Where The Force Awakens played it safe and acted as a familiar pseudo-rehash of the original Star Wars, this year’s Rogue One (the first of several planned spin-off Star Wars movies) is experimental in all the right ways. But does it have the magic that makes Star Wars special?
I have to start by admitting that I used to be a huge Star Wars fan. Bigger than I can easily describe. I watched the original trilogy so many times that the VHS tapes wore out. I played every Star Wars video game I could get my hands on, spent most of my allowed internet time searching for Star Wars things, and memorising weird facts like the Millenium Falcon’s model number (YT-1300 Corellian Cruiser), the elaborate backstory behind pieces of Boba Fett’s costume (braided Wookiee scalps!), or the fact that Han Solo won his favourite spaceship from Lando Calrissian in a game of Sabacc. In high school I convinced a couple of my friends (most of them barely interested) to join me in regular sessions of a paper-and-twenty-sided-dice-based Star Wars Roleplaying game, so I could just continue to live in the world, and spend a ton of my time making up new Star Wars stories. I think I was pretty much the perfect age to appreciate the prequel trilogy for what it was when it was released (10, 13, and 16 when each respective movie was released).
But soon after the movies ended, I grew up and kind of outgrew Star Wars – or so I thought.
With the announcement of a new trilogy (especially with JJ Abrams directing the first new film), I found myself getting more and more excited. Finally, watching The Force Awakens last December, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time – and I finally realised what made Star Wars so special for me in the first place. More than the spectacular adventures and the thrilling action sequences and the laserswords and the space-magic and the cool aliens, the characters were charming, fun, and easy to fall in love with. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3P0 and R2-D2 felt like a lovable, optimistic family that’s fun to be around, laugh with, and fear for. And in hindsight, The Force Awakens made me feel like that’s the principle thing that the prequel trilogy missed. Anakin’s story was always going to be one of doom, self-destruction, and a big, inevitable fall, and the half-hearted love story, or undefined rivalry with Obi-Wan didn’t help. The Force Awakens, despite all its flaws, was thoroughly Star Wars – and that’s its biggest success. Even Kylo Ren is so deliciously fascinating to watch – whether there’s any hope for redemption or not.
With that as backstory, I was ready for Rogue One. The first of the official, live-action feature-length Star War spin-offs created after Disney bought Star Wars and its creative base Lucasfilm, Rogue One tells the story that directly precedes the first Star Wars film – 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope. You’ve probably already guessed that, since it’s marketing campaign really drove home the “hope” thing. “Rebellions are built on hope,” Jyn Erso reminds us in almost every trailer. The film follows a gang of Rebels, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso among them, as they investigate the Galactic Empire’s new superweapon space station, the planet-destroying Death Star, and ultimately decide to steal the schematics to the battle station – plans which we’ve already seen play a vital role in A New Hope.
From the first shot, Rogue One makes it clear that it doesn’t play by the rules of the previous episodic Star Wars “saga” films, but that it’s its own beast entirely. Gone is the Yellow “Star Wars” logo, John Williams’ fanfare, and opening prologue text that helps orient viewers. There aren’t any Jedi Knights in this film. And there are even on-screen titles that identify (most of) the planets we visit. The cast is culturally diverse (this certainly stands out against the other Star Wars movies), and the whole film feels more like a war movie. The reality of war, and questionable morals of rebellion (or is it “terrorism”?) are made visible – previously, Star Wars films had been too family friendly and fantastical to dwell on these topics.
The story jumps around at first, almost stumbling to find its feet, quickly introducing us to several key characters. There’s by-the-book, but whatever-it-takes Rebel Officer Cassian Andor (in a lovely performance by Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (a motion-captured Alan Tudyk, often providing comic relief), Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera (originally from The Clone Wars animated series), Ben Mendelsohn as villain Orson Krennic, and Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, and Jiang Wen as the rest of the team. All of the characters are great, fun, likable, and unique, but I do think they lack the charm, optimism, or some X-factor that made Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, Rey, Finn, and the droids classics.
It felt to me like the story initially jumped faster and further than what we’re used to in Star Wars – from environment to environment, and introducing new places, faces, and aesthetics quite quickly. But it’s ultimately a relatively palatable pace, and for fans of the series who might recognise things and understand concepts slightly faster than the layman, it’s probably just right. Which brings me to another point – the film was definitely made with fans in mind.
The movie is filled with cameos, familiar actors from both movie trilogies, incredible CG recreations of 1977 faces (was Red Leader the same guy from The Battle of Yavin?), and surprises around every corner. (Even for die-harders like me who can’t get rid of obscure knowledge, there are references to things like the “Guardians of the Whills” which is a clear indication that the filmmakers pored through every piece of lore in an attempt to make something that’s familiar, fits in with the rest, and winks at fans all at once)
The locations, props, costumes, spaceships, aliens and set dressing all feel like a natural extension of the Star Wars universe. Creatures feel like classic 70’s/80’s puppets, but have the same inventiveness that original trilogy aliens had, so they don’t feel like cheap retreads. The battles (especially the space combat at the end), is equal parts old-school Star Wars, and new concepts introduced to the old battlefield. We see X-wings filmed in ways we’ve never seen before, and Star Destroyers doing things we’ve never seen before. It’s great to see new writers and directors being given an opportunity to play with George Lucas’ old toys, and be creative and inventive in fun ways. Unfortunately, the plot feels a little predictable, and the way every main character ends up playing a critical role at the exact right moment at the end feels a little forced.
Rogue One is a very satisfying addition to the Star Wars franchise – and neatly fills the gaps in continuity without ever raising questions like “how does he know that” or “should she even be born yet” (okay, there was one cameo appearance that I’m still curious about how they managed to get to Mos Eisley in time). It has so many familiar things that fans would love to see, and even though it comes very close, it never feels like a forced, gratuitous fanservice.
In my opinion, it lacks the magic, and oh-so-charming characters that makes The Force Awakens a top-shelfer. But maybe that’s exactly what was needed from a spin-off. Maybe the fact that it’s different in all the right ways, is what ultimately places Rogue One high in a ranking of top Star Wars flicks. At the very least, the base for wild experimentation has been laid, and I’m giddy with excitement for what similar free reign will be like in the hands of Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) in 2018’s Young Han Solo spin-off.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.
Spoiler-filled nitpicks (please only read after you’ve seen the movie):
- Why couldn’t the Mon Calamari leader (Admiral Radisson) have a line as meme-able as “It’s a trap”?
- Was Saw Gerrera’s base designed by the same architect that did Jabba’s Palace?
- Also, why is the Al-Qaeda-like terrorist group “hiding” in a massive tower in plain sight?
- The CG version of Grand Moff Tarkin had an Uncanny Valley-creepiness to him. Or maybe the animators just perfectly recreated Peter Cushing’s disturbingly scary performance?
- Why didn’t I see that one shot from the trailer of a TIE fighter levelling up with Jyn on top of the communication tower?
- Was it necessary to visit Darth Vader’s home on Mustafar? Though I’ve always wondered where he lived, and loved the idea of him having a fortress somewhere, couldn’t Krennic just use a hologram transmission to have his chat with Vader. This felt a little indulgent and like unnecessary fanservice to me.
- I nearly burst out laughing when Admiral Radisson LOOKED DOWN when listening and responding to a voice transmission coming from the planet below. Maybe it makes sense in space, but it felt very strange to me.
- Okay come on, what are the chances of Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba escaping Jedha and getting to Tatooine in time for A New Hope?
- They really, really, said “hope” too many times.
- Darth Vader made a terrible, James Bond-worthy pun at one point.
- Jimmy Smits’ reference to “a Jedi I know” was a little to on-the-nose for my tastes. UNLESS THEY MAKE AN OBI-WAN SPIN-OFF SET BETWEEN EPISODES 3 & 4, in which case all will be forgiven.