Star Wars has always been reliant on formula, what started out as a fusion of old samurai movies and Joseph Campbell myth making eventually (and this depends on who you ask) transforms or degenerates into a grand family opera told through time, space and the occasional teasing of creepy incestuous romance. Through seven massive franchise films, Star Wars has, for better and for worse, enforced the standard of blockbuster filmmaking. The Original Trilogy trailblazed in terms of cinematic storytelling, Lucas wanted to create something to ‘inspire the young’ and fight the then ailing studio system. With his use of mythic archetypes and borrowing heavily on Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic technique, Lucas created a series of films that reinvented cinema as not an artform but as a form of casual entertainment.
What was trailblazing eventually became the beaten, established path. With the prequels Lucas turns the franchise into effects driven spectacles, throwing the script to the wind, proving that story does not really matter in the grander scheme of marketing, merchandising and commercial interests. The transition from Original to prequel trilogies is ironic, what started out as a Rebel Alliance, bring the cinematic arts to mass audiences became the Galactic Empire, a commercial brand whose sole motivation is total market domination. George Lucas became the studio he fought so hard against. He has become, the Galactic Empire.
With the sale to Disney, the films that are released thus far seem more interested in serving as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation for the franchise. Specifically, much of Disney’s cinematic and aesthetic style owes more to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, than any other entry in the series. The emphasis on nostalgia, the use of desert locales, the ‘used future’ aesthetic and the narrowing down of lightsaber and Force users to two or less. These creative choices are all evident in The Force Awakens and in Rogue One. But as a film, Rogue One offers a few more surprises up its own sleeves.
Rogue One takes place between Episode 3 and Episode 4, with the Jedi wiped out, the Galactic Empire has risen to power, enforcing its tyranny across the galaxy. To further establish the Empire’s dominance, an ambitious Imperial Military Director, Orson Krennic leads the construction of the Death Star, a planet killing superweapon.
With the Death Star close to completion, it is up to a grizzled and war weary team of Rebel soldiers to steal the schematic plans of the superweapon, in order to find a way to defeat it and bring freedom back to the galaxy. Essentially, this is Death Star: The Origin Story.
One of the great surprises of Rogue One is its willingness to break the franchise’s rules. Firstly, the film takes the series out of the saga of the Skywalker family and into the greasy hands and mudcaked boots of the regular joes and janes of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. By removing the familial and religious ‘Good vs Evil’ dynamic, we are left with compelling and previously unexplored shades of grey to both sides of the Galactic Civil War. Characters do what it takes to turn the tide of the conflict, at any cost. There is no ‘hate leads to suffering’ philosophical musings here, the only hate is between both sides and the only suffering is what each side subject to the other.
Previous entries in the series dealt in absolutes, Rebels are the good guys and the Empire are the bad, yet Rogue One is bold enough to roster both sides with horrible, broken people who probably have problems sleeping at night. Our two protagonists are cut from this tattered, bloodsoaked cloth, the stoic Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), wakes up to one too many traumatic dreams of childhood abandonment, and the serious and but no less dashing Han Solo surrogate, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), not only shoots first but when we are first introduced to him, shoots people in the back too. Yavin 4 is as big a hive for scum and villainy as Mos Eisley Cantina.
Supporting characters are also filled out by intriguing and distinctly non Star Wars flavoured archetypes, adding new dimensions to the film and the overall mythos. The protocol droid K-2SO is a welcomed addition to the iconic line up of droids in the franchise, he is C3PO with the attitude of a scruffy-looking nerf herder, quipping and smart-assing his way through the narrative. K2 sets itself apart from the squeaky clean, kid appealing franchise icons that R2D2 and C3PO has become.
Substituted for that iconic droid duo, we are given a human alternative instead, in the form of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Emwe (Donnie Yen) and heavy weapons specialist Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). While the gruff and no-nonsense Baze is badass in his own right, blowing away stormtroopers with his blaster rifle, it is Chirrut who wows the crowd with his intergalactic kung fu, constant sutra-like chanting, and that one joke related to his visual impairment. Yen’s Chirrut opens a new door for the Star Wars universe. Through him, we finally have an understanding of what The Force really means to the rest of the galaxy, it is a religion, to be accepted or rejected.
And I have not gone the villains themselves, the baddies aren’t exactly evil. As in the case with the lead villain, Director Orson Krennic. Played with snarly ambition by the great Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic is every middle management exec paranoid about his superiors taking credit for his own work, which in a twisted sense, makes him the most relatable character in the film. I would be pissed if someone takes credit for my work too.
Krennic may be the chief antagonist, but iconic villains in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader do flank him in the narrative, though their appearance does at times weaken Krennic’s role as villainous authority and come across as fan service. It is justifiable though, as both have functions within the story. Grand Moff Tarkin’s appearance serves to highlight his role in Episode 4 and turns Krennic’s story arc into one of corporate and organizational infighting, this adds an interesting wrinkle to the Empire, who usually comes across as a faceless unit simply out to do the most evil thing possible.
Darth Vader, on the other hand, is something we REALLY need to talk about. While his appearance is brief, it re-establishes the character as one of the preeminent villains in film history. We always did hear either through the films or from other Star Wars media of Vader’s terrifying reputation, and skills in combat. But we have never actually seen him in action. Rogue One unleashes the Jedi formerly known as Anakin Skywalker and I’ll damn sure say it, he isn’t ‘just’ someone to be ‘feared, he isn’t ‘just intimidating’. This is Darth Vader in his absolute prime, he is genuinely terrifying. His single minute appearance transforms the film from a war movie into a slasher flick, as he mows down his opponents with supernatural ease and unchecked brutality. Anakin Skywalker is dead but Darth Vader is back.
As great as the characters are and as interesting as this new Star Wars universe is, the narrative does take a while to get going, to blame is the multiple set ups and character introductions. While they are absolutely necessary for the third act to function, there is also too much unnecessary traveling between planets that are redundant to the main plot. To be blunt, the main Death Star plans story arc does not actually get going until the end of the second act, much of the plot development in the first two is reserved to character establishment. That said, the greatness of the third act is because of the two acts that came before.
You will notice the narrative and tonal shift of the finale. It is not much a gradual change as it is stepping off a cliff. The finale is one of the best for a blockbuster in recent memory. A non-stop, all or nothing pitched battle between the Rebels and the Empire, winner takes all. It showcases the extraordinary difficulty that the Rebels have, when confronting the might of the Empire head to head. The battle scenes get ugly and unflinching as we are in the thick of it, storming the beachheads of Scarif with the ragtag Rebels, or accompanying Y-Wing bombers on their attack run, trying desperately to delay inevitable defeat against a superior opponent. It is more Apocalypse Now than Star Wars.
The final battle itself is a thing to behold, we have never seen the Rebels fight this hard. We read the opening crawl of Episode 4, we know this is their first major victory, we know spies managed to get their hands on the Death Star plans. What we do not know is how much of a cruel, relentless struggle this is. Culminating in an ending that, once you catch a glimpse of the back of the familiar curved white Rebel Soldier helmet and a nostalgic looking white starship corridor, it will make you wonder “Are they really going to do that?”. Yes, they did.
However, I do not agree that it is the darkest entry in the franchise, sure a lot of bad stuff happens and it is significantly darker for a Star Wars film but it is nowhere near the nihilism that was displayed in 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Back then, your standard Star Wars protagonist could be a paranoid, selfish man who ends up murdering children, strangling his pregnant wife (who later dies in childbirth), and engaging his friend/mentor in a duel to the death that ends up with said protagonist having all his limbs chopped off before burning in a river of lava, and no one would bat an eyelid. Of course, you can’t do that now, its 2016.
With that said, blaster bolts still fly and the body count is racked up, as the characters you are invested in are forced into a desperate fight to the survive against wave after wave of Imperial troops. Much credit has to go to the writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, as well as director Gareth Edwards, for framing the Rebel cause as a courageous but ultimately hopeless one, with no reward other than a thermal detonator blast to the face.
Gareth Edwards is an inspired choice as director, having had previous experience playing around with the concept of scale in Monsters and Godzilla, we are now seeing the peaking of a young director. The Death Star looks monstrously grotesque in Rogue One, as Star Destroyers are dwarfed by the superweapon’s sheer mass. Edwards even manages to make establishing shots look cool. The opening shot of an Imperial transport vessel floating above the rings of a planet is gorgeous and novel in its approach to establishing locales.
The aesthetics of the film is perhaps its strongest point. Use of handheld cinematography accentuates the overall mise-en-scene, making us feel like we are right there with the rest of the Rogue One team. But it is the production design that gets to shine, the gritty ‘boots on the ground’ aesthetic is on full display here. Massive fallen statues of Jedi knights pepper the surface of the Jedi world of Jedha, Stormtroopers are no longer squeaky clean, their armor caked in grease and grit of countless skirmishes. These are details that are usually unnecessary but this meticulousness is what gives the film its deep immersion, a stand out sequence would be Jyn Erso’s escape from an Imperial prison transport on a miserable looking planet, this is the first time the Stormtroopers look bored and fed up with their jobs. And they got every reason to, even their dented and dirtied helmets tell their story before a single line of dialogue is uttered.
The one aspect of the film that leaves us wanting however, is the generic score. Now, Star Wars is one of the most aurally defined fictional universes, but the score plays it too safe, relying on old motifs and the previous work of John Williams’ to define itself. Which clashes with the entire creative motivation of the film, with jaw dropping , previously unseen visuals of the Star Wars universe, including a scene where a Star Destroyer is literally chopped in half, it is disappointing that Michael Giacchino is unable to conjure up any orchestral magic to match the originality that permeates the rest of the film.
As a film reviewer, I would rather judge a film on its own merits but with Rogue One, its success lies with how it affects the film it chronologically precedes, Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. To judge this movie as a standalone does not appreciate what it has done, which is singlehandedly upping the ante and the importance of various plot points in the other films in the franchise. Bear in mind, this was supposed to be a ‘side story’ with no bearing on the events of the main saga. Yet Rogue One, with its compelling characters, intricate cinematography, production design and an absolute cracker of a third act, proves that being a side story does not mean you can’t be the main event.
**** and a half/5
One of the best films of the year and definitely the best blockbuster of 2016. With a great cast of characters, spellbinding production design and a killer final act, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story adds much needed originality and value into the events of Star Wars mythos, and in doing so surpasses most of the films it was supposed to play second fiddle to.
If you like this, you should watch:
Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope- This should be first on your list after watching Rogue One, the blend is seamless and astonishing to behold, I cannot believe how both films work in storytelling so well.
Flashpoint- The plot may be thin but this film features Donnie Yen’s best choreographed fight scenes, and a viciously executed German suplex that has been emulated in Hollywood productions like Deadpool.
Monsters- Gareth Edwards low budget feature film debut. It is the epitome of sci fi indie filmmaking.
The Hidden Fortress- Akira Kurosawa is a tremendous influence on New Hollywood era filmmakers. And The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars’ greatest reference in terms of storytelling.