The signs weren’t encouraging for Rogue One.
The first Star Wars Story was beset by reports of onset troubles and extensive reshoots, let alone set with monstrous expectations after The Force Awakens set out the stall for this new stage of Star Wars last year, so there was every chance that Rogue One could have gone down as another messy blockbuster undone by studio meddling in a year full of them.
Thankfully, Rogue One has emerged from its tumultuous production as an accomplished entry into the megabucks franchise that stands proudly among the main Star Wars saga while creating its own engaging niche and aesthetic to distinguish itself.
Granted, it’s a movie that requires patience. The first twenty minutes or so are frustratingly pedestrian, with a dull prologue that cycles through a dispiriting amount of blockbuster clichés, before sprawling out to dutifully pop round to a series of planets to introduce the entirety of a main cast.
This is a busy movie, and it’s one that suffers from a need to put all its chess pieces in place before it can really kick off.
Once Rogue One’s main players coalesce, however, the movie begins to click into gear and doesn’t stop improving from there. One aspect that was particularly striking, especially considering the glossy futurism of The Force Awakens, is Rogue One’s gritty and grounded aesthetic.
There’s still plenty of the iconography that’ll be familiar to any Star Wars fan – Stormtrooper armies, check, planet destroying super-weapons, check – but director Gareth Edwards and cinematographer Greig Frasier imbue these images with a heaping of dirt and dust, creating a genuinely convincing depiction of a ground-down regime that’s had all the life sucked out of it by the oppressive Empire.
Indeed, the direction, far more so than The Force Awakens, is a big part of Rogue One’s success. Gareth Edwards’ first blockbuster effort, Godzilla, was a fatally flawed endeavour but benefited from an impressive sense of scale, and that’s translated here precisely, with Edwards putting a keen focus on the constant juxtaposition between the might of the Empire and the scrappy underdogs of the Rebellion.
AT-ACTs tower above rebels, and Star Destroyers dwarf TIE fighters, which ensures that there’s always a sense that the movie’s heroes are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
Likewise, the cinematography excels here, bringing power and significance to every big moment. Jyn’s undercooked reunion with her dying father receives real emotion when she’s visible amongst an oppressively gloomy atmosphere, while the imagery of Jyn and Cassian’s deaths finds a perfect mix of sadness and quiet optimism as they’re silhouetted against the oncoming blast.
Rogue One, then, is undoubtedly a technical success. It’s harder to be emphatic about the script, truth be told. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s effort has some good dialogue and quotable moments of wisdom, but it suffers from a familiar blockbuster flaw – an excess of characters, and a lack of development.
There simply isn’t room to flesh out every member of the suicide mission on Rogue One, and the character arcs we do get for Jyn and Cassian are haphazard, running in place for scenes on end before rushing to an arbitrary transformation.
However, this flaw is alleviated to some extent by a cast that’s terrific across the board, no matter how small the part.
Felicity Jones makes for an engaging, scrappily charismatic lead, and her nuanced performance makes Jyn’s journey from apathetic loner to inspiring team player a lot easier to believe due to the emotional emphasis she places on pivotal moments that are muddled on paper.
Diego Luna proves to be a solid foil as the movie’s male lead, Cassian Andor – while the demands on Luna are lesser than Jones, he carves out a strong niche of committed sincerity in his performance that’s distinct from other, conceptually similar characters like Han Solo and Poe Dameron.
It’s arguable, however, that Rogue One’s best performances are to be found in the margins, with the supporting characters who are truly lifted from fodder status from what the actors bring to them.
Donnie Yen’s performance as Force-worshipping warrior Chirrut Imwe is arguably the most interesting of the lot, carefully balanced between wry detachment and a calm, collected peacefulness to create a spiritual character who’s different from any other figure that the films have served up.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s droll droid KS2O, enlivened by an extremely fun vocal performance by Alan Tudyk that milks every drop of humour from the dry sarcasm of a droid whose social skills aren’t quite up there with the best of them.
Every member of the wider ensemble brings something idiosyncratic and memorable to their characters, and that fine work pays dividends by the end of the movie as, despite the script’s flawed characterisation, we end up caring for these people as individuals, something that’s essential for the final act’s emotional impact to land.
If you’ve seen Rogue One, the third act is probably the section you’d want to talk about the most – it was certainly the case for this reviewer. It’s Rogue One’s trump card – an extended action set-piece set on the tropical island of Scarif that hits all the right notes emotionally while providing a new kind of thrills to a familiar formula of an assault on a super-weapon.
In a way there wasn’t necessarily all the time in The Force Awakens, there are real, tangible stakes here despite the foregone conclusion that the Death Star plans will be stolen. The Empire’s towering weaponry feels like a genuine threat here with no guarantees that anyone will survive, and Edwards’ gritty direction ensures that every falling body counts.
Speaking of fallen bodies, Rogue One certainly piles them up. Undoubtedly this movie’s boldest movie is to take the lack of guarantees that anyone will survive and use it ruthlessly, as every single main character is felled in the final showdown.
It’s a choice that really lifts the third act – thanks mainly to the actors’ performances, the deaths of the Rogue One crew all have an emotional sting, and the movie accrues an impressive level of tension as it makes it abundantly clear that no character whatsoever is safe.
It makes for an emotionally powerful conclusion that puts a satisfying cap on the story’s theme of hope, as the characters find themselves falling in battle satisfied, believing that they’ve served a higher cause, and that they’ve done their bit for the effort by exploiting one small chink in the Empire’s armour.
And once all the familiar faces from Rogue One are killed off, Rogue One transitions seamlessly into the story of the original trilogy with a coda that’s both thrilling and emotionally satisfying.
For thrills, there’s perhaps the movie’s single best sequence – a nail-bitingly tense scene of Darth Vader ruthlessly demonstrating his power by mowing through rebels in an attempt to reach the plans, finally making Vader scary again after decades of parodies.
And for emotional satisfaction, there’s the final link-up with A New Hope as Princess Leia gets hold of the Death Star plans just minutes before she hyperspeeds off to begin the events of the 1977 film. It’s a carefully crafted sequence that mixes fanservice with a sobering reminder of the wider universe that our heroes have contributed to, and ensures that Rogue One, for all the bloodshed in the final act, ends on a stirring and hopeful note.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an imperfect endeavour, suffering from familiar blockbuster issues of a mechanical opening stretch and underwritten characters.
Yet it has so much to offer, from uniformly strong performances to technical mastery to one of the best final acts in recent blockbuster memory, genuinely offering a new, grittier and more complex vision of the massive Star Wars universe.
Released in UK cinemas on Thursday 15 December 2016.
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