Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13
The first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.
It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.
As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.
Unfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.
A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven /
men-on-a-mission people-on-a-mission beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.
Then we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.
Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they currently have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.
Continuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.
Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).
Much discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.