Film Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)- Extremely Positive

This was always going to be a tricky sell…

Rogue One is the first of its kind; a Star Wars film that stands apart from the “main saga” and the narrative and stylistic trappings that that implies. Done right it can redefine the parameters of what a Star Wars film can be, mishandled it can run the risk of alienating one of the most loyal fan bases in cinema history.

Of course the notion of expanding upon the established mythology is nothing new. For decades we’ve had an “Expanded Universe” of stories that are wildly various in scope and style that expand on characters, locations and events that the “saga” films have skimmed over. Most of these stories have been expunged from the continuity, stuffed into a box with “LEGENDS” scrawled on it and abandoned in the darkest recesses of the Lucasfilm vaults. Some, like the Clone Wars  and more recently Rebels animated series’, however, have made it into that fickle members’ club known as “canon”.

Now we have our first ever entry in what will no doubt prove to be the first of many spinoff films.

Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2013) director Gareth Edwards brings a grittier sensibility than we’re used to seeing in the more lyrical “saga films”. Unconstrained by the space-opera trappings he shoots the film will all the vigour of a 7 year-old who’s snuck his Star Wars figures out to play in the back garden and got them good and dirty in the process!

One thing that always perplexed me about the prequel films is how comparatively short lived and inconsequential they made the Emperor’s reign seem. Fortunately Rogue One treats us to an ants’ eye view of life under the heel of Imperial rule. The galaxy far, far away has never felt more lived in, never felt so worn, never felt so desperate.

The film tells the story of the hardy team of rebel spies who steal the all important plans that R2D2 is bequeathed by Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Indeed, the theme of hope and the importance of keeping the precarious flicker of hope alive in relentlessly dark times.

It’s interesting to note that this is the first entry into the Star Wars saga to actually feel like a war film. The first act is largely composed of whispered conversations just out of earshot of ubiquitous Stormtroopers who patrol every alley just waiting to put a blaster bolt in the face of anyone who looks at them funny. While the villainous foot soldiers have found themselves the butt of so many wry jokes and internet memes for decades its refreshing to see them as a feared and menacing presence (that can shoot straight). Early on we’re treated to the sobering reality that the rebellion against the Empire is more fractured and disorganised than we might expect with mistrust and even aggression between rebel militias.

On the subject of familiar characters, the presence of a noteworthy Sith Lord is judiciously employed at a few key moments in the film and I’m glad that Edwards and his team had the restraint not to shoehorn classic characters into the narrative mix when they do nothing to benefit the story and serve no purpose other than fan service. There’s another familiar character that you certainly won’t be expecting and their presence is far more intrinsic to the plot than you’d have thought possible (proof-reading this it becomes apparent how vague that sentence is unless you’ve seen the film). 

While the prequel trilogy may not be the most fashionable entires into the saga I was glad to see Jimmy Smits’ return as Bail Organa providing some welcome connective tissue between trilogies. Likewise; Genevieve O’Reilly, whose role as Mon Mothma in Revenge of the Sith (2005) was criminally reduced to a single deleted scene gets to really shine in the role.

While there’s a healthy dose of the familiar and the success of the story hinges on the rag-tag mob of new characters. Felicity Jones is compelling as the noble but damaged protagonist Jyn Erso, her difficult relationship with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) standing out as one of the most satisfying dramatic element of the film. Her crew are no slouches either. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor brings an abundance of earthy charm and Riz Ahmed demonstrates just how much of a chameleon he is as the broken but determined Bodhi Rook. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang excel as Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, the bickering Guardians of the Whills (essentially Force Monks). The star of the show, however, has to be Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, an Imperial droid reprogrammed with the exact personality of Sheldon Cooper.

Unfamiliar as I am with most of the Clone Wars animated series, Saw Gerrera is a character I’m unfamiliar with but I was still impressed by Forrest Whittaker’s performance that seemed to draw in equal measure from Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979) and his own role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006).

Anyone who’s seen The Dark Knight Rises (2012) will attest to Ben Mendelsohn’s talent for playing slimy, self-serving douchebags and he gets to dial it up to eleven as Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer motivated entirely by blind ambition and staggering self-importance, a character who would be easy to dismiss as a buffoonish bureaucrat were it not for his affinity for violence.

Unhampered by the somewhat operatic style to the acting and dialogue usually associated with Star Wars, Edwards clearly feels comfortable getting the best out of his actors. The dialogue is naturalistic without the awkwardly stilted tone of much of George Lucas’ dialogue (Harrison Ford famously said to Lucas ‘you can type this shit but you can’t say it’). The shot vocabulary is also a little more guerilla in style with the venerable getting a little closer than we may be used to seeing, yet still incorporating some spectacular vistas of new and familiar locations. Visual flourishes like the signature editing wipes are also absent.

The music is much less ostentatious than John WIlliams’ traditional scores. A much less spartan affair, it is a functional but austere presence with only the occasional fleeting refrain here and there to remind us where we are and with whom. 

If this is to be the standard we can expect from the spinoff films then I have no problem casting aside my initial suspicions whatsoever. Exploring new and familiar locations, spending time with new or lesser known characters and treading the lesser trodden paths of the galaxy far, far away sounds like a great way to bridge the gaps between “saga” films.

Rogue One is essentially a fan-film made with Disney money…

And that’s a pretty wonderful thing!

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