Ever so slightly longer ago in a galaxy pretty well-known to us at this point…
After forty years of galactic-scale family squabbles among the Skywalker clan, Disney’s latest addition to the franchise seeks to remind us that there are other families in the Star Wars universe… to a point.
The helpfully titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is also the first to lay its focus firmly on the “war” aspect of the franchise. Sure, the obligatory opening in planetary orbit is abruptly present and correct — minus the iconic opening crawl — but the action takes place largely on terraes nova and familiar.
Set shortly before the events of A New Hope, Rogue One documents the birth of that hope; namely, how the Rebels came to possess the plans for the Death Star; the plans that enabled Luke to exploit a helpful weakness in the weapon’s design and thereby destroy it, breaking the Empire’s stranglehold on the galaxy.
With the ultimate outcome a foregone conclusion — indeed the film ends at almost the very instant you might expect — the question becomes what director Gareth Edwards and his cast bring to this so-called Star Wars Story.
A classic “men on a mission” movie in the style of Saving Private Ryan, the film’s lead protagonist is one Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a former guerilla of ambiguous drive and loyalty.
Rescued from Imperial captivity by the Rebels, she’s charged with locating her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a research scientist in the unwilling employ of the Empire. His primary project? Let’s just say, it’s no moon…
In this she is accompanied by: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a dashing intelligence officer with a dark purpose; K-2S0 (impeccably voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind acolyte of The Force, and his warrior partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); and defector-pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed).
Their mission takes them across the galaxy, from the desert moon Jedha — shades of Monument Valley — with its ancient Jedi temple to the lush, Imperial-occupied Scarif.
As with last years’ The Force Awakens, Rogue One can’t help but have a touch of fan-fiction to it — after all, the creatives involved grew up watching Lucas’ original trilogy — but, unlike TFA, I felt it lacked the old Star Wars magic.
Maybe that’s partly down to the film’s score, the first in the franchise not to be provided by legendary composer John Williams. Michael Giacchno’s score is impressive, simultaneously grand and tense, but nothing you’ll find yourselves idly humming in years to come.
Maybe it’s down to the complete absence of the characters that have so far, for better or worse, defined the Star Wars universe. Indeed, whenever Rogue One does include a recognizable figure, be it in cameo or a supporting role, living or dead, it’s distracting; serving to once more reduce the size of the galaxy.
Much as it thrills my inner (and more the occasionally outer) geek to see Baba and Evazan in the days before their ill-fated Mos Eisley pub crawl, it introduces a level of coincidence that can’t help but set you apart from the action, which is, on the whole, more than satisfactory.
The appearance of AT-ATs on a tropical beach is so far removed from our image of them in pop culture — advancing towards a rebel base on icy Hoth — that it can’t help but raise a thrill. There’s also the tantalizing prospect of wheeling out one of the greatest villains in cinema, Mr. Darth Vader — Ben Mendelssohn’s sardonic career officer Krennic never amounts to much — and retcon if not a plot hole then at least a literal hole in the original film.1
That being said, Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy’s script falls down when it comes to getting us emotionally invested in the titular team.
Jones brings a certain grit-in-the-cream determination to Jyn, but her backstory is left frustratingly incomplete; most particularly in her relationship with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, bushy-bearded and glaring), the fanatical guerrilla leader who oversaw her upbringing.
Andor, meanwhile, has a streak of Han Solo in him — at one point he even runs like him — but the film never delves into his dark past. Imwe’s devotion to The Force, despite not being a Jedi himself, is almost touching, as is Malbus’ unspoken, long-suffering devotion to him, and Ahmed gets a nice line in nervous energy as Rook, but these character moments are too scattered to truly build.
K-2S0 is, perhaps, the most successful new recreation: a gangling but deadly droid whose aggressiveness and sarcasm — “The Captain says you’re a friend. I will not kill you.” — suggest a C3-PO with an attitude problem.
Still, dogfights in space and handful of familiar faces, someone welcome, some not — a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by the late great Peter Cushing), remarkable; a CGI Princess Leia (originally played by the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), less so — this’ll definitely tide us over till Episode VIII.
1 Pardon this particularly smug footnote, but I totally called it.