Well without any hyperbole 2016 has certainly been the worst year of my life. So I take whatever small pleasures where I can.
Rogue One is certainly a pleasure.
I will try to avoid any major spoilers but I will allude to things shown in the trailers.
So to start with here is the most basic of backgrounds. The Empire is completing the Death Star. The Rebels find out and recruit Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) to contact someone who has vital information. Why her specifically? Because her father Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikklesen) has reluctantly helped the Empire build the thing. So begins the adventure and along the way Jyn and rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) gather a “Dirty Dozen”-style group to go on the mission.
It being an immediate prequel to Star Wars the movie does include a few familiar faces in the ranks of the Rebels and Imperials. For example (I’m mentioning this one because it’s in the trailer) we get the reappearance of Mon Mothma, she of the Rebel briefing in Return of the Jedi. Genevieve O’Reilly had played Mon Mothma in Revenge of the Sith, but her scenes were cut. So it’s finally nice to see her appear outside of deleted scenes on a DVD.
And the trailer allows a glimpse of Darth Vader so no spoiler there. But I can’t say much about who else appears, but it’s great fun to see the unexpected faces who pop up. One face in particular was very unexpected and… Well I really don’t want to spoil that surprise.
Felicity Jones is brilliant as Jyn. I have to admit I’ve been a fan of Felicity since seeing her in an ITV adaptation of Northanger Abbey. It seems like it was five minutes ago but that was early 2007! It doesn’t seem possible that it’s almost ten years. Anyway Felicity sells Jyn. There’s a couple of scenes where she had to give speeches to convince people to fight. With any other actor it might have sounded a bit cheesy but Felicity’s earnestness had me wanting to sign up.
One of the standouts in the team is the reprogrammed imperial Droid K-2SO which I believe was a CGI creation. He’s played by Alan Tudyk who did similar duties with the main robot Sonny in the Will Smith movie I Robot. K2 kind of steals any scene that he’s in with his habit of blurting out whatever he happens to be thinking at the time.
On the opposing side is Director Krennic played by Ben Mendelsohn. He’s someone who may have started off as a bureaucrat who oversaw the construction of the Death Star but over time has become a power-hungry imperial officer. Mendelsohn glowers enjoyably through his scenes and gives Krennic a bit of three dimensionality to what could have been a standard one dimensional villain.
The movie does the usual Star Wars thing of setting down on various disparate planets across the galaxy. One of the most interesting ones was Jedah which seems to be some ancient planet of the Jedi. But that’s just background detail in a move which is very much set in the present. Well with one exception… Unusually for a Star Wars movie we get a kind of a flash-back scene of Jyn as a young girl on the day the Empire came for her father.
And I want to mention something that happens on Jedah. But I can’t. Because… Spoilers… But it’s brilliantly done.
A quick word on the visuals. There are a couple of shots of the Death Star seen from the surface of planets that are among the best shots in any Star Wars movie.
There’s a lot of action throughout the movie but things gradually ratchet up until we come to the the last chunk of the movie which portrays an extended battle scene on the ground and in space. And for once the grunts in the line of fire are the main characters and not the background extras.
There is something about the grittiness of the battle scenes and the overall tone of Rogue One that gives the movie a surprising weight and heft. Yes, it’s set in the fantasy Star Wars universe but it feels like it’s happening. It feels real. I can’t help but contrast it with last year’s The Force Awakens. Overall that was an entertaining enough concoction but in comparison to Rogue One it feels like a greatest hits remix of the original trilogy, a box-ticking exercise in what is expected to set up a new trilogy. In hindsight The Force Awakens all feels a bit cartoony.
Here there are no speeder bike chases. There are no force assisted jumps out of danger. The action for the most part is very grounded. And even when the action is in space there is a weight to it as the opposing ships slug it out. One moment of the space battle in particular was stunning.
The movie crept up on me. I mean I was enjoying it well enough to start with but in a slightly detached way. “Oh that bits good. Yes that’s good as well…” But gradually I was drawn in until I wasn’t so detached. I stopped thinking about it being a movie. Then towards the end there was a moment when I realised I was actually quite gripped in a sort of edge-of-my-seat way.
And the last moments of the movie… I can’t say what they are. But I obviously knew that the Rebels escaped with the Death Star plans because that’s how the original Star Wars starts. But even though I knew the outcome there is a desperation in those final scenes that I found almost unbearable to watch. That’s quite an accolade for director Gareth Edwards.
Taking a step back I think I like that Rogue One is standalone. There will be no sequels to Rogue One because the original Star Wars movie is already the sequel. Rogue One is constrained by being set during the days immediately preceding Episode IV and paradoxically that give the movie the freedom to expand on the already established details and characters. It’s not concerned with setting up other plot threads that will pay off later.
Whereas the sequel trilogy (i.e. Force Awakens onwards) which has the freedom of being open-ended is actually constrained by needing to construct the mythology of a new trilogy. The first movie isn’t allowed to have an ending. It can only try to raise some questions about the new characters that will I assume get answered somewhere down the line. And like I said earlier, it feels cartoony in comparison.
Where do I rank Rogue One? I’ll need to watch it a few more times. But certainly without doubt it is at least in the top four.