It’s Here! It’s Big! It’s Bold! And, best surprise of all: it’s GOOD! Really, good.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a satisfying film.
Ignore the gossip about re-shoots or the risky absence of the Skywalker saga / assorted supporting characters from the movie’s premise. Rogue One manages to be both familiar and original; fun and challenging: a hardcore war movie, with the soft heart of the Force still somehow intact.
Let’s consider how..
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Review by James Murphy
Director: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Genevieve O’Reilly, Mads Mikkelsen
12A / 2 hours 15 mins approx
Pitch: The Death Star is the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of the evil Galactic Empire. But there is a flaw in the design. And a dedicated band of Rebels are going to risk everything to capture the schematics and return them to their brothers in arms.
What is Star Wars at its heart? Well, a clue is in the title. You have the ‘star’ bit: science fiction, fantasy and a hopeful look to the skies. And then, ‘war’. Yep. The whole franchise/saga/brand is based upon conflict, as all good drama should be. The ideal is a fusion of the light and dark sides. Empire Strikes Back remains the gold standard fan favourite: ww2 replayed in a fantastical landscape, encompassing the necessary moments of despair and defeat, whilst retaining pace and wit and heart and romance.
Rogue One manages to perfect the war, whilst narrowly neglecting the ‘star’ bit. Ironic, for a film whereby the words ‘star dust’ recur like a mantra throughout. So it is genuinely one of the best in the canon, giving us the true ‘prequel’ we wanted in aesthetics and tone. It’s also bold and innovative in a manner that Force Awakens simply wasn’t.
On the other hand, a weakness is an overdone strength. And here, we get obscure fan service ‘easter egg’ moments galore, but the absence of an anchor in the vein of Han Solo or Luke Skywalker or a satisfyingly escapist popcorn sheen is felt and palpably so. Still hands down one of the best films this year though and certainly among the most satisfying and ‘critic proof’.
It is telling that this is possibly THE shortest plot summary I have given for a film. Ever. The premise here is genuinely as simple as it sounds. Yes, some twists cannot be given away and there are occasional shock cameos and unexpected character turns and thematic gear changes.
That said: refreshing to have a genuine action film in this genre and with this weight of mythology, whereby we have a simple and self contained mission, upon which the action is hinged. We get a coherent beginning. middle and end. There is even a new beginning THROUGH that end: setting up the events of A NEW HOPE (Star Wars /Episode 4), delivered in a style that feels organic and unforced, whilst playing to every brand of fan-fiction ideal possible.
Felicity Jones is an excellent leading lady here. It’s a big improvement on her dare one say, somewhat wooden turn, in Inferno. Her strength is a natural, visual story-telling. Her beautiful face and agile body can convey an emotion, an experience, a plot point, even and without one line of dialogue. When she cries, you cry. When she fights: YOU fight with her. This is a star, no doubt. ‘We will watch your career with great interest’ 😉
Diego Luna also evolves well through the film. At first, one fears a miscasting scenario (he’s no Han Solo..or rather, no Harrison Ford) and I was reminded painfully of Adrien Brody appearing in Predators or King Kong. Some good actors simply are not born action heroes. But Luna really comes into his own about half way through the film and one then ‘clicks’ that his performance coincides with the journey of his character (a hardened, battle weary yet over-zealous sniper).
Genevieve O’Reilly is graceful and attractive in a Tilda Swinton way as young Mon Mothma. Jimmy Smits makes a cameo and manages to achieve more in one frame here than an entire two films of the prequel saga. Yep: visual story telling at its best, just as George Lucas intended, only this time, perfected. Even the CGI / robotic / model characters are compelling here. It says much that you really do care about the fate of a droid in this film and that ‘K2SO’ is perhaps the most human of the rebels at war.
As with his GODZILLA film of 2014, director Gareth Edwards here gives a visual feast to relish. Colours, shapes, textures. This is an experience and one feels immersed in every landscape and scenario presented. There is also the sense of family as the basis for a way into the most fantastical of action (without spoiling things too much, Rogue One is as much a story about family as any other Star Wars film).
Weaknesses? It’s LONG. VERY. VERY. LONG. Ponderous. Slow. Seriously, they could and should have edited this better. This is a Star Wars film. By its very nature, the editing should be fast and pacey. Remember: gold standard = Empire Strikes Back (dark yes, serious, even but still BOUNCY and FUN).
The visuals are stunning and yet, in a weird way, there are moments whereby one feels perhaps Edwards’ own subconscious design is rooted in the various Star Wars substitutes one had to endure in the days before prequels /sequels /spin offs. I found myself thinking Never-ending Story, Last Star-Fighter, even The Dark Crystal/Black Cauldron and so on.
This is as much missed opportunity to bridge the prequel aesthetic to its sequel trilogy counterparts, with in-script explanations. Fan-fiction surprisingly low here, when this frankly SHOULD be all about fulfilling the kind of sub-plots we have seen in books/comics/games etc (canon and ‘legend’).
Oh and you just CANNOT beat a John Williams score so its absence here is palpable. Made worse by using a few choice beats from the Force theme or Imperial march, but never the FULL blast of the mighty music in all its glories. The 3-D conversion is just so-so but in a way that bodes well for quite how spectacular the whole thing must look in the two dimensional equivalent.
Quibbles are relatively minor, though. This is a substantial piece of film-making in its own right; a nostalgia trip but not some lazy retread of old beats. You get: a biblical morality play and a great action-adventure come sci-fi war movie. Value for money. If that sounds familiar then good, because that is precisely the formula that George Lucas used in his original Star Wars films but forgot for the prequels. And it’s what JJ Abrams almost managed in Force Awakens, only to repeat old structures safely yet take risks in the wrong scenes (yes, that scene: still not over it one year on!). Gareth Edwards simply has a more distinctive and coherent vision as a Director than the later years experimental Lucas or the company man Abrams.
Rogue One is truly a balance of all possible best scenarios: bold, innovative and somehow still comfortingly familiar. Congratulations to all involved on pulling off the impossible with a film that’s self contained but complementary to a complex mythology and its continued enjoyment among a devoted legion of fans.
Whilst not QUITE the masterpiece that some are claiming (no, it’s not quite Empire Strikes Back), Rogue One is surprisingly brilliant on its own terms. Its flaws therefore can be overlooked, in favour of embracing the many strengths on show, especially technical, artistic, dramatic and its balance of tones and integration of old treats to new and bold places.
Grade A- A genuine Christmas surprise! One with the Force.