It’s Christmas so it’s another Star Wars film, though this time this is the first film out of the continuity of the series so far as it tells the story of how the Rebellion stole the plans for the Death Star and blends right into the start of A New Hope.
From now on, there be spoilers.
There’s a lot riding on this film. First ever stand-alone Star Wars film; the big Christmas film of 2016 and a film from a director, Gareth Edwards, who’s directed one superb film (Monsters) and the only reasonable American version of Godzilla which isn’t quite saying much. Then there’s the stories of reshoots, which look like they were fairly extensive when looking at the trailers and seeing the amount of footage which doesn’t actually appear in Rogue One suggests that before the reshoots, Rogue One was different in tone, perhaps even had an ending which ended better for the cast than the one we’ve got in the final film.
Rogue One tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of an Imperial scientist who helps design the Death Star, however as he’s doing so under duress (we find out how the Empire force him to do so in a pre-credit sequence which sees a young Jyn abandoned and on the run) but even so he’s sneaked into the plans a fatal flaw the Rebels can exploit, if only they can get those plans…
Around Erso is a ragtag group of Rebels from the driven Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the sarky reprogrammed Imperial ward droid K-2SO, and the old warriors, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). The Imperial forces are headed up by a wonderfully vile Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, with a couple of key appearances from Darth Vader (that returns Vader into an utter bastard) and a remarkable, but not quite successful (the trick fails in close up especially), digital performance using Peter Cushing’s likeness as the Grand Moff Tarkin.There’s also a small, but crucial role for Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso, Jyn’s father who sets all these events in motion.
One of the remarkable things about Rogue One is that barring the fact that it is entirely possible to sit down and enjoy the film as a whole with only a passing knowledge of Star Wars therefore making it the most accessible bit of Star Wars canon in decades, is that it has an ending which (barring a 2-3 minute coda which works as direct connective tissue to A New Hope) is bleak, harsh and although heroic for our main characters, isn’t going to send people out from the cinema with a smile on their faces. Hence the 2-3 minutes after the end of Jyn’s story to give the audience that bit of hope. Indeed, it seems from looking at what was reshot, that end went from a big ending to one more intimate, albeit still on a huge scale.
Edwards manages to make the film work amazingly well. Shots are lovingly framed, and space shots look, on the whole, different to usual as Edwards composes the frame so that there’s not ships zipping by your eyes all the time. Even when there are big space battles (and there’s a couple) everything feels underplayed, especially compared to last year’s The Force Awakens which came at you full force from the off. Edwards manages to tell a compelling story out of something that done badly would just be pointless fan-fiction as after all, this is a story that for nearly 40 years was best told as a bit of backstory. Managing to milk a full feature out of what is a one sentence line of exposition takes some skill but Rogue One isn’t without faults. Mads Mikkelsen is wasted in a role which needs some expansion, and Jyn Erso’s story seems under-explored as the film rushes to turn her from a criminal (though we never really know what she’s doing) into one of the most crucial characters and heroes of the Rebellion as quickly as possible. Jyn’s complexity we see in glimpses isn’t fully explored, though Captain Cassian’s is as Edwards introduces a moral greyness into the cinematic Star Wars universe we’ve not really seen much of before; certainly not with this large a group of characters.
Rogue One is a fantastic treat. Morally grey, exciting, gripping and although slower paced than your typical action-adventure film, it feels like it’d slot in with classic Spielberg films (the film owes a hell of a lot to Spielberg) of the 70’s and 80’s. It has small issues, but praise has to be given for a bleak, hard ending which doesn’t flinch even when you’re sitting there thinking all is going to be well. This is a film also best enjoyed in a cinema, especially if you do what I did and end up sitting on a bass speaker so I got the full experience whenever a Star Destroyer came onscreen…
This is the benchmark now for future Star Wars films which don’t need to be as dark as this, but this is where the quality benchmark is from now on.