Back in 1999 when people asked me if I was worried that the new Star Wars film wouldn’t be any good I used to reply that it could just be an hour and a half of people just waving lightsabers around and I would be happy. It was Star Wars, I was bound to love it. Of course in the end that loyal fanboy supposition was tested to its absolute limits. Now seventeen years, three poor Star Wars movies and one good one later we have a new film set right back in the world of the original 1977 film. There isn’t a huge amount of lightsaber waving but, in many respects, Rogue One feels more like a Star Wars movie than any of the prequel trilogy or maybe even The Force Awakens.
A spin off/prequel to Episode IV, the plot of Rogue One comes right from the opening crawl of that first film: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
This only actually accounts for the final (and best) act of this new movie. Prior to this we are introduced to the main players and reintroduced to some old ones. We also finally get an explanation as to why the Death Star had that huge design flaw that allowed Luke Skywalker to blow it up with one blast from his laser cannon. Rather than having to retcon any of the established story, it all feels entirely in keeping with what we have seen before.
The protagonist is Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso who has essentially been left an orphan by the machinations of the evil Empire. Rather than being hell-bent on revenge though she is reluctantly drawn in until she gets to see the injustice of it all. Jones is good in the role and is well supported by a nice little ensemble, although none of them are as well drawn or as clear in their motivations as her. Ben Mendelson is Krennic, the main bad guy, and he is very strong too.
As you would expect there are a lot of familiar elements surrounding the new characters. The film is set only days before Star Wars: A New Hope so we spend a lot of time on Yavin 4, the rebel base we already know and there are lots of X-Wings flying around. Somehow the movie also manages to feature all the old fashioned futuristic machinery with all the light diodes and big levers without looking archaic as well. One of the main strengths of Rogue One is how it brings everything back with a new spin or a fresh angle without it seeming out of place or of a different time. Case in point; take the Rebel Alliance who are no longer the one dimensional goodies they were before. This is war and bad things are done by the people on both sides. The film is certainly fuelled by nostalgia but perhaps not as much as was the case with The Force Awakens. It is all familiar without falling back on repetition like that movie did. There are a number of cameos from old characters but not always the ones you might expect. (At least one person is digitally de-aged. Are they going to do that with the Han Solo spin off? Will Alden Ehrenreich essentially be mo-capping Harrison Ford?)
What it doesn’t have that The Force Awakens did is the same sense of fun. This is quite deliberate, they are going for a more serious tone, but crucially the turmoil is not presented strongly enough to make up for the lack of jokes. There are some attempts at humor which didn’t quite land for me and as it is it isn’t enough of a comedy or a tragedy. There is nothing in this film to equal the emotional impact of Han Solo’s fall from the bridge and actually, when you consider some of what goes on, there really should be. The reason for this is largely the chemistry between the characters. All of the performances are good but they don’t connect with each other in the same way Finn did with Rey or Poe or Rey did with Han. As a result I don’t think they properly connect with the audience either.
This aside I think the film is a triumph. It is the first time they have tried to tell a story in this galaxy outside of the adventures of Obi Wan, Luke et al since The Caravan of Courage and it is light-years ahead of that. Bear in mind that I am a dyed in the wool Star Wars geek though. Rogue One may not have lightsabers but it does have Star Destroyers and AT-ATs and Stormtroopers and X-Wings and The Death Star so I was bound to love it. By any measure the film is a strong action adventure with some beautiful design and a highly compelling story. If Disney keep turning out Star Wars movies of this quality then I hope they keep making them forever.
Is this one for the kids?
The film is rated 12A just like The Force Awakens but actually I don’t think there is anything here that will be scary for a younger audience. It doesn’t have rampaging monsters rolling around the deck of a spaceship eating people for example. What it does have is more drama and this might alienate some children. In fact what we have here is probably the first Star Wars film made for adults.
The Ripley Factor:
This is the second Star Wars film in a row to have a female lead and Jyn has the Ripley factor in spades. She is totally believable as a real person within this fantasy context, she is not there purely to motivate the men, she totally totally drives the plot and she is not objectified in any way. She also has a sensible hairdo.