‘Memember The Force Awakens? Yes, it was just a little over a year ago that the Disney-acquired Lucasarts kick-started a new saga in George Lucas’s Universe. We’ve known for a while that Disney was not content to just continue the tales of Luke, Leia, Han and co. They also wanted to release stand alone films as part of their “Anthology” series, now re-branded as “Star Wars Stories“. These films will fill in narrative blanks within the universe or revisit cherished characters.
The first one is here, set just prior to Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One chronicles the heroics of a small band of rebels who, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, were critical in securing the plans for the Death Star (the first one), the super-weapon intended to solidify the Empire’s rule over the galaxy.
The film starts a little scattered, jumping from location to location, from character to character. It plunges you back into the Star Wars universe while expanding it, packing in plenty of familiar faces, places and tributes. While a lot is being juggled and things are a tad weighed down initially, these threads are all in service to the plot and the new characters being introduced, intertwining them and drawing them together. This opening also showcases the persecution, coercion and brutality that is rife in the galaxy, driving home the misery of living under the yolk of the Empire. This is far better realized than in previous installments; the abuse of power and the perversion of politics resounding loudly in these times. From the hustle and bustle of a space market to a warzone in a place of religious pilgrimage, the threat of the Empire is everywhere. It underlines how this film is about people stepping up, making a difference, and in some cases a sacrifice. In its exploration of valor, it is undeniably a war film, and a rousing call to arms.
The stakes are evident, but they are solidified by a tremendous cast and the characters they help create. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is a strong, intelligent woman, reluctant at first but eventually rallying this band of misfits. It shouldn’t be necessary to applaud the assembly of a multi-ethnic cast led by a woman, but it is a rarity and we live in regressive times, so it must be recognized and appreciated. To reiterate social media buzz, you never knew how much you needed Donnie Yen taking down Storm Troopers in your life. Equally wonderful is the reprogrammed droid K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk, given seemingly free reign to babble a distinctly deadpan, sardonic personality that is the source of most of the humor in the film. In spite of it being a gritty wartime venture, the humor is there, a much needed release in the face of tragedy and fear.
Mendelsohn’s Director Krennick is little more than an ambitious dick, but it’s hard not to like the way he chews his lines while looking resplendent in a white cape. It’s no spoiler to say that a few familiar faces do pop up, notably Darth Vader who is given a short sequence in which he unleashes much of the terror for which he is renowned. Beyond this, aliens, droids, X-wing pilots all make an appearance that cause your brain to flicker and register where you have seen them before, or indeed where you will see them in the future. The film doesn’t feel beholden to fan service, but there are enough nods and easter eggs tucked away to keep die-hard fans busy for multiple viewings. The more casual viewer will simply see a film representing a rich universe of characters and locales.
Once the stakes are laid out and the band is together, the film coalesces into a much stronger force, despite a middle act that feels a little tacked on for an emotional beat. After this, Rogue One becomes a breathless slalom through the final act, the Battle on Scarif. Juxtaposing elements of a heist and full scale war movie, unfolding on land and amongst the stars above, hitting you with impressive visuals and a barrage of emotional beats. There is nothing in Star Wars history as unrelentingly intense. Neither have we met a group that have engendered such investment in their fates and their cause. This is where Rogue One truly excels, in balancing scale and intimacy. It’s stirring stuff.
Gareth Edwards delivers a film that will satiate even the most ardent fan of Star Wars while simultaneously being a thrilling blend of action, humor and heart. There’s a tangible quality to the worlds he creates and the people he fills them with. There’s some questionable CGI used in bringing one character to the screen but overall it’s a resounding success. An exhilarating and emotional tale of valor that doesn’t pull any punches, making it not only the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but one that creates it’s own mythology, iconic imagery, and memorable characters.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released on December 16th.