Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, despite bearing all of the earmarks of classic Star Wars, represents a significant departure from the series' narrative conventions. This is the first Star Wars film that shifts its focus away from the Skywalker family; this is the first Star Wars film that plays close to something like an actual war movie; and this is the first Star Wars film that shuns fairy tale romance and swashbuckling adventure in favour of ambiguity, desperation, and a healthy dose of gallows humour -- aspects that definitely elevate the rough-around-the-edges screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
But most importantly, this is the first Star Wars film whose protagonists are severely flawed and unimportant shit-kickers – cold-blooded killers, guardsmen of religious Temples long since abandoned, pilots, and ordinary people seeking revenge against an oppressive galaxy-wide regime. Not powered by the Force, they are instead simply powered by the ability to Give a Damn. Make no mistake, the Force is still very much a factor in this comparably realistic Star Wars flick. But rather than being a superpower that makes people fight all fancily, it's more like a kind of faith – a belief and humility that while you're nothing in the grand scheme of things, your actions and character still matter, especially in the face of certain annihilation. This spiritual take on the Force has often been underemphasised in the other films, and it feels particularly pertinent to these troubled times. But that's one of Rogue One's many virtues – to grant exposure to the important aspects of Lucas' mythology that have been hampered somewhat in order to successfully set up the inevitable next instalment.
Felicity Jones is rebel's rebel Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) designed the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Abandoned as a child, she becomes a hardened survivor and due to her important familial connections she's recruited by the burgeoning Rebellion to obtain critical information about the Death Star. She's aided by cold-blooded assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jedi Temple guardsmen Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang), pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and a reconfigured smart-mouthed Imperial Droid K2SO (Alan Tudyk).
Unlike last year's The Force Awakens, which was carefully reverse engineered to gratify hardcore fans and also serve as a first step into a much larger world for a new generation, Rogue One has no compunction with being anything other what it is – a Men on a Mission movie that directly (and I mean directly) sets the stage for the events of George Lucas' original 1977 Star Wars. And so being free from the burden of of having to set up instalments, Rogue One has an unmistakable weight and gravitas to it. When certain key characters meet their fate in the climactic moments of the film, Edwards makes a point of keeping the camera tight on their faces that silently communicate "I'm not ready for this", but nonetheless try to comport themselves with as much dignity as possible. The unintentional last words of one dying character to another is "I have so much to tell you". These are beautiful little touches that inform their personalities and serve to compensate for a lack of backstory. I suspect that the lack of backstory is an intentional artistic choice, though, to truly underscore that these protagonists are not charged with some great destiny.
Don't let its relatively modest ambitions fool you, however. Director Gareth Edwards (he of 2014's Godzilla fame) bequeaths Rogue One a scale and sense of scope that renders the proceedings some honest-to-goodness majesty at times, just some of the most sumptuously composed shots you're likely to see this year. The action – spanning space dogfights, violent street scraps, and an epic battle in a tranquil beach-like setting – is always thrilling and precisely choreographed. And though Darth Vader is only very briefly in Rogue One, one of his appearances is, I submit, the greatest Darth Vader moment put to film. I'm loathe to give away more than that but suffice it to say, those hoping to see a glimpse of the Empire's chief enforcer cutting loose will not be disappointed. Edwards made a wise choice to use Vader sparingly – put him on screen too often and he'll surely eclipse all else.
But Rogue One certainly isn't all wise choices. There are some hitches and hiccups that disrupt the flow and rhythm of the first twenty or so minutes (this is where the traditional opening text crawl might've helped matters, but Rogue One is determined to be as separate from the herd as possible) and two truly baffling elements that utterly deflate any scene they're present in. Firstly, Forest Whitaker as ruthless rebel insurgent Saw Gerrera. The intention behind this character is clear and admirable – his purpose is to illustrate how it's all too easy for the supposed good guys to dabble in as much fear and violence as their enemies. Call it cliché, and maybe it is, but this kind of moral ambiguity is new territory for Star Wars films. But the execution is bafflingly awful, with usually stupendous actor Whitaker playing him as some unhinged and theatrical buffoon. It is so, ridiculously, tonally out of step with the rest of the cast who are giving grounded and natural performances. And the thematics that are imprinted on Whitaker's character are used for Diego Luna as rebel assassin Cassian Andor to far greater effect, so not only is he a blight on Rogue One, he is also redundant, save for some plot semantics. Secondly, there is the use of some CGI motion capture to bring to life a long dead actor so as to seamlessly bridge this film and Star Wars. Unfortunately, the execution is not seamless. Aside from the implications of it, which are sleazy to say the least, the CGI just doesn't look good, unable to resemble anything other than a rubber faced cartoon. And this character is in at least 5 scenes, certainly a not insignificant amount.
But that aside, this is a solid addition to the Star Wars canon and a wonderful companion piece to the original work. It's smart, it dares to paint with minor strokes, and it heralds a very bright future for Star Wars outside the Skywalker saga.