Release date: 15 December 2016
Genre: Sci-fi adventure/action
Words by: Dan Luck
Going in to seeing Rogue One, the new standalone instalment in the Star Wars franchise, I was sceptical about how any sort of dramatic suspense was going to be built up in the film. The opening crawl for A New Hope back in 1977 tells you that Rebels successfully acquire the plans for the Empire’s Death Star and a lot of the original film is subsequently based around that entire plot point, so even if you have only the most basic amount of Star Wars knowledge possible, you know how Rogue One ends in that regard far before the pre-movie trailers have finished rolling. So for me, what I wanted to see from Rogue One was the following:
- How the film covers that missing piece of plot between the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy
- Can the film make me care about the characters involved in the acquisition of the Death Star plans?
- Who survives such an inevitably dangerous mission?
As it turns out, Rogue One provided me with a film that not only suitably satisfies all three of these burning questions I had going in, but also provided me with a film that I ultimately enjoyed far more than last year’s ‘main storyline’ instalment The Force Awakens. It’s an original story (though one that in some ways is somewhat bound by the fact it HAS to cover certain events in the Star Wars mythos without much room for deviation), I was made to care about the characters even though there wasn’t a huge amount of fleshing out for a majority of the main cast which is an achievement (fluke?) in itself, and there’s a gratuitous amount of fan service. My God, the fan service. But it’s fan service that 9/10 times doesn’t feel shoehorned and only serves to strengthen the story, in my opinion.
BIG SPOILERS COMING FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS, FAIR WARNING.
Rogue One follows the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, who I’m seeing a LOT of lately; good for him) is the lead engineer and designer of the Galactic Empire’s currently unfinished Death Star superweapon. When Jyn is young, Galen is forced out of hiding and abducted back into work on the weapon by Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), during which Jyn’s mother is killed and Jyn herself is forced into hiding and subsequent rescue and combat training by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), leader of an extremist faction of the Rebel Alliance. Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn is broken out of an Imperial prison camp convoy by Rebel officer Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his blunt droid companion K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to help the Rebel Alliance get back into contact with Gerrera, who has supposedly received a message from Galen from defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) concerning the Death Star. Once Jyn receives the message, in which Galen expresses his love for her and details the fatal flaw he intentionally designed into the Death Star as his revenge on the Empire (which Luke Skywalker will later sink a decisive torpedo into in the Star Wars chronology), a mission ensues to acquire the actual Death Star plans for the Rebel Alliance to exploit later during the events of Episode IV: A New Hope.
It’s a pretty standard, to-be-expected plot for the film by all accounts. As such, there’s a somewhat formulaic sense of “we need to get to Point X, then Point Y” that bubbles beneath the surface of the film. But the film’s main plot of “We need to get the Death Star plans” draws its strength from the subplots that funnel into it; Jyn wants to see her father again and avenge him, Andor has secret orders to kill Galen upon discovering his whereabouts which strains his relationship with Jyn, Bodhi has to acclimatise to fighting for the other side of the war. Blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his assassin protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) have their belief in the Force tested (primarily Imwe) by the mission. The film is very much a sum of its parts, and despite there being little time to focus on fully fleshing out the backstories of the main Rogue One team, the basics are there and somehow it was still enough to get me to care about the team members going in to the third act of the film.
This is the point where we need to talk about the third act of the film. The third act of the film, which depicted the actual battle surrounding the acquisition of the Death Star plans from the Empire’s data bank on Scarif, made me feel like a little kid again in the cinema for the first time in a long time. Throughout the film, a good job is done focusing on the actual war aspect of the Rebel Alliance/Empire fracas that sometimes is lost a little bit during the original trilogy due to the heavier focus on the Jedi mythos and the other main cast members of the originals. The plight of the common Rebel soldiers on the ground is largely background action. As such, Rogue One does a tremendous job of focusing on the actual war on this level, with good guys doing bad things, bad guys doing good things and the third act being a huge culmination of all these things. The Rebels are told to “make ten men seem like a hundred”, which is depicted very well through the tactics deployed to distract and confuse the Imperial Stormtrooper army patrolling and guarding the Scarif data bank. As the third act progresses and the battle intensifies and Jyn, Andor and K-2SO delve deeper into the Imperial archives while the rest of the team and Rebel forces fight out on the beaches, you start to realise that often somehow-forgotten fact about Star Wars in that it IS a war, at the end of the day. The comic relief character in K-2SO heroically and poignantly sacrifices himself holding off an increasingly overwhelming number of Stormtroopers to buy Jyn and Andor more time extracting the Death Star plans from the data bank archives. At this point, I was thinking “Of all the characters in the main team I thought would die, I didn’t think it would be him!” But then the absolute kickass Chirrut Imwe is killed after channelling the Force to avoid fire and reach a vital communications switch, after which he is riddled with blaster bolts. After vitally getting communications through to the Rebel fleet concerning the urgent change of plans to transmit the Death Star blueprints to the fleet instead of physically delivering them, Bodhi is suddenly killed by a grenade. One by one the members of the Rogue One team fall and you realise that the film really couldn’t have ended any other way. But this is a good thing. Too often we’ve seen movies where the good guys face insurmountable odds and all survive even though it doesn’t make sense. ‘Good guys’ die in wars just as much as ‘bad guys’ do. This is a fact. And it’s never a case of black and white; there are always moral shades of grey. And Rogue One reminds you of that in a very fitting, unexpectedly sobering way that only strengthens the story, and in a way even retroactively strengthens the story of A New Hope now you’re truly made aware of the sacrifices made to acquire the Death Star plans in the first place.
Of course, seeing as the film is set right before A New Hope, you’re expecting cameos from classic Star Wars characters going in. And Rogue One doesn’t disappoint in that department either. Darth Vader is only in the film for two scenes; firstly during a tense meeting with Krennic where you initially catch a glimpse of Vader’s vulnerable unarmoured state beforehand which is portrayed very effectively. Secondly, he appears in a scene towards the very end of the film which I won’t spoil, but Vader has genuinely never been more terrifying in all his depictions onscreen than he is in that final scene. It’s a scene that had me grinning like a child all the way through and it’s an absolute treat.
There are a handful of other notable appearances from original trilogy characters, one of which being Grand Moff Tarkin, the Imperial Commander played by the now long-dead Peter Cushing in the original film A New Hope. In 2005’s final prequel film Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Tarkin appears towards the end but is mostly shown from behind portrayed by a different actor. When Tarkin first appears in Rogue One, he is shown from behind so I expected a similar trick to be pulled this time around as well, which was understandable. Or so I thought, until Tarkin turns around and is a fully CGI’d Peter Cushing who then appears multiple times throughout the film. This knocked me for a loop; the CGI is genuinely VERY impressive. It’s only by looking closely around the mouth and similar little things that you can see it’s CGI at all. But it was so ‘uncanny valley’ for me that it made me somewhat uncomfortable. Immensely impressed and enjoying it, but simultaneously unsettled by a long-dead man now ‘acting’ onscreen again. It’s something that I’m sure will open a whole new can of worms on the ethics behind generally using dead actors in films in this way in the future, but considering Rogue One specifically centres itself around the plot of the Death Star, there was almost no way that they couldn’t include Cushing’s character in some capacity considering he commands the Death Star in A New Hope, with him butting heads with Krennic for control of the program in this film. Tarkin’s ultimate vanquishing of his rival when he uses the Death Star to completely eradicate the compromised base at the end of the film, with Krennic looking up to the sky to see his own work prepping itself to destroy him along with everything else, is an unexpectedly sympathetic moment for a very unsympathetic character in Krennic.
Ultimately, I loved Rogue One. While main Star Wars storyline film The Force Awakens oftentimes felt like a glitzy new version of A New Hope, Rogue One succeeds in being its own individual entity in the Star Wars mythology. While some of the characters could have used some more fleshing out (particularly Bodhi, Imwe and Malbus), the film did a sufficient job in making me care about the main cast of characters and successfully covered a big plot gap in the main Star Wars story while strengthening the existing films it tied into, which was all I really asked for going in. Rogue One is an excellent addition to the Star Wars universe and has me feeling more optimistic for other planned future ‘side story’ entries into the franchise, such as the upcoming Han Solo standalone film (with Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, which I couldn’t be more excited for if I tried). That’s a stellar result for the galaxy far, far away.
Rogue One is out at a cinema near you now, go treat yourself and see it.