More than once this past week I’ve heard, ‘Rogue One is my favourite Star Wars film now.’ More than once that was coming from a diehard fan. And at least once I’ve also heard, ‘I wish Gareth Jones would direct all Star Wars films from now on’.
Rogue One is undoubtedly going to be considered a classic Star Wars film. It’s an invigorating film that is both reassuringly familiar and refreshingly individual. Situated somewhere between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope (Episode IIIa?) it blends the charm of the 1970s classics that excited our inner child with cutting-edge digital effects that, well, also utterly excite our inner child. It’s peppered with Star Wars motifs and spectacular cameos that will demand repeat viewings, but is equally watchable for those that have never seen a film from a galaxy from far, far away.
The fact Rogue One is spinoff is made clear from the opening credits. The scrolling text is snipped down to a single line and the legendary score by John Williams is replaced by a piece by Michael Giacchino that plays homage to the original, but doesn’t yet make rising hairs salute like obedient Storm Troopers. The basic premise of Rogue One was revealed ‘a long time ago’ in the opening scrolling text of Episode IV:
“Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star”.
Thus far, I’m spoiler free then.
From these two sentences writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have constructed an incredibly rich story that opens on the wet and desolate planet of Lah’mu (Iceland, if you’re wondering). It’s here that Oppenheimer-esque scientist, Galen Erso has hidden his family from the Empire’s gaze. The chilling, clipped Imperial Director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) has found them however and demands that the misunderstood Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) comes back with him and builds the Empire’s “peace-keeping” super-weapon. With some machismo Galen resists, but then after enduring a terrible trauma, he relents. His young daughter, Jyn, (Beau Gadsdon) evades capture and is rescued by rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Jyn grows into a fierce and courageous fugitive (Felicity Jones). Across the course of the film she recovers her rebel spirit, assembles a rag-tag team and ultimately secures the Death Star plans that are as cumbersome as the Star Wars lunchbox you had when you were seven. She’s assigned to rebel fighter, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who has an unfortunate hidden agenda and a troubled conscience because of it. Next on board is K-2SO, a reprogrammed droll droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who has the huge presence of Ted Hughes’s Iron Man, or a Wookie, but has the back chat of a comic side kick.
Rogue One is essentially a war film, which evokes the desperate imagery of France, Vietnam or The Middle East from relatively early on. The story is spun around a single, stoic female, much like in Aliens, but the heartbeat of the film is the textured tapestry of the team, which although crammed in and cobbled together through multiple rapid fire plot lines you cannot help but care about. The whole thing is alive with energy. For all its brutal, boldness, there’s intimacy to it. You can’t help but get choked up when blind monk, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) chants the prayer, ‘I’m One with the Force. The Force is One with me.’ If I had any criticism I would have liked to have seen more of these characters. But perhaps that was intentional in order to cut the length of the film and also cut our tears in the face of grave and inevitable circumstances.
The third act is a thunderous, explosive space battle of the sort Stars Wars is famous. It contains exhilarating dog fights between X-Wings and TIE fighters and ground battles with AT-ATs. To say, ‘During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans’ is now clearly a staggering understatement. The magnitude of the action simply grabs you and doesn’t let go. As this is a spinoff the action manages to stay true to the themes borrowed from films like The Dirty Dozen. Such themes expose the horror, sacrifice, figurative and even literal leaps of faith that must be made in order to ensure ‘A New Hope’.