This is not Star Wars, but ’A Star Wars Story’. No crawl, no theme, and the camera pans up, not down, to reveal something that looks like a Star Destroyer but turns out to be a planetary ring. We aren’t in Kansas, I mean, Tatooine any more, people!
Once, we had to wait years between instalments from the galaxy far, far away. Now, we have three Star Wars franchise movies in eighteen months, given the likely timing of the first Han Solo instalment in May 2018. And this means a lot of pressure to get quite a few stories right in a compressed time period.
Fortunately, via Marvel, Disney has shown itself to be brilliant at franchise management, keeping releases regular, quality control surprisingly consistent, and choosing stories with considerable variety (think Ant-Man, Guardians), which fit into the overall cinematic universe that they serve. And now that they own arguably the most popular franchise in history, Disney is trying to adapt its formula to an expanded universe many already know from the, um, Expanded Universe.
Thus we have Rogue One, the first in a series of sideways excursions from the main dynastic narrative. There are still space dogfights, and new villain-infested worlds, and endearing droids, and scary stormtroopers, and a small, bedraggled band of heroes who go up against the sleek high-tech might of the Empire.
There’s even a small team trying to move unseen through an enemy installation while another team muck around with the shield outside – but in a tropical world that’s probably the most picturesque one we’ve seen yet, and the conflict has none of the innocence of the Battle of Endor.
All of this is stuff we know and love, and there are many concepts here (kyber? huh?) that will be familiar to those who’ve read into the book series. But there are precious few of the characters we love on offer, and at least one that some have suggested should not have featured – though the now-notorious resurrection of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is handled with astonishing technical virtuosity. I think it works well enough.
In this respect, despite the fear-inducing reshoots, the filmmakers have certainly accomplished a mission that was far less certain than the one depicted in this film, whose outcome we’ve known since 1977.
This is one of the most curious things about this film – we know exactly what happens in its final frames. Nevertheless, there is much suspense on the way to the successful delivery of those Death Star plans, and we learn more about what follows in A New Hope, and in particular what makes its ending possible.
Had Rogue One merely delivered a new combination of these familiar elements to keep fans excited before Episode VIII returned us to Rey, Finn, Poe and now Luke, it would have been a worthy Christmas present from Lucasfilm.
But the reason why I loved it, and would rank it among the best entries in the franchise, is because of the many new things it shows us. We travel to trading outposts, labour camps, quiet agricultural communities and bustling markets. We see merchants hawking their wares, tentacles poking out of bubbling woks at streetside eateries, and stormtroopers bullying innocent bystanders. And we see how the Emperor’s jackboot affects ordinary people who aren’t Jedis or celebrity members of the Rebel Alliance. Above all, we see guerrilla warfare that is far more convincing and reminiscent of our own world than a bunch of Ewoks cutely swinging logs into Imperial walkers.
Previous episodes had a far simpler moral calculus than what we find in Rogue One. It used to be Empire bad, Rebel Alliance good. But in one scene here, friendly fire has dramatic results. And we see that for all of the Empire’s totalitarianism, they still have to placate the remnants of the Senate we got to know in the prequel trilogy.
In short, Rogue One is a more vividly realised examination of what the massive civil war we’ve seen in key glimpses over the past seven instalments would look like away from its centre. It’s fascinating, and also surprisingly emotive from a series that often verges into cartoonish realms – and I don’t just mean Clone Wars. And by showing the enormity and complexity of this universe, it raises the stakes for all the other films in the series.
The characters we meet are of these peripheral worlds, battlescarred mercenaries without lightsabers or Force lightning bolts to deploy. There are quite a few of them, and the plot moves so rapidly that I have to confess that after two viewings I still don’t know most of the names. Again, this feels more like a real war, where there are far more people involved, and it’s no surprise from the script of Star Wars than there’s some collateral damage.
But the movie belongs to Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, whose heroic instincts are buried beneath a resentful, sarcastic layer of self-defensive posture. Like Han Solo, she’s something of a rough diamond; and also like Han Solo, she is more interesting than the namby-pamby Skywalker offspring. Not The Chosen One, but the right one for these circumstances, for the psychologically engrossing reason that her daddy designed the Death Star. Jones and her abrupt, steely character are the right heroine for what stands out as the gritty horrors-of-war movie within the series so far, right down to the fighting on the beaches.
Diego Luna does well to keep up with her as Cassian Andor, a rebel pilot with a complex web of priorities. Donnie Yen’s Chirrue Îmwe and Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus add a welcome infusion of samurai/warrior monk action, and we could have seen more of them, while Alan Tudyk’s dry K2-SO provides nearly all of this relatively dour film’s lighter moments.
I also enjoyed Ben Mendelsohn as the main villain, Death Star Director Krennic, whose accent is frequently curiously Aussie. Forest Whitaker’s performance as the wild-eyed Saw Gerrera is perhaps the film’s only unrestrained element.
A few familiar characters appear briefly – Darth Vader emerges from his Sith float tank, among others. But this exploration of fresh corners of the Star Wars universe shows us far more that’s genuinely new than The Force Awakens’ clever but derivative remix of A New Hope. It’s a reminder that war takes a terrible toll not only in terms of lives, but also the souls of those who that fight it. And it’s a worthy stand-alone story that directly abuts and yet sits apart from the original trilogy.
Most importantly, it’s a really good Star Wars movie; and we all know that the series’ overall batting average isn’t as high as it might be. In that sense, this rogue entry in the cinematic canon could not have been more of a team player.
Giles Hardie and I went to a midnight screening and sat in a car at 3am to record our first reactions for our podcast, Culture Wars… have a listen!