Rebellions are Built on Hope
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the very first Star Wars anthology film, meaning it’s the first Star Wars film to NOT feature the story of the Skywalkers or any of the main characters from Episodes I-VII. Rogue One is of the sci-fi fantasy genre, as one would come to expect from Star Wars, but it also has heavy elements of a war film. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) and stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and several others which will later be discussed in detail. It tells the story of a brave group of Rebellion fighters who are trying to steal the plans for the Empire’s newly-completed superweapon: a planet-destroying space station called the Death Star. Central to this story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is recruited by the Rebel Alliance due to her important ties with her lost father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) as well as the freedom fighter leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jyn is escorted by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his partner K2-SO (Alan Tudyk), a re-programmed Imperial droid, to the planet of Jedha in order to unravel the Empire’s terrible secret and recover the precious Death Star plans. What then follows are the events leading up to the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope).
For those of you who are confused or wondering where Rey and Kylo Ren are, let’s clear the mist. Rogue One takes place in between Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s meant to be a standalone film, but also a bridge connecting the classic trilogy to the prequel trilogy. For those who have never watched a Star Wars film, all this is likely to be inconsequential. But without a doubt, the experience of watching Rogue One is all the more enhanced having seen all other Star Wars films in this cinematic universe. This long-winded explanation is proof enough that Rogue One is definitely a ‘risk’. An ‘experiment’ as Disney CEO Bob Iger calls it. In addition to its capacity to confuse audiences over its place in the Star Wars timeline, Rogue One also has to introduce a brand new set of characters right after the introduction of new characters in 2015’s Episode VII – the Force Awakens. Add that to the fact that this is the first Star Wars film not to mention any of the Skywalkers, the first not to feature a lightsaber duel, as well as director Gareth Edwards’ first directorial effort after his divisive Godzilla film, and you get a whole bubbling pot of things that could go wrong with Rogue One. But the Force is strong and flows through each and every living being. Will it guide Rogue One and its band of hopeful rebels to success? Or will it be seduced to the dark side of Star Wars cinema?
Rogue One is indeed one with the force, and the force is with it. The first two acts of the film are relatively slow as we develop our characters, but it builds up one of the most thrilling final acts of Star Wars cinematic history. Rogue One feels more real and gritty than any of the ‘episodic’ films, with brutal fight sequences and a realistically dark depth to the Rebel Alliance, which until now has been mostly portrayed as the shining heroes of the galaxy who did no wrong. Here, we see the lines being blurred with regards to good and evil, the exploration of which Disney and Lucasfilm should be commended for. And that’s what one would expect after claiming to take inspiration from Zero Dark Thirty, Saving Private Ryan as well as Black Hawk Down. Gareth Edwards, Felicity Jones and Co. have pulled off a memorable film that is sure to open the gates for many more anthology films to come. If you are a Star Wars fan and/or enjoy action-sci-fi, then Rogue One will likely please you to no end.
Save the Dream
It isn’t easy to pinpoint where Rogue One’s best strength lies, as it does many things exceptionally. Plot-wise, it has a clear three-act structure which flows seamlessly into each other and is rich in Star Wars lore. It’s not just a story about stealing the Death Star plans, but a story of questioning one’s morals. Of family, of trust, of loyalty and of course, hope. The film hits all these themes throughout its 133-minute runtime, while still keeping the plot progression steady. It sets up the events of the classic trilogy beautifully, and even (impossibly) enhances the viewing experience of a New Hope, a 40-year-old movie. This is mostly due to its treatment of an aeon-old gripe about a New Hope which, as a fan, was incredibly satisfying.
Star Wars continues its world-building magic with several unique planets in Rogue One, some of which are explored only briefly, but others which are brimming with the classic creative touch of Lucasfilm. This includes the Imperial-occupied holy city of Jedha, the stormy, rocky planet of Eadu and the lush, tropical and bloody scenes of Scarif. The production design, costumes and makeup here are incredibly detailed. The special effects are also of the highest quality with the best of today’s technology, as one would expect from a big-budget studio film like this.
You’re All Rebels, Aren’t You?
Right, now for one of the most important aspects of any film. Its characters. As a whole, Rogue One’s character development feels more rushed and less fleshed-out compared to The Force Awakens due to its standalone status. But that doesn’t mean the characters were poorly developed at all. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna may be the clear-cut leads but they are supported by an equally incredible cast. Jyn Erso’s past is the source of fascination about her character, and while Felicity Jones gives a strength and spunk to Jyn while harbouring an interior full of emotion for her lost father, it is Diego Luna’s Cassian who is ultimately more intriguing due to the film’s focus on his morals, as well as his chemistry with Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO, who is one of the standout performers due to K2-SO’s quirky one-liners and amusingly-selfish robot personality, as well as solid motion-capture by Tudyk. Donnie Yen is also in this film as the monk-like Chirrut Imwe. He is yet another highlight of the film with his religious belief in the Force and his use of it to commit several acts of badassery. Jiang Wen plays Chirrut’s friend and protector Baze Malbus, who is serviceable but mostly memorable from his guerrilla-style looks and weapon. Riz Ahmed also puts in a solid performance as the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook, capping off what many consider to be a breakout year for Ahmed.
On the other side of the Force, Ben Mendelsohn plays the power-hungry Director Orson Krennic who oversees the Death Star’s development. This was a nice take on a villain as Mendelsohn showcases Krennic’s deep flaws perfectly while still managing to seem threatening. But in the end, Krennic is merely a pawn of a much darker enemy, as most Star Wars fans would know. The big question on everyone’s minds is the big lord himself, Darth Vader. How is he in the movie? Here’s a warning, not a spoiler: Despite being in the marketing material, the iconic Star Wars villain is rarely in this movie, appearing in only a few scenes. But a scene that Vader does feature in? Perfection.
Choking on its Ambition?
Rogue One does have its share of low midi-chlorian moments. Most notable of which is Michael Giacchino’s score, which is hands down the worst of any Star Wars movie. Though he does make a good attempt after having only 4-weeks to score the film, the music is often as unmemorable as it is unsuitable given the classic John Williams-esque styles we are used to hearing. The style would not have been an issue if it had been catchy or somewhat memorable, but it often just seems to blend in with whatever scene is on screen.
Much has also been said about a couple of CGI characters in the film, which I cannot really flaw as I consider it more an achievement of filmmaking. That said, these CGI characters do seem out of place alongside all the other practical effects of the film, and there is definitely an uncanny-valley element to these characters. I will say that their presence does change the film to the point that it’s almost necessary to have them there, even more so, arguably, than Maz Kanata or Snoke in the Force Awakens.
Pacing wise, it does get slow in the first two acts, but never so much that the film loses its sharpness. Ironically the quick changes between different locations in the first act can get quite jarring as the film has to rush to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together for the grand finale, which more than makes up for it. As mentioned before, character development isn’t the strongest but as a filmmaker with such a large ensemble cast, uniformly strong character development in favour of story progression was always going to be near impossible.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a great film to end the year with. While its content is often dark and heavy, its message of fighting for what you believe in is an impressive showcase of confidence and the light-side of the force. Many aspects of the film will pass right over the heads of non-Star Wars fans, more so than the Force Awakens and perhaps to the point of the film being passable rather than good. But for loyal followers of the franchise, it represents another successful foray into this expanding universe, laying the foundations for similar films to follow in its footsteps. Rogue One strongly sticks to its blasters, gives fans almost everything they love about Star Wars, and most importantly, believes in itself. Because not doing so would inevitably lead, as a wise master once taught us all, to its failure. For the future of Star Wars, may the Force be with us all.
Overall Score: 8.5/10