DIR: Gareth Edwards • WRI: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy • PRO: Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen • DES: Doug Chiang, Neil Lamont • MUS: Michael Giacchino • CAST: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Does anyone else think calling it Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is underselling it? “A” Star Wars story? Implying it’s only one of many such stories? “What? This old thing? Oh, we just threw it together.” Of course you don’t, because the words Star Wars guarantee box-office success, even if your movie reveals the young Darth Vader’s vendetta against sand (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tLf1JO5bvE ). The question over Rogue One is whether it will demonstrate that the universe of Star Wars provides rich opportunities for storytelling and can produce many classic films outside of the central saga. The answer is clearly… Maybe.
Rogue One reveals the backstory to how Zion received the final transmission of the Osiris, detailing a Machine plot to… Sorry, that’s The Last Flight of the Osiris from The Animatrix.
Rogue One reveals the backstory to how the Rebel Alliance received the plans to the Death Star. While the fate of this Death Star thing remains unclear (to nomadic peoples as yet untouched by technological civilisation), Rogue One focuses less on suspense around the mission’s success, more on the gripping personal decisions that had to be made getting there. These dilemmas are faced by a cast of new characters alongside some surprising returns by characters from previous Star Wars films. It’s impressive they managed to keep some of these reveals under wraps. Some of these cameos are well-executed with good performances, while others are awkwardly lingered on in a more grating form of fan-service.
Star Wars is built on fan-service so there’s not much use complaining; Particularly not when it leads to Rogue One’s standout moment with Darth Vader that almost undoes the damage to his gravitas from his aforementioned sand phobia. In between easter-eggs, Rogue One tells a new story about Jyn Erso (Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones). Her father, Galen Erso, (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist forced to design the Death Star by the Empire. She was successfully raised in hiding by Clone War-veteran Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) but has since lost contact with both of them. The Rebel Alliance compel Jyn to re-establish contact with both of them, in the hope that rebel factions throughout the Empire can unite in an attack to take down the Death Star.
The tension in this story, set right before the events of Episode IV, is driven by audience investment in the decisions and risks Jyn and her team will make. What’s peculiar about the writing in Rogue One is that it’s very good at making the situations that characters are in complicated yet the characters themselves are mostly one-note. Exceptions to this include Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO, a charming performance of a droid character that could so easily have been irritating, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen. Galen is imbued with the unease of a morally-compromised man but also the humane warmth not typically associated with Mikkelsen’s performances elsewhere. Rogue One’s other characters aren’t as consistently compelling and often lack a clear motivation for why they do what they do.
The moral greyness of the Rebel Alliance’s actions and the professional infighting among the Empire’s officers do add some depth to the context of the original trilogy. But there isn’t much depth given to individual characters here. Saw Gerrera is particularly disappointing because of Forrest Whitaker’s distracting performance. Portraying a tortured soul with eccentric quirks and strange speech patterns is a delicate balance, and the choices Whitaker makes here, the long inhales, the anguished raspy voice and so forth, are just too artificial.
Jyn on the other hand feels too reserved, like a textbook example of a “Strong Female Character”; a badass woman with fighting skills, steely determination, and… not much else to her character. Her scenes involve her either demonstrating her steely determination or giving a rousing speech that rings hollow, as if it feels out of place for this character to encourage anyone. That’s not to say she doesn’t have moments of emotional resonance. Indeed, every character gets their moment to shine; they’re just generally a bit flat. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen may play one-note characters, but they do have a delightful dynamic together and they pull off a fresh spin on Jedi mythology. Their casting in a project of this size possibly signals moves from Hollywood to cater more to Chinese audiences. The racial diversity of the cast is outstanding by Hollywood’s standards. However, Jyn is the only major female character, which only places more expectations on how much depth she is given.
The characters are functional enough to lead to emotional pay-offs and their journeys are portrayed in style. Although the initial bombardment of planet names you couldn’t possibly remember doesn’t bode well, it actually holds your interest throughout the movie to see such a variety of physical environments depicted. It was particularly innovative to see the Maldives used in scenes of warfare on a tropical island planet. A location typically used to depict tranquil paradise is now the arena for classic Imperial machines to stomp around among the shallow waters and the palm trees. Rogue One will serve as a poignant reminder of their beauty before preventable man-made climate change drowns them.
Urban landscapes are also a setting for thrilling action but there’s sleekness to this new take on iconic Star Wars production design that makes it look more like a video game from the Jak and Daxter series (or a far more up-to-speed reference from someone who still plays videogames). There is a balance between bringing a new war-movie aesthetic to this universe in that instance and recapturing the aesthetic of the saga films in other scenes. In either case, it goes over-the-top when it is appropriate to and does demonstrate that bringing in a director such as Gareth Edwards, can lead to a fresh perspective on existing intellectual property.
Rogue One therefore encourages the notion that anthology films can be a worthwhile direction for the Star Wars franchise. If the output is anything like this, it will at least be better quality than blockbusters typically released. But there must be a renewed focus on new storytelling with well-rounded characters from this point on. The Han Solo prequel is going to disappoint people because it’s all going to be laboured contrivances depicting his first meeting with Chewbacca, his first time seeing the Millennium Falcon and so on. But aside from that, there is cause for cautious optimism given how Rogue One brings new style to iconic imagery and characters from Star Wars. Rogue One packs an emotional punch and shows much promise for stories to come from a rich universe with an astonishing cultural impact.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released 15th December 2016