Film review: 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is perhaps the series' finest outing since Empire Strikes Back'
Rogue One was initially pitched as a different kind of Star Wars film: darker, grittier, unburdened by the saga’s traditionally clunky distinctions between good and evil.
“It’s the reality of war,” said director Gareth Edwards upon being picked to oversee this first “non-canon” Star Wars Story. “Good guys are bad. Bad guys are good. It's complicated, layered; a very rich scenario in which to set a movie.”
Glimmerings of Edwards’ original vision have made it to screen, just about. But anyone expecting a truly revisionist take on the multi-billion dollar franchise is likely to be underwhelmed.
After all the hype and grand theorising, when it comes to it Rogue One is essentially just another Star Wars romp, albeit smarter, zippier and more emotionally engaging than the dead-eyed George Lucas simulacrum that was last year’s The Force Awakens.
That isn't to condemn with faint praise. In fact, Rogue One is perhaps the series’s finest outing since Empire Strikes Back and it is surely no coincidence that it shares that classic’s melancholic arc.
Rogue One, as already pointed out, is marketed a spin-off “Star Wars Story” rather than an official sequel or prequel : hence the absence of the traditional scene-setting opening “crawl”.
Nonetheless, we’re back in that far, far away galaxy from a long time ago – all the way back, in fact, to events immediately preceding the original 1977 blockbuster.
The Galactic Empire is putting the finishing touches to the Death Star, a moon- sized mega-weapon sure to copper-fasten its dominion over the inhabited universe. All that is required is a final lick of paint, tiling for the bathrooms – and the instillation of a laser with the capacity to destroy entire planets.
Bunkered down amid the scenic temples of Yavin 4, meanwhile, is the plucky Rebel Alliance, which suspects the Empire has nefarious plans but requires outside help to connect the dots.
This extra assistance is courtesy of Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, a plucky urchin whose father Galen Erso (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen) foolishly joined the Empire’s secret weapons programme and then, even more foolishly, tried to leave the Empire’s secret weapon’s programme.
The last Jyn saw of her dad, he’d been dragged off in a Star Destroyer to help wicked Imperial mid-manager Orson Krennic (a nicely simmering Ben Mendelsohn in white gore-tex cape) fine-tune the Death Star.
Now, the Rebellion needs Jyn to exploit her contacts with friend of the family Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – a rebel so rebellious even the rebels don’t want anything to do with with him – and work out what the Empire has up its natty SS-styled sleeves.
En route to Gerrera’s desert planet hideout (yes…another Star Wars movie, another desert planet) she accumulates a rag-tag posse, including mercurial Rebel intelligence operation Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), sardonic droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) and a pair of loveable mercenaries, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
Later the troupe is augmented by defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook – the Night Of’s Riz Ahmed in a part said to have been extensively expanded during five weeks of reshoots. There’s also mid-size spot for Dublin’s Genevieve O’Reilly as Alliance big-wig Mon Mothma.
Rogue One arrives amid a swirl of gossip over tensions between director Gareth Edwards and his bosses at Disney, who were allegedly spooked by his vision of a grim and gritty Star Wars.
Parachuted into the production over the summer was veteran Hollywood fixer Tony Gilroy, initially described as “script consult” but whose role rumours went, quickly metastasised as he set about correcting structural “issues”, in particular the movie’s ending.
You can certainly spot the joins, with Jyn and several other key characters undergoing significant personality transformations halfway through and Gerrera, previously central to the plot, marched unceremoniously towards the door.
However, it is by no means clear that Gilroy’s alterations have damaged Rogue One and may in fact have saved it, as an initially muggy narrative is slimmed down to a straightforward heist romp that, if riddled with logical holes, is soon clipping by at breakneck speed.
As the hero, Jyn is thinly-sketched and could easily have been as uninteresting as the Force Awaken’s one-note protagonist Rey. Credit to Jones, then, for imbuing the character with a steely melancholy. Moreover, her chemistry with bad-boy Andor visibly sizzles, so that you feel genuine investment in their story.
Surprisingly, it’s in the technical challenges of mounting a grand space opera that Rogue One trips up (that and the jarring ubiquity of British actors in minor roles – did Disney casting directors walk onto the set of EastEnders and hire whoever wasn’t at lunch?).
The combat scenes are hackneyed and the decision to bring back characters from the original Star Wars as computer generated simulations is at once terrifying and ludicrous.
The return, in particular, of a key villain as CG animation half an hour in almost ruins the film – I’ve sat through decade-old Playstation games with better effects. The uncanny valley has never felt uncannier.
That, by the way, isn’t a reference to Darth Vader who pops up too – allegedly at the insistence of Disney – and brings a dark swagger. Sith happens and then some as the fallen Jedi Master demonstrates the full terror of his villainy in one of the film’s most stunning fight sequences.
The movie culminates in a clichéd pitched battle between the Rebels and the Empire. Yet through the miracle of decent acting by Jones and Luna, you will care about the fate of the insurgents as they infiltrate a Burj Khalifa-esque Imperial base in search of the plans for the Death Star (yes, the very plans by which Luke Skywalker and Han Solo destroy the base in the original Star Wars).
Unless you’ve been frozen in carbonite their final scenes together will leave lump in a throat – exactly the same feeling you may have had when you sat through Empire Strikes Back for the first time. I can think of no higher praise.
Rogue One opens with midnight screenings Wednesday night.