Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This prequel set in the immediate run-up to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope starts off when Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a retired engineer for the Galactic Empire, is visited on his home planet by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who pressures him to return to work on the Death Star. His wife Lyra, who doesn’t want him to go, threatens to shoot Krennic - but ends up being blasted by Stormtroopers while their daughter Jyn watches from behind a bank of grass. Jyn runs away and hides, after which she is taken under the wing of rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Fast forward some years and Jyn is now a young adult being held in an Imperial Penitentiary. She is busted out by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial Droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and taken to the Rebel-occupied world of Yavin for a special briefing by Mon Mothma. She learns that she has been recruited based on her former relationship with Gerrera, who is now the leader of a separate radical faction of the Rebellion that is hiding out on the desert planet Jedha. They have learnt that an Imperial defector has been in contact with this extremist.
The trio head off for the planet’s main city, and while there get involved in a firefight with some Stormtroopers and a pair of other rebels: the blind martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his big gun-slinging pal Base Malbus (Wen Jiang). The latter two join the trio, only for all of them to end up captured by Gerrera’s men. Once they are at the latter’s base, Jyn declares herself and reunites with him. He shows her the transmission from the Imperial defector - who turns out to be her father, delivering information about a weakness in the Death Star’s defences.
However, at that moment fate intervenes as Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin has asked Krennic to demonstrate the Death Star’s destructive capabilities on Jedha’s main city. As the settlement is blown away and a tsunami of destruction rears up towards Gerrera’s hideout, the ragtag group - now accompanied by a defected Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) whom Gerrera had also captured - make their escape and head off to locate Galen.
The Force Awakens was, while not perfect, certainly the film that made the Star Wars franchise “cool” again. Rogue One, while technically an offshoot of the series, not to mention being set chronologically earlier in the Star Wars canon, has been released just one year after the former. Hence, it comes with a certain baggage in both keeping up with the “return to form” that The Force Awakens heralded and stepping up from its slight weaknesses (the main one being that it played it safe and more or less rehashed Episode IV: A New Hope, albeit with just enough variations and sense of fun to avoid feeling stale).
Does it manage it? Well, kind of - albeit with a few issues. There’s a bit too much exposition at times. Not to the point of the pure dead drag that took up large swathes of the first two entries in the much-maligned prequel trilogy, but still enough to introduce a slight sense of laboriousness into what should be (and, to be fair, largely is) a grand escapist proposition. During the first act we are introduced to so many different characters based on different planets that even Dune author Frank Herbert (were he still alive) would balk.
Thankfully the good parts - when they come - do make it worth sitting through the overcomplicated setup. One plus point is that it succeeds where the prequels largely failed (but The Empire Strikes Back came up trumps with) in its attempts to take the franchise into a darker arena (thematically and, here at times, visually too). We’re focussing more on the foot-soldiers than on the pivotal figures in this interstellar battle, and hence, from the outset, we get characters whose fates are far from secure. It’s not all doom and gloom however. The robot character of K-2SO manages to function as a more cynical, combat ready C-3PO in providing a much-needed dash of comic relief. More to the point, the action sequences, as directed by Gareth Edwards, are stunningly good. The street skirmish at Jedha City is tight and visceral, and its nods at Star Wars’s own cinematic reference points (Kurosawa’s samurai films, spaghetti westerns) are both affectionate and canny in capturing what made them so thrilling in their original forms. A later battle featuring X-Wings wending their way through rock pillars in night-time rain, their engine pipes glowing an eerie purple amid the oppressive darkness, is a triumphant mixture of atmosphere and special effects. I would stick my neck out and describe the third act, featuring an extended triple-focus battle that’s staggering in scope (base infiltration, a beach invasion featuring AT-AT walkers and a huge outer space dogfight going on in parallel), as being the finest action sequence in the history of the franchise.
As with The Force Awakens, there is a fine balance of CGI and practical effects, harkening back to the pure DIY craftsmanship that made the original trilogy’s worlds seem so thrillingly tangible but rendering the more spectacular moments with greater depth and scope than miniature work could ever hope to achieve. There are also plenty of Easter Eggs and references that will please ongoing buffs, as well as a few neat twists that make the universe feel more solid and well-rounded. There’s a surprisingly subversive hint earlier on that the Empire present themselves as a force of stability in the galaxy - clearly a ruse that some are falling for (the young Jyn is briefly seen holding a Stormtrooper doll). Unfortunately, things do slip up on a couple of occasions as two characters from A New Hope make an appearance here rendered in some rather obvious CGI. It’s distracting and makes the proceedings harder to take seriously when they do appear (thankfully not for too much of the film’s running time).
Good parts and not-so-good parts taken together, I enjoyed Rogue One a lot. However, from a personal point of view, while I certainly think it’s better than the prequels, it doesn’t feel quite as momentous as either the original trilogy or The Force Awakens. After some careful afterthought, I felt what was lacking was any real sense of character arcs developing. In the main series the protagonists were on two parallel adventures - one, a traditional action-adventure narrative and the other, a journey of self-discovery. Here, there’s less a sense of them heading towards any radical revelations about themselves or others, and more of a sense of them functioning as pieces in a lengthy chess game. The performers are fine; Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso may be a little similar to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in her performance - but that’s not a bad thing, Alan Tudyk is great fun voicing K-2SO, Donnie Yen provides a graceful Zatoichi homage as Chirrut and Forest Whitaker brings his usual powerhouse presence to the role of Gerrera. It's just that their characters don't quite make the same emotional impact as those in the main Star Wars storyline. Ben Mendelsohn, likewise, chews the scenery enjoyably as a snidely ambitious villain, but at the same time he doesn't exactly give Darth Vader a run for his money in the menace league.
On the whole, Rogue One feels just like what it is - a sideshow to the main event, albeit a highly entertaining one on its own right.
Runtime: 134 mins
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Script: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk (voice), Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits