Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Review


Best Laid Plans.


For the second time in just over a year we have another Star Wars film and will likely get one each year for the foreseeable future with Disney, understandably, looking to maximise the potential of this cultural behemoth. What Rogue One does differently to the 7 films that have preceded it is branch off from the main Skywalker saga and focus on the brief events depicted in a line from the opening crawl of the 1977 original where the rebels steal the plans to the Empire’s dreaded Death Star.

Rogue One is Star Wars taken out of its comfort zone, an experiment if you will on the viability of expanding the film franchise into the wider Star Wars Universe with the focus removed from the familiar story arc of the main saga. Yes, familiar characters are present but in a supporting role only and few amount to little more than cameo appearances. So the burning question is this, does Rogue One succeed and how does it fare when compared to the other Star Wars films?

For me Rogue One very much succeeds on a number of levels. I’m a Star Wars fan brought up on the original trilogy and very much of the original trilogy generation who was burned by the woefully disappointing prequel trilogy. The Star Wars fan within me was left hurt, jaded and bereft of some of the love I once had for the franchise. Then The Force Awakens came along and after now having watched that film three times I can safely say that it is a film that, for me at least, feels out of sync with the original trilogy. It doesn’t feel like a natural, organic continuation of the Skywalker saga and feels very much like a film that plays it safe, aims for as broad an audience as possible and moreover feels like a film made by a committee. I feel no urge to watch the film again, it is bereft of any true depth or memorable scenes and even Han Solo was given short shrift with a death that wasn’t adequately followed up and ultimately lacked the expected emotional heft.

Given that these two films have so closely followed one another in their inception and are the first two Star Wars films made under the Disney umbrella, comparisons are both relevant and unavoidable. Rogue One won’t dazzle with a complex plot, few of the characters are fleshed out with backstory and therefore we are left to fill in the blanks ourselves as to their motivations. But where in The Force Awakens, Finn’s jarring turn from highly trained Stormtrooper to morally righteous rebel felt utterly artificial, here both the rebel protagonists and the villainous Imperial officers seem far more organic. Accusations of Rey being a “Mary Sue”, a protagonist who is good at everything are soundly justified in that her character is never placed in a position of true peril that causes us to believe that she may not make it through to the next film. This robs The Force Awakens of much required dramatic tension. There’s no edge or grittiness to the film whereas Rogue One is blessed by a very palpable sense of impending doom. Our heroes are all aware of the importance of their mission, as are we, the viewer having seen its ultimate power unleashed in A New Hope. Rogue One has a feel akin to that of the Dirty Dozen and the many similar suicide mission war films of the 60’s. From reading the earliest synopsis I’d hoped for a more adult film that didn’t pull it’s punches. From one of the earliest scenes in the final film where a main character shows a degree of ruthlessness that makes Han Solo shooting Greedo first seem tame in comparison, I was reassured that my fears of another neutered Star Wars film were put at ease.

The performances across the board range from slightly wooden, but these are few and far between, through to perfectly acceptable to outright brilliant. The standout players here include the reprogrammed Imperial Droid K-2SO, voiced to perfection by Alan Tudyk, his snarky inability to filter his thoughts imbue the film with much of its well gauged humour. The leads Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are both far more natural actors than the two young leads from The Force Awakens and are well cast with a pleasing avoidance of a cliched romantic attachment although their mutual respect and admiration for each other is nicely handled. Donnie Yen plays the Force sensitive Chirrut Îmwe. If it wasn’t for the eradication of the Jedi he’d have surely been amongst their ranks. We see him put the Force to use in subtle ways that allow him to see far more than others in spite of him being blind. Yen’s phenomenal martial arts abilities are also showcased to crowd pleasing effect. Along with K-2SO he’s arguably the most interesting of the supporting cast.

On the side of Evil we have Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the Imperial Lieutenant Commander that oversees the construction of the Death Star but who must answer to two of the original trilogy's main antgonists, one who we’ve seen already in trailers, the other who will hopefully please and surprise longstanding fans as it did me.

One way to compare The Force Awakens to Rogue One in microcosm is to look at the two main Imperial Officers in each film, General Hux and Orson Krennic. Both are played by great actors but sadly Hux is a scenery chewing pantomime villain, all sneers and wild eyes. It’s a woefully overacted part that I found utterly cringe inducing. Krennic however has at least basic layers of depth to him. His motivation is to earn the recognition of the Emperor and his frustration at knowing that he’ll forever be robbed of that by his superiors comes across well. His nuance and subtlety as an actor come to the fore and there’s one brief scene where he’s sat on a shuttle with his cadre of black clad Death Troopers and without words, his body language alone shows his acceptance of the futility of his role within the Empire. It's this more careful handling of characters and greater show of restraint that marks the two films apart.

From a technical standpoint Rogue One absolutely astonishes with some of the most jaw dropping action set-pieces and visual effects yet seen in a Star Wars film. Not since Return of the Jedi’s phenomenal third act have we seen action as well executed and as grandstanding as this. The film paces itself well in that we are drip fed enough spectacle and action throughout coupled with as much character moments as the film requires to maintain a nice balance going into a final act that will please even the most cynical of Star Wars fan. This is a war film set within the Star Wars framework that certainly appears to achieve all that director Gareth Edwards set out to do.

Where Rogue One also succeeds is in showing that in these days of a modern Hollywood, so averse to taking risks with its mega franchises, a studio such as Disney no less seems to have allowed Edwards to make a far more grittier and adult film than their handling of The Force Awakens would suggest. I’d argue that this is the most adult of all the Star Wars films and the satisfying ending that we have in this final cut of the film may well be a product of those extensive reshoots that people were getting the jitters about. There are indeed a number of scenes from the trailers that aren’t in the final film and they mostly appear to be from the final act. If there was an earlier version that took a safer route then credit to the studio for making changes and giving us an ending where the running theme of sacrifice for the greater good is taken to it’s most logical and satisfying conclusion.

The use of real shooting locations adds immeasurably to the feeling that this is a real universe and the gross artificiality of the prequels is nowhere to be seen. These locales are no doubt augmented by visual effects but it’s done so in such a seamless manner as to be virtually undetectable and credit to the ILM and the various other effects houses for their incredible work. This is another film that demands to be seen in IMAX and makes great use of the format.

All that being said, Rogue One is far from perfect. Michael Giacchino’s score is something of a step down from the quality of John Williams’ generally flawless work across the series. In his defence he was brought in very late in the game and if reports are to be believed, given only a few weeks in which to create the score. Nevertheless some of Giacchino's new, original cues pale somewhat in comparison to the iconic music that added so much to the other Star Wars films. That said there are just enough uses of Williams' familiar themes to remind us where we are.

There are many fan-servicing elements that are peppered throughout the film. Some feel organic and provide many of the film’s most pleasing moments. Others seem a little forced but the these are kept to a satisfactory minimum. But be under no illusions, more than any other Star Wars film, the core audience of Rogue One would appear to be the hardcore fan so those with only a passing interest of the franchise may not derive anywhere near the same degree of enjoyment from it.

Rogue One is a film that I went into with almost neutral expectations having been bitterly disappointed by the prequel trilogy and underwhelmed by The Force Awakens. I found myself, in the third act especially, consciously aware of my inability to contain the utter glee that I was feeling as I once again had long lost feelings of awe at what I was seeing on screen brought to the surface. The Star Wars fan within me had been all but lost as I saw the franchise developed but not in ways that satisfied my expectations as to what I’d liked to have seen from the prequels and the third trilogy.

Rogue One has reinvigorated the Star Wars fan within me and what the film does best is enrichen the Star Wars mythos whilst showing the original trilogy the respect it deserves. What is also does, and which may surprise fans, is how it takes us right up to that iconic opening scene from 1977. It’s cyclical handling of the story in how it embellishes what we know without offering any jarring contradiction is evidence of a director and creative team who are likely themselves huge longstanding fans of the saga. I’ve heard Rogue One described as the best fan-film ever made. It’s a film that's clearly been made by fans for the fans and it's to those fans that this film will most greatly resonate and appeal and that’s perhaps as fitting a description as any.

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Gentleman, film critic, husband, father, whisky connoisseur, pedant, idiot, liar. Skye is all, some or possibly none of these. You decide.