REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Star Wars gets its first spin-off in this precursor to A New Hope. Oscar gives us the first of two reviews. 

In many ways, Rogue One is an inversion of The Force Awakens; it takes place just before the Original Trilogy yet has very few familiar characters, it’s not as funny as Episode VII and displays a galaxy bereft of hope, and it has less obvious moments of fanservice. But the scenes that tie into A New Hope are very satisfying indeed. If you have yet to see it, Rogue One will surely enhance your appreciation of the OT’s story. 

Research scientist Galen Erso and his family are in hiding when Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) of the Galactic Empire forces Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) to return to work on the unfinished Imperial battle station, the Death Star. After his wife is killed, their daughter Jyn escapes and is taken into safety by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a Rebel extremist, who trains her to fight and survive over the years.

Fifteen years later, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo shuttle pilot, defects and smuggles a holographic message from Galen to Gerrera on the moon Jedha. A now adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from Imperial captivity by the Rebels, led by Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), who intends to use her to track down her father for extraction. Jyn, Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) arrive on Jedha to find Gerrera. With the aid of blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Jyn finds Gerrera, who is holding Rook. Saw shows her the hologram, in which her father expresses his love for her and discloses his coerced help on the project. Galen also reveals that he has covertly compromised the Death Star’s design so that it can be destroyed. He tells her that the plans are at an Imperial high-security databank on the planet Scarif. Meanwhile, Grand Moff Tarkin (a resurrected Peter Cushing) meets with Krennic on the Death Star and expresses skepticism over Krennic’s leadership. As a demonstration, Krennic orders a low-powered shot from the weapon to destroy Jedha’s capital and crush the insurgency led by Gerrera.

This cast is a nice mix of new and dependable. Jones gives a great lead performance as Jyn, conveying the emotional scenes excellently, whilst maintaining a convincing front as a stoic and isolated individual who has had to keep her feelings beneath the surface. Luna acquits himself well as a morally-grey Rebel operative, and clearly comes across as a guy not to be messed with. Mendelsohn does fine as Krennic, bringing a commanding and arrogant presence. Yen was a surprise, despite his limited lines and scenes, leaving a strong impression. Mikkelsen brings warmth and regret to his role as Galen. Tudyk delivers a great deadpan, servile demeanor as the reformed Imperial droid K-2. Ahmed initially had me worried with his jittery persona, but the film progressed his antics admirably. Jiang Wen works with what little characterisation he has, serving as a stoic tough guy to Yen’s mystical character. O’Reilly has a welcome reprise as the venerable Alliance leader Mon Mothma after her scenes were deleted from Revenge of the Sith. Shockingly for me, Whitaker is the weak link in the cast; the otherwise great actor is incomprehensible most of the time and his character came across as an annoyance to me, with his scenes feeling inconsequential. And yes, James Earl Jones returns to voice Darth Vader once more to chilling effect. 

A lot of care was taken in the production design to emulate the aesthetics of the Rebel Alliance and the Empire in the weeks leading up to A New Hope. The universe feels grounded and realistic, benefitting from the lack of a Jedi Knight to turn the tide. The sets and locations feel like classic Star Wars, and never feel too polished or clinical. They handled the animatronic creatures and alien makeup well, without feeling too indulgent. The photography by Greig Fraser retains the photographic fidelity and colour of the Original Trilogy for the most part, though it really gives menace to the darker moments of the film. There are bits that bear a strong resemblance to the camera angles and visual motifs of the other Star Wars films, but they still felt natural to the story. One thing I certainly did not expect was Lord Vader’s dark fortress on Mustafar being a perfect visual homage to Barad-dur from The Lord of the Rings. That was a touch heavy-handed.

The ground action is gritty and shot like many modern war films, and the starship battles are beautifully realised and gel well with their model counterparts from the classic trilogy. Being able to see the pilots and tell the Rebel squadrons apart certainly helped me to be more invested in their mission, both in space and on the planet’s surface in the final battle. With the new visual effects, the scale of the battles on the ground or in orbit certainly feel huge and suspenseful, never overwhelming the main story. The use of CGI to create photorealistic faces has certainly come a long way, and here it is used to bring Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin back to life. At times it errs on the wrong side of the uncanny valley,  and is most effective when he’s silent. The voice for Tarkin, Guy Henry, nails Cushing’s distinct accent to a disturbingly good level. There is another surprise in store for those who may not have been impressed by a CG Grand Moff, and it floored me as well, but I won’t spoil it here.

The score by Michael Giacchino is certainly a competent one, matching the tone and style of John Williams, but it’s not the most impressionable of the Star Wars suites, lacking a lot of mystical elements from the other seven films. However, it does utilise the recurring themes for the Force, the Rebellion and the Empire successfully, and even extends on the ominous Death Star fanfare from A New Hope. With only four weeks to create a full two hours of music, the fact that Giacchino created an enjoyable score is an achievement in and of itself.

Rogue One is, in many ways, the prequel we have wanted for years, and one that actually enriches the subsequent film. It addresses one of the most infamous plotholes of the original movie involving the Death Star’s Achilles’ Heel. The third act really is where the film kicks up the momentum and drama several notches, not just on a visual level but on an emotional level, too, tying up the film’s loose ends and segueing smoothly into Episode IV.

It is much slower-paced than last year’s entry; the first act takes a while to get going. That is largely due to the truncated introduction of the other characters, who appear as point-of-view figures, but it takes the focus off Jyn numerous times to introduce other protagonists and it doesn’t balance them out very well in the first act. Thankfully, it does find its footing and the characters are synchronised together in a great way. I almost wonder if adding a title crawl might have helped, despite deliberate stylistic differences from the wider “Skywalker Saga.” It’s certainly more serious than half of the other Star Wars films. The humour from K-2SO and Chirrut works well enough but it is rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, often being very dry and cynical. Up until now, every Star Wars film has had a cute, diminutive character (or even dozens) to break the ice between the darker moments. Here, we don’t have that and it takes some getting used to.

Jyn is in a unique position as a Star Wars protagonist in that she came from a family that was once loyal to the Empire, and her moral arc is finding her place alongside the Rebels, despite their questionable actions. She has known little else besides war and insurgency, and had very little to fight for. When she finds the Rebellion, they are still very much a loosely-formed Alliance; their attitude is epitomised by Cassian’s no-nonsense wartime perspective, and most viewers may struggle to identify with them in the same way they might classic scoundrels such as Han Solo. It’s the embittered views of Cassian, K-2 and the other Rebels that drives Jyn to reconsider how the Alliance fights the Empire. The result is creating hope by way of dramatic example.

Ultimately, Rogue One gives new weight to the events of A New Hope and beyond. It feels strong enough  to stand on its own merits and earn its place as a solid extension of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. With new worlds, a unique story execution and a healthy serving of old characters and locales, it emerges as a fresh and welcome addition to the Star Wars canon.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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