In a year utterly laden with tedious, inept, and dismally frustrating blockbusters, director Gareth Edwards’ audacious and exhilarating addition to the Star Wars universe provides the Light to Hollywood’s Dark Side. This thunderously exciting and captivating epic occupies the familiar narrative space of A Galaxy Far, Far Away, yet renders a entirely unique and unprecedented vision. For every ounce of glorious fan-service it might provide – embracing the spectator with welcoming warmth – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story serves up ferocity, muscle, and intensity by the barrel-load, crafting a bruising and bombastic cinematic experience. It is absolutely astonishing entertainment.
Set between Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels (try to spot The Ghost…) and George Lucas’ seminal 1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Edwards’ anthology follows courageous and world-weary Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) – a brilliant research scientist – is taken by the Imperial Empire’s Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) when she is a mere infant. Galen has been studying Kyber Crystals – the rich energy source which fuels Jedi Lightsabers – and Krennic requires such an element for his advanced weaponry device: the Death Star. This “planet killer” is set and ready for a period of testing, and it is down to the Rebel Alliance to ensure this kind of unfathomable power is not under the control of the galaxy’s suppressors. Jyn is “recruited” by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who alongside ragtag allies Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a defected Imperial pilot, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a sightless Force-sensitive monk, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a heavily armoured hitman, and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid, set out to retrieve the plans for the “super weapon”.
Considering anyone who has seen A New Hope knows precisely how Rogue One will conclude, the manner in which scriptwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have approached the material is quite frankly impeccable. Unlike previous entries in the Star Wars Saga series, Edwards’ film lacks the comfort and reliability of traditional tropes such as the Jedi, Lightsaber battles, and interplay banter between C-3PO and R2-D2, yet these removals are optimised to their utmost advantage by the scribes. Rather than Rogue One being a Star Wars film, it is a film within the Star Wars universe: a big difference indeed. Fundamentally, the duo have written a military extraction narrative; a core mission which requires a unit to work together in order to accomplish a particular goal. Yet when you add in eye-popping X-Wing and TIE Fighter dogfights, a plethora of dizzying creatures, races, and species, and some of the most staggering actions set-pieces of the year, you realise just how special this film is. It is the rarest of treats and treasures; a work which feels completely accomplished within its setting and franchising, yet totally singular in form and function.
Rogue One is bolder, braver, and perhaps even better than The Force Awakens. That’s no dig at J.J. Abrams’ film at all, it is a glorious work, but Edwards is reaching for higher ground here, and boy does he pull himself up. Never before has a sense of scale felt so chokingly apparent in a Star Wars movie. Images of Star Destroyers hovering around the Death Star are fine examples of the immense visual language the British filmmaker is composing. We all know how gigantic and foreboding those ships are, yet they are simply dwarfed by the Imperial moon. It is subtle yet decadently realised frames such as this which bare a potent reflection of the ominous task our Rebel heroes face. They might have “hope”, but that doesn’t mean they are going to succeed. Unlike in a film such as The Force Awakens, never does this story feel entirely in the control of our protagonists – a wayward gaggle of multicultural and multilingual criminals, fugitives, and traitors – they are occupants in a deadly, unfair war zone which will produce casualties, trauma, and anguish for both battalions.
The film is laden with impeccable sequences which adhere to the best of every core genre. The glorious K-2SO provides a cavalcade of laughs as his dry and confrontational attitude lends kindly to the film’s softer notes, whilst moments shared between Chrirut and Baze strikingly sneak with their emotional weight. You’ll be cackling one minute, then find a firm lump in your throat. Scenes on the mediative planet Jedha are a real highlight, with Jyn exercising her truncheon as she wallops through a pathway of Stormtroopers, but it is when we arrive in Scarif – around the halfway mark – where things turn up to eleven. Rogue One‘s climatic hour alone is the greatest studio release of 2016. That is the stone-cold truth. No other blockbuster has achieved what Edwards’ film does in those closing 60 minutes. It is the most rapturous and electrifying collection of frames one has seen in a theatre for an awfully long time. The cinematography upon Scarif (filmed on location in the Maldives) is a ravishing arrangement of tropicana; sun-kissed seas and plush foliage all harnessing an alarming assault of visceral chaos. Loaded with stunning shocks, surprises, and delicately woven sub-plots which tie perfectly to the primary objective, it is the kind of viewing which will have you bouncing in the folding chair. We will not mention a single which happens, as it all deserves to be seen and savoured the way the filmmakers intended.
Edwards’ ensemble cast is universally fantastic. Jones joins a long line of wonderful female Star Wars characters, but her Jyn is one of the very best. Determined, aggressive, motivated, and uncompromising. She wants answers and action, and to see a rightful justice for the ills against her family name. The actress thrives in the many brutal combat exchanges and gunplay, but still maintains a sense of poignancy and emotion when we enter moments of wind-down. It is a beautifully realised performance for a beautifully realised character. Luna is also on top form, as is Wen, Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, and Ahmed. Yen and Tudyk are the real standout male personas however. The aforementioned Chirrut and K-2SO are excellently curated, instant-classic additions to the sprawling archives of Star Wars heroes.
This movie was a risk. It strays away from the security of the brand, and is the very first attempt at expanding the landscape on the big screen. After the meteoric financial and critical success of The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm and Disney have not played it safe with their latest Star Wars addition, and neither has Edwards. The risk truly paid off, and the results are simply staggering. Rogue One isn’t just a perfect Star Wars film; it’s a perfect film. An energetic, innovative, and endlessly enthralling treat.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in UK cinemas in IMAX 3D on Thursday, 15th December, and in the US on Friday, 16th December. For more on Rogue One and Star Wars, click here.