The Star Wars film for people who don’t like Star Wars films!
Great though The Force Awakens was it conformed almost totally to the expectations of generations of fans while making plenty of new ones and we were more than happy with that. However you can only really pull off that trick once and there is now a sense that the entire franchise needs to move on and Rogue One is the recognition of that. While still residing recognisably within the established Star Wars Universe it is never content to remain within the templates previous movies have demanded and on many occasions bursts out into somewhere else. It’s not as radical as hard core fans probably think it is but it is definitely a film that people will be able to identify with even those unfamiliar or alienated from the saga. It is very much the Star Wars film for people who don’t like Star Wars films.
Warning- Major spoilers beyond this point…
It reads- and plays- rather like the opening episodes of a tv series with the band assembling through a series of coincidences, initial distrust replaced by respect when the boots hit the ground. One thing that is almost immediately notable is the dialogue which seems far less speechified here allowing the actors some space to develop actual characters who are more than one note.
From the start the film sets up personal stakes you can buy into. One strong example is the nuance of Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal in which Krennic sees the whole project through the prism of his own ambition. There’s a moment when the power of the Star has been demonstrated and he does this wince which suggests both momentary pang of concern over the carnage he has just ordered but also a renewed sense that if this works out he’ll be doing fine. Right away he declares how the demonstration showed only a fraction of its power. It is one of several performances that raise this movie above the usual space opera.
So Felicity Jones’ Jyn may at first seem like the sort of kick ass gal we seem to have seen a lot of lately yet the character retains her femininity. Diego Luna’s seemingly heroic Cassian Andor turns out to be a flawed hero with blood on his hands. Amongst the motley crew Riz Ahmed shines as the former Imperial pilot Bodhi who’s changing sides is the catalyst and who goes from panicky prisoner to bold achiever. Donnie Yen has a lot of fun as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe and everyone will love the robot K-2S0 voiced by Alan Tudyk. There have been plenty of cute or cheeky bots in these films but none quite as sarcastic and self centred as this one! He gets the best lines and welcome laughs in a film that is quite grim at times.
Gareth Edwards’ direction and Greig Fraser’s cinematography play towards the darker side of matters with plenty of mud and shadows in what comes across as something of a war film. Take away the droids and furry creatures and you could almost be in World War 2. The visuals are recognisably that of the same period as the original trilogy with, as in Force Awakens, as much physical effects work as possible to add a realistic sheen. The battle sequences are awkward and dirty as they would be and there is a real sense of jeopardy all the way through. The cameras sit deep inside the action and rather like the aircraft dogfight homages in previous films, the rebel’s desperate plans have echoes of Dunkirk or Gallipoli.
As the trailer already showed us Darth Vader is in evidence though the real surprise is the more prominent role of Grand Moff Tarkin played, as before, by Peter Cushing albeit in some digitised format. I do feel this is the only element of the film that doesn’t quite work- a later glimpse of a young Leia is great because it’s been and gone before you can study it. Tarkin’s skin in close up on an IMAX screen has the look of those gaming characters with a tone that is not quite convincingly human. His face is front and centre in several scenes whereas a more considered appearance in half shadow or distance may have worked better. Plus in a film that is populated by more flesh and blood characters than you’re used to in a Star Wars movie, it sort of stands out even more.
Gareth Edwards presents what is effectively a war movie with fantasy accoutrements. The weapons may look unusual but they are very physical battles we witness with a feeling that any character is vulnerable. The shiny passageways so reminiscent of the original trilogy are kept to a minimum as we are led through old vehicles, mud, dust and a sense of places lived in. Meetings take place on the move or in the washed out palette of underground rooms. To contrast there are vivid starscapes and an array of planets (a few too many to start with) that really make this Universe seem as expansive as it should be.
As its set so close to the events of the original trilogy there is little concession to our own technology so when they finally find the plans they are held in a delightfully clunky box about the size of an old videotape and you have to slot it into a device to play it. Of course these films are set “a long time ago” so there’s no reason why these people should have digital technology. It made me wonder what happened to this Universe a little less longer ago- perhaps a story for the sequel to the sequels? Throughout this physical technology abounds- from dodgy comms to old style bombs having to be planted by someone.
The rigour with which four (!) scriptwriters deliver the plot allows the film to start slowly before building to a masterful multiple climax of events that is as good as any Star Wars film (yes, even that one!). It’s tense and dramatic whether or not you buy into the whole saga. About ten minutes from the end you realise that none (no, not one) of the new characters we’re grown to like over the previous two hours is going to make it out alive. They die heroically but messily and we move on but unlike the lesser casualties in the other films we remember them. I think when it gets to the final half hour I did feel a tinge of the same excitement I had the first time I ever saw Star Wars and for a film to do that is an achievement.
Though the tone is optimistic and the word `hope `becomes a repeated meme the ultimate destination for the entire set of new heroes is sadly terminal. Not one of them makes it to the final credits which means the success of the actual mission is bittersweet. Maybe the script could have dwelt a moment on this sacrifice? Or perhaps it says something about the nature of war that despite the significance of their achievement their names are lost in the bigger picture? In which case it makes this film somewhat more important than just a sidebar as it shows the courage and resourcefulness of the `little people` whose names may never resonate through history but who make a vital contribution
Yet all the way through you’ve totally forgotten that this is technically a prequel or a sequel (presequel?) and we know the outcome. Such has been the thrill that it doesn’t matter, you are with this lot all the way!