21 December 2016

Spoiler-Light Film Review | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story directed by Gareth Edwards

A good title can do a lot for something, and Rogue One is a case in point. It immediately calls to mind Star Wars without having to have “Star Wars” bludgeoned in there (much in the same way that Enterprise said Star Trek perfectly well before CBS hammered on its superfluous prefix in its third season), while at the same time setting the film apart as, quite literally, the first rogue one in the franchise’s live-action cinematic canon. Perhaps most importantly though, it eschews the pulp-fiction serial feel that the likes of The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones so purposefully engendered, setting the stall for the decidedly gritty tone of Disney’s first Star Wars Anthology tale.

All seven episodes of the
Star Wars saga to date have had much in common. Structurally, they all open in the same distinctive manner, share analogous themes, and even adhere to narrative beats as if they were stanzas of the same poem. All Rogue One shares with its forerunners is an opening card grounding it in the same universe – almost everything else is different. Tell-tale swipes and segues are gone, replaced with sharp cuts and text info-dumps. Once forbidden flashbacks are not only permitted, but embraced. Even the duty of scoring the action is given to a new composer, Michael Giacchino (Star Trek) who, whilst paying due homage to John Williams’ immortal themes where appropriate, imbues the movie with a mood that speaks to another genre entirely. 

However, what really sets this movie apart from the main saga is its angle. Episodes IV to VI presented heroic rebels battling the evil Galactic Empire. Rogue One presents psychotic terrorists, would-be murderers and a few heroic senators and soldiers looking to bring down the evil Galactic Empire, whose minions range from devoted to enslaved. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the machinations of a conscripted Imperial scientist standing up to his paymasters in the only way that he can. It’s therefore a much greyer, much grittier and much more plausible long ago and far, far away - if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a Chris Nolan take on George Lucas’s most prized creation. 

And to say that Rogue One is the first Star Wars flick not to feature the Jedi, it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its multicultural band of protagonists. From Vader’s twisted mirror Saw Gerrera (of Star Wars: The Clone Wars fame) to tragic Death Star designer Galen Erso, each supporting part is enthralling and distinctive, while the leads positively dazzle. Felicity Jones is superb as Erso’s unruly daughter, Jyn, whom we follow from interred criminal to galactic beacon of hope, and she’s matched every step of the way by Diego Luna’s clearly conflicted Captain Cassian Andor who, more than any other character, embodies both the physical and moral war waging at the heart of the movie. The standouts, however, are Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, failed guardians of the Whills. One’s blind to the world and the other to the Force, but together they see what must be done. 

Of course, Rogue One’s most controversial character wears the face of a dead man. Peter Cushing’s ghost is the face of the Empire here - a blend of CG effects and Guy Henry’s measured performance recreate Emperor Palpatine’s first and only grand moff almost perfectly. Nobody seems to have an issue with the terrifying veracity of this digital resurrection, but questions as to its ethics abound. Is it right? Well, yeah - of course it is. I don’t remember any complaints when Stephen Stanton breathed life back into Tarkin for his CG
Clone Wars and Rebels appearances. The only difference here is that the end result is photo-real, imbuing it with an unintended haunting quality that previous efforts have lacked.

And though his appearances in Rogue One are limited, Darth Vader still manages to enjoy his strongest theatrical appearance to date - at least in a literal sense. Taking a leaf out of Star Wars Rebels’ playbook, Vader is portrayed as an unstoppable force and immovable object; a creature so attuned to the dark side of the Force that his lightning speed and stupefying strength are only outmatched by his ferocious brutality. This is the Vader that I’ve always seen in my mind’s eye - not the lumbering cyborg of Revenge of the Sith or the reined-in, at-heel father of the original trilogy, but the Chosen One of Jedi legend gone bad; the ultimate Sith Lord who can throw a rebel to the ceiling with the flick of one wrist and cleave him in two with the bloodshine lightsaber that he holds in the other. Rogue One doesn’t limit itself to redefining Vader’s prowess in battle either. James Earl Jones delights in delivering deadpan dialogue that’s on a par with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi’s most memorable one-liners, and what’s more he does so from within Vader’s obsidian black fortress on Mustafar, which makes its first on-screen appearance here - bacta tank, hooded apostates and all. 

And yet, Rogue One is in some respects even more of a love letter to the original Star Wars movie than even The Force Awakens. Bursting at the seams with cameos and Easter eggs, its very subject matter seeks to dramatise the first film’s opening crawl, making the tapestry of that long-ago galaxy far, far away that much more intricate and alluring. It’s quite apt that, in defiance of every Star Wars saga movie to date, none of the characters here manage to get out the line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this...”, because it’s hard to see how anyone possibly could. Last Christmas the Force awakened - this year, it’s on fire.