• Director: Gareth Edwards
  • Running Time: 133 minutes
  • Rating: 4.5/5

It wouldn’t be unfair to refer to Rogue One as ‘fan service’. When I think of fan service, what comes to mind is dumb pandering to the lowest common denominator – well-known characters making appearances for no good reason, repeated lines of dialogue, and blatantly replicated story beats. Such a devotion to self reference typically triggers my gag reflex. But here’s the rub – Rogue One does all of this, and somehow it works, perhaps even more effectively than last years The Force Awakens.

Taking place between Episode III and Episode IV, Rogue One is best described as an ‘in-betweenquel’  (an invented phrase I’m quite proud of…). It basically covers a little mentioned, yet vitally important part of the Star Wars canon – the Rebel’s extraction of the Death Star plans from the Empire, and thus setting up the plot for A New Hope. Some of the more die-hard fans may remember that exact event being referenced during the title sequence of the 1977 originalIn bridging this gap, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) seeks to marry the nostalgic look and tone of the old Star Wars films, with the modern blockbuster sensibilities of future entries. In my opinion, Edwards accomplishes this with greater success than has been done before in this series.

Enter Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, a jaded and doubt ridden rebel without a cause, who has been broken out of an Imperial prison by a group of Rebel fighters to help find her father, played by Mads Mikkelsen. He happens to be one of the main scientists behind the top secret Death Star project. According to Rebel intelligence, a defected Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook – a down to earth performance by Riz Ahmed – is claiming he was sent by the scientist to leak the Death Star plans to the Rebels (though, how the Empire kept a super weapon so large a secret is beyond me). What follows is a desperate plan by the Rebels to retrieve the defected pilot from an extremist splinter group of rebels, lead by Forest Whitaker’s vaguely Mad Max inspired Gerrera, and find Jyn’s father before the weapon becomes operational. We all know what happens then, right? It’s a story that deals with a lot of familiar themes, and even some familiar characters.

That said, Rogue One still manages to take us to a very different place than the other Star Wars films, all of which cover Jedi, and the Force. In essence they cover the most important people, the most dramatic events: destroying the Death Star, killing the Emperor, I could go on. The characters too, tend to cover ‘chosen one’ tropes that are so common in sci-fi and fantasy films – think Luke Skywalker, Rey, and that little irritating kid that played young Darth Vader *shudders*. Here, we get a story that most resembles Empire Strikes Back in the hopelessness desperation of the protagonists fight, and the characters themselves are a rag tag lot, far removed from the Jedi, Princesses, and heroes of old. Whilst the other films deal with the important people, this one deals with the foot soldiers, the grunts who get the dirty work of the Rebellion done, and without whom, Luke, Han and Leia wouldn’t have been able to succeed in fighting the Empire. I really appreciate that kind of focus because it makes the Star Wars universe feel bigger than just ‘Jedi stuff’, and adds gravitas to the already tension filled conclusion of A New Hope.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is not your average Star Wars protagonist.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is not your average Star Wars protagonist.

The characters themselves are unlike what we usually get in Star Wars films. Jyn is not anything like Rey or Luke. She isn’t a ‘chosen one’, and she isn’t proficient in the force – nor, in fact, is she perky or eager to fight the Empire. Instead we get a quieter, more angst ridden character – better yet, this angst in no way resembles the unintentional hilarity that came from scenes that had Hayden Christensen’s young Anakin Skywalker muse about his distaste for sand. She was raised by Gerrera after her father was forced to continue work on the Death Star – which is another reason the Rebels decide to enlist her help – and is a decidedly anti-social loner, clearly she cared about the Rebellion at one point, but has since adopted a cynical outlook. Gerrera asks her if she can ‘stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the Galaxy’, to which she retorts ‘its not a problem if you don’t look up’. In many ways, the film is Jyn rekindling hope, both within herself, and in her motley companions. Diego Luna is chief amongst these as Cassian Andor, a ruthless Rebel intelligence officer who serves as the mission supervisor, and initially doubts Jyn’s resolve. Early on, we see how casually brutal Andor can be, and much is made of Gerrera’s almost Taliban inspired insurgency on the planet Jedha. As a result, we are confronted with issues of morality in a way that the normally black and white Star Wars universe rarely explores. This all gives the film a grounded, and immersive feel; the main characters and the situations they find themselves in are not as broadly drawn as is the norm in films like this.

Rogue One has received criticism from some camps in regard to character, as they are not afforded the backstories and development that previous Star Wars films have provided. Even as I was enjoying the film greatly, I did notice this, yet by the third act, I came to realise this was less to do with thinly written characters as it was to do with the kind of story the film was trying to tell. On second viewing, I can’t help but feel that I wouldn’t have the same problem. That’s not to say the characters are all as restrained and grounded as Jyn and Andor. K-2SO, voiced with great comic timing by Alan Tudyk, is a standout as an Imperial enforcer droid turned Andor’s personal murder-bot. The mutual distrust between K-2SO and Jyn makes up the bulk of the films comic relief. Further, when the characters are joined on Jedha by Riz Ahmed’s Imperial pilot, Donnie Yen’s blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe, and his mercenary bodyguard Baze Malbus, played by Jiang Wen, the film began to give off a vibe that reminded me of Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic games, or even a competently done Suicide Squad. By the final hour, or so, even Jyn and Andor begin to warm to each other, and embrace the newfound companionship between the disparate band of Rebels – with Jyn falling into a leadership role. Therefore I’d argue against the charge of the main characters being ‘bland’ – they are simply not the broad archetypes we’ve come to associate with Star Wars. The fact that most of the characters’ camaraderie and development comes near the end of the film is, in my mind at least, less a flaw, as a conscious choice that gives the Saving Private Ryan inspired third act even greater impact.

Rogue One’s designated villain, Imperial Science Director Krennic, does not disappoint either. He is played with oozing menace by veteran actor, Ben Mendelsohn, and has a personal connection with Jyn’s father that seemingly threatens his career amongst his superiors. Krennic runs afoul of more than one Imperial official in the film, none of which I want to spoil here. All I will say, is that the film makes use of some of the best stock footage and CGI face-capture I’ve seen in any film – this is utilised both for the Empire and for the Rebels.

storm-troopers

The dictatorial Galactic Empire, and its legions of Stormtroopers, are back – and more malevolent than ever.

When all is said and done, Gareth Edwards has crafted a film that is primarily aimed for fans of the Star Wars universe. Here, we have a very different perspective on the Star Wars mythos, one that boasts grounded characters who earn the grandiose monologues that are cliche in most films, and who are genuinely heroic in their fight against the immeasurably more powerful Galactic Empire. Not all is perfect however, as there are more than a few action film cliches here – there are multiple occasions where wounded characters live just long enough so that they can die in the arms of a loved one. Lame. Also distracting is the inclusion of some cameos and references that are ultimately unnecessary. However, most of these references are handled deftly, even ingeniously in places. Edwards has also managed to craft a world with imagery that recalls films past, and yet also carries a distinctly modern, even relevant, flavour. If the original trilogy was based off of World War Two newsreel footage, then Rogue One may well be based on news footage of Vietnam, or the Middle East.

This is all without mentioning the excellent third act, which I have deliberately kept vague. Even if the rest of the film is not to your liking, the final battle to retrieve the Death Star plans is a marvel, effortlessly blending together the fighting in space, the sky, and on the ground. The final scenes see you through a roller coaster of emotions too. If you feel the film is too dark and hopeless, then the last sequence of Rogue One will come as a pleasant and uplifting surprise. When a film can make you feel that way, its a sign of great quality. Fan service it may be, but let the haters hate, for Rogue One is the best kind of fan service there is – it actually enriches the original material.

Rogue One is in cinemas now.