“I’m one with the Force, the Force is with me…”
Star Wars is the only revered franchise in which half of its films are viewed distastefully: Star Wars (or A New Hope for the non-purists) and The Empire Strikes Back are cinematic masterpieces. Return of the Jedi is a two hour advert for merchandise that is still ultimately enjoyable. The less said about The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones the better. By default Revenge of the Sith is known as ‘the good prequel’. And last year’s The Force Awakens, while narratively derivative, is a great rejuvenation of the series.
Make no mistake though, despite the varied acclaim of Star Wars films, Rogue One is under huge pressure to perform. As the first of potentially infinite spin-offs, the success or failure of this film could change the course of the franchise going forward. Will we learn more about that long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or will we just keep following the Skywalker lineage for the rest of time?
Rogue One is set after the events of Revenge of the Sith and immediately prior to the original Star Wars trilogy. The Empire rules over the galaxy with an iron fist and the rebels are fractured and faltering. When rumours that a super-weapon is under construction that could destroy entire planets, it will take drastic measures for the Rebel Alliance to get the upper hand.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of the weapon’s creator, joins a rag-tag team of rebels led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on an impossible mission to steal the Death Star plans. With the fate of the galaxy resting on their shoulders, the price for peace has never been higher.
What sets Rogue One apart from the rest of the Star Wars saga is the blurring of the line between the dark side and the light. The original trilogy was very much the good guys versus the bad guys. Here on the other hand, there are definitely shades of grey. The rebels have to get their hands dirty in order to win. Lies and deceit are rife and it’s not something that’s been explored in Star Wars before, giving us a fresh take on the Rebellion.
This is also a very grounded film. Or as grounded as a bombastic space opera can be. Rogue One, despite its planet hopping story, feels suitably small scale. The film brilliantly captures the might of the Empire and makes the Rebel Alliance feel small in comparison. Director Gareth Edwards’ use of scale is phenomenal, and framing huge battle sequences from the perspective of the ground troops was inspired.
And what incredible actions sequences they are. The CGI on display is nothing short of masterful. There is a seamless blend between the practical and special effects. From the space battles to the close quarters shoot-outs in the street, every blaster shot and explosion feels tangible. Aside from a jarring motion capture resurrection of a certain Imperial officer that slips into the Uncanny Valley, the CGI is flawless.
Rogue One, thankfully, doesn’t get bogged down in fan service. There are plenty of Easter eggs and nods to the wider Star Wars universe but they never derail the pace of the film. The references will no doubt enrich the experience for long term fans, but you don’t have to be a Star Wars nerd to have fun. Unlike The Force Awakens, which rides on the coat-tails of the original trilogy, Rogue One is confident in its own story. And when the film (apologies in advance for this pun, but I couldn’t resist) goes ‘rogue’ it really shines.
The performances in Rogue One are almost all uniformly good, but not great. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna cut fine figures as the two leads often at odds with one another. Donnie Yen as the blind bad-ass, Chirrut, and Alan Tudyk as the token droid K-2SO both showcase some excellent comedic timing. However, Forest Whitaker seems very out of place as Saw Gerrerra, the rebel extremist who talks like he is constantly being choked. There’s chewing scenery, and then there’s Whitaker.
One of the disappointing aspects of Rogue One was the characterisation. We learn very little about anyone save for Jyn. Yes, all of the characters are charming but we aren’t given much of a reason to care about them beyond the fact that they are fun to have around. Also, when characters find themselves on the receiving end of a blaster bolt, it does little to pull on the heart-strings. Star Wars is so enduring because of great characters like Luke, Han Solo and Darth Vader, yet no one here has a shred of that cinematic gravitas.
Speaking of Darth Vader, his cameo in Rogue One is fantastic. It is sadly, little more than a cameo but I think less is certainly more in helping the film stand on its own feet. One sequence in particular proves why Vader is one of cinema’s greatest villains of all time. Goosebumps. Literal goosebumps. However Vader’s presence serves to highlight how weak the villains are in Rogue One. Ben Mendehlson plays Krennic, the Imperial Director overseeing the Death Star construction; he is suitably over the top but he isn’t all that intimidating.
Unfortunately Rogue One does suffer from its status as a prequel. We ultimately know how it ends from the beginning. There is tension in action sequences, but it is extremely predictable at times. Nothing about how events unfolded shocked me in any way. It was heavily publicised that there were re-shoots for this film, and while it sticks the landing, it wobbles slightly at the end as a result.
Rogue One is not a perfect film, but it is certainly a very enjoyable film. And it goes without saying that it is the best Star Wars prequel to date, not that the bar was set particularly high. It is visually stunning throughout, has incredible, gritty action sequences and with a diverse and charming cast, this is definitely worthy of the title Star Wars. However safe narrative choices and disappointingly bland characters hold it back from transcending good and becoming great.
Ultimately though, Star Wars‘ very own suicide squad is a welcome addition to the canon. For fan boys and newcomers to the franchise, Rogue One is definitely worth a watch.