“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.” ~ Darth Vader
“The power that we are dealing with here is immeasurable.” ~ Orson Krennic
“The captain says you’re a friend. I will not kill you.” ~ K-2SO
“Our rebellion is all that remains to push back the Empire. We think you may be able to help us.” ~ Mon Mothma
“They call it the Death Star. There’s no better name. And the day’s coming soon, when it will be unleashed.” ~ Galen Erso
“Take hold of this moment. The Force is strong.” ~ Chirrut Imwe
“I’ve been recruiting for the rebellion for a long time.” ~ Cassian Andor
“The world is coming undone. Imperial flags reign across the galaxy.” ~ Saw Gerrera
“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!” ~ Jyn Erso
When the Disney studios got their hands on Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise, the decision was made not only to continue to make more films, hence the release a year ago of The Force Awakens, but also some tie-in self contained stories set in that universe, basically an anthology of tales firmly set in the galaxy of Imperial forces and courageous rebels. Rogue One is the first of those stories, set shortly before the events of the 1977 original film, featuring a small band of rebels racing to retrieve the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon.
As a prelude, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken by force from his family by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an Imperial weapons designer who wants him to return to work on a secret project. His wife is killed during the raid, and their daughter Jyn is taken to safety by a rebel, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from Imperial captivity by rebels and brought in on a mission after word has been smuggled out from her father on what the Empire has in store. The small band of misfits now find themselves racing to thwart a doomsday weapon most film audiences are quite familiar with: the Death Star.
The concept for this goes back long before the Disney-Lucasfilm deal, this notion of telling self contained stories firmly within the universe as established by George Lucas. John Knoll, a visual effects supervisor for the prequel trilogy, was pitching the idea for some time, and did so again after the deal. The studio decided to go ahead with the idea of these self contained tales, alongside the new trilogy being unfolded at present. Knoll and writer Gary Whitta had a hand in the story process at one point or another, with the screenplay being finished and polished by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz. The story is at heart a dark one, a war epic with a very clear line between good and evil. Beyond that, the story mixes in dark humour (particularly from the resident droid), and a sense of impending tragedy- we know things can’t end well for these people. While a good number of the characters are new, some familiar faces appear- Mon Mothma and Bail Organa have both appeared previously in Star Wars lore, and their appearances here are welcome.
Gareth Edwards was brought in as director, which was a good touch. He had recently done the Godzilla reboot in 2014, and his style for an epic, sprawling action tale transfers well over here- with more looks at what we’re seeing, as opposed to the glances and cutaways and darkly lit set pieces of a good part of that film. The production style he employed in filming this rings true to the style of the original Star Wars- the sets, costumes, props, and visual effects don’t seem out of place with that film, given that this movie so closely leads into that one. There are some visual surprises along the way- body doubles mixed with digital effects bring in the late Peter Cushing’s Tarkin as well as a young Carrie Fisher as Leia, and that comes across seamlessly. And in keeping with Star Wars tradition, the visual effects are part of introducing us to strange new worlds, as well as some familiar ones- filming in the Maldives, for example, gave us a watery atoll setting that’s strangely beautiful, before things go terribly wrong, and perhaps evoke thoughts of the Second World War in the Pacific theatre.
Edwards keeps the movie flowing, never slowing down, but steadily driving up tension as he goes along. There’s an underlying sense of dread and urgency as things go along, and the director’s visual style plays to that. He films battle sequences- on planets and in the stars- with a ferocious intensity fitting the genre- this feels like a war film. The movie also marks the first time that a Star Wars film does not have the musical work of John Williams. Michael Giacchino, who’s been doing a whole lot of work in recent years, including the Star Trek films, comes on board as composer, giving a darkly moody score that does incorporate Williams’ themes here and there as needed.
The cast is international in scope, and that plays off well. Ben Mendelsohn is the primary villain of the piece, Orson Krennic, an ambitious, contemptuous, and ruthless Imperial officer and designer of weapons for the Empire. The Australian character actor has been in a lot of roles down through the years- the first time I ever saw him in anything was as a laid back mountain climber in Vertical Limit, but others might remember him as Bane’s corrupt corporate ally Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises. His character is a nasty piece of work, with a malevolent streak and little in the way of sympathy. Darth Vader appears as well, the ultimate villain at his most malicious. James Earl Jones reprises the voice of the Dark Lord, while the physical role is carried out by two actors- Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous. This might well be the last we ever see of Vader at his darkest on the big screen, and he’s a cruel, brutal pleasure to watch, chilling at the same time.
Alan Tudyk (Serenity) did the voice and motion capture for K-2SO, a droid that was once an Imperial enforcer, its memory erased. K is a whole lot less polite than C-3P0 ever was, and snarky in his own way, so there are times he steals the scenes. Riz Ahmed gets an interesting role as Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot who chooses to defect to the Rebellion, and his place in the team requires the actor to step in two worlds and convey the sense of shifting allegiances. Jiang Wen plays a Rebel soldier and mercenary named Baze Malbus, tough and capable, and a friend to another Rebel. That character being Chirrut Imwe, played by actor Donnie Yen, a character who’s blind and yet in touch with the Force, something of a zen presence to the team.
Mads Mikkelsen is one of those character actors always compelling in whatever he does, and here he’s the father of the lead heroine, torn away from his family and forced into doing the bidding of evil. Mikkelsen brings a sense of regret and loss to his performance as Galen, as well as poignancy. Forest Whitaker is also a character actor who can make a role fascinating to watch, and he gets a lot to do as Saw Gerrera, a veteran of the Clone Wars that were such a strong component of the prequel trilogy. Gerrera is courageous and bold, and clearly a leader. Diego Luna shows up as Cassian Andor, a Rebel intelligence officer given responsibilities over the mission, including one that serves as a troublesome contingency measure. He’s a leader in his own right, brave and stoic as the film unfolds, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces.
Felicity Jones has the lead role as Jyn. She’s hardened by what life has had in store for her, cynical even, and yet not broken. All that she loved was torn away from her, and at the same time she’s come out of it as a survivor. She invests herself in the mission with a personal stake, and we sympathize with her, part because of way Jones carries herself in the role, but also because we’ve been a silent witness to what she’s lost. Jones makes the character compelling to watch, bold, brave, and poignant. It’s a one time role, but it’s a good one, and a worthy heroine for the Star Wars universe.
Rogue One is an entertaining addition to the Star Wars mythos, giving us new characters in a familiar universe of dark threats and the hope of a better day to come. It’s self contained, but ties strongly into what’s come before. It is ferocious and intense at times in its action sequences, and dark in its tone, but it works well, leaving the audience satisfied and wanting more of these self contained stories. Next up? A tale of a young smuggler with a talent for getting himself and his friends into trouble...