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The first of the new series of Star Wars spin-offs (or anthology films), this standalone installment sits between the last of George Lucas’s disappointing digital prequels Revenge of the Sith and his winningly physical original Star Wars. Neatly, British director Gareth Edwards’s grim and moody space opera bridges the gap between the old-school 70s charm and ultra-modern 21st-century wizardry of this still growing franchise.
Despite using cutting-edge CGI to breathe uncanny artificial life into characters we never thought we’d see again, Rogue One feels like part of the same cinematic universe that gave us The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – the high-water mark to which all subsequent episodes aspire.
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, ran the opening scrawl of Lucas’s original 1977 film. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. From such slender source material, the Rogue One writers (four are credited) spin a surprisingly solid tale in which the heroes and villains of yore are mediated by murky shades of grey. Musically, an attention-grabbing opening stab (rather than John Williams’s traditional triumphant fanfare) leads us to the black Icelandic sands of Lah’mu, where Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic demands that Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) return to help the Empire create its peacekeeping super-weapon.
Rogue One gives a welcome reminder of sci-fi’s power to contemplate worlds in which race and gender barriers do not apply.
You’re confusing peace with terror,” protests Erso, to which Krennic sneers: Well, you have to start somewhere. Evading capture, Erso’s young daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon) is raised by rogue rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), at whose knee she learns harsh truths about fighting for a cause. You can stand to see the imperial flag reign across the galaxy? demands Saw when Jyn returns to his orbit years later, now an angry and isolated loner and played by Felicity Jones. Her response? “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.
The rest of the movie is primarily concerned with Jones’s Jyn looking up – rekindling her rebel girl spirit to lead the resistance in search of those Death Star plans. Having cut his teeth on the character-led science-fiction of Monsters, Edwards enables Jyn ample time to find her feet. Like James Cameron’s Aliens, Rogue One is essentially a war movie built around the evolution of a punchy heroine, and Jones has that same blend of pain and chin-forward resolve that characterised Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Even as the gung-ho battle scenes evoke iconic images of the chaos of Normandy and Vietnam, Edwards keeps us focused on the faces of his core cast – a dazzlingly diverse array who provide the film’s true heartbeat.
Releasing hot right after Trump’s election victory, Rogue One gives a welcome reminder of sci-fi’s power to contemplate worlds in which race and gender barriers do not apply. No wonder some “alt-right” nitwits have been outraged by the film’s proud rainbow coalition. Of the new characters, Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe is arguably the most arresting, a distant screen relative of blind swordsman Zatõichi, with an unshakable faith in the force. As renegade Empire pilot Bodhi Rook, British actor Riz Ahmed brings down-to-earth grit to these outer space adventures, while the Mexican Diego Luna digs deep into the messy compromises of war as rebel fighter Cassian Andor. Fleshing out an animated Clone Wars character, Whitaker has fun as the extremist Gerrera, a Mad Max Moses with cyborg limbs and a strap-on inhaler who blends the imposing power of RoboCop with the weirdness of Frank from Blue Velvet.
Rebellions are built on hope is Rogue One’s battle cry, pre-echoing episode IV’s subtitle, A New Hope. (There’s also some of the playful scrunginess that David Lynch brought to Dune after turning down the job of directing Return of the Jedi.) The fact that this is a standalone story means it doesn’t have to wimp out on its Dirty Dozen narrative, lending real dramatic oomph to the high-octane third act, which features daredevil dogfights between X-Wings and TIE fighters, shoot-outs with storm troopers, and skirmishes with lumbering walkers. Many scenes of destruction recall the eerie beauty of the Halo jump scene from Edwards’s Godzilla, with burning vistas of ochre filtered through clouds of smoke and mist.
Amid the darkness, Alan Tudyk uses some scene-stealing acerbic humor as reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO (imagine C-3PO’s more aggressive lost brother), while composer Michael Giacchino negotiates the shifting tones with a note that sweeps and swoons, harrumphs and opines, cheers and sobs its way through the action. Rogue One may be more sombre (and perhaps less crowd-pleasing) than JJ Abrams’s hugely successful The Force Awakens, but the score does its best to keep the emotional cues bright and clear.
As for Edwards, reports of extensive reshoots showed that his vision may have been compromised, but the finished work features none of the scars usually associated with production battles. On the contrary, Edwards appears to have elevated what could have been simply a cash-in into something that feels essential, even magical. It has the distinct smell of victory.