Rogue One breaks with the curse of the Star Wars prequel, making for a valuable and exciting entry in the aged saga.
When put together, the terms “Star Wars” and “prequel” are likely to send chills down the spine of any self-respecting film-goer. Rogue One, a fresh spin-off from director Gareth Edwards, happily breaks with this unfortunate tradition. Set almost immediately before 1977’s Star Wars, Rogue One is a gritty and exciting exploration of an otherwise unseen chapter in a galaxy far, far away. The story here focuses on a plucky band of rebel fighters as they pursue the plans for the all-destructive Death Star, and bring hope to an oppressed galaxy in the process.
Rogue One invites direct comparison with classic war films of ages past. In the vein of Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, or Kelly’s Heroes, it’s the story of a small, ragtag collection of foot soldiers and unlikely heroes, all playing their part within a much larger conflict. Tackling Star Wars from such a grounded perspective makes for a refreshing adventure, so much so that’s it’s almost a shame when the final act descends into the massive, effects-laden spectacle that we’ve seen so many times before. A more intimate finale would have made for a rewarding conclusion to the story, and helped to further distinguish the film from its forbears.
This is not to say that the action is poorly executed – it’s all as coherent and exciting as one could hope for, and the denouement is packed with enough crowd pleasing moments to be worth the price of admission alone. But Edwards is a director who seems more interested in his characters than the multitude of TIE fighters and X-Wings above them. For the first two thirds of the story, the film takes its time in establishing personalities and building relationships, suggesting an intimacy that is somewhat lost in the mayhem of the last battle. Admittedly, the script is a little over-eager to leap into lengthy monologues, but the pace is kept tight enough to avoid weighing the film down. Felicity Jones makes for an excellent and wholly sympathetic lead as Jyn Erso, a disillusioned fighter who is initially more concerned with staying alive than defeating the Empire. She’s supported ably by Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, a cynical agent of the rebel alliance and a veteran of the battle against tyranny.
Both these leads and their diverse supporting cast, including the superb Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, are pleasantly well-drawn and complex. The script even makes an effort to blur the lines between good and evil, a welcome innovation that acknowledges the unsavoury reality of an insurgency war. This is not to say that the righteous ideals of the Rebel Alliance are ever brought into question, but they are forced to consider how far the ends justify the means. It’s not the subtlest of writing, but it gives a new perspective on a well-trodden conflict that has often been represented in black and white terms.
In this vein, Rogue One embraces an impressively dark tone, probably the series’ bleakest since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a bold choice after the fun and frolics of last year’s The Force Awakens, and one befitting the forlorn state of the film’s universe. In keeping with this milieu, Ben Mendelsohn makes for a thoroughly sadistic and unsettling villain in Director Orson Krennic, callously instructing massacres as if he were ordering lunch. Of course, this ruthlessness is balanced by judicious comic relief, mostly provided by a sarcastic droid sidekick, K-2SO. His acerbic humour doesn’t always hit the mark, but Alan Tudyk’s endearing voice performance makes up for the script’s few failings.
As has been well commented upon, Rogue One is a film for fans, first and foremost. Obviously there’s plenty for all to enjoy, but the uninitiated are liable to find themselves lost, particularly with the lack of an opening text crawl this time around. References and homages to past films come thick and fast – such fan-service is never as uncomfortable as in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, but some moments are a little on the nose. A brief appearance from two familiar droids edges into eye-rolling territory.
The biggest disappointment, however, comes in the form of Michael Giacchino’s score. For a composer with such an impressive back-catalogue (The Incredibles, Up, Star Trek) this soundtrack feels less than half-hearted. The only recognisable cues are borrowed from John Williams’ existing motifs, while the rest blends noisily into the background. It gives the impression that a keyboard was switched to the “Star Wars” setting and then played indiscriminately. The cacophony is particularly egregious, since the film’s rich selection of new characters and environments are so deserving of their own themes. The feeble soundscape is likely explained by the untimely departure of original composer, Alexandre Desplat, but it’s nevertheless grating.
Controversy has already been sparked by Rogue One’s use of CGI, particularly in rebuilding the faces of seventies-era actors who have since died or aged beyond recognition. Viewers will disagree on the success of this technique, and its moral implications, but the technology still has some way to go before computer generated people can blend seamlessly with physical actors. Elsewhere, the special effects are generally excellent, as many of the ships and space-stations exhibit a photorealism reminiscent of classic models.
Although it’s often subdued, the film’s photography and set design are deserving of individual praise. Edwards frames a diverse range of locations and sets, all of which have a distinct atmosphere. From sun-baked deserts to rain-soaked ravines, there is a consistent level of artistry that gives each setting a character of its own. The subtle but visceral effect will be familiar to the fans of the director’s prior work on Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) – it’s an approach that elevates some mundane material into cinematic delight.
Despite occasional missteps along the way, the final few moments of Rogue One will leave most Star Wars fans punching the air for joy. At its core, here is a film made with an obvious love for its heritage and an understanding of what makes it so appealing. Perhaps the script should have been stronger in its convictions, but it feels sincere in its effort to take the Star Wars franchise in a new direction, whilst still sitting comfortably next to the tone and aesthetic of the original trilogy. It’s easy to nit-pick, but the truth is that Star Wars hasn’t been this fun in a long time. Relax, and enjoy it while it lasts.