Its mind boggling to think that we’ve had two Star Wars films in the space (chuckle) of two years. From none to one-a-year, thanks to Disney this franchise is now looking more and more likely to continue till the end of time. But if they’re all as good as Rogue One, I’m completely fine with that.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a spin-off prequel to A New Hope directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters). It stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a rebellious young woman who is recruited by the rebellion itself in order to track down her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist abducted by the Empire to help construct their secret weapon the Death Star.
The Prequel we Deserved
This film ends moments before A New Hope begins, making this a genuine prequel as much as being the first standalone-esque Star Wars movie. There’s no number in the title, no jedi, very few recurring characters and a bunch of settings never seen on the big screen. In many ways, Disney needs Rogue One to be a hit in order to justify the upcoming other spin-offs, and in many ways they absolutely succeed. After a slightly muddled first act is out of the way, the film skips along at a brisk pace with the smatterings of action, humour and fan service expected until it finally hits the mother of all third acts in a desperate bid to steal the Death Star plans themselves. Honestly the final 20-30 minutes of Rogue One are almost worth the price of admission alone, as Edwards concocts a vast cinematic battleground of Star Wars iconography and drama that’s sure to satisfy everyone from fans to casual viewers and make them immediately want to go back and watch A New Hope. While this is a Star Wars movie, it also feels in many respects like the war movie they promised, and the level of seriousness and grit that label brings to this film is solely for its benefit. This is the first Star Wars film ever that the lasers spraying everywhere actually feel like a threat. There’s no hokey religious powers or magic laser swords, just a good blaster at your side and the constant possibility of surprise death. Sure, 99% of the audience knows how Rogue One is going to end, but regardless the pure and effective spectacle on screen makes it an absolute pleasure to see these events play out with such finesse.
Edwards V Character
For most of its marketing I’ve been rather luke-warm on Rogue One for a number of reasons, but the core of them being director Gareth Edwards himself. Prior to this film, the man had only directed two movies – Godzilla and Monsters – and quite honestly I’m not a fan of either. Neither had the pathos and characters they needed, and I was afraid that Rogue One was going to suffer the same fate. And to some extent, it does. The biggest issue of the movie is the cast of characters themselves – while many of them are distinct, likeable and well-acted, the direction and screenplay just doesn’t give the development and characterisation they need to really pop in the way many of the characters in The Force Awakens did. However, this fault is luckily muted partially by whatever brief backstory and characterisation they are given being very effective.
Felicity Jones as Erso is an easy protagonist to root for, and while her arch does feel rushed, she never skews far away from being the capable dramatic centre this film needs. Another notable character includes Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, who has arguably the most fleshed out arch in the film but unfortunately isn’t distinct enough to make much of an impression beyond that. His co-pilot K2-SO is however another story. Voiced by Alan Tudyk after his highly-dramatic turn as a chicken in Moana earlier this month, this reprogrammed imperial droid is basically C3-PO except funny and not annoying as hell, and by far the biggest standout character of the film.
The rest of the rogue squadron outside of those core three (who get the most screentime) also follow a similar pattern of suffering from lack of backstory but still being memorable enough. Donnie Yen as a force sensitive blind-man is both badass and charming, with his partner Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) being a solid companion, but neither get enough screentime to be absolute standouts. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi gets an equally short shrift, which is disappointing due to his character being one that would have been interesting to explore rather than gloss over. And ditto for Mads Mikkelson’s Galen Erso, who was surprisingly devoid of screentime due to the rising star Mikkelson as been in recent years. And as for Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, he’s hamming it up so much that it feels like he should almost be in a different movie.
Now onto the villains front (wow there’s a lot of characters in this movie). Ben Mendlesohn is an excellent choice for imperial director Orson Krennic and has a delightfully good time being smarmy and sinister, and actually has a few moments of character delivered to him. Oh yeah, and Vader. Vader was basically perfect. Wasn’t in it so little that its a cameo, but not so much that he takes over the movie, he’s utilised to perfection and is the thesis of easily the best scene in the entire film. What a joy to see one of cinema’s greatest villains back on the big screen for a few moments longer.
From Giant Monsters to Giant Space Stations
But aside from Edwards problems with character, there’s one thing this bloke knows how to do and its spectacle. Godzilla proved that showing and using scale and vistas is an art he has near perfected, and what better way to showcase this than a film about a space station the size of a moon? Honestly the vistas, landscapes and utter scale of everything from AT-AT’s to Star Destroyers is pristine and simply gorgeous. Even though it may follow a small cast of characters, Rogue One feels big in many ways and its visual presentation is arguably the film’s greatest asset (outside of K2-SO of course). Each planet, particularly the standout tropical Scarif, is distinct and exceptionally shot with special attention given to Star Wars iconography being slotted into stunning natural landscapes. The CGI is just as impressive as you’d expect, even if one key character suffers a bit on close inspection, and the typical space battles between hundreds of ships and cruisers is a sight to behold.
Better than just the Prequels
Regardless of my few quibbles, Rogue One is absolutely the greatest Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back hit theatres 36 years ago. Even with the character issues and messy first act, I was so enthralled with the visuals, tone and character-elevating acting for them to bother me very much in the moment. Rogue One exceeded my expectations, is easily Gareth Edwards best film, and is exactly what millions of people are going to want for a Star Wars film just before Christmas. Here’s to Episode 8 being just as good.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
True Believers (Star Wars): Must-see
Blockbusters: Highly Recommended