Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – Movie Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Written by: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy
Starring: Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker & Riz Ahmed
Music: Michael Giacchino
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: December 15th 2016

Last year’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ could easily be called the most anticipated movie in cinema history. Thanks to a secretive, perfectly executed marketing campaign, the return of the original trilogy cast members and a December release date, the movie was able to earn the biggest domestic opening weekend of all time and be the 3rd most financially successful movie of all time. With the next instalment in the “Skywalker Saga” still a year away, Disney have decided to seize on the opportunity to bridge the gaps in the Universe (and the release schedule) with detached, anthology films. It may seem disingenuous to say that a billion-dollar sure-thing Star Wars spin-off can be called a “risky move” but that’s how certain people want to frame it.

The first one of these anthology films is ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘. Taking place between the events of ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith‘ and ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘, this sequel/prequel details how the plans to the Empire’s first Death Star wound up in rebel hands. Being helmed by ‘Monsters‘ and ‘Godzilla‘ director Gareth Edwards with a screenplay from ‘The Golden Compass‘ and ‘Cinderalla‘ scribe Chris Weitz and co-written by ‘Michael Clayton‘ writer Tony Gilroy, it’s an adequate team. But can Disney’s totally-not-a-risky project pull through or should they just stay on target with the Skywalker films?
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A long time ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away, the Empire has dominated the Galaxy and is building a planet-destroying super weapon known as “The Death Star”. Designed by Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) against his will, Galen designed the weapon with an exploitable weakness and tasks his daughter Jyn Erso (Jones) to get ahold of the plans. However, the Rebellion are sceptical of Jyn due to her family’s connection with the Empire, but a small group of soldiers, including Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Luna) and defected Imperial Pilot Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), team up with Jyn to steal the plans from under the watchful eye of Imperial Weapons Elite; Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘ (which will now be referred to as ‘Rogue One‘) has its sights squarely aimed at up-ending the traditional “Star Wars” formula to give us a more down n’ dirty war film. Previous films in the franchise have had elements of war, but it was almost always viewed from a position of power or with a supernatural element. The story that ‘Rogue One‘ seeks to tell is one of the “heroes” that don’t get a medal ceremony; the assassin’s, the grunts, the snipers, the unnamed pilots, almost in line with the characters you’d play as in a “Star Wars: Battlefront” game.
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As a result, the best moments of the film come from the understated moments of combat and giving the audience the sense that these people are not only dispensable, but they will have zero legacy in this franchise once the dust has settled and the guns have stopped smoking. This is a desperate rebellion, acting in the shadows, double-crossing when necessary and having to fight off the might of the Empire without a lightsaber in sight.

This is where certain people have been having an issue with ‘Rogue One‘ and it’s a perfectly legitimate one. Because we’re in the middle of a war and we’re dealing with slightly unsavoury characters who have a clear objective (i.e. steal the Death Star plans) it means there’s not much time for characterisation. The most fleshed out character is Jyn as the movie opens with her escaping the clutches of the Empire and seeing her mother be killed and her father be kidnapped and forced to build their weapon. She is then adopted by Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker) and tries to resist Imperial dominance. She has appropriate motivation, whereas the rest of the supporting cast don’t get much in the way of backstory.
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That’s not to say it’s entirely absent. Chirrut Îmwe is a blind, force-sensitive warrior who has a constant companion in Baze Malbus, K-2SO was a re-programmed imperial droid with a selfish, sardonic attitude and Bodhi Rook is a timid pilot who defected from the Empire when he heard news of their planet-killer. Yes, it’s absolutely a step down from what we’ve seen from other “Star Wars” movies and characters like Cassian Andor and Orson Krennic show up without much of a defined backstory but it feels like with the immediacy of the stakes that the movie’s pacing would have been significantly hampered had these characters stopped to deliver exposition. That’s not to say it could’t be done, but the focus of ‘Rogue One‘ is not necessarily who these characters are, but what they did.

In regards to how these characters act and behave around each other, ‘Rogue One‘ does a good job at characterising them, even if we don’t get a defined handle on all their motives and reasoning which comes to a head in the film’s 2nd act, but more on that later. This extends to an intriguing look at what was going on behind-the-scenes of the Empire with Orson Krennic and other higher-ups within the group including Grand Moff Tarkin (recreated in ‘Rogue One‘ through motion-capture).
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It’s fascinating to see that there was an internal power struggle taking place as to who actually was behind the creation of the Death Star and who was wanting to take sole credit for its creation to appease the Emperor. It paints Tarkin in a more interesting light and I think that portrayal is justification alone for having him in this movie as opposed to just giving the same role to a one-off, new character. As for Krennic, he may rank highly amongst the Empire and he may have ambition and drive but he’s a reactionary person and does little to safeguard himself against the corruption within his own ranks.

Rogue One‘, while filled with appealing characters, is a film that is mostly driven by the needs of the plot and characters reacting to the impending arrival of the Empire. It makes it unlike other “Star Wars” movies, but it also places emphasis on filling in the gaps in the time-line, such as how there was such a notable flaw in the Death Star in the first place, what happened to the original Red-5 in Rogue Squadron and what happened in the moments before ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ began. The film’s biggest inclusion to the “Star Wars” timeline in my estimation is depicting how the Rebellion became a militarised, collaborative effort instead of isolated groups committing “hit and run”, insignificant attacks. This info might not matter to a lot of people, but thankfully it’s wrapped up in an atmospheric, story-driven film that excels are pushing an oppressive tone to its viewers. This is a war movie and that feeling of dread and the idea that these characters could die at any moment hangs over the whole enterprise, like the shadow of the Death Star looming over them.
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But with a story-driven film comes some story-related issues and while there are nit-picks to be had (why does Saw Gerrera have an mind-reading Octopus creature?) there are certain structural issues that matter more directly. For example, the 2nd act feels rather haphazardly structured with characters moving from location to location with seemingly little purpose. I’m sure there must have been a way to condense that 2nd act and narrow down the number of locations because it results it a movie whose most important plot-related scenes come across as a bit of a drag. Also, there’s a short scene where Jyn and Cassian butt-heads in the 2nd act but because Cassian has been so minimally defined as a character you’d be hard pressed to figure out why.

And once again, why does Saw Gerrera have an mind-reading Octopus creature?

But the performances do a lot to bring these one-off characters to life. Thankfully Jyn’s terrible “I rebel” line from the trailer is not in the movie and Felicity Jones brings just the right balance of a woman who has been battle-hardened and feels she knows how the world works, but when that worldview is shattered and turned into something more optimistic, she doesn’t quite know how to process it. Her performance highlight is when she watches a holographic message from her father and she seems to emotionally shut down through shock.
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Cassian isn’t well characterised but Diego Luna has a great on-screen presense, Donnie Yen is terrific fun but also quietly powerful as Chirrut, Jiang Wen gets some great, fun hero moments as Baze and Riz Ahmed frequently steals scenes as the timid Bodhi. Alan Tudyk dons a motion-capture suit to play droid K-2SO and this could easily be the funniest “Star Wars” character in franchise history (but his style of sardonic humour doesn’t detract from the war-torn atmosphere) and while Krennic doesn’t rank up there in regards to Star Wars villains, he still cements his place well in the legacy of the Empire.

But we also need to briefly talk about Darth Vader and while his appearances are fleeting (he easily gets less screen-time than Spider-Man in ‘Captain America: Civil War‘ if you’re after a comparison) they definitely count. Every frame he’s on screen feels special (even if James Earl Jones’ voice has changed and doesn’t quite feel like Darth Vader anymore). Nevertheless, his initial entrance, the way director Gareth Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ and ‘Foxcatcher‘) photograph him and portray his presense is a sight to behold and while his screentime is minimal his impact feels maximum (though there was footage of Vader shown at “Star Wars Celebration” back in April 2016 that didn’t wind up in the movie which may disappoint fans).
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Rogue One‘ is also filled with some of the best action sequences of the whole franchise, from the intense ground combat to the thrilling dogfights in orbit. Despite being called “Star Wars” it feels like we don’t often get space battles but in ‘Rogue One‘ they return with a vengeance and we get to see new ships (“Hammerhead” is all I’ll say), familiar faces and brilliantly portrayed dog-fighting that focuses on one or two ships at a time instead of giving the audience sensory overload. The warfare on the ground is just as gripping and it exploits the visual strengths of Gareth Edwards; his ability to portray scope. These tiny people trying to outrun massive AT-ACT walkers, trying to make 10 men feel like hundreds through deception and armed with a variety of weapons make ‘Rogue One‘ feel like a genuine depiction of the Rebellion war effort. But due to the disposable nature of the characters and the film’s ability to grip you in the moment, even though you know what happens to the Death Star plans in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ you still doubt whether or not they’ll succeed in their mission. Whatever issues I have with the 2nd act feel so insignificant when compared to how extraordinary the 3rd act is in its entirety.

When it comes to the rest of the production, it’s about as polished as you’d expect from a Disney, tentpole production. As in, it looks pretty amazing. The cinematography is far removed from previous “Star Wars” films, but with the aesthetics and iconography of the original trilogy in place it feels like it fits right into the Universe. The special effects are stellar and even the motion-captured depiction of original trilogy characters feels well handled, the make-up is great, the production design is exceptional and the combination of practical sets and green-screened backgrounds works wonders. If there’s an issue with the production values it’s the score by Michael Giacchino. Now, to be fair, he only had four weeks to score the movie after replacing Alexandre Desplat (who did finish a score for the film which I’d love to listen to it out of curiosity) and while it’s not a bad score, it just doesn’t leave much of an impact. It feels like a sci-fi score instead of a “Star Wars” score. For a film that’s meant to IMMEDIATELY precede ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ it felt like a lot more John Williams motifs could have been used.

Also, there’s no opening crawl in the movie and ‘Rogue One‘ feels like the only movie in the whole franchise that could have genuinely used one.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘ manages to fill in gaps that relatively few people were asking to be filled in a very atmospheric and compelling way. Those looking for a character-driven “Star Wars” movie in the vein of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ may leave disappointed but if you’re able to get on the wavelength of this film being a plot-driven, war movie that’s primarily a mood-piece then you’ll be in for the best movie in this franchise since 1980’s ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back‘. Its characters are engaging, its 3rd act is phenomenal, the dread is palpable and it feels like the type of “Star Wars” movie that I wanted ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ to be. The bar has been set incredibly high for future anthology films and I may start looking forward to these instalments more than the actual Saga films.

I give ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.

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Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 16th Feb 17