Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Dir. Gareth Edwards
[Some minor spoilers]
Midlands director Gareth Edwards (yes, he’s from Nuneaton, folks) helms this new “anthology” film which spins off from the Star Wars Episodes with a Marvel-style franchise expansion feature. His movie is a literal interpretation of A New Hope’s opening text crawl which describes the rebels' attempts at securing the plans to a star-of-death-sized space station, that isn’t a moon, which the evil Empire controls.
In this story, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a lonely rural youngster with lost parents who ends up joining the rebels as her father is the key to its destruction. My immediate thought was “this again?” In all fairness, Star Wars REALLY needs to up its game with the sole child/parent narrative set up (Jyn joins Anakin, Luke and Rey as the similar stereotype) but the film to its credit begins to move away from the clichés to deliver new ideas of its own.
Familiar tropes are seen – droids, stormtroopers, holograms, desert-y locations – but without Jedis and the “old” gang there is space in the movie for more experimentation. Edwards certainly takes a different style to Lucas and co with many more shots using out-of-focus foregrounds and much of the action from character’s point-of-views which echoes his Godzilla work – particularly effective when the gigantic dino-esque AT-AT walkers appear.
The film has some great support characters too, in the form of Alan Tudyk’s droid K-2SO – who gets all the best, and funniest lines – whilst I desperately wanted to know more about blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen) whose limited screen time didn’t stop him from being far more interesting than Jyn herself.
Other highlights included a much-anticipated cameo from Darth Vader – albeit only 2 scenes. The first is a Lord of the Rings style castle for the villain on volcano planet Mustafar which has been hinted upon since Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for Empire Strikes Back. The second was a must-see scene of violence, the likes of which has not been viewed by audiences before. I was slightly hoping Hayden Christensen may even had been asked back to link up the prequels to the originals (the film takes place between the two trilogies) and although he didn't show there were a few nods to those stinkers with references to the Clone Wars and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits does reprise his role from the prequels) who also mentions his “friend” in the desert (Obi Wan).
Much of this may not make sense to first time viewers and it has the same problem I noted with Disney’s other multi-film franchise (Marvel) where the uninitiated will struggle to follow some of the references. But in its defence the film does enough to deliver a narrative without too much shoe-horning of Star Wars lore and inconography. Newcomer Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Military man Orson Krennic gets some great lines and scenes as his duplicitous villain has a seething menace under the surface. This was a joy to watch as he squirms to his superiors and dishes out violence as a bully to his inferiors.
Some weak spots included the score – oh how John Williams is missed – and it even made me yearn for The Force Awakens’ rather unmemorable themes but at least ithat film had some. Nothing of the sort here and one sequence of a crashing Star Destroyer had an awful musical accompaniment. Also, the story is quite superficial – with so many new characters it doesn’t have the driving force of a Luke and Ben or a Rey and Finn which I feel it needed to propel it along. I never once thought Jyn was invested in it even as she delivered her pre-battle speech in the third act.
Another unique but uncanny aspect was the use of CGI to digitally recreate Grand Moff Tarkin by resurrecting the face and voice of Peter Cushing, long since dead for 20 years. A great idea in concept, the face is far more convincing than Jeff Bridges’ in Tron: Legacy but also far from perfect. In doing so, I barely remember his scenes as I scanned the semi-realistic face in detail – taking me out of the film each time he appeared.
The visuals are however suitably gorgeous – the CGI battle sequences were bombastic in the final part of the film – and it was good to see some extended space battles which the Force Awakens mostly omitted. But Rogue One did seem very patchy in editing. Just as scenes got going, the audience were sent onwards to the next planet for another short sequence of unknown aliens and underdeveloped characters. The problem of reshoots? Rewrites? Possibly. But sequences of a mind-reading squid could have been easily jettisoned for more character development.
Edwards does know how to compose great shots and the opening filmed on the dark southern coast of Iceland gave us some suitably extraterrestrial landscapes which were a great addition to the Star Wars cannon. I wanted to see much more of the Jedi temple and the briefly-explained Kyber crystals which power lightsabres (also omitted in the film) but these were again, underdeveloped and part of a number of story threads which sadly went nowhere.
All that said, you won’t be particularly disappointed with Rogue One as it delivers the same level of retro reminiscing that we saw in Force Awakens. In my review of that film I pleaded for more originality now they’ve course-corrected the franchise and Edwards does an admirable job of delivering some new (although not too acute) ideas into the mix. Is it better than that film? Personally, I think not. The narrative was all over the place and I never connected with the new characters unlike Poe, Kylo and the new crew from TFA.
However, with enough action, throwback ‘easter eggs’ and a host of characters whose journeys we haven’t followed before, Rogue One delivers a solid sci-fi story of hopeful resistant fighters rising up against their wicked oppressors. It's done with fun, flair and impressive visuals that whisks you off to that galaxy far, far away like the annual family holiday. Comforting, expected but with an extra trip or two thrown in. We'll all be back again next year.
Midlands Movies Mike