It's December and Star Wars is back in full force, following an immensely successful year which included the long awaited release of Episode VII. The success of The Force Awakens cannot be understated. It currently sits in third place on the list of the highest grossing films of all time. This enormous achievement has more than justified Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm, and has afforded them the opportunity to move forward with their plans to continue the Star Wars saga and expand the Star Wars universe. The next film to be released following their monumental purchase is the movie titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. To assist with any confusion, something needs to be made perfectly clear. Rogue One is not a sequel to Episode VII: The Force Awakens. That privilege will go to the yet to be titled Star Wars: Episode VIII, which is due for release at the end of 2017.
Rogue One is also technically not a prequel. So at this point you may be asking yourself, what is Rogue One and why is it relevant? In short, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney and Lucasfilm's first stand alone movie outside the Star Wars saga. While the film does have a direct link to the original trilogy, it is in fact its own film and it's own isolated story, designed to compliment the original trilogy and explore a plethora of brand new characters. Rogue One follows the events that take place literally moments before the original Star Wars movie Episode IV: A New Hope, which was first released back in 1977. The story pays particular attention to the opening crawl of A New Hope, which directly refers to a band of rebel spies who steal the plans to the original Death Star. The Death Star is of course the imposing moon shaped battle station, capable of destroying planets at the press of a trigger.
It is also a time period where most of the Jedi have been eliminated from the galaxy. With no one to defend the people from the galactic empire, a group of ordinary individuals take it upon themselves to form a rebellion to resist the growing oppression of the Emperor and Lord Vader, who just so happen to be at the peak of their powers. The main core of the Rogue One narrative revolves around the character of Jyn Erso, played marvelously by Felicity Jones. Jyn is a rebellious vixen who is estranged from her father following his recruitment into the merciless Galactic Empire. Her father Galen Erso, played equally well by Mads Mikkelsen, has a unique knowledge of harnessing Kyber Crystals, a resource commonly used to power a Jedi's lightsaber. Imperial Director Orson Krennic, played by the formidable Ben Mendelsohn, has had a previous affiliation with Galen and takes it upon himself to bring him back into Imperial employment. Krennic requires Galen's skill set to form the final piece of a diabolical plan to create a battle station capable of destroying worlds and terrorising those who would oppose the Empire.
Forced to go into hiding for her protection, Jyn quickly establishes herself as a menace while her mentor Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker, becomes more concerned with his extreme rebellious aspirations. Following a fortuitous turn of events, she is rescued from Imperial imprisonment by members of the Rebel Alliance. The rescue is led by assassin Captain Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna. Cassian is a no nonsense rebel who has a moral code that is inherently grey, doing whatever it takes to get the job done and to get out of trouble. His counterpart is a reprogrammed Imperial battle droid named K-2SO, who is as poetically blunt as he is formidable. K-2SO is played by the fabulous Alan Tudyk, and is undeniably the the best character in the film, not only for his snappy dialogue but for his comic timing as well. The Rebellion's motives for rescuing Jyn are crystal clear. They know who Jyn's father is, and are fully aware of his potential threat to the Galaxy. With Jyn as their only option to find Galen, the Alliance sanction her, Cassian and K-2SO to embark on a quest to find him, allowing the Rebellion to address the imposing threat.
The ragtag group's only lead is the traitorous imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, played by Riz Ahmed. Rook is rumoured to have a message from Galen, but has been captured by Saw Gerrera in the process. To make matters worse, the trio have to go to one of the most dangerous territories in the galaxy to find him, the desert moon of Jedha. The Jehda system is on the brink of Civil War and is currently occupied by the Empire. While on their dangerous mission, they meet the fascinating blind spiritual warrior-monk Chirrut ╬mwe and his armoured companion Baze Malbus, played by the fantastic Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang respectively. In typical Dirty Dozen fashion, the newly formed group have to sort out their differences and find the plans to the newly operational Death Star before it is too late.
Out of the main trio of characters, Jyn Erso is the most well fleshed out, having a complex character arc that is conveyed incredibly well by Felicity Jones' performance. She is essentially a loner who has a plethora of trust issues, having to look past her tragic history to work well with others and ultimately become a leader. While Jyn is the most necessary character to the plot, K-2SO will undeniably be the audience's favourite. The reprogrammed droid's sense of irreverence is highly enjoyable and comedic, in an otherwise serious plot. Not only is K-2SO incredibly entertaining but he is highly capable as well, having many stand out moments in the film. What's even more amazing is his character arc, which is one of the best in the movie. A lot of credit for this has to go to the superb script and the fantastic performance of Alan Tudyk.
Cassian, Jyn and K-2SO in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The dynamic duo of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang also play a fabulous part in the overall narrative. The banter between the two is priceless, with both characters adding much needed charisma to the story. Yen's character of Chirrut ╬mwe is really the only hero in the group that provides adequate reference to the "Force". While many of the other characters use the Force as a throw away term with an incredible lack of understanding, ╬mwe at the same time keeps the plot grounded in the Star Wars universe with his references and words of wisdom. This is incredibly important, especially considering how vital the nature of the Force was to driving the plot of the original trilogy.
Chirrut ╬mwe and Baze Malbus in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
On the villainous front, Ben Mendelsohn puts on a spectacular performance as Director Krennic. His compelling need to prove himself and the addition of his menacing nature provide the audience with an incredibly interesting antagonist. Without going into too much detail, his interactions with the various hierarchy of the Empire are also fascinating to witness, emanating a depth of character complexity that has yet to be seen in the Star Wars franchise. It really is the definition of perfect casting.
Director Krennic played by Ben Mendelsohn - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Director Gareth Edwards does fantastic work in conveying an aesthetic that is worthy of the world of Star Wars. Rogue One is its own movie in its right, with a significant emphasis on making the movie different from the predecessors that paved the way before it. The film needed to do that to establish the Star Wars stand alone brand, justifying the necessity for more films like it in future. However, at times the film attempts to be too different from its counterparts. The original Star Wars score is the stand out omission, a direct result of composer John Williams' absence. There is the occasional sound bite here and there, but nowhere near enough for audiences to be reminded of why they fell in love with the original Star Wars trilogy in the first place.
There is also the glaring absence of the famous "Imperial March" soundtrack, which was arguably the main theme for the Empire Strikes Back, being synonymous with Darth Vader and the troops of the Empire. The theme does return fleetingly, but the inclusion is far too brief to be considered adequate. This is a particularly strange choice considering the era the film takes place, right on the verge of melding into Episode IV: A New Hope. These omissions are somewhat compensated for by the sound design. The roaring scream of tie fighters and familiar firing of blasters all assist with the recreation of the 1977 Star Wars aesthetic. Composer Michael Giacchino does an admirable job in putting together a workable Star Wars score, especially considering the limited time frame he was afforded. However, the score does lack an adequate number of call backs to the original trilogy. Whether this is a direct result of cost and ownership rights to the original Star Wars soundtrack still remains unclear.
Perhaps an even more jarring exclusion is the absence of the traditional Star Wars opening crawl. While Disney's reasoning for its absence may be to set Rogue One apart from the main episodes in the Star Wars saga, it is a difference that audiences will notice. A direct byproduct of this absence is a lack on context and exposition, and an opening that is slightly unrecognisable as Star Wars. While this is suitable for a stand alone Star Wars film from a certain point of view, Rogue One is indeed a movie that could benefit from some context and exposition especially due to the pace of the first act. There is a lot of story and character introductions to sift through, which may leave the casual viewer who is not engrossed with the history of Star Wars slightly overwhelmed. While these are issues that need to be resolved for future films, they are only minor gripes. For the most part Rogue One is an absolutely fabulous film.
From a story perspective, the first and final acts are incredibly strong. The first act however may have a little too much narrative drive, which may make things difficult for audiences to follow especially without adequate context. As a result, the pacing of the middle is affected, making it feel slightly longer than it needs to be. These issues are more than compensated for however, directly due to the extremely well executed character interactions. Much of the narrative drive in the middle of the film speeds up directly due to the inner conflicts within the group. The story is also strong enough to stand on its own two legs, and doesn't necessarily require any prior viewing of the Star Wars franchise.
Neal Scanlan's creature effects are fabulous in this film, as he follows up from his fantastic BAFTA award winning work on The Force Awakens. CGI also plays its part during the battle sequences, which are executed to amazing effect. The space battles in Rogue One rival those of the original trilogy and perhaps only come second to the final battle in Return of the Jedi.
The X-Wing cinematography is also spectacular, including some stellar POV sequences that will have audiences in awe. Gareth Edwards also goes into the trenches with his ground battles, clearly taking inspiration from the beach warfare used in movies such as Saving Private Ryan. There is an element of realism and raw emotion that is admirable especially considering the plethora of mythical concepts.
A combination of CGI and practical effects also play a role in reintroducing some familiar faces from Episode IV: A New Hope. Many of these cameos being extremely brief, but they add to the overall narrative and also provide the necessary nostalgia that every fan of the original trilogy was anticipating. Without going into specifics to spoil the fun, some of these reintroduced characters have quite significant roles in the film. Because of the nature of the time period, some of these particular characters have undergone significant CGI to recreate their original appearance from 1977. The results are quite amazing, but can be simultaneously eerie at the same time, creating a phenomenon commonly referred to as the "uncanny valley". Aside from this, the cameos are executed incredibly well and are necessary to the story. The voice replication is also spectacular.
If you have seen any of the trailers for Rogue One and if you are aware of the time period, then it will be no surprise to discover that the formidable Darth Vader returns in this film. Without going into details, his multiple appearances are brief to say the least, but he is as formidable as ever. Furthermore, his imposing presence is felt throughout the film, undeniably having many of the stand out moments. In saying that, it also has to be said that Darth Vader is incredibly underutilised in this movie. This does allow audiences to explore the new characters more thoroughly, but it is undeniably a missed opportunity. James Earl Jones also makes a triumphant return to voice the character, however his matured voice does pose some continuity issues for an audience planning to watch A New Hope immediately after Rogue One. While it is a most welcome return for James Earl Jones, and while his unique sound is as menacing as ever, it is strange to think that the post production wizards at Lucasfilm couldn't modify his voice to at least resemble the tonality utilised in Return of the Jedi. This is particularly apparent considering some of the other reintroduced Episode IV characters who practically sound pitch perfect.
In summary, Rogue One doesn't quite match the eloquence of story telling found in the likes of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It is clearly not meant to. It does however compliment the original trilogy incredibly well, making any future viewings of the original trilogy all the more engrossing. At the same time Rogue One makes you appreciate Episode IV even more, and will no doubt make you want to re-watch the classic film all over again as soon as you leave the cinema. There is a fabulous attention to detail that has to be admired with Rogue One, and the story is compelling enough to be incredibly re-watchable in its own right. It is close to being on par with The Force Awakens, but may be considered slightly less enjoyable, purely due to the subject material and the less optimistic and darker narrative. There are however a selection of memorable moments in Rogue One that perhaps even outshine The Force Awakens, mainly due to the characters incorporated in the scenes, and the addition of the nostalgia factor. In short, Rogue One is a must see on the big screen.