In many ways, Rogue One is a test film – a guinea pig, if you will – for Disney; it is them dipping one toe into the water to see if a stand alone Star Wars film can work. Rogue One has been advertised as a war film, existing within the larger Star Wars universe but separate from its more space-operatic tendencies. It is set immediately before A New Hope, and it was made with the intention of presenting a more grounded, grittier take to the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. This is what the film has succeeded in doing, although with bumps and bruises along the way.
Rogue One focuses on Jyn Erso (a ferocious Felicity Jones), the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who is recruited by the Rebellion to find her missing father and halt the Empire’s plan of making the Death Star operational. Looming in the background is the threat of Darth Vader and the desperation and malevolence of the film’s main villain, Orson Krennic. Ben Mendelsohn revels in this role, giving the character nuances that the film should have explored more.
As Jyn searches for her father, she becomes caught up in the war she has been running away from and ends up leading a team of rag-tag outcasts to steal the Death Star plans. Joining her is one of the most diverse group of people to have ever been assembled for a major blockbuster (excusing, of course, The Fast and The Furious franchise): there is the hardened and battled rebel intelligence captain Cassian Andor (played to perfection by Diego Luna) who shares electric chemistry with Jyn; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an ex-Imperial pilot who has defected to join the rebel cause; a blind force-wielding monk named Chirrut Imwe (the Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen); Imwe’s warrior buddy Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); and the sarcastic, scene-stealing droid K-2SO who is voiced by Alan Tudyk.
Rogue One might just be the most visually stunning of all the Star Wars films. The size, scope and street-level realism of the galaxy far, far away are expanded and realised by the director Gareth Edwards in a way that was not even done in The Force Awakens. The film’s final battle was filmed in the Maldives, and the image of Stormtroopers striding through clear blue waters while laser beams are blasting all around them is truly a sight to behold. With this third-act battle and other grounded fights, Rogue One is more Saving Private Ryan than the Ewok battle in The Return of the Jedi, conjuring up the bloody implications of the famous refrain, “we shall fight on the beaches”. The film is undeniably political; it is hard to ignore the comparisons between the Empire and a certain facist regime, and terms like “terrorists”, “extremists” and “rebels” are not thrown around lightly.
However, the film becomes cluttered when it cannot decide if it wants to be this gritty, stand-alone war film or a film entrenched deeply in the Star Wars mythology. Although call backs to the original trilogy give the audience a thrill, they do not always serve the story; some characters and plot points veer on the side of distraction rather than fan service. The dialogue can come across as cheesy and there is quite a bit of things happening because they have to, not because they genuinely make sense narratively.
But what still makes Rogue One a very satisfying ride is the cast. The film soars when the Rogue One team is granted screen time and the force (pardon the term) is strongest when these team members share silences, longing glances or even the occasional quippy response. This, together with the premise of the story, make Rogue One an immensely enjoyable experience. The film might not find an audience as large as that of The Force Awakens’, but for hardcore Star Wars fans, there is much to be happy about here. Despite its hits and misses, the film should be commended for its ambition. The result might be clunky and unbalanced in parts, but one can only hope that Disney will learn from the experience and produce an even more coherent, crowd-pleasing stand-alone Star Wars film the next time around.
And it is no bad thing to see a woman, a Mexican, a British-Pakistani, two Chinese men, and a droid kicking Imperial ass in 2016.
Other thoughts [SPOILERS included]:
- How necessary is it to afford so much screen time to CGI General Tarkin? Tarkin and the CGI Princess Leia at the end feel shoe-horned in – more of a distraction rather than a successful fan service moment.
- Saw Gerrera. A totally marmite portrayal by Forest Whitaker. A bit useless as a character, like his giant alien octopus.
- Although the space battle at the end is glorious to watch, it is never made entirely clear why the Rebellion changed their minds and sent a fleet to aid the Rogue One team. Is it because the infiltration is already under way and Mon Mothma can now use Jyn going rogue as an excuse to override the council and send in the troops?
- Riz Ahmed is going places.
- Finally, we have Asians in space! Although Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is a trope we have seen before (blind monk with extraordinary martial arts skills), Yen is still able to bring lightness and heart to the character, making him (along with K-2S0) the secret weapon of the film.
- Cassian Andor is now my new “bae” – whatever a “bae” is. The fight between Jyn and Cassian after she discovers his secret mission to assassinate her father is one of the film’s highlights. It is a shame that the film cannot explore Cassian’s greyer side further and we are not given his backstory. But as mentioned, Diego Luna’s chemistry with Felicity Jones is palpable, and that shot of them glancing at each other in the dark lift as the planet is about to explode… let’s just say I was reduced to a sobbing mess.
- I don’t think I have ever been this devastated by the ending of a Star Wars film before. Yes, the main characters would have benefitted from more screen time, but Gareth Edwards made sure that they all have their own heroic moment in the final act. With the brilliance of the cast, it is easy to get attached to the characters, however little we know of their back stories. The ending, with the demise of the entire team (!), is truly heartbreaking – the first time we have a Star Wars film in which all our main characters perish in the final act. It is a brave choice by the studio, but it is a genuine shame that we will not see these characters and these actors return to the Star Wars universe again.
RATING: 4.5/5 stars.