Jynn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of an architect named Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) who was the senior designer on the galactic Empire’s war-efforts. Realising his designs would lead to wholesale slaughter rather than peace, he quit his job and escaped into obscurity with his family. But the Empire has tracked him down and want him to complete work on their most ambitious weapon to date: a moon-sized planet killer called the Death Star. His wife killed and his daughter in hiding, he is resigned in having to do their bidding. If he can’t fight them from without, he will quietly do so from within.
Almost two decades later, with the rebellion against the Empire at a key juncture that could see them get a significant win against their oppressors or be lost forever, the Rebel Alliance tracks down Jynn in an effort to find a way to get to her father. Galen has smuggled out a message with a defecting pilot that could reveal key intelligence about the Death Star and a weakness he has deliberately built in to its design. But Jynn is reluctant to join the war effort that robbed her of her father and only the desire to see him again may convince her to help them. However Galen is seen as an enemy by many and the mission to find him could yet turn into one to ensure his talents for weaponry are no longer available to anyone. Teamed with a rag-tag bunch of rebels including Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), spiritual noble vagabonds Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and a reprogrammed yet sardonic droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Jynn heads out on a very personal mission with the highest stakes.
With the Death Star going into operation under the watchful eye of a familiar Empire governor named Tarkin and an ambitious commander named Orson Crennic (Ben Mendelsohn), time is running out to retrieve the operational-plans of the Death Star and deliver them to the rebels. Will the operation to get the intel be a last chance or a new hope?
Many Bothans died to bring us ‘Rogue One‘, so was it worth it?
There’s little doubt Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of the most anticipated films of the year, but such an expectation carries a great deal of weight. This first Star Wars standalone outing was always going to have a stellar opening weekend, but would it also get a Phantom Menace backlash to follow?
The good news is that it’s light-years ahead of the prequel trilogy mess and if it doesn’t quite achieve the balance of the original Star Wars film (aka A New Hope) then it definitely feels like a valiant effort to join existing dots in interesting and diverting ways. If last year’s reboot The Force Awakens sought merely to emulate and stretch out Star Wars then Rogue One seeks to render portions of the existing canvas in greater detail. For a majority of the running time that works well, this latest chapter being able to step away from the Skywalker family baggage and mainly rely on featuring characters we’re meeting for the first time. Of course, it plays it safe and makes sure that there’s a few familiar faces in there to provide context – even if the actors involved weren’t actually there. CGI and performance-capture have come along way since the iffy days of Polar Express and though the reanimation of key characters is to be applauded, there’s arguably still something missing of the soul behind the eyes that lies in what’s referred to as the ‘uncanny valley’of disbelief. That being said, the recreation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin – thanks to a combination of actor Guy Henry and ILM tech – is a thing of beauty, a massive achievement that gets as close to photo-realistic reanimation as we’re likely to see for a long while. The fact that Tarkin’s scenes are not merely a brief cameo but several minutes of screen-time shows the confidence the film-makers had in the end results. (There’s another character getting such a recreation at the end of the film. Again, it’s technically impressive if not quite as believably rendered). The only drawback to both appearances is that there’s a danger it distracts you into appreciating the tech behind it rather than the story in front of you.
Felicity Jones and Jynn join Daisy Ridley and Rey as strong female leads in the revitalised galaxy of long ago and far away and Jones’ performance is another believably spunky heroine who really gets hijacked into helping her better angels rather than having a noble calling to begin with. Donnie Yen is the closest thing to a Jedi in the film – a blind samurai with a dry sense of humour and irony (when a bag is put over his head during a ‘kidnap’ he has to remind them he’s already blind!) and a respect for the lost spiritual side of the galaxy’s protectors. His casting may be down in part to Disney being savvy to the international market – the eastern contingent in particular – but his almost effortless ballet-like fighting style gives the film its beating heart on the action front.
‘It swerves and weaves well, but noticeably, between the clear desire to be an all-out war movie and yet the need to inhabit the same landscape as one of the best derring-do ‘saturday morning serial’ adventures of all time. Whenever it comes close to one over the other you can see the course-adjustment on the horizon…
Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrara – mthological rebel and once Jynn’s guardian has less screen-time than you might imagine, his main reason for being there to encourage Jynn to embrace makign a real difference but otherwise a military figurehead that’s surplus to story requirements. However it’s good to see Darth Vader and hear the tones of James Earl Jones once more (with the body under the armour this time provided by Spencer Wilding) and see what a bad-ass bad guy he can be, even with limited screen-time and used as a bogeyman for the Rogue One story rather than the main villain. Elements of Vader’s back-story (he has his own castle in the molten wastelands) will appeal to die-hard continuity purists and he bestrides all he surveys with the dark intentions we’d see in A New Hope. Mendelsohn’s Crennic is a typically middle-management bad guy: a military commander of dubious intentions trying to climb up the ladder, unimpressed by his own bosses and trying to impress them so he can surpass them later. He’s strictly the boo-hiss variety that would cancel Christmas if it existed in that universe but Mendelsohn gives him enough misplaced confidence and vanity to make the strikes against him satisfying. We should not forget to mention that though unseen, Firefly/Serenity‘s Alan Tudyk voices the snarky K-2SO with a voice inflection just different enough from Anthony Daniels’ C3P0 and offers some of the best ambivalent one-liners.
Rogue One certainly isn’t flawless and like much of the subsequent franchise it’s more likely that those with a nostalgic investment in the proceedings will get most out of it. There’s easter eggs and touchstones galore scattered throughout the film for those who want them: some subtle, some ‘hit you over the head with a lightsaber‘ but it comes together better than The Force Awakens in that regard (which was a decent film but one which recreated and borrowed key themes and ‘moments’ rather than building on or to them). But to its credit Rogue One does have a solid third-act, the lack of which is a major problem with many modern films. As we realise this won’t be a clean-cut good-beats-evil conclusion – obvious if you know even basic Star Wars continuity – the desperation of trench-warfare (even when surrounded by lasers and space-ships) is more palpable than you might expect for an all-ages enterprise. It would never go for Saving Private Ryan‘s opening salvo brutality, but the idea that there’s a human cost to war in trying to keep a new hope alive is there in the considerable body-count and battlefield sacrifices along the way.
And there are hints throughout that speak to those twin towers that the film could choose to play to. It swerves and weaves well, but noticeably, between the clear desire to be an all-out war movie and yet the need to inhabit the same landscape as one of the best derring-do ‘saturday morning serial’ adventures of all time. Whenever it comes close to one over the other you can see the course-adjustment on the horizon. We may never know if the result is truly director Gareth Edwards’ original intent or not, but the film feels like an adequate compromise in a battle of the wills.
Though they were downplayed, there were many rumours of reshoots during the past summer. Perhaps giving credence to the idea the ending of the film had significant changes made, key scenes put in even recent trailers are now blatantly absent. Big money-shots such as a TIE fighter rising menacingly behind Jynn Erso on the communications tower, storm-troopers moving forward on a beach-head and bad guy Orson Krennic striding majestically through the off-shore waters, his cloak spreading out behind him like an angel of death are AWOL and key speeches such as Saw Gerrera’s ‘What will you do?‘ and Jynn’s musing on her rebellious nature vanished somewhere between the trailers being cut and the film’s debut this week. It’s a pity as they were memorably good images and all contributed a lot to the anticipation of the film. What’s left is fine but it loses just a little of the emotional punch they suggested. Close scrutiny of such also makes you wonder if the reshoots and expensive rewrites by Tony Gilroy fundamentally changed the fates of some characters.
With a running time of just over two hours, Rogue One comes in without over-staying its welcome or under-developing its story – though it may be interesting to see what a director’s cut or extended edition may yet bring to the lucrative after-market of blu-ray and DVD. It walks its battle-line well, restoring faith in the franchise and continuing the uptick that started with The Force Awakens. It can’t be all things to everyone, but in a grounded entry that sidelines the mystic western for the military machine, it’s got enough new hope for its ‘last chance’ saloon.
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