Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Review: Personal Yet Epic, Stunning and Spectacular
There are some words you just can’t say to people. As a writer, I’m last person to endorse censorship but still, there are some words that you just can’t say to people. For a long time, there has been one word, above all others, that you can’t say to a Star Wars fan: “prequel”. A word synonymous with gratuitous CG madness, goofy humour and terrible dialogue over the quality of content fans really wanted and rightfully expected after a generation of hope. That’s because prequels, like Rebellions, are built on hope above all else. However, in 2016, it’s a word that all fans from Master to Padawan and half interested casual must address because as much as Disney is trying to avoid using the word, Rogue One is a prequel. So in a new generation with a new cast and creative team, we’re confronted with the question: Can a Star Wars prequel work after all? Yes, it can. Rogue One is a prequel, and Rogue One is the best Star Wars film since Empire.
Rumours of new all powerful weapon being built by the Empire reach the Rebel Alliance. The ex-criminal and daughter of its architect Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Inferno) will lead a team on a desperate mission to obtain its plans and means of destroying it with the fate of Galaxy hanging in the balance.
From the offset, Rogue One makes it a mission objective to differentiate itself from any Star Wars movie of the last 20 years. There’s no titles crawl, no screen wipes and even a pre-titles setup opening sequence of young Jyn. Then there’s the tone which stays predominantly dark and moody, especially through the first half, with no attempts to shove comic relief characters in our face or go overboard with bright and colourful CG. The first 20 minutes even jump about heavily across half-a-dozen locations, pacing everyone in their start positions but rather than becoming disengaging it successfully build intrigues. The result is that the worlds and characters of Rogue One immediately feel not just part of the Star Wars Universe but within the styling’s of the original trilogy. It achieves the generation recapturing fans have been craving for without the memberberry pandering approach that’s taken some hindsight shine off The Force Awakens. This is not just a “Star Wars Story”” it’s an original Star Wars story rather than a disguised remak, a war time espionage tale turned heist movie and action spectacle. A clear affair of three distinct acts bound together in excellent storytelling of director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla). The story isn’t perfect though. Forrest Whittaker’s Saw Gerrera is very much the Maz Kanata of this movie: a feature supporting character that the film could easily have done without. It also takes a slight dip around the midway point as the plot briefly stalls. Then there is the final act, a visual masterpiece that will leave you in pieces with a level of perfectly balanced action in both space and ground combat the likes of which you’ve never seen from any film, Star Wars or otherwise.
One of the most surprising and fascinating features of the story is the way it probes deeper into the Rebel Alliance to show their less flattering “grey side”. Firstly, “Alliance” is a sketchy term as they are far from united, suffering familiar real world issues like divisive indecision and extremist splinter groups. Then there is the greater good nature of their actions as we see and hear of many characters, especially Diego Luna’s (Elysium) Cassian Andpr, having to do dark and terrible things for the sake of the Rebellion. It paints our beloved “Rebel Scum” with an anti-hero undertone making them all the better for it by humanizing them. Yet the master stroke is the way this shifts from being specific character development to a central story focused in the spectacular final act as the Rebellion goes all out to obtain the Death Star plans. Seeing characters we know having doubts over their actions and embracing the necessity of what soon becomes a sacrifice play for their cause just pull everything together into a power coupling of intensity and emotion constantly driven by desperation. Why? Because Rogue One actually makes the Death Star feel the all-imposing threat it always should have been! Everyone involved sees it as a game changing checkmate by the Empire which keeps us within the mindset of the Rebels as they risk everything. Even a Star Wars virgin would understand the significance. Thanks to modern effects and a variety of new visual angles, the Death Star has never looked better and they even put a firm blaster hole through the generations of fanboys moaning about why the big super weapon had such a critical weakness.
Now we all knew going into this film that most of the cast would be single-episode guest stars and their quality only adds to the impact of that inevitable fate. Both as individuals and as a unit the Rogue One members are fantastic characters. The clear MVP is the Alan Tudyk (Firefly, memes about poles through the chest) voiced reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO. He has a Drax the Destroyer-like habit of saying what he thinks combined with a subtly cynicism personality which makes for a result that’s effortlessly funny whenever a scene needs to break its tension. A close runner-up is Donnie Yen’s (Blade 2) blind force attuned warrior Chirrut Îmwe: think The Walking Dead’s Morgan with badass force senses and no tragic inner turmoil. His fight choreography is phenomenal while his smile mannerisms add a new dimension to the team dynamic. Felicity Jones makes a great lead in Erso as we follow her journey coming to believe in the Rebellion and embodying the anti-hero nature of the unit. Luna too makes a great counterpart and thankfully, gets plenty of his own story while rightfully making no attempt to be this film’s Han Solo. Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) and Jiang Wen’s (Chinese cinema) heavy weapon specialist Baze Malbus make great team additions. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Bloodline) Orson Krennic never feels overly inspiring as the principle villain but he still provides a suitable presence. For veteran fans, the film is littered with familiar face cameos and references to pick up on, most of which are brilliant. However, one particular Imperial call back via CG rending gets a firm blasting. If it was a fleeting cameo, that would be fine but their sustained presence really feels out of place to the point where you think you’re watching a Clone Wars episode. Then there is the heavy breathing elephant in the Star Destroyer. Yes, Darth Vader plays a small role in the film..... and you won’t be disappointed.
As George Lucas isn’t around to re-release endless re-mastered versions, we may never know what Rogue One would have been like before the summer’s re-shoots (post-production only finished on November 28th!) but more importantly, why should we care when the film we do have is so breathtaking? In many ways, Rogue One marks a bigger victory than last year’s cinematic return by proving that Disney’s team has the creativity and dedication to make such an isolated story work and pave the way for the many other “Star Wars Stories” in the works. Just like the surviving Rebels, Rogue One, we will never forget you.