Director: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen
To begin with, and for a little while after that, one thought kept persisting, and that thought was: It just doesn’t feel like Star Wars.
Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One arrives after a somewhat turbulent journey with expectations jockeyed by stories of re-shoots and sundry internet conspiracy theories. Indeed, it’s arrival feels somewhat muted when compared to the inescapable touchdown of The Force Awakens a year ago. That film was greeted with caution on these pages, but has since grown in stature and proven plenty durable through multiple re-watches. It ain’t perfect, but Abrams did the series a solid and may have even made a new convert or two (I raise my hand sheepishly).
Edwards was handed just as thorny and no doubt daunting a task with Rogue One; the first of the Star Wars films to be thought of as independent from the core series. Remember, this film was in the production stages before Abrams’ film hit cinemas, so nobody knew how the rebirth of Lucas’ creation was going to fly. As such one might readily expect Rogue One to play things as safely as its immediate predecessor did; sticking to template, doggedly following the rules for fear of upsetting one of the world’s most demanding fan bases.
But what strikes is how pointedly different Rogue One is to all the other Star Wars films, displaying what feels like a concerted effort to wrong-foot an audience attuned to certain expectations. Chiefly the visual language of Star Wars as constructed by George Lucas (which Abrams paid great fealty to) is rather coldly abandoned, especially at the beginning. You expect a yellow-fonted crawl of text and you’re denied one. Michael Giacchino’s score (the first not written by John Williams) suggests to you a familiar theme, only to leave it dangling, feeling fatally unfinished. Then there are the opening landscapes of black sand and inclement weather. This is a colder, harsher environment than we’re used to. The message is clear; Rogue One is going to be a darker, drearier adventure. Even more-so than the icy vistas of Hoth in Empire, Rogue One‘s beginning suggests an inhospitable movie ahead.
Continuing with the change of sensibility, Edwards doesn’t shoot the film as though it were a 70’s style space opera, but rather a modern war film (this is easily the franchise’s strongest contender to be thought of as such a thing). The camerawork is looser; there are none of the series’ trademark wipes etc. Indeed some of the compositions are downright unusual, in keeping with a director who has made his mark with visually canny monster movies. This being a ‘standalone’ proposition, Edwards has been less inclined to kowtow to another’s vision. As viewers are offered an entirely new range of characters and planets to keep score of, the lack of visual comforts proves chilling. It just doesn’t feel like Star Wars…
…Until it does.
But Edwards purposefully makes it a hard-won fight. The upshot of which is that, when Rogue One gets you there, it really rewards, though not without a few issues.
Chief of which is the risky gamble of reanimating some characters who may have been best left in the archives. It’s a bold decision in keeping with a number of other bold decisions exhibited here, but its the one that fails to pay-off. The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Anyone who remembers the glassy-eyed Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy will know what I’m talking about. These scenes wholesale pull you out of the film, and there are more of them than are welcome. But even so, it’s not quite enough of a body blow to counter the victories that Edwards ultimately wins.
Felicity Jones puts in a crackerjack performance here as Jyn Erso, carving out a wholly different feel to her defiant, begrudging young warrior than Daisy Ridley channeled into Rey. The film’s opening, set some years before the rest of the action, sets up her personal connection to the ongoing story in a rather unimaginative way, but Jones makes a more spirited person out of the material.
This isn’t her film though. As it progresses, Rogue One reveals itself to be more of an ensemble war movie, with elements of The Guns Of Navarone colliding with Seven Samurai. This is the story of how the Death Star plans were smuggled out to Princess Leia, kicking off the original trilogy. It’s a mission movie, and Erso is surrounded by some of the franchises’ least likely allies. Exhibit A being Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook. Star Wars has never taken itself seriously enough to have a character who seems so openly rattled by conflict. This shell-shocked defector wouldn’t have fit into Lucas’ vision of the series. And there are defectors everywhere. Where Lucas’ films divided heroes and villains into binary black and white, modern Star Wars is more interested in those hazy middle grounds.
Anyone expecting the kind of charismatic hijinks of old (or even of Guardians Of The Galaxy) may be disappointed that there’s precious little light relief in Rogue One. The charming moments played for laughs are tempered here in favour of maintaining a comparatively dreaded tone. Sure, you have socially ill-mannered android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) on hand to deliver a few giggle bombs, but aside from that Rogue One isn’t much of a laughing matter. Which can make it seem a little grim until Edwards gifts the patient viewer with one of the series’ finest and most masterfully sustained spectacles.
Rogue One soars when it comes to its final act, Edwards situating his action in another first for the series (palmed beaches anyone?). Avengers assembled and the stakes well and truly established, it is here that the film overcomes its difficult birth and evolves into something kind of great. Watching the fluid machinations of these scenes of combat and struggle, I couldn’t help but remember my own childhood, swooping toy planes around Lego constructions, building dramatic fantasies that would be gone again by tea time. It may not appear to be offering such wholehearted escapism, but when the film needs it, Edwards provides and then some.
The film’s final scenes remind us again what a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position he must’ve been in this whole time. How do you make a Star Wars film that isn’t anything but wholly dependent on the rest of the franchise? The answer is that you can’t. And if you did, it would feel as alien and untrustworthy as Rogue One‘s beginning. It’s director has managed a fine balancing act here. This is a Gareth Edwards film, but it is also, by the end, absolutely and completely a Star Wars film.
And misguided CG tomfoolery is part and parcel of that tradition.