From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.
If you’re a Star Wars fan like I am, you already knew the ending to Rogue One before you had gone to the cinema to watch it. It was in the second paragraph of the opening crawl to “A New Hope”: During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. Director Gareth Edwards, with a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and screenplay from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, set out to show how a brave few from the Rebel Alliance went on a mission to successfully steal the plans of the Death Star, which ended up fuelling the story of Episode 4 which came out 39 years ago. With such sacred ground to tread on, Disney/Lucasfilm definitely require this to be a success, as it is the first of three spin-off Star Wars films ( or “Star Wars Anthology” to give the correct term) which are away from the core saga story fuelling this series. Is this “experiment” a success? Did the much-publicised re-shoots after the film originally completed show gaping holes? Well…welcome to the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back”.
The film sees our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), not a Rebel Alliance member but a criminal, held captive in an Imperial prison. She is quickly broken out and rescued by Rebels and taken to the rebel base where Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), the Rebel Leader, asks her help to track down her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) in exchange for her freedom. Galen Erso is a renowned scientist who has been forced by the Imperial Army into working on building a super weapon, a planet-killer which must be stopped from completing. And so begins Jyn’s journey. With the help of intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a re-programmed Imperial Droid in the name of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), they will go on to meet the rest of their crew (Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)) who will ultimately define the future of the galaxy.
Like all the films that had preceded it, it opens with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and you already feel you’re gonna be watching a Star Wars film. But that relaxed consistent feel you have from one of these movies is taken away from you straight away during the opening of the film. This isn’t your “standard” Star Wars film. There is no opening crawl, which the series has become famous for. You go straight into a view of space, a space ship, a planet, and the film is set. There are flashbacks and flash forwards, never before seen in the seven films that came before it. The Storm Troopers feel like the ruthless soldiers they should be. The Death Star has never been such a threat as it has in this film. The force is more of a tool of faith, hope, and religion than cool Jedi tricks. This is a dark, gritty, unforgiving Star Wars world we’ve never seen on the big screen. A welcome change to what we’re used to as a viewer but on the flip side, makes this a bigger threat to our heroes.
The journey they take is violent and dangerous, and with Gareth Edwards’ direction it truly is astonishing to watch. Rogue One was originally pitched as a heist movie when it was first announced a few years ago. This is not a heist movie, this is a war movie. This is a world where our heroes will have to do questionable things if they want to gain the upper hand over the Imperial Empire. This is a world where none of the main characters is safe. The film has a running time of over 2 hours but it never feels like that. Yes it is slow at the beginning, but it’s needed if you’re having to introduce so many new characters, give them back stories, and make the viewers like them all in the space of the first 45 minutes. If we look at Rogue One in three acts, the first two acts do tremendously well with those introductions, setting up the story, and why we should really care about the mission. When the third act begins in the planet Scarif, the last 45 minutes is the most awe-inspiring thing you will see on screen this whole year; a proper “war” within Star Wars and ranking up there as one of the best war sequences period. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who has made this film beautiful to look at) have definitely taken inspirations from other films to show the merciless acts within wars of the past shown on screen, such as the beach invading sequence in Saving Private Ryan as an example. The camera work is guerrilla-style, making you feel like a soldier on the ground with the rest of the characters on the tropical beaches of Scarif, a member of the public caught within a fight between the two factions on the dirty streets of Jedha, or a passenger on the X-Wing fighting above the skies and in space against Tie-Fighters. Its dizzying and wonderful, and you just can’t help but smile like a little kid at times. To top that, we have the most jaw-dropping two minute sequence near the end of the film which in my opinion should be equally ranked as the greatest Star Wars scene with the Vader/Luke moment from Empire.
Felicity Jones has the added-on pressure of carrying this stand alone film on her shoulders. I mean her face is the most prominent feature on the posters of this film. Even though the Star Wars universe is male-dominated, what it can do well is provide strong female characters like Princess Leia and Rey. Well, Jones can definitely have that sigh of relief because she makes Jyn Erso so fascinating to watch. She made me root for her from the moment she was on screen. Jones makes Jyn strong, lethal, someone who will not take s**t from anyone, but at the same time so vulnerable and lost in deciding her true calling. Luna is charismatic as Cassian and a great male lead to bounce off of Jones, and Wen is great as a no-nonsense mercenary. But the true standouts and the characters which I see will become fan favourites in the future are Chirrut and K-2SO, played by Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk respectively. Chirrut is a blind warrior who is the most Jedi-like character within the film because of his strong devotion of the force and the way he can fend for himself. He is the most rational and human of all our heroes and Yen delivers that presence with ease. Tudyk is down-right hilarious as the motion-captured K-2SO, making his blunt deliveries so funny and instantly quotable. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the villain of the film, owns it as a classic Star Wars Imperial villain: hungry for power and will do anything to climb the ranks in the fleet. The other biggie, the much talked about return of Darth Vader (voiced with gravitas again by James Earl Jones) has very little screen time, but the screen time he is given is so effective and shocking, there is no questioning on why he is the greatest screen villain of all time.
Rogue One isn’t by all means perfect. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi is not fully fleshed out on why he defected from the Imperial ranks which made it hard to fully invest in him. Forrest Whitaker’s very over-the-top acting as Clone Wars veteran-turned-extremist Saw Gerrera is extremely annoying to the point its laughable. After watching the film twice now and listening to the score on Spotify, Michael Giacchino’s score is not memorable at all. In every Star Wars film, there is a stand-out piece, whether its “Duel of the Fates” in Episode One, or “The Imperial March” from Episode Five, or even Rey’s Theme from last year’s Force Awakens, but there really isn’t one here at all. But kudos has to be given to him for a) trying to followup John Williams’ masterful pieces, and b) creating a score within four weeks after the original composer of the film was let go.
ILM should be given every technical plaudit there is come awards season because the work they do in this film is stunning. There are times where I am questioning what is practical and what is CGI, especially with K-2SO. And there are a few moments within this film, which I will not spoil here, that truly astounds you on how far the world has come with computer generated effects. As a side note, I’ve watched this in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D brings nothing to the table other than the standard unwelcome dark filter once you put on those glasses.
The big question before the film was released was whether any casual film goer can watch this, or whether it’s solely aimed for the fans? To me, it has the right balance. The fan service in here is so pleasing, hardcore fans will be smiling with joy with the amazing easter eggs laid out throughout the film (many from “A New Hope” and surprisingly, the cartoon series Star Wars Rebels). But for anyone wanting to see a film with the right balance of joy and heartbreak, wonder and spectacle, Rogue One does it well…really well, and gives me faith with the other spin-offs planned, justifying why we are getting a Star Wars film every year now for the next four years. What a way to end 2016!