It only took about 40 years but “wars” in the Star Wars title has finally been justified. Rogue One, the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise, directed by Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards, slots into the period leading up to Episode IV, A New Hope. A lot of people died to get us these plans, is the line I remember in reference to the Empire’s dreaded Death Star schematics and Edwards breathes life into what is almost a throwaway screw in the early Star Wars lore with this riveting adventure romp.
Rogue One is largely an original story, penned by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, but it has an opening stemmed in classic Disney lore singed with pain and separation but still leaving simmering embers of hope – a theme that will be beaten again and again. We meet the young Jyn Erso, the daughter of brilliant engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the brains behind the Death Star. Galen appears to have been in hiding with his wife and daughter in rural subsidence seclusion. He is running from his past with the Empire but he can only go so far.
The Empire, led Ben Mendelshon’s classically sinister Orson Krennic rips into Jyn’s peaceful existence like leaving her with nothing but hurt and little choice in her future which is defined by extremist rebel-dissident Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an eventual team up with another rebel, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna who looks like a young Vincent Cassel) and finally the rogue mission to steal the Death Star plans. Eight films into the franchise, having a film anchored by a heroine is no novelty. Felicity Jones gives a very physical performance as the grown up Jyn presenting a fine portrait and grit, resilience and longing that mirrors the tone of this film.
On the narrative side of things, Rogue One is not that remarkable. You can only do so much when we already know the Death Star is one laser blast from being space rubble – Sorry if that’s a spoiler for you. We do get a compelling and satisfying reason for why this is so, filling up a plot hole in the franchise that has been mocked for decades. That is pretty much what the narrative has to offer. We don’t get much by the way of compelling character arcs too. Aside from Jyn, there is a bizarre lack of back story for other characters we are supposed to be invested in.
Cassian drops the “I’ve done terrible things for the rebellion” platitude so we know he has a history of violence and to the film's credit, we don't doubt that. His first scene makes sure of that. Also there's Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe in a fan favourite performance as the blind pseudo Jedi and his quite bosom relationship with the grizzled Baze Malbus (Jian Weng). This friendship wields some weight on the surface till we begin to wonder what their deal is. Absolutely no reason for their bond is given. They just tag along with Jyn and Cassian because they detest the Empire too I guess.
At least Yen brings some sick Kung Fu to the table in well-crafted fight scenes as he ploughs through stormtroopers aided by his heightened hearing senses. What we don’t expect from Yen, and the movie as a whole, is the great comic timing. There are a lot of laughs here and most of it is running through the circuits of K-2SO, a reprogrammed Empire droid, voiced by Alan Tudyk, whose dialogue and punch lines are dripping wit and wry zingers. Before his banter elicits laughs, K-2SO cuts quite the imposing figure when clotheslines staggered Jyn on their first meet.
Edwards earns his money with the spectacular battle sequences he delivers, especially in the final act. The action is accentuated by the evocative settings of these intense gun battles that bring to mind jungle warfare one may have witnessed in a Vietnam War setting or a beach head onslaught during World War II. Particularly impressive is the first eruption of meaty action in the rugged Jedi city of Jheda where a guerrilla insurgency against Empire troops evokes the kinetic gun battles in a Call of Duty game set in some Middle Eastern market square.
Mind you the Empire, as always, retains its fascist underpinnings even more so when we are properly acquainted with the harrowing devastation of the Death Star. A lot of CGI is employed here but you don’t really notice as Edwards just sweeps you up in the spectacle of the destruction of gorgeously constructed landscapes. The special effects mostly enhance the richness of the film’s aesthetic. Also enriching is the alluring anachronistic feel to the tech in Rogue One which effectively and subtly closes the gap between the 70s and today, a move that works better than gratuitous references to earlier Star Wars films.
The screenplay does service the fan boys or anyone enamoured with the heft and menace of a character like Darth Vader as dictated by pop culture. It truly was great to hear James Earl Jones’ baritone giving life to the iconic antagonist. In truth Jones doesn’t truly have an outright chilling edge to his voice but it does give this creepy quality to Vader who remains an instrument of death regardless. Mind you, you have probably spent more time reading this than Vader gets screen time so don’t get your hopes up. Just to spite us, I convinced, we are given absolute treat of an action sequence with Vader as we’ve never seen him.
The lack of character gives a sense of inevitability to the narrative but we still root for our heroes. The hope ethos rubs off on the audience with ease. Rogue One will move the needle for those who will appreciate the riveting optics and the precise details of the set design, the nicely paced action and darker tone which ultimately sets this film apart from the other Star Wars films gone by.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana