“Rogue One” is sure to bring in a lot of different reactions. The press surrounding its production has been a little rocky the past few months, with reports of extensive reshoots and some quarrel over the tone. We were promised a different Star Wars film, and the big question for audiences, and perhaps Disney themselves was whether Star Wars could function as an expanding cinematic universe that could branch out away from many episodic instalments. The answer is a resounding yes, and we at last have a much darker Star Wars film that many of us didn’t realise we wanted.
British director Gareth Edwards, whose career started with months of designing visual effects on his laptop for his breakout feature Monsters, hits the ground running, thrusting us into dark days of the Galactic Empire’s spreading rein across the galaxy right before “Star Wars” began all the way back in 1977. The opening crawl of “Star Wars” captures the full narrative of “Rogue One” – a band of rebels pinches some plans for a huge planet destroying space station. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our band leader, and we have a film ready to go. And go it does.
The cool, sleek and tough-edged tone is profound, we begin with a squadron of what can be described as death troopers laced in black armour with rather scary guns led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, director of massive weapons research for the military, hunting down a family. From there we’re transported across sprawling deserts, labour camps, space ports and engine hubs as we see Jyn Erso get hurled into the rebel’s plight due to a re-emergence of her father (Mads Mikkleson).
While this sounds like your classic space opera fun adventure – and it’s certainly fun – the tyrannical oppression of the Empire never falters, you feel like you’re in a world which is being down-trodden and strictly enforced by violence and power.
This is even reflected in Edwards handling of the action set-pieces. The first two acts are stuffed with them, and often they’re presented to us with handheld cameras, not being afraid to ensure the audience knows exactly how a destructive gun fight with a squadron of Stormtroopers and tanks can be for the soldier.
The film is contained within such a small time period and narratively fits perfectly into the slot right before Star Wars, yet it still manages to grow the universe we’re in and introduce so many new worlds and characters. The scope level can’t be faltered.
Naturally, with so much entertainment to get into such a short period, there will be a shallower level of character development than a Star Wars fan could want, but screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy play off this limitation well by giving the characters enough to make them likable.
When Jyn gets sidled with Cassian Andor of the rebellion and they set off on the journey – with the star of the show K-2SO, a reprogramed, extremely literal talking droid who brings all the comic relief and spikes of wry personality – they pick up the rest of the squadron, and the audience has to accept that they aren’t going to get too much of a chance to know them.
However, the entire cast do good by what they’re given, each one has a trait which we can buy into, and it allows the humanity seed to resonate. Sure, by the time the final act comes we don’t know too much about them, but we’re still happy to be in their company.
Regarding the final act, it is a sensational showcase of an extended battle sequence, and its where “Rogue One” truly cements its footing. Michael Giacchino’s score, which has previously been efficiently channelling John William’s signature beats, brings the wave of the turmoil and graveness of battle, and by the heart-thumping conclusion, we officially have an operatic space war film in the Star Wars universe.
Other stand-out mentions must go to the sparing and intelligent use of Darth Vader, who has brief but extraordinarily gratifying appearances, and simply astonishing use of special visual effects in more ways than just kinetic battle sequences.
There are clunky and slightly heavy-handed moments, and some dialogue choices and fan service moments would not be missed, but “Rogue One” asserts that the franchise, in the right hands, still has humongous potential to thrive in the future. It is a sleek, brisk, beautifully-shot addition to a beloved franchise that still has the throbbing Star Wars heart underneath its grit.