I have things to say about this movie, and to really get into it, I’m going to be talking about plot details big and small. You have been warned.
When George Lucas announced that he was retiring from the franchises that had made his name, and selling Lucasfilm to Disney, nobody was surprised by the announcement of a new Star Wars trilogy. Less predictable however was the announcement of a several side-titles on an alternating release schedule that would take place away from the main characters we’re familiar with and explore more experimental ground for the franchise. Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, which takes place just before the opening of the original Star Wars, is the first of these, and tells the story of the Rebel team sent to recover the plans of the first Death Star. Probably the best thing I can say about Rogue One is that by the end, the “a Star Wars story” moniker feels defensive and unnecessary. This is a Star Wars movie through and through, and fits just as neatly into the mythos as last year’s The Force Awakens.
The film follows Jyn Erso, a wandering trouble causer recruited by the Rebel Alliance; her father is the Imperial Scientist behind the creation of the Death Star, but the Alliance has heard he’s trying to defect. The only problem is the Rebel Leader he’s in contact with has splintered from the main forces of the Alliance and become more aggressive and militant. This general, Saw Gerrera, was Jyn’s guardian after her father was taken, but they haven’t been in contact for years. Jyn reluctantly agrees to help the Alliance set up a meeting, taking them to an ancient Jedi city on the planet Jedha to meet Gerrera and collect her father’s message. Along the way, Erso assembles a team of misfits including a Rebel officer who struggles to live with the things he’s had to do, an idealistic Imperial pilot who wants to make things right, a blind man who’s not quite a Jedi but certainly understands the Force, and a robot that speaks his mind. Events conspire to push these characters closer together, until ultimately they are forced to make the ultimate choice, to give their lives for a cause they believe in. When that choice is made, the consequences are devastating. Meanwhile we see one of the most incredible space battles the franchise has ever shown.
It is this brutality, this raw exposure of the reality of war, that really sets Rogue One apart. We are in the Star Wars universe, but we aren’t seeing it through the eyes of idealistic farm boys or apathetic smugglers. This time we follow soldiers who are fighting and dying to bring down oppression, and each of our main cast are uniquely damaged people, convinced they’re fighting a lost cause. Gerrera’s extremists, for example, are the focus of a harrowing scene in which they attempt to seize an Imperial armoured vehicle as it passes through streets full of civilians. The Rogue One crew passes through, attempting to reach Gerrera undetected, but soon they’re surrounded by gunfire and death. People run and scream, soldiers on both sides die, and the camera stops on the sight of a child crying in the street. For the first time in nine films, there’s a sense that this is a real war unfolding, and it’s incredibly moving. The extremists themselves are eerily evocative of real world terrorist organisations, and while the movie takes lengths to distinguish them from the Alliance we’re familiar with, it subtly raises troubling questions about just how altruistic the Rebels really are. This is a question that even the Alliance seems to struggle with, as they’re at once committed to liberation of the Galaxy and deeply uncomfortable at the military solution this requires.
What redeems the Alliance is ultimately the tyranny of their opposition. The Death Star is almost complete as the film opens, and while they thoughtfully preserve the planet Alderaan’s dubious honour of being the first planet to fall to the battle station, the sheer destruction of it is felt on two major cities. And yet, the station is humanised, in a way. We see the competing visions of two men behind its creation, Krennic who believes the project will be his legacy; a petty man who wears his dress uniform at all occasions and seeks to rise in ranks. On the other side, Galen Erso, Jyn’s father, who fears his creation and is working towards its destruction. Though it isn’t given too much time, the relationship between the two men is fascinating, their shared history is implied in a few words and shared glances, but ultimately left unexplored. Possibly for the best. It is ultimately the legacy of these two men that drives the story forward, Krennic’s aspiration ultimately leads him to his downfall, while Galen’s fear of what he has created dooms himself and ultimately his child, but proves to be the making of the Rebel Alliance.
Where the film lacks is an unfortunate tendency to lean on the original trilogy too much. One major character returned from the first film is Grand Moff Tarkin, brought to life by a digital rendition of Peter Cushing that is phenomenally well animated, but still sticks out against the largely practical filming around it. The effect is somewhat like a crowbar, prying you out of the film so fast you just have to laugh. Some have argued restoring actors digitally is distasteful, it’s not a concern I share, but I do find it jarring and unpleasant to watch. There have been excellent uses of the technology, of course. (The young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man is probably still the strongest) but here its’s overplayed and unnecessary. His role in the story could have been filled by someone else, or the screen time cut back, but I suspect this is an irksome wrinkle that will become less so with time. Similar cameos do appear, but this was the standout negative one for me. More impressive was the appearance from Darth Vader, who is so restored from years of spoofing and “NOOOOOOOOOOO” gifs that I was surprised to find myself genuinely frightened by the character for the first time.
Rogue One is a strangely satisfying bundle of contradictions. It is the story of a suicide mission, driven by the hope of a better future, and while characters you have grown to love over two hours are dying amidst the beauty of a tropical beach, we have the bittersweet reassurance of knowing that their sacrifice is rewarded. Fan service is heavy at times, particularly during the close, which takes us right up to the opening of Star Wars, but in those final scenes it seems to work the best, and when credits roll I realised how much how much the film had enriched a franchise I already loved so much.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at my review of the tie-in Rogue One VR mission for the Playstation VR.