Disney gives Gareth Edwards the keys to the Star Wars toy box… and the results are spectacular
Gareth Edwards must have been inside my head all these years, delivering everything I could have wanted from a Star Wars adventure including (especially in last act) things I've been wishing for in the prequels, and last years The Force Awakens, that never came to pass. Put simply, it's Star Wars as I've longed to see it since 1983.
With the worldwide success of The Force Awakens, Disney obviously felt the time was right to take a couple of risks with this experimental standalone tale; one that doesn't involve Skywalkers, Jedi or lightsabers; instead homing in on a dirty, gritty corner of Star Wars lore populated by tragedy and forgotten heroes, yet tied directly to the main saga. Gareth Edwards, having recently hit the big time with his impressive-yet-divisive Godzilla, has brought all of his strengths (and one or two of his weaknesses) to Star Wars. Here might be the time to get a few negatives out of the way...
As with Godzilla, pacing is an issue in Rogue One especially in the first act. The story meanders, is choppy, and starts at a crawl (hinting at those infamous reshoots). Where The Force Awakens raced like a landspeeder, Rogue One starts off plodding like a narrative AT-AT. The characters are also far more low-key, almost to the point of blandness. While they aren't the dribbling bores that populate the prequel trilogy, those who loved the vibrant energy of The Force Awakens crew might find these new characters a little cold.
Jyn Erso for example is a decent protagonist, well acted for the most part by Felicity Jones. Yet I didn't feel the instant emotional connection I did with Daisy Ridley’s Rey. The ‘Star Wars spirit’, so effectively embodied by Rey, Finn & Poe, is replaced with an altogether more sombre atmosphere of battle-damaged personalities, with morally dubious soldiers (Diego Luna's rebel assassin Cassian Andor, and Forest Whitakers’ Saw Gerrera); tortured Imperials such as Mads Mikkelsen’s conflicted weapon scientist Galen Erso (Jyn’s father) and hope-starved alliance generals. That's not a complaint (the last thing the film would need is a 'Finn' type character), but the dour characters and slow pace occasionally threaten to rob the film of momentum; certainly compared to the breeziness of a saga film. Fortunately there are wild cards in the form of sardonic re-programmed Imperial robot K-2SO (played with dry humour by Alan Tudyk), and the double-act of Donnie Yen’s force aware warrior Chirrut and his heavily armed war buddy Baze Malbus. These characters in particular help loosen up the film and add a sprinkling of humour alongside their badassery.
Perhaps the standouts however are the villains. Ben Mendelson's Orson Krennic is a fascist force of nature, stalking the galaxy with his death squad of black-armoured elite stormtroopers. He’s ruthless, driven and imperious, but less of a caricature than last year’s General Hux. But even he isn’t the biggest bad on the block; a key familiar face- realised with some audacious digital trickery- also makes an appearance and is even more sinister. Completing the triumvirate of terror is the Dark Lord of the Sith himself; Darth Vader. And despite his limited screen time, his presence is heavily felt, and he gets a scene near the end that is worth the price of admission alone… my spine is tingling just thinking about it.
The Death Star too was spectacular; a character in itself (indeed the Imperial forces in general are showcased at their most awesome), pervading the whole film and driving the story, yet in a very different way than we've seen before and not just there for rebel target practice. And unlike the implausible (and frankly daft) Starkiller Base, the Death Star is utterly menacing in Rogue One, with Gareth Edwards’ bringing his phenomenal sense of scale to bear on it. And the explanation of how its plans came to be exploited by the rebels is ingenious, and casts A New Hope (to which this is a gushing love-letter) in an even better light.
Cinematography is top notch with a variety of real locations and practical sets standing in for a surprisingly vast array of planets and moons, almost all of which are entirely new and open up the Star Wars galaxy even further. On the sonic front, Michael Giacchino does his best to evoke the essence of John Williams with his score, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Then again, The Force Awakens wasn’t Williams’ best either.
One of the most impressive aspects of Rogue One is how it is connected to the films that came before ( after) it. The narrative is inextricably woven into the fabric of A New Hope, in ways that are both subtle and overt. There’s fan service galore, but not in a gratuitous way, and the film never feels stale or derivative (a charge often levelled at The Force Awakens). There are even connections to Revenge of the Sith, courtesy of a cameo or two and visual references to locations in that film. I'm glad this movie didn't feel the need to throw the prequels under the bus.
It’s when the fireworks start however that Rogue One really goes into hyperdrive. And despite some cool skirmishes in the second act (and a spectacular scene involving the Death Star), the final engagement/s on the planet Scariff may go down as the most mind-blowing Star Wars battle royale since Return of the Jedi, if not ever. A thrilling ground assault, daring infiltration mission and a spectacular orbital engagement dazzle the senses in ways that will provoke jaw/carpet interface for the last half hour of screen time. Fans of space battles in particular, who may have found the previous few movies wanting in that department, will finally have their prayers answered. And as mentioned, one character's scene at the end might go down in history as one of Star Wars' greatest moments.
How does it compare to the rest of the films? It’s too early to say, and in terms of its tone and narrative structure it’s difficult to fairly compare it to many of the saga offerings. While I initially loved The Force Awakens, Rogue One exposes a lot of its flaws and makes it seem unambitious by comparison. Rogue One isn't space opera, and doesn’t have the visual poetry, grandeur and magic of, say, The Empire Strikes Back (still the gold standard to which all must aspire), but it does have that film’s darkness and edge, plus the cinematic thrills of the best the saga has to offer. It has urgency, tragedy and the highest of stakes. In short, Rogue One really does make Star Wars live up to its name. Absolutely the cinematic event of the year.