Almost exactly a year ago, the Star Wars saga was triumphantly rejuvenated by the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a film that I really enjoyed and was happy to call “almost certainly the best Star Wars film that anyone could possibly have made in 2015,” despite being somewhat frustrated by the sheer metric tonnage of nostalgia and fan service it contained and just how far it was content to ride on the coattails of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The film’s best assets were its new cast and characters which offered an injection of new life and new hope to the franchise, but The Force Awakens itself was too busy revisiting the past and reheating the same themes and plots of the original trilogy to really get the best out of them. Still, it set things up nicely for Episode VIII assuming that the filmmakers can take advantage of what they now have in their arsenal.
Before that film, however, comes a cinematic intermission in the form of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which clearly positions itself as being a tale from and about the Star Wars universe while not being a part of the main saga itself. Such anthology tales could prove to be the future of the franchise as a whole, with new films headlining Han Solo and Boba Fett already in production, so the importance of Rogue One to the health and wealth of Star Wars can hardly be understated.
I’ll admit, I was sceptical about Rogue One when I first heard that it was going to be an immediate prequel to the very first film A New Hope. It takes as its inspiration the first paragraph of the opening text crawl of the 1977 original:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Rogue One unpacks that précis and breathes life into exactly what that skimpily referenced first victory actually entailed. But is it really necessary for us to have to see the details of this mission almost forty years on? If not then it would be easy to dismiss the latest film as a superfluous, unimaginative cash-in to keep the money rolling in before it’s time for the next ‘real’ Star Wars movie. In the hands of a less capable and inspired genre director than Gareth Edwards that may indeed have turned out to be the case, but instead Edwards uses what is admittedly the safest of starting points to embark on a story the likes of which Star Wars has never attempted, less a traditional fantasy film than it is a war movie along the lines of Where Eagles Dare or Saving Private Ryan.. Free to strip away the main saga’s eternally recurring themes of the balance and clash between the light and dark sides of the Force and the never-ending traumas of the extended Skywalker family, Rogue One takes us to new places, introduces us to new characters, and tells a completely different type of story from any of the previous movies. If Star Wars is a film about Jedi Knights and evil Sith Lords, of princesses and senators and chancellors and heroes with a mythic destiny to change the entire galaxy for good or ill, then Rogue One is about what the ordinary citizens of the universe are left enduring down in the dirt under the jackboot of the Imperial forces as they simply try to survive while the epic events rage around and over them.
More specifically Rogue One is the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who as a young girl is forced to watch helplessly as her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken away by Imperial stormtroopers and coerced into taking up a crucial role in the development of the Empire’s ultimate weapon, a planet-killer the size of a small moon. Years later, just as the weapon nears completion, a Rebel Alliance agent named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) tracks down the disillusioned Jyn in the hopes that she can lead him to her father. Jyn thinks it’s a rescue mission; but Cassian’s orders are quite different…
Along the way, Rogue One takes us on a galactic road trip to assemble its line-up. While The Force Awakens played safe with its desert setting, this film delivers entirely new vistas which help expand and deepen the sense of realism and scale of the Star Wars galaxy. It steps away from the usual look-and-feel of the franchise that at times made it feel almost claustrophobic in the way it always seemed to return to the same handful of planets. By contrast, Rogue One does more to singlehandedly make the Star Wars universe feel vibrantly real and alive than all of the entries since 1980 combined, starting with the striking landscape of Lah’mu (filmed in Iceland) and moving to the battlefields of Jedha (shot in Jordan) and on to a number of Imperial strongholds (one of which uses Canary Wharf tube station as a backdrop!) before arriving at the deceptively beautiful tropical base Scarif (filmed in the Maldives.) The film also returns us to a couple of locations familiar from A New Hope, not least of which the Death Star itself which has been recreated in almost shockingly faithful high definition.
Jyn and Cassian are accompanied on their mission by reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose acerbic wit is the source of much of the film’s humour and almost all of its comedic moments. On Jedha they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind adherent of the Guardians of the Whills who while not himself a Jedi nonetheless shows some Force-enhanced capabilities. He is watched over by Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who provides the team with heavy firepower, while Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is a pilot with detailed knowledge of Imperial systems, and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is a radical extremist who has split from the Rebel Alliance because of his ultra-violent tactics. They’re up against Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who is in charge of the Death Star project; rather than the embodiment of evil we’re used to with Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Emperor Palpatine and Supreme Leader Snoke, Krennic is simply a mid-level functionary within the Imperial bureaucracy who is desperate to keep hold of his relative power and status but who finds himself getting increasingly sidelined by much better players of the game.
Without exception, I really liked all of this new line-up of characters and the actors playing them. Whittaker’s semi-cyborg Saw Gerrera heaves a little too close to a cartoon parody at times (and oddly some of his dialogue made me think of the final appearance of Roj Blake in Blake’s 7) but it just about keeps on the right side of the line. All of them came alive for me in a way that rarely happens in a big genre blockbuster. The acid test is whether one cares when a character is in peril, and without exception I did with every single one of them to an almost heartbreaking degree when – inevitably – someone among them fails to make it out of the film alive.
The film has been credited for its female lead and ethnically diverse casting, and indeed that is something truly to be admired and celebrated, but the truth is that you don’t really notice any moralistic ‘political correctness’ in the film: the actors are simply just absolutely right for their parts. On a wider level it also feels right that the Rebel Alliance should consist of a diverse ragtag coalition of all races and creeds, especially when the Empire is presented as monolithically white and male by contrast.
There are other characters in the film, including quite a few familiar old faces from previous entries in the franchise. They’re realised by a mixture of methods, from returning actors to uncannily accurate recasting to the use of restored archive footage, and some of the cameos truly caught me by surprise and left me reeling. I’m disinclined to go into too much detail since this would lead us deeply into spoiler country, but since he’s in the trailer it’s safe to say that Darth Vader is back (now played by Spencer Wilding, but still with the voice of James Earl Jones) and it’s wonderful to see him restored to ‘full bad guy mode’ for the first time since the end of The Empire Strikes Back. After the long story of his corruption by the Dark Side of the Force in the prequels and his ultimate redemption in Return of the Jedi, it’s glorious to see him back to being simply the unequivocal ‘most evil person in the galaxy’ that we met for the first time in A New Hope all those years ago.
Another returning character has proven rather more controversial, but it’s someone with an important role both in the saga and especially in the story of this film, and one whose absence would have been more problematic to write around than dealling with it in the way that it is here. It’s certainly not done just to please the hard core fans, so by and large I’m comfortable with how it’s been handled – although in truth I don’t think it was entirely successfully executed and I can understand the misgivings of those who don’t like it. Another aspect of the film that’s attracted criticism is the absence of the traditional opening text crawl and fanfare, but in this regard I’m entirely on the side of the filmmakers: it’s important to make it clear from the get-go that this is not part of the main continuing saga, and the no-crawl, no-fanfare approach makes that statement right at the start. My only complaint is that the film’s title screen, when it finally arrives after an extended prologue sequence, is understated to the point of being tepid, and the music accompanying it comes across like someone trying to remember how the Star Wars theme goes but who can only come up with a muzak version bearing only a passing resemblance. Happily the rest of Michael Giacchino’s score is much stronger: as the film goes on and the rebels’ actions become more heroic, and the moment of cross-over to the events of A New Hope comes ever closer, the familiar Star Wars fanfare starts to blast its way through – and it’s a glorious thing.
All of which illustrates how difficult it is to balance the old, familiar nostalgia with the thrill of the new and different. The Force Awakens had the same dilemma, and while unquestionably a thrilling ride it nonetheless still felt a little too safe and familiar. Despite the fact that pound-for-pound Rogue One arguably has more on-the-nose geek-pleasing grace notes to the past, it still somehow manages to wear those moments much lighter than its immediate predecessor. You never feel that this film stops for a round of applause for a particular callback, despite the fact that these moments are much bolder and far cleverer than any The Force Awakens pulled off. An example is how a reference to A New Hope’s game of holo-chess is handled: In The Force Awakens there’s a heavy handed moment where Finn slumps into a seat in the Millennium Falcon and die hard fans will know this is where C-3PO advised R2-D2 to “let the Wookie win”, but rather than just letting the moment speak for itself the film has to have Finn accidentally activate the chessboard for a few moments of cartoon clowning to really hammer the nail home. By contrast, Rogue One has a scene where Saw Gerrera’s men are relaxing in their base in Jedha, and in the foreground the keen-eyed viewer will notice there’s a chessboard – not a holographic one, but with actual physical figurines resembling the familiar holo-characters. There was nothing to draw the audience’s attention to it, but if you spot it then it’s a truly lovely moment. And there are hundreds of similar touches, far too many to list here, from familiar circular computer docking ports to meticulously recreated uniforms and a famous line almost uttered by K-2SO before he’s cut off mid-sentence. The point is that none of these grace notes need trouble or distract the non-fan, who will find much to love and admire in the film even if they lack an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Star Wars saga to date.
If you are a huge fan of the films, then there’s a very real possibility that you might reach a point during the film when it all simply becomes too overwhelming (in an entirely positive way) leaving your mind struggling to take it all in. This happened to me around two-thirds of the way through the film. Some critics have said that the first two acts of the film are slow and disjointed and lack pace, but I didn’t find that at all – there wasn’t a single moment where I felt that the action sagged or stalled, and Edwards did a good job keeping a complicated narrative beautifully clear and easy to follow at all times – but when we get to Scarif, the whole film still manages to move up two or three gears and utterly blew me away. This was the moment where I felt my eyes welling up, and it wasn’t because of any particularly high-emotion developments in the story so much as it was the simple realisation and acceptance that I was finally watching the Star Wars film that I had always dreamed of seeing as a teenager, the film that I had hoped Return of the Jedi could have been if Lucas hadn’t lost his nerve; or the prequels, which hadn’t come near; or the film that The Force Awakens came achingly close to being but which just lacked that extra push to send it over the top. Rogue One had, finally, become the ultimate Star Wars movie that I had been waiting to see for half a lifetime, ever since the original triumphs of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. In the circumstances it’s no wonder there was the threat of tears, and I make no apologies.
What’s remarkable is that I came into Rogue One expecting that it would be an irrelevance, an unnecessary addition to the Star Wars franchise: didn’t we already know all we needed to about the events prior to A New Hope? What would seeing them rehashed on screen add to our understanding that wasn’t already conjured up in our minds by those timeless words in the original opening crawl? It turns out that this was a massive misapprehension on my part, because Rogue One genuinely does manage to add immeasurably to our understanding of what happened both just before and then also during A New Hope, not least by giving us an up close and personal demonstration of the raw power of the Death Star. In A New Hope an entire planet is destroyed by the Empire’s weapon, but the audience only gets to see it happen from a distance and as a disappointingly brief special effect – one that George Lucas tried but was unable to significantly improve upon in later special edition releases. In Rogue One we’re on the ground when the Death Star strikes, and the scale of the ensuing devastation is staggering. It completely revises and upgrades our sense of the sheer threat and menace of the Death Star in the subsequent films, and also our understanding of the immensity of the evil of the Empire itself and why it has to be brought down at all costs. It even retroactively explains how the Empire could have made such a glaring error as as to leave an exhaust port exposed that could be used to start a catastrophic chain reaction, a loose plot point in A New Hope that has been endlessly satirised by fans for decades. No more.
It has to be said that this is a very dark film, and not for young kids: it doesn’t stint on the violence and there are many on-screen deaths, and most of all the intensity is much higher than we’ve seen in previous Star Wars films so there’s no question that it earns a 12A certificate in the UK and that parents with children under that age should think twice about letting them see this even if accompanied by adults. It always used to be an axiom that The Empire Strikes Back was the darkest film of the franchise, but without doubt Empire has now been usurped from this long-held position by Rogue One. [If you’re avoiding potential spoilers, skip the remainder of this paragraph] I had an inkling where the film was heading around half an hour from the end, or at least where I felt that it really should be going if only it truly had the courage of its convictions, but I assumed that Disney would never allow that to happen in its golden goose big box office family franchise. It turned out that I was wrong to doubt, and in fact the film doesn’t flinch from going full speed to the destination that the story has been logically and emotionally propelling it from the moment our heroes arrived on Scarif.
With the matter of ‘darkest film of the series’ not in doubt, it turns out that the really big question – and one that I never in my life thought I would ever have reason to consider – is whether Rogue One has also succeeded in overthrowing The Empire Strikes Back as the all-time best Star Wars film. I’m not quite ready to say that yet – my attachment to Empire is too strong, and I’ll need to see Rogue One several times more before I can arrive at a proper judgement – but the very fact that I’m even contemplating such heresy is a measure of just how profoundly wonderful and successful I thought Rogue One was from just a single viewing alone.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Rogue One is currently on worldwide release. It will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2017.