as reviewed by Daniel R. Browne
Format reviewed: Blu-Ray/Lucasfilm (2017).
In theory, the Star Wars Anthology series offered almost unlimited potential, and the scope to explore the many angles, concepts and legends suffused throughout the broader Star Wars universe. In practice, it has been a contentious exercise; wildly successful in the first instance, but mired in controversy and uncertainty thereafter. The (seemingly unending) fallout produced by the relative failure of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) has claimed many a corporate and creative victim, but owing to the financial disappointment of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), the Star Wars Anthology series is perhaps the most frustrating loss. If Disney’s schedule-based blather is to be believed, the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) will mark the beginning of a silver screen hiatus for all things Star Wars. This includes any future anthology films, so the likes of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi will have to continue lingering in the shadows for the foreseeable future. This is a shame, because whilst Solo was a good film with some obvious failings, the first Star Wars Anthology film - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - showcased the anthology concept in full flight, and it remains a very pleasing spectacle.
Rogue One owes its genesis to one of the main story threads in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). At the beginning of that film, Princess Leia Organa is captured by Darth Vader, en route to delivering detailed schematics of the Galactic Empire’s new super weapon - the Death Star - to the Rebel Alliance. These plans were stolen by forces unnamed, and are critical to the rebellion’s ultimate survival. The fate of these plans is the fuel that fans the flames of the original Star Wars’ plot, and in Rogue One, those very same Death Star plans are used to propel the story; in this instance, telling the saga of those who apparently gave their lives in pursuit of the Rebel cause, by stealing the plans in the first place. So straight away, we are presented with an interesting conceit: we shall see friendships form and heroes rise; all in the knowledge that thanks to the rigours of continuity, they must all live and die within the film’s running time. This gives the film an immediate sense of urgency, but also hamstrings an audience’s ability to both form bonds and sympathise with these new, ultimately doomed characters. This is not an ideal position from which to tell a story, but by avowedly sticking to a familiar structure and some very nostalgic locales, Rogue One finds its voice quite successfully.
We are introduced to a slew of original characters, with our main voice throughout the film being provided by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones): a malcontent and jaded renegade, sans loyalty to any faction or creed. She is recruited by the Rebel Alliance, on account of her being the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), chief designer and architect of a rumoured super weapon under development by the Empire. The relationship between father and daughter is highlighted by a flashback that reveals both the recalcitrance of Galen Erso towards his work, and the murder of his wife, on the orders of Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Jyn was safely hidden from the Empire by her father, and placed in the charge of the especially paranoid rebel, Saw Gerrera (played by a rather manic Forest Whitaker). As such, she is not thrilled by the prospect of a mission that will likely result in her father’s murderous demise, and this naturally calls her loyalty into question, so she is placed in the custody of Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his delightfully pithy former Imperial droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Given the limited time the audience has to meet these characters before mourning them, the casting choices were essential, and Rogue One is blessed with some very fine thespians.
It is somewhat ironic then, that the two leads are arguably the film’s weakest point. Felicity Jones is reasonably convincing as a rebel without a cause, and Diego Luna brings some semblance of intensity to his role as a glorified assassin, but the lack of chemistry between them is distracting, and the absence of any real background or emotional development (Jyn’s relationship with her father notwithstanding) leaves one mostly indifferent to their respective fates. They are merely cyphers for a larger tale. This is also true of the marvellous Mads Mikkelsen, who is wasted in a thoroughly undercooked role. That anyone remotely cares about his fate is a testament to Mikkelsen’s charisma and prowess. Happily, the same cannot be said of Ben Mendelsohn, who excels in the role of the conniving and supercilious Director Krennic. Granted plenty of screen time and ample scenery on which to dine, the hugely talented Mendelsohn brings great weight and villainous charm to Krennic; in the process crafting one of the more memorable Imperial antagonists not named ‘Darth’. Special mention must also be given to Alan Tudyk, who brings K-2SO to life in sterling fashion. The reprogrammed droid is hilariously cutting, and alongside Krennic, stands as the film’s most significant character-based accomplishment.
Given its status as a de facto prequel to the original Star Wars film, Rogue One straddles a unique line between the first two trilogies. A very nice touch is the casting of Jimmy Smits as Senator Bail Organa, who reprises his role from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Great care has been taken to enforce the dusty, battered and bruised aesthetic of the original trilogy: the rebel base on Yavin IV is lovingly recreated, and the various compatible designs and equipment created specifically for the film stay true to this established look. Every frame of Rogue One has been meticulously assembled to either recreate, or pay loving homage, to the numerous films that came both before and after, and nowhere is this more clear than in the much-publicised use of two classic villains: Peter Cushing’s Governor Wilhuff Tarkin, and of course, Darth Vader. Peter Cushing sadly passed away in 1994, but with permission from his family, Cushing’s performance as Tarkin was recreated digitally, by transposing his likeness onto actor Guy Henry (who portrays the physical character, whilst also providing an excellent translation of Cushing’s vocal performance). The results are ambitious and not entirely unsuccessful, but still vaguely unsettling. It does lend the film a certain nostalgic gravitas though, which brings us rather nicely on to the true fan service of Rogue One: the return of Darth Vader.
For a film looking to establish credibility within a storied franchise, being able to call upon arguably the most iconic villain in celluloid history is quite the boon. Darth Vader is reborn in a manner befitting the legend: looming large as a vast, ominous shadow (as Director Krennic looks on, seemingly set to follow through at any moment), before striding into frame with a powerful grace. Key to all of this is James Earl Jones’ glorious baritone; breathing life into the man beneath the machine. Advanced age has arguably robbed Jones of a modicum of his former oomph, but the essential essence has endured, and retains its proper, spine-tingling impact. Incredibly, the wonder of Jones’ voice is subsequently surpassed by the surprise deployment of Vader in a sequence placed at the very end of the film. It stretches credulity to breaking point to suppose that right now, almost three years after the film’s theatrical release, there is a single person who hasn’t witnessed what is now simply referred to as the scene. However, just in case there remains one or two uninitiated souls, allow me to reference the original reaction of a friend of mine. Said response was short, loud and rather familiar, beginning with the letter ‘f’, and ending with the word ‘hell’. A more perfect summation I could not hope to provide.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is quite simply, a love letter to the Star Wars fanbase. It is littered with tributes, cute references and clever nods to the franchise at large, and if you acknowledge this and accept the truth of the film’s inevitable narrative fatalism, you will love every moment of the experience. Director Gareth Edwards embraced the concept of tribute over originality, and every essential element - casting, production design and Michael Giacchino’s melodramatic score - is geared towards realising this central ambition. If, however, you are not automatically inclined to quaff that strange green milk without first enquiring about the flavour, you might just see a film with very little in the way of character development and a restive narrative structure, anchored to a threadbare plot. It also possesses not one original bone in its entire filmic body, but in the end, none of this matters. In the era before The Last Jedi, when Disney hadn’t yet started taking the fans of Star Wars for granted, fidelity to what had come before was paramount, and Rogue One takes an interesting footnote within the larger Star Wars tapestry and expands it to galactic proportions. It’s not new, subtle or clever, but it’s what the people wanted, and it made billions at the box office. Rogue One is a completely authentic experience, and no higher praise can be afforded to any Star Wars film. Oh, and whoever made the decision to take the incomparable Donnie Yen, make him blind, Force sensitive and give him a ‘lightstick’: Bravo. What a brilliant idea.