REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (SPOILERS EDITION)
Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker
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“…a boots-on-the-ground war story about flawed and forgotten heroes…”
We’ve got eight Star Wars movies in total – ten if you count the Ewoks adventures like the deranged purist you may be very well be – but this is the first one that feels like an actual war movie, with all the murky morality and difficult choices that entails. The model here is essentially World War II, and Rogue One takes us from the grim and ruthless world of the French Resistance to the large scale, large body count beachfront battles of the Pacific Theatre, all set in a galaxy far, far away.
It’s a side of Star Wars that has been hinted at but never fully explored on screen before, and one a long way from the simple Light Side/Dark Side morality of the Skywalker saga. Early on in the proceedings one of our “heroes” quickly and brutally executes a contact rather than let him fall into Imperial hands. As a statement of intent, it works a treat; while there is plenty of derring-do to be had, it’s underpinned by a perpetual sense of dread. Much has been made of director Gareth Edwards’ sense of physical scale, which served him so well on Monsters and Godzilla, but perhaps even more impressive here is the way he nails the scale of threat arrayed against the scattered, fractious and eternally backfooted Rebellion. Culturally we have a better understanding of the nature of asymmetrical warfare than we did in 1977, and Rogue One is less about “rebel spaceships striking from a hidden base” and more about desperate operatives living in the cracks of a fascist regime, fighting back with sabotage and assassination.
The plot is right out of the “guys on a mission” playbook. A defecting Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has brought news of a new Imperial super weapon (no bonus points for guessing what that is). Alliance command need to know what he knows, but he’s fallen into the hands of the militant Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his band of fighters, who certainly blur the line between “freedom fighter” and “terrorist”. The Alliance need an in with Gerrera, who would much rather be blowing up stormtrooper patrols than debating policy with the more timid rebel leaders, and so covert operator Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is tasked with recruiting Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), freelance bad ass and former protege to Gerrera.
Jyn has more skin in the game than that, as we see in a flashback that owes more than a little to the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds: her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist forced to work on the weapons project (we should stop skirting around it and just start calling it the Death Star now) by Imperial rotter Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who murdered Jyn’s mother in the process. Thus the mission has a personal dimension for Jyn, giving her the possibility of seeing her father for the first time in years.
But personal is not the same as important – a message Rogue One rams home again and again. This is a film deeply concerned with notions of duty and sacrifice, of subsuming the personal in service to a greater whole, be it the rebellion or, indeed, the Force. This is the most Jedi-free Star Wars installment yet but we get an intriguing new angle on the Force in the form of blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his partner, the dour assassin Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Chirrut treats the Force as a religion, and although you could argue that his fighting prowess derived from Jedi powers or something similar, there’s never anything explicitly supernatural going on, which is a nice touch. If Jedi are warrior monks ala the Templars, then Chirrut is a devout layperson.
The final element of our motley crew is the former Imperial Enforcer Droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), reprogrammed by Andor to act as his right hand. K-2SO gets most of the laughs, his bluntness and matte-black, menacing demeanour at odds with his servile function. On a broader thematic level, K-2SO is what you get when there is no conflict between duty and desire – he fulfills his role come hell or high water, no matter the personal cost.
For everyone else, though, there’s a choice to be made, and once the destructive power of the Death Star is apparent, our heroes commit to stealing the plans that reveal the hidden weakness built into the battle station by our man Galen, despite the suicidal risk. It’s at this point that Rogue One really comes into its own, admittedly perhaps a little late in the game (the actual mission to swipe the plans should probably kick off at the midpoint, rather than the tail end of the second act).
The most interesting element of this film is that it exists in a kind of discrete pocket of the Star Wars universe, connected to the main storyline (and remarkably seamlessly) but without the need the consider future installments beyond the requirements of continuity. To put it bluntly, no characters need be saved for sequels, and as befits the “guys on a mission” model, the body count is high. The assault on the Imperial records depository on the tropical world of Scarif is incredibly exhilarating, but also fairly confronting; it’s hard not to feel sorry for the parents who, over the coming weekend, will be explaining to their Star Wars-mad children why their favourite characters don’t make it to the end credits.
But let us focus on the exhilaration. The action is perfectly handled, with Edwards and his team intercutting between an orbital assault by the rebel fleet, squad level skirmishing between rebel commandos and Imperial stormtroopers, and the personal action beats of our heroes. Throughout the film, the production team get to play with all the toys in the box, leading to some exquisitely enjoyable moments: an AT-ST coming to support infantry troops in an urban firefight, X-Wings strafing AT-ATs like WWII tank busters. The Scarif land battle even draw inspiration from George Lucas’ old sparring partner, Francis Ford Coppola; some of the shots of flames and explosions against palm trees could be straight out of Apocalypse Now.
As the third act progresses and the body count climbs, it becomes apparent that Rogue One is not shying away from the grimmest possible interpretation of both its scenario and its themes, telling a boots-on-the-ground war story about flawed and forgotten heroes giving their all for the greater good. In doing so, it has expanded our understanding of what kind of stories are possible in the Star Wars milieu. For the greater Star Wars universe to thrive, Disney and Lucasfilm first needed to prove that stories outside of the core Skywalker narrative can work. Rogue One not only does that, it shows that there are stories out there that are arguably better than what has gone before. The galaxy is in good hands.