STAR WARS, a veritable touchstone for popular culture as we know it, is a franchise and universe that is so heavy in lore and almost occultish history, that trying to strike a balance for both old fans and casual movie goers is pretty much a herculean task.
Set immediately before A NEW HOPE, ROGUE ONE is a film based upon a story- legend even- we’re so familiar with that it’s almost a part of our collective conscious. How the Rebel Alliance thwarted the Empire’s imperial forces, captured the plans for the Death Star and sent those plans out, perhaps (definitely) saving the known galaxy. This is a story so engrained in nerd memory there's no doubt a movie rendition would be full of nostalgic pitfalls. Yet, in saying this ROGUE ONE navigates these pitfalls with accuracy, skimming around the edges and dipping in occasionally, but never busting a tire and causing us all to groan out loud and throw our Maltesers at the screen.
Some of the more— dull online voices have made it clear that they think this STAR WARS feature is the first in the series to be a film about…war. Conveniently forgetting that the entire saga is set in a period of wartime, of corrupt rule and influence, (remember all those negotiations in PHANTOM MENANCE, all those space battles, the uhh...CLONE WARS?) to be fair though it can be said that ROGUE ONE is, indeed the first proper war time film in the saga (as our understanding of war is). And in this way is more accessible than the others, grittier and infinitely more tragic.
ROGUE ONE introduces us to a universe we recognise, but also one unfamiliar, dehumanised by decades of Imperial oppression. Humanity/other terrestrial species are suffering, struggling to survive and reflecting their cruel environment in even harsher and crueler ways. But, classically it is in this way we are introduced to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a criminal ‘rescued’ by the Rebellion (equally hollowed out, equally broken) as her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), has had a key role in the construction of a certain planet killer under the command of Imperial overseer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Banded together with a motley crew (Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO) Jyn navigates the war-torn galaxy, coming around to the Rebellion's cause, and reinvigorating hope in their forces trying to turn the tide of the galactic war.
Admittedly, it took me a little while to get attached to this cast of characters. I wasn’t utterly in love with the first third of the film, what I like to call the establishing phase. Establishing setting, scene, characters— particularly, the first ten-fifteen minutes is a constant jumping from location to location that took me out of the film a bit. But as the film settled into itself, it’s transitions became smoother, it’s characters a little deeper than their archetypal roles (but not that much more complex or unpredictable unfortunately) and by the time of the final third and climax; I felt the tension, the fervor and the emotion that the actions and eventual deaths such characters deserved.
In saying this, I think it’s interesting that I came out of the film- after that ending god- understanding that little, if no characters would have been able to truly fill the roles that particular story prescribed. The battle for the Death Star plans, in fact the whole fight between the Rebellion and the Empire is a far bigger story than the people and characters involved. I like to think that ROGUE ONE, in essence, reflected this; seating ‘hope’ at the film's helm rather than any one particular character, cameo or action sequence.
So despite the somewhat choppy start off, the film came out strong and came out swinging- made again, like THE FORCE AWAKENS, by people who care about the franchise and want to see it evolve.
I was pretty surprised by some of the film's cameos- really surprised considering one of the actors is deceased and the other has aged about forty years. But fully rendered in CGI, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Crushing), and young Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)- while not %100 percent perfect, were pretty freakin’ impressive. Enough that it wasn’t until after the film was finished I wondered about the ethical considerations and dilemma such a cameo on Tarkin’s part presented. Their apperances didn’t venture entirely into uncanny valley—and the technology and how it was implemented I think—only speaks for good things to come in the rest of the saga’s films and direction.
I’m always a critic for the case of nostalgia, but in speaking of old film cameo’s it can’t go amiss that Darth Vader was a real, real gem in ROGUE ONE. Once again fully decked out in his towering armor and presence (with the help and return of voice actor James Earl Jones) Vader in ROGUE ONE has made a come back to badassery, no longer that sand hating, pod-racing, “nooooo!” crying wannabe, Vader is evil. Vader is intimidating, and with renewed light saber effects, better effects in general and upped choreography, those few minutes Vader is on screen, particularly that ending scene-are some of the best I’ve seen in any of the saga’s films, truly scary, truly exhilarating— that entire ending sequence was my absolute favourite of the whole movie, demanding I instantly go home and watch A NEW HOPE despite the fact it was 3AM in the morning. Darth Vader’s reemergence is strong (with this one), worthy of the gravitas the character upholds, and renewed my awe for one of the galaxies most impressive villain’s.
A lot of credit towards the character authenticity and interest I think goes to the fact that ROGUE ONE feels like a STAR WARS lived in universe, completely dissimilar to the prequels. Every street, every face, every ship and every briefing room feels real, looks dirty and real- giving ROGUE ONE a sense of place that has been desperately missing from the latest four STAR WARS films (the FORCE AWAKENS made an improvement, but was still a little too polished).
This mise en scène of ROGUE ONE makes the world of STAR WARS once more feel real, textured, layered, from the dirt beneath character’s fingernails to the blue Bantha milk on the table in the opening scene- this is perhaps the most impressive recreation of a stories/films aesthetic, better than THE FORCE AWAKENS – that’s what really stuck out to me. I watched this film and as it found its feet at the halfway mark (and definitely that final third,) I felt transported. But not entirely removed from reality.
As a grim, unflinching war movie, absent of mysticism, Jedi and light sabers (right till the end) ROGUE ONE feels more like a STAR WARS movie then anything we’ve had since the Orig-Trig.
The story and legend of ROGUE ONE is simple, a story about a group of people who impossibly dash themselves against the rocks to prove that there is something worth fighting for, that hope remains amidst adversity and the horrific and soul crushing oppression of Imperial rule. There’s more weight and tension in this story—even though we know how it ends. We feel the desperation of thousands of ordinary people and creatures that have become almost broken under the Empire’s rule, struggling to fight, struggling to fight the feeling of futility or loss—something that resonates painfully for viewers, especially coming out of the back end of a year that has been dubbed by many marginalised, disenfranchised and vulnerable people— as the worst, just the worst.
As a film ROGUE ONE offers more complexity than Abram’s addition to the franchise, echoes enough of the old Lucas films to feel organic, while building upon Lucas’ socio-political dabbling’s from the prequels.
Clearly, there’s also strong influences from our own world and history with director Edward's leaning heavily on war imagery from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and as always allusions to political parties and dictators among those like the Nazi party and Hitler. ROGUE ONE gives us a single story with more human texture and growth then STAR WARS previous, resurrecting those themes of rebellion and uniting people against tyranny. Really— ROGUE ONE feels to me as both some sort of catharsis for 2016, as well as a strong motivator to fight. And it’s safe to say as more and more people watch, review and speculate about the film— I’m not alone in this opinion.