Spoiler free for the plot!
Very minor aesthetic spoilers!
After plenty of anticipation, trepidation and curiosity, the first Star Wars spinoff film is here and it’s a unexpected beast. This is the prequel fans have been waiting for. Set immediately before the events of A New Hope, Rogue One gives us a brand new cast of characters and expands on the established history of the series. The film finds its own identity early on, stepping away from some establishments and having a gritty dark tone that sets it apart from the saga films. Be warned, this movie isn’t for young kids. Instead, this one is for the older fans who have grown up on the franchise and the film delivers a great film for that audience.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and co-written by Tony Gilroy (Bourne), Rogue One follows Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and a motley crew of rebellious beings as they band together to find Jyn’s long lost father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who played a crucial role in the development of the Death Star, a weapon we as fans are quite familiar with but the Rebellion have yet to learn about. What follows is a daring mission set across the galaxy, looking for clues and Intel before leading to a final confrontation. That’s as vague as I’ll put it as the less you know the better. But know despite how large the sets and action is, this is a small focused story and it’s all the better for it.
I’m going to start off with the negatives as there are a few but most of them are curious aesthetic or design choices. For one, there is no opening crawl. It just starts straight into space. However, a crawl would have been immensely helpful for those who haven’t read the prequel novel, Catalyst, which I can safely say is pretty required reading on getting the backstory on Jyn’s father and the villainous Orson Krennic. Without that context, the opening scenes might seem jarring to those who haven’t read the books. I know my viewing experience was different than those around me who didn’t read the book. Without the crawl, the opening parts of the film felt a bit chopping as it was exposition heavy. Secondly, the choice of planetary subtitles was odd and felt out of place. The title card for “Rogue One” looked poor, along with the accompanying theme. In fact in general, Michael Giacchino’s score didn’t quite hit all the marks. Sometimes it felt great, especially when playing off of the old motifs but other times it felt strangely un-Star Wars. But I was also not the biggest fan of The Force Awakens score when it was released and I’ve come to adore it over time, so we’ll see what hearing it a few times does for it. The final flaw for me however was Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Saw Gerrera, a character from the Clone Wars animated TV series. His voice was distracting and comical at times and his role in the film felt somewhat shoehorned in.
That being said, this is a pretty solid movie that takes risks and it pays off. Yes, this is a war movie. The final act was reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan and other war films. The filmmakers pulled no punches, showing us the death and sometimes the cruelty of these soldiers. The gorgeous cinematography by Edwards and his cinematographer created a sense of awe and scale that the other films have yet to do in this franchise. Our heroes felt tiny when going up against the might of the Imperial war machine, illustrated through a boots on the ground perspective, looking up at whatever huge machinery they might be confronted with. The action is also the best the series has been, with a breathtaking space fight and beach fight towards the end that will stay with you long after the film has ended. Note for children and families though: there is one scene in this film that borders on horror film level terror and young ones may be scared. I thought however it was a long time coming and is one of my favourite Star Wars scenes ever.
Some people have argued that this film lacks characterization and suffers for it. While I agree with the former, I disagree with the latter. This film is a plot driven experience and we don’t really need to know everyone’s story or have grand character arcs for that to happen. They are all there to do a job and they are all likable characters. That’s not to say Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) don’t experience change, it just isn’t the same kind of arc we saw in The Force Awakens. The obvious comparison would be Oceans 11 which sees the plot drive the film with character moments sprinkled in and a smaller arc for the main characters. Which I think was the better move for this film for the most part but there is a small detachment to these characters compared to the saga films. Standouts are Alan Tudyk as the sassy droid K-2SO, Donnie Yen as Chirrut, a blind warrior in tune with the force while Jyn and Cassian are the most realized and we care about them the most. Krennic does solid work in the villain department but his characterization is fully fleshed out in the book, thus lacking a bit on screen. That doesn’t make him or his fearsome Death Troopers any less intimidating and the power struggles within the Empire is another interesting layer. The film also takes a bold risk by showing us the Rebels not quite as pure and honest as we’ve been led to believe. Crimes are committed on both sides and its refreshing to see our heroes brought down a notch as the desperation of war sets in for many of them. This added layer humanizes these characters and makes them more believable, especially in 2016.
The film does an excellent job at world building, taking us to exciting new planets, giving us new ships and troopers and bringing back old characters from the original films and the prequels that feel organic and needed. One such character (won’t say who) is a CGI character which threw me off for a second but was glad to have him involved with the plot. Plus it was great fun to see Stormtroopers actually hit something. The film ties directly into A New Hope and in a way, retcons some of the questions or inconsistencies that were present in that film. Rogue and Hope are now the perfect back to back marathon experience. Speaking of A New Hope, the film did an excellent job at capturing the look and feel of that film, which came out in the late 70s. The sets and costumes felt right at home with what we saw in the original films and you’d swear some sets must be the same.
In short, this film differentiates itself from 2015’s The Force Awakens in almost every conceivable way. It took some chances and they paid off. This surprised me, with it’s tone and gritty war time setting. Some of the aesthetics didn’t work out consider this is still a Star Wars film and hope they get modified for Blu Ray and for future standalone features. But this is a great film that surprised, felt fresh and delivered some powerful moments. I believe this film will get better with age and with repeat viewings and both die hard fans and casuals should be entertained with this one. Keep your eyes open for some fun Easter eggs!
all images copyright LucasFilm 2016