A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away a young moisture farmer was planning on wasting time with his friends, picking up some power converters from Tosche Station on Tatooine. But this isn’t his story…at least not yet.
“Rogue One” brings us a Star Wars story that’s more prologue than prequel as it reveals to us exactly how those stolen plans came to be in that R2 unit in the first place. When rebellious prisoner Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is freed from Imperial custody, she becomes key to the struggling Rebellion’s plans to get their hands on the schematics of the Empires dreaded new superweapon. But Jyn has her own agenda: to use the rebels to help her find her father (Mads Mikkelsen) who was taken from her as a child by Imperial forces.
Disney’s second foray into the Star Wars universe is an altogether much darker, grittier affair than the pomp and circumstances of “The Force Awakens”. The grimy, worn aesthetic of Episode IV is back and the universe feels shadier and more dangerous than it has in many a long movie. Again, like “The Force Awakens”, there’s a real benefit to the use of physical sets (proving once again that the Empire’s predilection for awkward ergonomics and precarious workstations is a galactic health and safety nightmare) and locations which CGI simply can’t yet match. CGI limitations are also evident in the recreations of two original trilogy characters, one rather fleeting, the other more frequent than you might be expecting. I’m not convinced by the arguments that there are ethical or moral quandaries in resurrecting deceased actors to reprise their roles but while we’re getting closer to photorealistic CGI people, we’re not quite there yet. A couple of scenes would have worked well but “Rogue One” insists on Tarkin it too far.
Away from the talkative avatar scenes, director Gareth Edwards brings a remarkable rich vision to the story and nearly every frame is packed with soon to be iconic visuals or innovative action, proving that the Death Star is far more terrifying at low power than it ever was when destroying Alderaan. Make no mistake, this is hard core dark “Star Wars” which never misses a chance to put some poor passers-by in the line of fire or send them and their limbs flying when there’s an explosion to be had.
Those who bridled at how much “The Force Awakens” ‘borrowed’ from the Original Trilogy will find much to grumble about here as Disney still seem reluctant to take the training wheels off its newly expanding universe and there are cameos, Easter eggs and references galore scattered throughout the film from the trite (blue milk) through the irritating (Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba) to the sublime (a welcome return for Angus McInnes and Drew Henley as Gold and Red Leader respectively). The film also borrows heavily from “Return Of The Jedi” for the structure of its undeniably spectacular finale but the constant need to hark back to previous films distracts more than it intertwines and the film would have been stronger without so many call-backs. Admittedly, the film’s borrowing of a key McGuffin from “Spaceballs” comes as much more of a surprise, but a welcome one.
Of course, the film’s most notable returnee is the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader. Thankfully, he’s used sparingly, focussed mainly on two major set pieces. The first, set on Mustafar, is prequel-level awful; awkward and saddled with dreadful dialogue it’s like Lucas snuck into the production and filmed a scene while no one was looking. Thankfully, Vader’s second appearance is better than anything the Sith Lord has done on screen before. For the first time ever, we see Vader in full, furious flow and it is both awesome and chilling.
Performance wise, Felicity Jones seems wide awake after snoozing her way through “Inferno” and manages to make Jyn a likeable heroine despite a script which does its best to make her irritating and petulant. There’s wonderful support from Diego Luna’s Captain Andor, Riz Ahmed’s Bohdi Rook and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe amongst her ragtag band of rebels but it’s Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO who thoroughly steals the show thanks to getting pretty much all the best lines. Unfortunately, despite a story which meanders a little and visits perhaps one planet too many – we don’t really get to spend a lot of time getting to know the characters, including dashing villain Orson Crennic (Ben Mendelsohn) before we’re plunged into a frenetic finale which is slightly hampered by the unavoidable narrative need to explain why none of the main characters don’t appear in the original trilogy.
Giacchino’s score is an unfortunate and rare misstep often distractingly similar to Williams’ original themes only to go in a direction which feels more about ‘fair use’ than variation (kind of how the “How It should Have Ended” guys mimic movie scores).
Ultimately, though, “Rogue One” does everything it needs to do with style and visual flair. It’s a gritty, action-packed war story which brings one of the Galactic Civil War’s pivotal moments to the big screen. It even manages to provide an entirely satisfying explanation for the Death Star’s fundamental design flaw, which is no mean feat in itself.