17 years after The Phantom Menace, Gareth Edwards and Tony Gilroy have delivered the sophisticated Star Wars prequel the franchise deserves.
It’s enormously telling that, when Darth Vader makes his entrance midway through Rogue One, one is taken aback by the sheer cheesiness of his iconic costume and speech. While Vader remains one of cinema’s most enduring villains, the late 1970s-aesthetic of the character is at such sharp odds with the dusty realism of Gareth Edwards’ new spin-off that the contrast is truly shocking. Star Wars has come a long way, not only from the sand dunes of A New Hope, but from the infantile comedy of Phantom Menace and clustered CGI cityscapes of Attack of the Clones— George Lucas was clearly not the best person to direct Star Wars prequels; Edwards (and co-writer Tony Gilroy, who oversaw much of Rogue One‘s last-minute re-tinkering) have managed in one film to tell a more coherent, human story and establish the groundwork for the original trilogy better than Lucas could in 7 hours of the prequel trilogy.
The existence of Rogue One highlights the divide in the Star Wars mythology between the story of the Jedi and their spiritual battle with the Sith (an undeniably fascinating subject, but one that Lucas horribly mishandled) and the on-the-ground Star War between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire. In Rogue One, there is nary a lightsaber in sight and The Force has evolved into a vague philosophical concept, spoken of by warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). The choice to focus on the ‘real’ side of the Star Wars world facilitates, and somewhat obligates, the filmmakers to tell a compelling story of politics and war set against the backdrop of the Imperial superweapon: the Death Star. What Lucas and co. were forced to paint and sculpt in 1977, Edwards can create with layers of CGI: Rogue One in many ways does justice to the ambitious vision of the original Star Wars: a vision too grand for its technical era. While the constant barrage of thrilling set-pieces in JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens, occasionally at the expense of quieter character moments, was grating, in Rogue One it feels justified: this is, after all, a war movie. Also, while several of the film’s characters (Îmwe and Sheldon Cooper-esque droid K-2SO) are superbly-realised, the band of misfits at Rogue One‘s core feel neither deserving nor necessitating a great amount of those “quiet character moments”: these are simpler figures than a Skywalker or a Solo, a Rey or Finn, and these are figures whose strongest moments of character development emerge on the battlefield.
Though the poster-girl for the film, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is undeniably the least interesting protagonist a Star Wars film has ever had: despite Jones’ best efforts, Jyn remains frustratingly one-dimensional throughout. She’s not unlikeable, and her motives are noble, but- as the only significant female character in the film- she fails to stand out from the otherwise-male team as a memorable hero. Diego Luna’s Captain Andor is drawn far too similar to Jyn, sharing her stone-faced resolve but possessing none of the wit of the great Star Wars male leads: Han Solo, Finn, Poe Dameron, Anakin Skywalker (we may be lying about that last one). Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is, at the beginning of the film, incredibly energetic, but after spending some time with “Rebel extremist” Saw Gerrera (a distractingly wheezy Forest Whitaker) loses much of his personality: Ahmed, a superb actor, is never truly given a chance to shine. Jiang Wen’s Baze Malibus, meanwhile, serves primarily as a Butch Cassidy to Îmwe’s Sundance Kid. They’re a formidable duo who could probably have led their own spin-off, and provide tremendous insight into the impact of Imperial rule over the unsung citizens of the Galaxy.
The film’s most impressive performance, unsurprisingly, comes from Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic: a character of subtle villainy, highlighting further Revenge of the Sith‘s missed opportunity at exploring the Dark Side’s complex appeal. Mendelsohn excels in every scene, particularly opposite both Mads Mikkelsen and a certain other actor in a stunning surprise appearance. His scenes with Darth Vader are the highlight of the film: the Sith Lord has never been filmed nor framed so beautifully. Michael Giacchino’s score, though largely a generic mashup of John Williams’ classic motifs, is at its best when introducing Vader.
Rogue One‘s third act, much of which was reshot and reedited (several shots from the trailer are nowhere to be seen) is essentially a hybrid of the Original Trilogy’s most beloved action scenes: there’s an AT-AT attack, a break-in involving ladders, forest fight and the most impressive X-Wing battle in the franchise’s history. The outcome of the Rebels’ mission, if you’ve seen Star Wars, is predictable. Rogue One‘s final sequence is as breathtaking a tribute to Lucas’ 1977 film as we’ll ever see, presenting a magnificently terrifying realisation of one legendary Star Wars figure and an utterly joyful appearance by another. However, Rogue One doesn’t need nostalgia and foreshadowing to succeed: as a standalone product with few links to the familiar elements of the franchise, this looks and feels like Star Wars in a whole new way. Breaking free into the Galaxy, this film establishes a new era of the Star Wars world: one of uninhibited exploration and imagination. We’re hopeful for the future: after all, Star Wars is built on hope…