Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review
Rogue One puts the 'war' into Star Wars
Despite all the rumours of executive interference and extensive reshoots, Gareth Edwards delivers the best Star Wars story since The Empire Strikes Back with Rogue One. This review is spoiler free.Gareth Edwards’ rise in the film world has been precipitous and after Monsters, his critically acclaimed ‘no-budget’ first feature, he was immediately handed the director's chair on the mega-budget remake of Godzilla. A background in special effects no doubt helped but it was still impressive that he delivered as good a film has he did, despite the inherent silliness of a giant radiation-eating monster. In the meantime Lucasfilm were busy selecting some interesting directors for their new Star Wars movies, with J. J. Abrams an obvious choice for The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson is bringing a very different take to Episode VIII.So their decision to go with Gareth Edwards for their first stand alone Star Wars feature, Rogue One, certainly got everyone’s attention. Edwards is a self-confessed Star Wars fan boy and the chance to direct a film in that universe was obviously his dream job. He also had a very clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, creating a film that visually takes place in the world of the Original Trilogy but has a different aesthetic. His aim was to create a classic ‘men-on-a-mission’ war film, with a ragtag group of fighters behind enemy lines, trying to steal the plans to a super-weapon and restore freedom to their people. It’s basically The Dirty Dozen with droids.
If that plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is and Rogue One is a direct prequel to the original Star Wars. The narrative of the new film uses a sentence in the original film’s opening crawl as a springboard to tell the story of what happened before Princess Leia’s ship was intercepted by Darth Vader at the start of Star Wars. The idea came from Special Effects Supervisor John Knoll, who has a long history with Star Wars going back to The Phantom Menace, and he wondered how did the Rebels actually manage to steal the plans to the Death Star? That question was chosen to be the first Star Wars Story, a series of stand-alone movies that take place in the same universe as the main films but don’t necessarily involve the Skywalker family.
The screenplay for Rogue One was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta. The film centres on a young woman called Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. She is enlisted to help the fledgling rebellion steal the plans to the Death Star, in the hope that they can find a way of destroying this terrible weapon before it becomes operational. It’s a credit to the writers and the director that despite knowing what will eventually happen, this new story remains both exciting and entertaining. The film manages to include quite a few surprising twists, fix a number of potential plot holes from the original Star Wars and even provide an interesting spin on an established story.
One of the key reasons for the film’s success is the cast, which continues the Star Wars tradition of using character actors rather than established stars. Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, a Rebel intelligence officer who is responsible for putting the team together. Along with Jyn, he also recruits Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) a blind warrior, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) a freelance assassin and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a former imperial pilot. There’s also a droid called K-S20, which was previously an Imperial enforcer droid but is now used by the Rebels after his memory was wiped by Andor. K-S20 is motion-captured and voiced by Alan Tudyk who has some form in this area having previously done the same for the character of Sonny in I, Robot. In a similar fashion to C-3PO, K-S20 provides much of the comic relief in Rogue One, getting some of the biggest laughs along the way.
One of the characters in Rogue One who isn’t entirely new is Saw Gerrera, he's played in the film by Forest Whitaker and has previously appeared in The Clone Wars animated series. Other returning characters include Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, played by Genevieve O’Reilly and Jimmy Smits respectively, both of whom are reprising their roles from the Prequel Trilogy. There are plenty of other familiar faces but we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, although it’s no secret that Darth Vader also makes an appearance and is once again voiced by James Earl Jones. However the main villain of the film is actually Orson Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is the director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial military. It’s Krennic who is behind the construction of the Death Star and he will stop at nothing to ensure his creation reaches its full potential. The final newcomer is Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who is also instrumental in the development of the Death Star and happens to be Jen’s estranged father.
If there’s one area where Gareth Edwards really delivers, it’s in terms of the design of Rogue One. This is easily the best-looking Star Wars film ever and there’s more visual imagination in a single frame of Rogue One than there was in the whole of The Force Awakens. The film also manages to deliver a sense of majesty with an epic scope that is often missing from Star Wars films. In order to give Rogue One the epic scope that he wanted, Edwards shot the film on Arri Alexa 65 cameras at a resolution of 6.5K. He also used Ultra Panavision 70 lenses, which led some people to speculate that the film’s aspect ratio would be 2.76:1, although it’s actually projected at 2.35:1.
Gareth Edwards and his filmmaking team also worked closely with IMAX to digitally re-master the image and sound of the movie for IMAX using their proprietary IMAX DMR technology. The result is a truly immersive experience that delivers all of Rogue One's beautiful cinematography, visual effects and production design in unparalleled crystal-clear images and powerful digital audio. If you want to experience the film in the best possible way, then make sure you go to one of the 2D or 3D IMAX screenings, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
The look of the film provides a degree of familiarity but there are plenty of plot twists
Director Edwards marshals his forces with some skill, the action scenes are excellent and the use of hand-held cameras gives the film a far grittier edge than the sterile prequels. Rogue One has clearly been made by real fans and the film is full of little easter eggs for those that are paying attention, as well as some genuine surprises. This is undoubtedly the Star Wars film we’ve been waiting for since Empire, a film that manages to capture the aesthetic and more adult tone of the original film – there’s no Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks or BB8 in Rogue One.
There were rumours earlier in the year that the executives at Disney weren’t happy with the darker and grittier tone of Rogue One, despite that being Edwards’ intention from the start. Apparently co-writer Tony Gilroy was brought in to oversee five weeks of reshoots and lighten the tone of the film so that it stylistically matched the original Star Wars. If there was an extensive re-edit of the film based on these reshoots it doesn’t appear to have adversely affected the finished product. The overall tone and much of the cinematography remains quite dark and the film manages to retain an sense of its own personality whilst still dovetailing into Star Wars. The performances are also much better in the actual film than they perhaps appeared in the trailers, with Felicity Jones in particular proving she's a good actress.
The first thirty minutes do feel a bit choppy and much of the footage seen in the early teasers isn't in the final film, with Forest Whitaker in particular almost having more screen time in the trailers than he does in the film itself. That would certainly suggest there has been some extensive re-editing and Jyn’s character comes across as more vulnerable and less hard than she appeared in those early teasers. The executives at Disney needn’t have worried, the darker tone of Rogue One really adds to the experience and besides, the original Star Wars could be quite grim too. Let’s not forget that the first thing Darth Vader did upon entering the blockade runner was to crush the Rebel captain’s throat.
Edwards has followed a similar approach to J. J. Abrams in terms of using actual sets, prosthetic make-up effects and real locations as much as possible, which lends Rogue One a pleasing level of veracity and replicates the 'used future' of Star Wars. The film also manages the difficult task of recreating actual locations from Star Wars but at the same time still feeling fresh and original. This was an area where The Force Awakens really struggled and too much of that film just felt derivative. Rogue One doesn’t necessarily go out of its way to be different but, as Edwards himself confirmed recently, there is no opening crawl. However the one area where Rogue One does detract from the overall feeling of being a Star Wars film is its score. It’s not that Michael Giacchino has written a bad score but it just isn’t John Williams and Giacchino only uses the maestro’s famous themes sparingly through out the film.
Ultimately Rogue One delivers exactly what you want from a Star Wars film with pitched battles between Rebels and stormtroopers, X-Wings dogfighting with TIE fighters and Walkers storming a beachhead. It will be interesting to see how the film plays to a more general audience who only know Star Wars from The Force Awakens but long-term fans are in for a treat. We've waited over thirty years for a Star Wars film like this but it was worth it and Rogue One doesn't disappoint.
Experience Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in IMAX from December the 15th.
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