Warning: This review contains spoilers.
ritish director Gareth Edwards shoulders a lot of responsibility in directing the first Star Wars spin-off film. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story marks the first ‘anthology’ movie in what is sure to be Disney’s mammoth Avengers-like expansion of the Star Wars franchise. While Edwards succeeds in taking the saga to invigorating new places, he couldn’t quite resist the urge to be derivative.
Set between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the original Star Wars (1977), Rogue One stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a plucky rebel fighter and daughter of Death Star research scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is forced to work on the Empire’s unfinished planet destroying weapon by Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). After Krennic has her mother killed and her father taken away, Jyn flees her home and is protected by fanatical rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Thirteen years later, Jyn is freed by Rebels from an Imperial prison, and they embark on a mission to steal the Death Star plans.
Rogue One should be praised for having the courage to explore the galaxy from a much darker perspective. We see a fractious Rebellion dealing with friendly fire and extremists within their ranks, we witness jungle battle scenes more reminiscent of Vietnam than Endor, Jyn’s father struggles with the guilt and pain of forcibly working for an evil Empire, and the Death Star’s destructive power parallels real world nuclear weapons. All this gives the film a comparatively bleak slant, and it is jarring to see morally grey areas dealt with in a universe so defined by the archetypal. Darth Vader’s return to the screen is of course a welcome one, with one genuinely terrifying scene restoring the Sith Lord to his rightful places as an imposing antagonist. But for all its grittiness, Rogue One is not humourless, mainly thanks to K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). A reprogrammed Imperial droid fighting for the Rebellion, K-2SO’s droll pessimism brings to mind Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Star Wars saga doesn’t exactly have an unblemished track record when it comes to CGI comic relief sidekicks, but thankfully the unflappable K-2SO is no Jar Jar Binks. This seven-foot robot is both imposing and likable, and has a knack for timing his punchlines.
There are plenty of other compelling new characters to flesh out the Star Wars universe here. Felicity Jones provides us with another welcome addition to the series’ squadron of courageous female leads, although the former The Archers actress’s performance isn’t overly remarkable. Ben Mendelsohn revels in playing baddie Orson Krennic with the campy energy we want in a Star Wars villain. Chinese martial artist Donnie Yen brings an air of Buddhist spiritualism to The Force in his pious portrayal of Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who battles Stormtroopers with a staff. But despite all this innovation, the film somewhat stifles in its delivery. Rogue One was plagued by last minute reshoots, and regrettably the final cut did not escape unscathed. Forest Whitaker’s role as Saw Gerrera, a cyborg veteran of the Clone Wars, grabs our interest, but his character arc simply fizzles out. A slow opening act, at times awkward pacing, and a totally extraneous scene involving a mind-reading tentacle alien all hint at trouble in the editing suite.
One of the film’s most technically remarkable achievements is the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing, so that he could “reprise” his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. While an impressive display of cutting edge visual effects, this spectacle somewhat eclipses our immersion, and our focus shifts from the narrative to noticing his uncanny facial expressions and slightly off skin movement, demonstrating that our ability to recreate flesh and blood with CGI isn’t quite there yet.
The way in which Rogue One dispenses with many of the saga’s conventions is cause for both admiration and criticism. Seven films in, Star Wars has a well-established cinematic grammar, and while, no doubt, some stylistic choices were deliberate — there is no opening crawl or screen wipe transitions here — others seem misplaced. John Williams’s music, the undisputed oxygen of Star Wars, is markedly absent. Instead, we get a rather bland score from Michael Giacchino, a composer hastily brought in after the reshoots to replace Alexandre Desplat. Giacchino composed Rogue One’s music in just four and a half weeks. Battle sequences interspersed with shaky, handheld shots gives the action a rather generic, decidedly un-Star Warsy aesthetic, and onscreen captions providing us with planet names and locations feel like a clumsy, and much too blatant a form of exposition for the saga’s brand of space opera fantasy. One of the many failings of George Lucas’s Prequel Trilogy was a lack of tension — we know which characters survive, and what will become of many of them — and while Rogue One largely avoids this by introducing a whole host of new characters, ultimately, it is still a prequel, and we all know how it will end.
It’s unsurprising that handing the reins to Gareth Edwards, a self-confessed Star Wars geek, resulted in a fan-pleasing exercise. Rogue One is packed with cameos and obscure references sure to delight fans and alienate those not as familiar with the franchise in equal measure. When the film gawkily pauses for us to gasp at a shoehorned shot of those guys from Mos Eisley Cantina, and prequel trilogy veteran Jimmy Smits awkwardly enters the frame (reprising his role as Bail Organa), we can almost feel Edwards elbowing us in the ribs.
While undeniably an enthralling new direction for the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One ultimately lacks the charm of the original trilogy or Abram’s The Force Awakens (2015). Instead, Edwards’s somewhat flawed addition to the franchise seems complaisant to place its emphasis on spectacular action sequences and packing the frame with as much nostalgia as possible.