Dir. Gareth Edwards
Screenplay. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta)
One of the major issues with The Force Awakens, the latest in the Star Wars saga chronologically, was its sheer lack of originality. Now widely seen as a criticism, even the film’s narrative structure replicated the 1977 Star Wars film (later retitled A New Hope) while offering little in the way of a new direction for the saga. Essentially, director J.J Abram’s and Disney were recycling the classic iconography of the original 70s-80s trilogy. This could have been an attempt to ‘redeem’ creator George Lucas’ poorly crafted, disappointing prequel trilogy in the eyes of fans but was, perhaps more cynically, an attempt for the corporation to reclaim the tainted brand worth of a major commodity. Alongside its banal repetition, there was also a disingenuousness to The Force Awakens, when it created a ‘new’ Death Star, ‘new’ X-Wings, ‘new’ Stormtroopers, ‘new’ Darth Vader and so on. Due to its placement in the continuity, the re-appearance of this iconography is more appropriate as director Gareth Edwards recreates those widely-recognised, often cherished characters, costumes, vehicles and ships while also departing from Star Wars child-friendly, fantasy roots to a grittier, more adult tone of the war movie genre. While Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as with The Force Awakens, still plays it safe by offering heavy fan service and nostalgia, taking few risks and creating few memorable characters, it remains an enjoyable experience for those still wanting to return to the Star Wars galaxy.
Set between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, the Imperial Empire are constructing a planet-destroying weapon in secret to consolidate their power over the galaxy. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is pulled out of an Imperial labor camp by the desperate Rebel Alliance due to her scientist father Galen’s (Mads Mikkelsen) key role in the project. Tasked with locating him, Jyn and a motley team of rebels and defectors must find a weakness in the Empire’s ultimate weapon before it destroys any hope of resistance. Joining her is the committed but jaded rebel Cassian (Diego Luna) and his sardonic droid-sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). An unlikely and diverse unit start to build when Zatoichi-like monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his seldom-spoken but tough companion Baze (Wen Jiang) and anxious Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) are thrown together on the mission. In marked contrast to its depiction in the original episodes, the Rebels’ motives and methods are considerably murkier morally. Writers Weitz and Gilroy have tried to complicate the notion of resistance, portraying a more fractured alliance between so-called ‘extremists’ on the one end represented by Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) and more pacifistic politicians on the other, such as returning leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). Where Lucas sort to portray a simplistic dichotomy of totalitarian British Nazis on the one side and plucky, defiant cross-Atlantic rebels on the other, drawing on the Second World War, Weitz and Gilroy are perhaps reaching for the uncertainty and moral ambiguity in our contemporary conflicts, looking to the Arab Spring or the Syrian civil war (though these allusions are not without problematic simplifications of their own). Political analogies aside, the basic ingredients of those original Star Wars adventures are all here too: burgeoning friendships, dry wit and gross sentimentality centred around familial ties.
The ensemble performance of new main characters are, for the most part, fun to watch, with Jones and Luna as the initially frictious centre. However, Jones’ protagonist appears quite removed from her appearance in the trailers. While thankfully the terrible line ‘This is a rebellion isn’t it…I rebel’ doesn’t feature, she appeared more defiant and headstrong, like she had agency and presence. Instead, the film’s Erso is withdrawn, dour and somewhat unconvincing in her arc from independent survivor to revolutionary leader, a decision maybe taken during the film’s infamously reported reshoots. K-2’s sarcastic quips lend some needed humour to the otherwise grim proceedings but few others are really memorable, with Whitaker’s Gerrara given little to do but be oddly mad and Yen’s Chirrut only barely escaping the spiritual mystic-martial arts Asian stereotype. It is unfortunate as its impressive cast-list are given roles with cursory development or minor cameos. More significant is Ben Mendelsohn’s main antagonist Director Krennic, played against typical clipped-RP British accent and reserved manner with rough drawl and barely restrained rage. It was highly but unintentionally amusing to watch Krennic go through the worst day in Imperial history, flown from one disaster to the next, brow furrowing as control slowly slips out of his hands. It adds depth to why Darth Vader never tolerated even minute failure from his subordinates in The Empire Strikes Back or why Krennic is never mentioned again. The return of late actor Peter Cushings’ Governor Tarkin via digital effects (voiced and modelled by Guy Henry) is slightly off-putting (often his face is monstrously aged) but appears to fit in with the other actors on-screen, his icy domineering presence suitably resurrected (though not without causing ethical controversy).
This impressive digital effects work continues into Greig Fraser’s cinematography, where he and Edwards also take up Abrams’ lead by using practical locations, sets and effects, dovetailing the film well with the dirtier, retro-futuristic environments of A New Hope. There is, once again, a solidness to the galaxy, making it as believable while still uncannily alien as in Lucas’ original. Being fortunate enough to see the film in 70mm, the grainy, imperfect quality complimented Fraser’s visuals and sets wonderfully. In fitting with its war movie predilections, the action sequences have a faster pace and are more violent, bringing us into the chaotic atmosphere of an on-the-ground grunt insurgency. It can be bombastic and a more than a little nauseating, though still exciting and epic in its spectacle, especially during the film’s closing act, where the TIE-Fighter/X-Wing dogfights easily replicate the thrills of Return of the Jedi’s climactic battle. The landscapes of Iceland, the Maldives and Jordan used offer new vibrant, unique environments beyond the desert/forest/snow planet reiteration seen in The Force Awakens. Michael Giacchino’s score subtly nods to John William’s now iconic motifs, almost ready to become that famous music from A New Hope, but it is in the little transition riffs here and there that feel authentic to the old Star Wars films.
While praise must be given to the faithful work that Edwards has done to recreate the classic Star Wars iconography, there is nothing on offer here for the non-fan and even nothing particularly new for the fans themselves. Casual and hardcore Star Wars devotees (Weitz and Gilroy dip deep into the Star Wars lore with mentions of the ‘Whills’) will undoubtedly love this film, as its nods, allusions and the few beloved characters returning to the screen, are all utilised effectively and consciously for them. While Rogue One is certainly entertaining, it does offer further evidence that Disney and Lucasfilm are creatively impotent. The studios still struggle to find fresh direction or engaging characters, which is astonishing considering Star Wars is set within a galaxy of planets, species and mythologies. Without the vicarious nostalgia and the reliance on fan-service, Rogue One would not have the same appeal or accolades showered as a standalone film. Ultimately, it is a fitting, though arguably unnecessary, addition to the Star Wars saga.