Minor Spoilers throughout, and I will place ‘The Last Jedi’ trailer at the bottom.
Star Wars is an iconic series, redefining both cinema and the science fiction genre when it was first released in the late 70s. The series has spanned an impressive 40 years, something which is currently being celebrated with various panels events and the release of the ‘The Last Jedi’ trailer. In its time on screen the series has produced two trilogies with ‘The Force Awakens’ initiating a third. Rogue One serves as something different and altogether quite interesting as a spin-off film, though one that is still attached to the main Star Wars narrative arc. Rogue One introduces us to new characters and new planets whilst remaining in familiar territory.
Rogue One is a story that takes place after ‘Revenge of the Sith’ and just before ‘A New Hope’. It serves as an origin story for one of the most famous pieces of film history, The Death Star, and more importantly finally solves the illusive question of why that small hole which serves as a self-destruct button, even exists.
When the trailer for this film first emerged, I was a little apprehensive as my Star Wars is lightsabres, the force, Skywalkers and the Millennium Falcon. This is the first Star Wars film that purposefully places its most iconic elements to the side and instead focuses on a small crew of people who are on the hunt for the Death Star plans. Having now clearly watched the film, I admit, I am pleasantly surprised that I quite enjoyed this darker and certainly grittier exploration of Star Wars.
Director Gareth Edwards performs a great job of creating a very contained narrative, particularly when you consider the task he was asked to perform. Not only is Rogue One the first spin-off film which doesn’t focuses on those previously mentioned elements iconic with the series. But Rogue One cannot rely on that nostalgic feeling that ‘Force Awakens’ used. So arguably Edwards had a far harder job in generating a successful Star Wars film in Rogue One than previously directors have been tasked with, even if the premise is linked to the Death Star.
Following the success of ‘Force Awakens’ we are introduced to our second female protagonist, Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones who does a fantastic job despite the little development she is provided. And this is perhaps the films biggest weakness, the cast is an ensemble of diverse and talented individuals, from Diego Luna, to Ben Mendelsohn (who is my favourite in this film) to Donnie Yen and finally Mads Mikkelsen (who I wanted more of), as well as many other names. And yet the acting talent is woefully underused in favour of rather simplistic characters, including Forest Whitaker, whose acting I struggle to comprehend and who comes across here a poor man’s Vader in regards to his costume.
Now, some will argue that the crew is not focus of the film, and that they are expandable self-contained characters whose mission is simply to find the plans for the Death Star. However, my rebuttal is that if that is the case then simply sending a droid in their place would have sufficed which would have made a poor film, therefore these characters needed to have greater substance. Each character has something resembling an individual narrative; however, the way in which their character narratives are concluded felt in some cases rather abrupt, serving the purpose of the film rather than their character’s arc.
Each Star Wars film contains within it at least one Droid (I apologise if my terminology is incorrect but you get the gist). Rogue One introduces us to K-2SO played by Alan Tudyk. K-2SO is a tall sarcastic risk analysis droid who accompanies the team in their hunt for the plans. He is not the cute, warm lovable droid, but instead is what C-3PO is to RD2. Which is fine in terms of change of pace from ‘The Force Awakens’ and fits with the gritty realism of the film, but it also means he lacks a certain likable quality. Though he does have some quite funny moments, he is a little too reminiscent of a sarcastic sullen teenager, and one who I struggled to warm to for the most part.
There are a number of references and cameos connecting Rogue One to the larger Star Wars universe, some are made blatantly obvious in the role they serve, and some are blink and miss them moments. However, all this moments feel well placed and well balanced within the film. The stand out moments of this film for me are any moments in which Darth Vader is present. Edwards skilfully uses Darth Vader so that the character not only has purpose but also demonstrates why this character is so iconic, some really fun and interesting moments are had here with Vader.
Now, I can’t write a review of Rogue One without mentioning the resurrection of certain characters and actors. Grand Moff Tarkin was a prominent character in ‘A New Hope’, played by Peter Cushing, he sadly died in 1994. His character Tarkin has been resurrected using CGI and is physically played by Guy Henry, no relation. CGI has clearly advanced monumentally since its initial use in the 70s. In fact, Star Wars is one of the most profound examples of its developed as you can see its evolution spanning the entire series. However, it is one thing to use CGI for Lightsabers, spaceships and entire planets, but it is quite another to digitally create a human being’s face, particularly one who is deceased. The human face is made of so many muscles, with such an array of facial expressions it’s an incredibly difficult task to fully encapsulate someone, particularly when the person actually existed. Rogue One makes a solid attempt at a CGI Peter Cushing, as you can easily identify who the actor is and it is without doubt impressive quite impressive to witness. The flaw emerges however, when the actor begins to speak, for the CGI is incredibly distracting and a little Jarring for three specific reasons. Firstly, it’s simply odd watching an actor you know to have died decades ago star in a new film, knowing they have literally had nothing to do with it. Secondly you spend all your time simultaneously watching in awe at the capability of what has been achieved, whilst trying to detect any flaws in their face, to the extent that you totally miss large portions of dialogue. Thirdly it’s quite jarring when he stands next to another character who is actually there, which in turn creates even more for you to stare at and examine.
The second use of CGI and arguably the more effective example, is that of Princess Lea, played by the late Carrie Fisher. I would imagine Carrie Fisher was still alive at the time Rogue One was made, however they needed ‘New Hope’ Fisher for the scene, for as horrible as it sounds, they needed a younger version. Now this scene works because it is far more simplistic, she has one line to deliver and only appears for one scene. Though it is still jarring in its own way, the minimalist exposer helps reduce the oddity of the situation.
And this very nicely brings to my last point, the end of the film. Possibly the most intelligently orchestrated moment of the entire piece. Edwards quite masterfully ends Rogue One by beginning ‘A New Hope’ so that the first film really does feel contained within its own narrative. Whilst Rogue One comes to a timely end we are smoothly transitioned and re-introduced to the opening of ‘A New Hope’, intelligently encouraging audience members to return home to continue watching the series. It really is a well choreographed move by all involved.
OVERALL **** Though the characters lack the development I was hoping for, and some scenes seem more in fitting with the film’s purpose rather than for the benefit of the character, Rogue One is a film for the fans and its great entertainment overall.
RECOMMENDATION – If you’re a Star Wars fan, you cannot afford to miss this film. Rogue One is made for you.