The words ‘Star Wars prequel’ need never again be spoken with weariness and despair thanks to Gareth Edwards’ rip-roaring Episode 3.9 of the space opera.
When Disney announced it would be making a series of standalone Star Wars flicks alongside a new trilogy, it was met with a mixed reaction – this was the same company after all that didn’t seem to mind sullying some of its most beloved animated classics with money-grabbing straight-to-DVD sequels.
We’d also been there before 30 years ago when George Lucas went to work destroying his reputation by getting trash like Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) made.
The revelation that Edwards would be on board to direct the first of these spin-offs allayed some fears; the (admittedly limited) pedigree of 2010’s excellent Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla reboot, fused with his guerilla style of hands-on filmmaking promised much.
And while Rogue One is an entirely unnecessary entry in the Star Wars canon and almost derails itself in its incessant nods, winks, cameos and fan servicing, it’s also a rollicking good adventure.
Inspired by the line “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star” from the original Star Wars‘ opening crawl, Rogue One follows a ragtag band of insurgents on a suicide mission to infiltrate a heavily guarded Imperial facility and prove that the Empire has designed a super weapon that is more powerful than anyone can possibly imagine.
It’s a quote that applies just as strongly to Rogue One. At its heart the film is essentially a little bit of Mission: Impossible and a lot of Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and numerous other war movies. Indeed, as Edwards himself has pointed out: “It’s called Star… Wars.”
With such a focus on conflict, it’s not surprising the tone of the film is far more subdued than The Force Awakens. The tone is matched by the griminess of the surroundings that make up Edwards’ ‘lived in universe’ (and what surroundings – the production design is astonishing). Imprisoned at the start of the film on an Imperial-occupied planet, it’s notable that one of the Stormtroopers guarding Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) on a prison transport looks even more downtrodden and weary than she does. Grunts on both levels are expendable, the film suggests.
Jyn is that Star Wars staple, a strong female character with family issues, in this case her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a research scientist whom she is estranged from as a child in the affecting prologue after he is forcibly recruited by coldly ambitious Imperial Director Krennic (a deliciously oily Ben Mendelsohn) to design what will become the Death Star. The film picks up years later, when she is freed from captivity by the Rebellion and, along with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his dryly sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), is tasked with searching for her father in the hope of stopping the weapon from being built.
However, when Jyn finds out the Death Star is already active she, along with Cassian and a group of gung-ho anti-Imperialists must do what they can to restore hope to a infighting Rebellion that is on its knees.
One of the most impressive things about Rogue One is its ‘boots on the ground’ approach. Mixed with Edwards’ handheld filming style, the film has a look and feel distinct from the rest of the franchise, whether it be the powder keg of anti-Imperialist resentment that Jyn and Cassian navigate through in the occupied city of Jedha or the film’s spectacular final act which is essentially one long battle to buy Jyn and Cassian enough time to secure the plans.
The desperation of the Rebellion raid on the Imperial facility on the jungle planet of Scarif is evoked with a real sense of stomach-churning intensity and chaos. While Edwards can’t resist showing us several improbable hero moments involving our core cast (especially Donnie Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s gun-blazing Baze Malbus, both of whom deserve more screen time), the life and death stakes for all involved are palpable.
Rogue One is at its best when operating under its own set of rules; however, it gets bogged down too often by the myriad references to previous films, whether it be visual touches (we get to see what could be the same Rebel observation officer from Star Wars charting the path of a ship, not once, but twice), audio touches (we get to hear the famous Death Star toaster droid) or cameos from characters familiar from the other films.
Much has been made of one particular blast from the past (no, not Darth Vader – it’s good to see him tearing it up again); a CGI creation (due to the actor who originally played him now being dead) that almost, but doesn’t quite escape the uncanny valley and, as such, ends up pulling you out of the film.
These are fairly minor quibbles though. Rogue One may just be the most expensive fan film ever made, one that ultimately wasn’t needed, but when it’s brought to the screen with as much gusto as this it’s hard to argue against.