Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
The Star Wars universe, both old and new, is awash with side projects. Books, comics, animation, video games, the story of a along time ago and a galaxy far, far away has already moved far beyond that central saga of, now, seven films. But, aside from the awful Clone Wars CGI offering a few years, that was essentially a pilot for a passable TV show, Star Wars has never been on the big screen other than in Episodes I to VII. But there’s so much potential there. So much of a big wide galaxy to explore, if film-makers were of a mind to go looking.
And so, Rogue One, the first of Disney’s stand alone “Star Wars Story” efforts that is in line to deliver adventures for a young Han Solo and probably Boba Fett and whoever else within the next few years. In terms of inspiration, all this had were those tantalizing opening sentences quoted above, but what possibilities are in those 54 words. A chance for daring-do adventure and epic war tales. At the helm, Gareth Edwards, the British director who wowed so many with his Monster in 2010 and showcased his ability to handle big budget scope in 2014’s Godzilla. But Star Wars is not those things. It’s something bigger, and it needs to show that it can move beyond the facsimile criticisms of The Force Awakens. Was Rogue One able to do that, or are we increasingly stuck with a franchise rooted in the long time ago?
As a child, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) watches the Imperial director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kill her mother and take her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen). As a lost adult, she finds herself “rescued” from Imperial captivity by the desperate Rebel Alliance, who need her help to track down her father, who is trying to warn the galaxy about the terrible project he has been forced to work on. With troubled Alliance spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), warrior monks Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen), Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and re-programmed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn embarks on a cross-galaxy mission to find the plans for the planet-killing Death Star.
Rogue One is a real half and half film. One half is taking few chances with the property in terms of giving the audience something new, instead going back to what has already been done and shown in every cameo, reference nod and wink to previous films, which infest the narrative. But the other half is a true revelation, emphasizing a specific part of the title, little less than a full blown war movie, with all of the dark, grim tones and themes that you would expect. And that half of proceedings, far beyond the “member berries” aspect of everything else, is what makes Rogue One great.
And it might take a really dedicated viewer to get beyond that first part. The Force Awakens got most of its flak from its similarity to A New Hope, the accusation being that it was little more than the latest nostalgia cash-in. Rogue One can’t get beyond that. Our hero is an orphan from a farm. Character after character after character from the original trilogy pop up: some in an acceptable fashion, others not so much. A snarky droid mentions the odds of failure. The Death Star fires off a few rounds. TIE’s and X-Wing’s dogfight. And, of course, one character has a bad feeling about this. Given the radically different way it approaches things elsewhere in its running time, the constant references to what has come before are distracting and jarring by the time we reach the conclusion, where it almost seems that the production team is expecting the audience to cheer for Darth Vader.
But the war movie that makes up the beating heart of Rogue One is worth the nostalgia service. I might be forgiven a small spoiler from one of the opening scenes to make the point, as Captain Andor, roguish looking Imperial spy, meets a contact on a dingy space station. Cornered by storm-troopers, the panicky contact explains that a damaged arm means he can’t climb to safety. As he looks away, Andor shoots him in the back so he can escape, and does so with barely a moments hesitation. He wasn’t a villain or a threat: he was just a scared innocent who didn’t want to be there. And with that Rogue One announces that it will be following the “Han Shot First” course, right from the off. It’s a shocking moment and an evocative way to introduce us to a nominal hero in Andor whose haunted past is never explored in detail but is etched all over his face.
And this is where Rogue One success. The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Basterds, even Saving Private Ryan a little bit: it’s taking its inspiration from the grittier, grungier kind of World War II movie, in every dirt-caked Alliance soldier, in every glimpse at an Alliance base that looks more like an RAF HQ during the Battle of Britain, in every jaded officer struggling to get through one more day, in every under-handed dealing and moral compromise. This is not your typical Star Wars – even anti-hero Han Solo was still a fundamentally decent person – this is grimdark, and its wonderful to see this universe interpreted in such a way. It is a story of a ragtag, exhausted, splintered and demoralised resistance force facing the hopeless task of taking on a literal planet-killer, and doing so with gusto because they have nothing else to lose.
It takes what we see in A New Hope and adds some really nice meat to the bones, in the radical alliance split-offs led by half-crazed guerrillas, in the bickering leadership that can’t decide if it wants to surrender or fight on and in the rank and file soldiers, who, like the tank crew in Fury, the 101st in Band of Brothers‘ “The Breaking Point” or the 1st Infantry in The Big Red One, aren’t sure if they can take the next hill, but they’ll give it a try anyway. That tone is maintained throughout, all the way up to an ending that may surprise many viewers in the lengths it is willing to go to portray the realistic cost of war, regardless of whether it is being fought with laser swords or whooping TIE fighters.
It would be easy to go too far with this, but Rogue One knows just when to ease back. It is still a fundamentally fun and entertaining movie, not an emotional slog. Of all the big-budget films I have seen recently, it knows the best way to inject humour into the surroundings, by leaving nearly all of it to one character in particular. And while the tone might be dark, the surroundings lift up the spirit as we jump from striking desert vistas to a Pacific-like atoll. But it really wants you to understand and to feel the depth of the struggle that the Rebel Alliance is engaged in, the crushing weight of having to take on something as gargantuan as the Empire and not lose hope. To, as Jyn memorably outlines, “take the next chance, and the next, and the next, until we win…or until all the chances are spent.”
A film with that kind of message needs the right characters to get it across, the right people to get the audience engaged, and Rogue One does have that. Jyn, through Jones’ performance, exhibits that rebellious spirit nicely, moving from a lost young woman into somebody happy to take on the bad guys, whatever the cost. Luna’s Andor is a haunted veteran trying to justify the actions he has taken in his past relative to the goals of the present. Both are wounded people, by war and by lost loved ones.
Their journey is interconnected, not in a romantic sense, but in a joint healing sense. They are both rogues, in more ways than one, but in learning to trust the other and rely on the other they may find some measure of redemption, connected to the value of the task before them. It helps immensely that the two leads have just the right kind of rapport, an evolving thing, that is more Luke/Han than Rey/Finn. It builds to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The remaining characters have less time to make as much of an impression, but are not one-note or throwaway, all forming important parts of what we could call “The Magnificent Six”. Ahmed’s Bodhi is somewhat similar to Finn in that they are both Imperial defectors looking for some kind of redemption, but his performance differentiates him, consisting of a more desperate and unsure aura, looking for something he can’t even properly define. Yen’s blind ninja warrior is a bit of a trope, but has enough snarky humour to mark him out, and has a nice back-and-forth with Wen’s gun-toting Baze. I won’t comment on the theories going around on the subject of their relationship, other than to say it seemed more brotherly than romantic to me.
And there is Alan Tudyk, who has fast become one of the movie industry’s premiere voice talents, lending a really awesome sarcastic vibe to K-2SO, a sort of cross between the general attitude of a C-3PO and the actual killing power of a HK-47, but still leaves room for a bit of heart in the droid’s quest to showcase his skills. They all get on-board with Jyn and Andor for different reasons, and the group dynamic, while getting only a precious amount of time to showcase itself, is one that I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of.
It’s in the supporting cast that Rogue One starts to stumble. Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic is a disappointing antagonist, one who you can enjoy in his OTT demeanour – the way he utters “The POW-AH we are dealing with here…” is classic Republic serial arch villain territory – but who lacks any firm backstory or interesting motivations to make him truly stand-out, being little more than a ruthless bureaucrat out for advancement, with a nice cape.
In reality, Vader should have been the antagonist from start to finish, half of his two scenes falling foul of nostalgia-bait set-up. James Earl Jones’ voice has aged a bit, but he can still bring the menace. More impressive is the combination of Guy Henry’s motion capture and the CGI wizardry that goes into bringing Peter Cushing back to life temporarily, with all of the same arrogance, threat and superior attitude that existed back in 1977.
And then there is Forest Whitaker, stuck in a role where the costuming/make-up might have been giving him flashbacks of Battlefield Earth. It’s someone who first turned up in The Clone Wars in terms of the older canon, and it’s just a bit of a strange part, a sort of deranged guerrilla leader who looks as likely to break down in tears as to led any kind of struggle against the Empire. Whitaker just doesn’t seem as into the role as he conceivably could be, which is a disappointment: the man’s an Oscar winner after all. Mads Mikkelsen has a similar part but does a bit better, even if he remains a distant figure throughout the narrative.
The cinematography here is fantastic. Edwards is being tested here in a way that he wasn’t on Monster or Godzilla, but he does very well, with Greig Fraser in the cinematographers chair. The emphasis is on naturally lit scenes and handheld cameras, and what could be murky turns into the atmospheric. The production department, as it always does for Star Wars, is working at its hardest levels to vividly create the worlds, the aliens, the costumes and the multitude of background details to make this seem like a universe truly lived in, from the hectic confines of the Alliance’s Yavin IV base to the pouring rain of an Imperial research facility.
This gives Edwards an easier job, and his direction is top-class, especially in the battle sequence late-on, where the term “Spielbergian” would not be inappropriate: there is more than a little of Tom Hanks’ defence of Ramelle in the rebel assault on Scarif. I suppose I can’t not mention the question mark surrounding who should get credit for the direction, with co-scriptwriter Tony Gilroy apparently being responsible for much of the re-shot stuff – and I would imagine that includes much of the nostalgia-bait – but ces’t la vie.
Star Wars is eponymous with pushing the visual envelope, and Rogue One does that here. I’ve mentioned it already, but the crowning CGI achievement is undoubtedly the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin, in look and voice, so like the real thing that it just about brushes up on the edge of the uncanny valley. But so much else is also of high quality, not least the numerous combat sequences: a thrilling space battle above an Imperial database forms the backbone of the finale, and it’s very much like a visually updated Battle of Endor, more satisfying than the aerial portions of The Force Awakens’ finale, which seemed like such an afterthought last year. It’s a battle that allows for some better-placed nostalgia (a few familiar pilots show up) and some classic Rebel Alliance moments: the way they take on two Star Destroyers is one of a few sequences that I would put in a list of the franchises most exhilarating and iconic moments. On the ground too things are great, as AT-AT’s make their long awaited return to the big screen, lovingly rendered and imminently threatening to the poor footsoldiers tasked with, essentially, running away from them. And there’s C-2SO too, created to be as functional as possible, but still having the right elements of life in his movements.
The script is top-notch, though at times it really needs the cast to be bringing their A-Game, otherwise lines that read as trite like “Rebellions are built on hope!” would fall horribly flat. But everyone is written really, really well here, from Jyn’s despairing outpourings against the myriad of guardians who have abandoned her, to Andor’s angry denunciation of those who judge him for considering a morally dubious order. The interactions of Tarkin, Krennic and Vader have that elitist English deliciousness to them, and there are real stand-out moments all over the screenplay, not least in the humour given to C-2SO: “Do you know what the likelihood of her using that gun against you is?” he offers to Andor in reference to Jyn. When he doesn’t get an answer, he quietly adds “It’s high….it’s really high”.
And when things need to get a bit more inspirational, Rogue One pulls it off, with words and deliveries that make you really buy that people will follow Jyn and Andor on a crazy suicide mission to find the Death Star plans. “We’ll take that chance…”. The script has four people credited, and there are indeed some traces of “by committee” here and there, with the nostalgia reeking of studio interference. There are scenes from the trailers that don’t appear in the end product, and I daresay the ending may have gone through a few different versions. But overall, this is a really strong effort.
For the first time ever, someone other than John Williams is behind the score, though the great master is essentially co-credited due to the use of his classic themes. The booming overture is missing of course, along with the opening crawl, but Michael Giacchino proves a competent replacement, taking Williams’ work and adding his own flourishes. You can enjoy new versions of the classic rebellion and Empire themes along with Giacchino’s own symphonic creations for the high-paced fight sequences and quieter moments. Star Wars music has always been of the sweeping, epic, memorable variety, perfectly in tune with the emotions being portrayed on-screen, and the score for Rogue One continues that trend, even if the individual tracks don’t have quite the same oomph and memorability as Williams’ always have.
While I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens, I was not blind to the fact that it was essentially an updated version of A New Hope with new characters and a slightly altered universe. Enough time had passed that this didn’t bother me too much, but I recognised that Star Wars was at risk of becoming so much nostalgia fodder in the same vein as Transformers or any number of reboots and sequels recently. Rogue One luxuriates in the universe it comes from, content to throw as many references to previous movies at the audience as it can, lest we forget we are, indeed, watching “A Star Wars Story”, and it can get risible on occasion. Some of the supporting cast are weak, and there is a certain feeling of re-written scenes at times.
But Rogue One makes up for it in every other department. The central story is strong, built on the back of two great characters and two great character journeys. The dark tone and war movie aesthetic is implemented brilliantly. The visual direction is good, as is the script and the score. It is a satisfying and emotionally engaging experience. But more than anything else, it pushes the envelope with Star Wars in a way that hasn’t been done in sometime. It shows that the franchise can go in new directions and succeed, can portray different shades of theme and tone and still be riveting, even if it still feels the need to have constant sops to nostalgic. It shows that Star Wars, that industry behemoth, can still be unique and relevant in today’s age. It shows that this franchise may yet spring surprises on us, and be all the better for it. In other words, Rogue One gives me hope. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).