitting storm troopers. You also have Donnie Yen as Chirrut Inwe, a blind martial artist with an unwavering faith in the force who also provides a little bit of levity within the ultimate seriousness of proceedings.
Then you have the likes of Mads Mikilson as Jyn Erso’s father, a king of Oppenheimer to the Star Wars universe. For once playing a character with an invested warmth, Star Wars fans cheer as he explains the reasoning behind the Death Star’s classic design flaw. It’s a story beat that works. There is Ben Mendelsohn as director Orson Krennic who effortlessly breathes that kind of superior Imperial contempt for everyone around him, at the same time there is enough depth there to reveal how he is essentially just another cog in the machine despite his rather fabulous white coat. Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera is a fleeting if enigmatic presence, a rebel too extreme for the rebellion, a kind of alternative vision of Darth Vader with an increasingly mechanised body and machine aided breathing. There is the glimpses of a man broken by war twisted by his own hatred of the structure that maimed him, but the film just hasn’t got any time to do anything with this potentially interesting character.
These are just three of the world’s greatest actors, it’s a shame they feel a little wasted with the limited screen time they have here.
Which neatly takes us to re-appearence of some old familiar faces, which arguably have a bigger role to play in the story than their human counterparts. Rogue One is practically touching a New Hope in the Star Wars timeline, and as a result, the film resurrects key Star Wars players despite their actors no longer being with us to reprise their roles. The big draw is Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, one of the great British actors most famous for his roles in Hammer horror before he became the cruel administrative face of the Death Star. The special effects aren’t quite strong enough to avoid the uncanny valley but it’s a solid attempt.
Just where will this technology end? It’s a kind of necromancy to be honest. Give 10 more years development and we may just see Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant returning to the big screen in new movies. There will be no limitations. Nothing will be sacred. Nothing will be new. It’s a bit of a scary thought! I mean they have already brought back Audrey Hepburn to sell chocolate.
Elsewhere Darth Vader makes an appearance and gets the scene most Star Wars fanboys have been waiting for all their lives. Is it needed? Not Really. But’s it’s pure wish fulfilment and I guess explains why Vader’s helmet looks so grubby at the start of A New Hope. I’m sure we’ll be getting a Darth Vader standalone movie pretty soon too.
There are points in Rogue One where the exposition brings the momentum down. The characters move from planet to planet to further the plot, briefly stopping to talk and bond before they decide on the next course of action. Again, Empire Strikes Back or any of the Star Wars movies (with exception to the prequels) never had this problem of pacing, it kept moving throwing something new at the screen. In the third act climax, one of the members of Rogue One must give a convoluted explanation of the mechanisms needed to get the thing to the thing. It practically kills the momentum of the battle which place. Remember in Return of the Jedi when the rebels are trying to get into the shield bunker and Han just says “I got an idea!”
Thankfully, the payoff for Rogue One is the third act battle, which is essentially a Return of the Jedi styled mega battle, in which our heroes perform a skirmish on the ground whilst a grand space battle happens above. And by god do they throw everything into the mix, x-wings, tie fighters and tie fighters, AT-AT walkers, y-wings actually doing bombing runs, weird tie fighter prototypes that remind you of the old flight sim games. It’s glorious seeing all the old relics of classic Star Wars being brought to life with the humongous resources Disney has allowed. By this point of the movie, most of the characters have built enough of an identity that we care about their survival. There are stakes to this battle, and at the same time, this being much darker version of Star Wars, you are never entirely sure that each of the characters is safe from harm. It can be surprising to see characters being snuffed out so ruthlessly. It’s like, “wait a moment, this is horrible!”
As with the Force Awakens, there is a palpable sense of care gone into recreating the Star Wars universe with all the extensive resources Disney can muster. Perhaps more so than JJ Abrams, Gareth Edwards really makes the visuals of Rogue One sing. I was both a huge fan of the director’s first two movies Monsters and Godzilla, both of which offered truly amazing otherworldly visuals with an artful grace and subtlety amongst the more direct in your face moments. Whether it’s an old school Star Destroyer moving from out of the shadow of the Death Star, or X-wing mounted cameras veering into battle. Star Wars has never looked so good.
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel Rogue One is merely a movie of things. These things may be old school X-wings, Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers or great actors in fleeting roles, perhaps slightly more political intrigue behind the established sides of the Star Wars universe. I’ve yet to rewatch A New Hope with the fresh ‘background’ knowledge Rogue One provides. Will the rebel’s sacrifice add further dimension or colour to the pure cinematic triumph of a farmboy from Tatooine scoring a direct hit on the exhaust port. Will the ‘yeehaw’ from Han Solo in the Falcon be more bittersweet when he sends Vader careering into space knowing everything that went before? Will their medals be tarnished by the memory of all those who fought more hopelessly the literal day or week before?
I mean it’s Star Wars man… Is that what you really want to feel when rewatching A New Hope?
The warmth and magic that defines the greatest of the Star Wars movies, the force that was so successfully re-awakened in Episode VII is largely absent from Rogue One. But as most fanboys will tell you, that’s not the point! The resources are there to show a bigger Star Wars universe, to resurrect some old faces and cast an ensemble of some of the best actors on the planet to play just the small parts of a much bigger story. Since Star Wars is going to be a mainstay annual occurrence now, it is promising to see Disney try something new with the formula and utilise all the toys in the franchise’s sandbox.
At the same time, when it comes to that classic Star Wars feel, if you’ll forgive the pun, these things can’t be forced.