Chief among the many faults with the George Lucas Star Wars prequels – and there are many as the films are a turgid pile of s**t – is that they are essentially a corporate box ticking exercise. A group of accountants and cynical marketing graduates getting together to get from point A-to-B-to-C and so on and so forth. No thought is paid to character development, the themes driving the narrative or dramatic heft. Instead we got Hayden Christensen moping about like a sulky teenager who has been told his girlfriend can’t stay round tonight while George Lucas went mad with a computer. So, it’s a tremendous relief that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (to give it its full title), is certainly no cynical corporate assault on the box office.
In fact, it is the closest any film in the franchise has come to matching the high watermark of The Empire Strikes Back (Empire). Rogue One certainly echoes Empire’s darker tone, rich character development and substantial overarching themes. It is, by the tone of the rest of the franchise, a rogue one.
Some film critics have damned this film for not being The Force Awakens and of course judging the quality of anything is all about personal preferences but those people are wrong.
To criticize this film for not being last year’s franchise reboot is to miss the point of it entirely. Director Gareth Edwards, along with writers Chris Weltz and Tony Gilroy have crafted one of the best war films of recent years. It might be set in a galaxy far, far away but the story of a ragtag group of rebels desperately trying to salvage the plans of the infamous Death Star is an unflinching, contemporary genre film masquerading as an epic space opera.
Gareth Edwards once again has taken something enormous and fantastical in scale and brought it all very close to home with subject matter that is very current. This is a film closer to the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds and The Dirty Dozen rather than any sci-fi film. Moments and scenes invoke our own history and the chaotic brutality of events such as Dunkirk, Stalingrad and the unfolding tragedy of the Syrian Civil War. Its no mere coincidence. Edwards wants us to think about the sacrifices made – both willing and unwilling – and the unthinkable damage wrought in the theater of war.
The pacing is excellent with the story and characters being built from the ground up as our team is brought together before a pulse racing and truly stunning final act. At first things seem a little slow but by the blistering final act you realize it all makes perfect sense. At no point during the epic battle around the Imperial base of Scarif do we ever lose track of what’s going on or our emotional attachment to the characters as they head into a near hopeless situation.
Without the performances though any director’s vision falls flat and it is in the performance of Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, leading a crew of misfits on a suicidal mission to steal the Death Star, that this film really invokes its power. Her incredibly physicality in the conveying the emotional development of Jyn through physical mannerisms erases the flat flavorless Manhattan of a display amidst the utter tripe of Inferno. Her posture, stance and movements help to give the illusion of physically increasing Jyn’s stature as the film goes on.
The downtrodden Jyn, determined not to be browbeaten into submission at any point echoes Sigorney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the Alien series and gives Star Wars another, much-needed heroine.
The supporting cast is excellent throughout too, with perfect and diverse casting combined with a stellar script and an excellent director in Edwards, who can tease out wonderful performances from his actors in the pressure of big-budget studio set-pieces. Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen and Forest Whittaker all deliver stellar displays.
Rogue One has taken what was supposed to be a stop-gap between Episodes VII and VIII and instead raised the bar. The Force Awakens was fantastic fun but Rogue One is a powerful film laden with pathos by delving into complex and controversial subjects in that furtive way that only science-fiction can master.