Rogue One A Star Wars Story Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Movie Review By Kevan McLaughlin

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Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Chris Weitz (screenplay by), Tony Gilroy (screenplay by)
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen

Right, if you haven’t seen it by now then it really isn’t my fault if I destroy your day with spoilers like the Empire destroyed Scariff. Oh, no! Did I just ruin everything? Well, tough luck. The title of this review is ‘A Spolier Story’ so if you don’t want any more you shouldn’t have read this far, although you really should have seen the movie by now.

The first thing we have to encounter about this Star Wars side-adventure (and there are a LOT of new things for us to get our collective heads around) is that we have a whole host of new characters we haven’t seen in the movies before. A Battalion’s worth of new characters. A whole rebellion full of them. Sure, a lot of them are introduced in the much grander Star Wars universe through cartoons, animated series, comics and novels but this is the first time we get to see all of them together in the live-action format. And their names don’t role off the tongue like Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie. But with multiple viewings (and you will be viewing this movie a lot for the next, say… 40 years) Cassian, Chirrut, Baze and co will be just as familiar.

The story, if you don’t know by now, is about how the Rebels obtained the plans to destroy the Death Star. We already know they succeed. So, why bother? BECAUSE, COOL STUFF. Let me elaborate. A New Hope succeeds without an introduction. It has for almost forty years. It doesn’t need Forest Whitaker and Felicity Jones scrabbling around 10 minutes before Leia ejects her bleeping pedal bin stuffed with a hidden message onto Tatooine to make it the perfect movie it already is. And that’s kinda the point. A New Hope doesn’t need the story before the story and vice-versa. Rogue One’s band of tired freedom fighters don’t need to see the fruits of their sacrifices realised by an exiled Jedi, a Princess, a farmboy, a smuggler and his walking carpet. Both of these movies work perfectly well by themselves, but together…well, it’s a thing of flawless beauty. It is actually seemless. Watch Rogue One in the cinema and rush home to watch Episode IV and see for yourself. I guarantee everyone will be doing it when the Blu-ray is released.

In Rogue One we start with Galen Erso, played to understated enigmatic brilliance by the always compelling Mads Mikkelson. Galen is a brilliant scientist and pacifist who has come to realise that his intellect and vision are being exploited by the Empire’s scheming Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to build a gargantuan weapon of global destruction. We join him in his new life on a farm on Lah’mu with his wife Lyra and their young daughter Jyn. Krennic shows up with a smile, a hoard of Death Troopers and a puny argument about how their work on the Death Star is all about promoting peace in the Galaxy because, you know, you should always trust a guy who shows up on your farm with a squad of Imperial killers in slick armour.

Galen lies to Krennic that Lyra is dead right before she pops up, wounds Krennic and he kills her. The well-hidden Jyn evades the Death Troopers ordered to hunt for her and Krennic, the freakishly tall murderers-for-hire and a devastated and dejected Galen leave to continue to work on Krennic’s intergalactic Nobel Peace prize project. And that’s where Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera comes in to rescue the Erso youngling and take her under his wing.

Next we’re introduced to Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Cassian learns from his mate that an Imperial pilot has defected and is telling people that the Empire are making a planet killer using Kyber Crystals and Galen is involved in the construction. It’s here we see how ruthless and desperate the Rebellion have had to become because, in order to escape and avoid detection by the clostraphobic presence of the Empire, Cassian kills a couple of Stormtroopers and his panicky, paranoid pal. Because it had to be done. That’s the real shift in tone in this movie. We don’t have the luxury of the Force morally guiding our heroes to always do the right thing. They do what’s necessary and that includes shooting your pal in the back if you think he might be a liability.

From there we go to Jedha to see this defector pilot (Riz Ahmed) for the first time. He’s looking for Saw because he claims he has this message from Galen. Naturally, Saw’s pals are a little dubious. The pilot, Bodhi Rook, is taken to Saw and is then mentally tortured by a mad psychic squid thing to make sure he’s telling the truth. This is the measure of Saw. Although I don’t be distracted by the larger Star Wars universe, it’s important to note that Saw has been fighting this war for a very long time and he’s become paranoid and dangerous, even by the Rebellion’s standards.

When Saw is interrogating Bodhi he’s revealed to be horribly disfigured through years of fighting and losing. He clunks onto our screen as it’s revealed he’s more machine than man in a not-so-subtle, yet awesome, nod to Obi Wan’s description of Darth Vader in Episode IV. Saw Gerrera continues to mirror Vader by taking a long, deep inhale of his breathing aide whilst looking hard and equally long at Bodhi and his reaction. Bodhi is frightened. Through the fear Ahmed brilliantly portrays, we’re given an idea that Bodhi has seen Vader before and this powerful, radical man in front of him now bares an uncanny air to the Sith Lord.

And then Peter Cushing makes an interesting career move by appearing on our screens for the first time since he was in Biggles in 1986. Bold. Except, of course, this isn’t Peter Cushing but the combination of actor Guy Henry’s motion capture performance, Disney and Industrial Light and Magic creating something wonderfully exciting. To some, using the image of a long-dead and much loved thespian is a step too far. For this piece, I’m not getting into that argument. Nor am I going to debate the Uncanny Valley. I’m not. It’s my belief that Tarkin HAD to be in this film. He had to. And it’s with great effect that he’s in Rogue One. It’s also my belief that the CGI was brilliant. If you can tolerate Binks and Jumping Jack Yoda then you can certainly enjoy this next stage of computer-based technology enhancing our screens. All of these arguments detract from Henry’s performance, which is incredible.

Yes, Cushing made the character his but Guy Henry takes it and runs. He’s still as deliciously sly and arrogant as ever, outpacing the impertinent and overly ambitious Krennic. And that’s the joy of having Tarkin in this movie. He’s a cunning foil to Krennic’s slimy charm, seething jealousy and combustable temprament. Henry nails it and should be applauded for HIS portrayal of this character.

When we meet Jyn again years later it’s clear she doesn’t exactly have a life plan. We find her in the back of an Imperial paddy wagon waiting to be transported to a fresh hell, not that she looks all that bothered by her grim circumstances. Jyn is then ‘rescued’ by a gang of Rebels and thanks them for their efforts by slapping them silly. As she tries to flee, the surprising comedic hero of Rogue One introduces itself by ragdolling her to the ground (I’ll talk more about Alan Tudyk’s amazing turn as K-2SO shortly).

It’s revealed in the subsequent interrogation at the Rebel base on Yavin that Jyn doesn’t know where her father is and hasn’t seen Galen for 15 years and hopes him dead. Mon Mothma (more on Genevieve O’Reilly’s take on this character later) and Cassian question Jyn about her relationship with Saw Gerrera, knowing he has the defected pilot, information about the Death Star and that it was Galen who sent Bodhi. It’s apparent that Jyn is their only way to speak with the extremist, having severed ties with the increasingly erratic and paranoid Saw. If Jyn helps the Rebellion with this meet-and-greet with Saw, Mothma is hoping to extract Galen and have him testify to the Senate regarding the Empire’s dastardly plans and also give Jyn her freedom.

The scene switches tone from an inquisition to a moral barter, with a little bit of blackmail and bribery thrown in. It’s subtly implied that the Rebellion is offering Jyn the chance to atone for her father’s perceived crimes. For Jyn it’s the chance to see her father and, perhaps, finally know the truth about him. Cassian, on the other hand, has no plans to capture Galen safely, not that he’s letting Jyn know that. Galen is the enemy and he must be taken out. And with that Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO are off to Jedha to have a chat with their buddy Saw.

With barely half an hour into the movie it’s apparent that almost every one of the main characters has an ulterior motive. Galen is helping build the Death Star yet he has a secret plan that involves dispatching a pilot with his secret message. Jyn is a wonderful mess of contradictions. She hopes her father is dead but wants him alive to finally get some answers. She doesn’t have the luxury of political opinions but spent her formative years with a man too extreme for the Rebellion. She’s indifferent to the Rebellion but takes on increasingly difficult missions as the film progresses. Cassian is cold. As I’ve already said, he has to be. He outright lies to Jyn about extracting her father. He has one sole purpose and that’s to assassinate the man he thinks is single-handedly responsible for the construction of the Death Star. Krennic is more obvious with his intent. He’s a psychopathic careerist. His aspirations consume him to the point where he’ll almost choke to death to get what he wantsbut he’s not adverse to using his slyness and cunning to advance his position.

This is what makes the movie so compelling in parts. The mistrust. Two of the most honest characters in the film are a guy who used to pilot for SpaceNazi airlines and the neurotic Universal Soldier, and when Bodhi is confronted by the derranged Gerrera he struggles to make his case that he’s not a spy because of the years of espionage, guerilla warfare and doubt within the Alliance. Even when Saw sees Jyn for the first time in years he is unsure of her motives and even asks if she’s there to kill him. Jyn Erso was like a daughter to him and now he’s fearing that she might be the one to end HIS war. This is how insane things have become since the days of the old Republic.

We’re reintroduced to a familiar face in Rogue One. Caroline Blakiston, in her own words, spent a grand total of “twenty-six and a half second” as Mon Mothma in Jedi. And although Genevieve O’Reilly spent a considerable amount of time learning Blakiston’s mannerisms and speech patterns, her role was diminished to a non-speaking part in Revenge of the Sith and a couple of deleted scenes in the DVD and Blu-ray extras. For a character to make such a considerable impact in the Star Wars universe is an outstanding accomplishment, considering most people still don’t know what a Bothan is, or how they died. It’s with enormous relief that O’Reilly had another shot at the role because she is simply excellent. O’Reilly captures the solemn essence of Mothma and makes us realise how vital her diplomacy and rationalism is in this turbulent and fragile alliance. Even when all around her everyone is losing their minds she remains the calm and reassuring voice that’s sorely needed.

As alluded to in Part Two, K-2SO is the comedic foil of the piece. A tad more optimistic than Marvin the paranoid android and not quite as neurotic as C-3PO, Alan Tudyk’s reprogrammed Imperial security droid is more like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper in that he has trouble filtering “whatever comes into his circuits”. The scene in which K-2SO pretends to be a not-umprogrammed-Imperial-security-droid slapping Cassian around is genuinely one of 2016’s funniest moments in cinema. In a movie filled with tension, Turyk’s stroppy robot is a much needed boost for the audience and a far cry from Binks. Thank the maker.

It seems unfair to only talk about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) in relation to each other because both characters are brilliant to watch, but it’s hard to seperate them as they spend most of their screen time together. Donnie Yen does his Donnie-Yenniest since Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. The blind Chirrut is the only glimpse of the Light side of the Force we see in Rogue One and his faith is as beautiful as it is tragic. Chirrut’s mantra of ‘I’m one with the Force; the Force is with me’ as he embraces insane danger is perhaps even more inspiring than Obi-Wan or Luke bending the will of the weak minded or mind-lassoing a lightsabre from a snowdrift. Chirrut has faith. Chirrut and his protector and companion Baze are Guardians of the Whills, protectors of the ancient Temple of the Kyber. Or at least, the were. Now, they’re begging and preaching on the streets of Jedha. Baze is an enigmatic fellow. He works in harmony with Chirrut and Jiang’s performance is more than adequate. But, simply because Yen has more screen time, has a lot more to say and it’s great fun to watch him treat Stormtroopers like piñatas, he’s much more memorable over the course of the film.

Think back to the early 90s. For those of us of a certain age Star Wars had been part of our entire lives. To most of us, it was a huge part. A sizeable chunk. And Darth Vader was the baddest baddie of them all. But it was done. No more on-screen adventures for Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, the tin-can twins and the man on black.

We could, of course, always stick on the video of Return of the Jedi that we’d taped off the telly at Christmas and enjoy Speeder Bike chases, Jabba’s Palace and not being able to read Bib Fortuna’s subtitles because widescreen TVs hadn’t been invented. In the 1980s George Lucas had been adament that he had no desire to return to the Star Wars universe he’d envisaged whilst creating the first film in the saga.

By the 1990s Star Wars saw a resurgence in popularity, largely because of the Dark Horse comics and Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels. There was STILL an audience. We already knew that but it was the confimration Lucas needed to think about returning to his idea of a prequel trilogy. In October 1993 Lucas announced in Variety exactly that – there would be more Star Wars. More Darth Vader.

In the days before the internet was in every home and on every phone (and before it was even useful to most people) information on the subject was scarce. Non-existent would be more accurate. In 1998 we were given a gift in the form of a very simple teaser poster – a young lad on a sandy world, casting an awesome and eery shadow.

It was everything. We were going to see Darth Vader: The Early Years. Two more trailers would follow and they melted many a dial-up modem.

Fast forward through Midi-chlorians, Podracers, Yippeeees, teen-angst, an unconvincing romantic plot, a scene where he doesn’t understand how democracy works, younglings, a pretty awesome, if completely unrealistic (they were 6mm from lava – they would’ve been sitting in puddles of gravy made of their own legs) lightsaber duel and a burned, broken and disfigured Anakin.

This is what we were waiting for. The disillusioned and vengeful young man who lost everything was now fully transformed. Yes, Palpatine had made him a Sith Lord and gave him his new name but THIS was the moment he was truly Vader. And what did we get afte six years of Binks, endless Parliamentary debates, horribly racist stereotypes, a criminally under-utilised Samuel L  Jackson and Boba Fett needlessly shoe-horned into the plot? Hayden Christensen in his Halloween costume.

We could forget the fact that we were promised The Omen on Tatooine but got Little Orphan Anakin. We couldn’t forgive that all we got in the end was a skinny Vader crossing his arms and looking into space. NOOOOOOOOOO!

It feels like Rogue One has finally delivered on some of those earlier promises. We get Vader. With a lightsaber. Being outstanding. We find him on the only unnamed planet in the movie.

Seriously, every other planet is named onscreen but, by omission, we know it’s Mustafar. It’s only right that this is where he’s set up shop, as this is the planet where Vader was born. This planet made him what he was to become. Mustafar is a not-so-subtle- metaphor of Vader himself. It smoulders and rages. It’s violent, not through cruelty, but by it’s nature. Curiously, we also see Vader without the suit, albeit through smoke and steam, bobbing around in an unsettling, vulnerable state in his bacta tank. We’re reminded (however you may feel about him) that this is a disfigured Anakin. That same little boy who built C-3PO.

When Vader summons Krennic to his Castle we’re reminded of his feelings regarding the anything non-Force related. While Krennic is busy worrying about who’ll receive credit for the Death Star it’s clear Vader is irritated by such trivial distractions. The Death Star, to him, is a mere tool. It gets the job done. It gets Vader a step closer to what he wants. Krennic is even less important than that. And he does what Vader is prone to do when he’s annoyed by insigificance.

He chokes Krennic to remind him of his place, like a master rubs his mutt’s nose in it’s own mess. Vader really springs to life in the closing moments of the film, effortlessly cutting his way through a band of infuriating rebels who get in his way with a series of deft swipes of his lightsaber, returning blaster fire like Rafa Nadal and flinging them around like dirty laundry. But, of course, he doesn’t to get those annoying Death Star plans in time.

There is an argument to be made that, perhaps, the person to have the biggest effect on the Star Wars saga, other than George Lucas, is John Williams. His overall contribution to music in film is immeasurable with his majestic and unmistakable scores giving us the soundtrack to our collective childhoods. Williams is synonymous with Star Wars.

So, when it was reported in March 2015 that Alexandre Desplat would be composing the score for the new stand-alone Star Wars adventure some were…curious. Was this the ultimate statement that Disney could make regarding their most recent and expensive acquisition regarding the direction they sought for the franchise?

Maybe not considering that two years prior they had announced that Williams would be returning for The Force Awakens. It was, most likely, their intention to indicate that having a new man in charge of the score would set this new movie apart from the saga. This was a a new movie that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe.

The proverbial spanner was thrown into the works when in September 2016 re-shoots on Rogue One meant that Desplat was no longer available and Michael Giacchino was to step in.

With the Premiere scheduled for December the clock was ticking and fans were anxious.  This was not inspiring confidence in Disney’s direction for the franchise. In four and a half weeks Giacchino, fresh from composing the score for Doctor Strange, had done it. Maybe this wasn’t such a huge risk after all. He already had a couple of Star Trek films under his belt along with Lost, Jupiter Ascending and Jurassic World.

This is a reknowned and highly respected composer. And he had a vision for the film. He called it a “World War II movie” at it’s heart, and “it was also an incredibly emotional movie as well”. Seemingly, he got the essence of Rogue One and incorporated Williams themes into the movie, so it wouldn’t be the radical departure we feared. Right? Well, yes and no. It becomes apparent that, yes, his score is based on (and incorporates) Williams’ previous work into the film, but he not-so-much pays homage to Williams as hangs on his coat-tails. Some elements of the music are akin to Star Wars parodies such as Space Balls or Ace Rimmer’s theme in Red Dwarf.

Unfortunately, this was always going to be the criticism, no matter who composed the music or what it actually sounded like. It’s even more unfortunate that Giacchino is obviously a hugely talented composer and Disney view him as such as he’s scoring Spider-man: Homecoming.

It seems like Kathleen Kennedy is determined to kill off every fanboy in the galaxy, with either massive coronaries or them choking to death on a combination of disgust and Cheerios.

No John Williams, no Skywalkers and no opening crawl. “We felt that’s so indicative of what those saga films are. Initially, we probably will begin the film in a way that is traditional, with just the title”, Kennedy said in November. This was how serious Disney were taking their stance that this should be a film that stands alone. The lack of crawl doesn’t harm the film but, on first viewing, it’s a little distracting. Uneasy even. But like the score we’ll get used to it. Not that either of these actually harm the film in any way. It’s just that we’ve become SO used to how a Star Wars movie should be.

Maybe it was about time someone slapped us and gave us something a little different. Thanks Kathleen.

It’s clear that Director Gareth Edwards is a Star Wars fan. Even if he hadn’t spoke on numerous occasions about how the original movie inspired him to become a filmmaker, it’s clear how much the saga means to him. It’s not just the inclusion of blue milk, Gold leader or his cameo. It’s the fact he’s comfortable enough to take the existing material and add something without trying to change it entirely. And he’s not just paying homage to the ‘good’ trilogy.

Take the bacta tank scene. Seeing Vader simmering in the tank reminds us that Anakin is an amputee and a burn victim. In a robotic suit. It’s easy to think of Vader just as the shiny black-suited, lightsaber wielding psycho. He’s also that little boy on the sandy planet. The stroppy teenager. And the guy who’s best friend chopped his legs off and watch burn. It mirrors the helmetless scene in Empire so well without trying to compete for its level of shock. It seems ridiculous to consider anyone but Edwards as the logical choice for Rogue One, given his history in visual effects. It’s where he shines in this movie, not in the CGI Tarkin scenes, but in using the effects to tell the story.

Rogue One is its own movie. In fact, without it (in a bootstrap paradox kind of way) we couldn’t have Star Wars. Episode IV would’ve been about an irritating dweeb living on a farm, talking endlessly about power converters. In its essence it’s a tragedy. Yes, it’s science fiction, action and adventure. But it’s ultimately the sacrifices our band of new heroes make that defines this film (if you don’t at least gulp when K-2SO is destroyed you’re a monster). That’s not to say there isn’t brevity, suspense, drama and epic space battles. That’s what we want from a new Star Wars film but it’s the ultimate price our Rebels pay that sets it apart from the saga, not the lack of crawl or the score. Then there’s the realisation of what this film is leading to – Princess Leia about six minutes away from hiding the stolen plans in R2-D2. The transition into Episode IV is flawless. The final seconds of Rogue One leave you with a sense of…hope.

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