It’s December, and as of 2015 that means we have a Star Wars movie to fanboy over. But while last year started a new trilogy that will be continued, 2016 brings us the first of a planned series of ‘Anthology’ films – one off movies set in the Star Wars universe that will build upon the lore and characters we have come to know and love. Rogue One sets out to tell the story mentioned in the opening sprawl of Episode IV: A New Hope, but can this movie stand on its own legs?
The following is a spoiler free review. For a Spoiler Talk review of Rogue One, keep an eye out for Thursday’s edition of 1Up Culture Cast.
Fans of the Star Wars universe will know the basic story we’re getting from Rogue One: The Death Star is being built and the Rebels need to find out what they can do to stop this terrifying superweapon that The Empire have. The endgame is clear, but it is how we get there that Rogue One spends the crux of its time building to, introducing us to characters who are intertwined in both sides of the war and the reality of a war with the Galactic Empire. The story follows a small band of heroes who set out to change the course of the war by getting a hold of the Death Star plans.
For the first fifteen minutes or so the film is, quite frankly, horrible. There are awkward cuts that seem to end a scene prematurely, and its plagued with confusing and straight up bad storytelling. It’s clear what director Gareth Edwards was trying to do here, but it didn’t work at all and put the film behind the eight ball from the start. Thankfully the movie recovers, and these aspects are far less noticable (if gone completely), but it really feels like that initial part of the movie had accidentally been left in the first draft stage.
Once you look past the start, it’s easy to be wowed by the visual direction of Gareth Edwards. His previous work in Monsters and Godzilla proved he had a keen eye for awe inspiring shots, and Rogue One is no exception. The locations are breath-taking and interesting, providing some diverse and fascinating additions to the Star Wars Universe. With so much to play with, it’s clear Edwards has been given a lot of encouragement to shoot a beautiful looking film, and it exceeds with the benefits of the big screen cinematic experience.
The story, once it got going, was also an interesting one to follow. You get to really peer inside the inner workings of the Rebellion, in a way we never got the time to do so in the Original Trilogy. By expanding the concept of the Rebellion and making it a genuine centrepoint, rather than a narrative tool like it was in the originals, it allowed for the Rebels to feel much more real and build upon the stakes of a war against the Empire. There is some grey to the typical black and white/good and evil dynamic Star Wars usually adheres to – not everything the Rebellion does is what we’d consider the ‘right thing’ – but it also makes sense for a group fighting a guerilla war against an all powerful Empire.
This is a war story first and foremost, and being set as a prequel you know how a lot of the end events are going to play out. It is to be expected, but the movie does a good job of using this knowledge and working with it, rather than letting it detract from the events. There is real tension through much of the third act and it builds up nicely to the climax, although without a key ingredient that every other Star Wars film has you do kind of feel like it was missing something, even though it makes sense to not have it here.
Like The Force Awakens, there are a lot of callbacks in Rogue One. This occurs more in the form of cameos than straight up narrative structure however, and hardcore fans will spend a lot of time connecting them to the events of A New Hope. Some of these feel a bit more forced than others, but they don’t negatively affect the story. There is one aspect of this story however that vastly improves the narrative of ‘A New Hope’ and makes this movie effective both as its own story and as part of a bigger cinematic universe.
The acting across the board is pretty strong here. All the characters were believable and interesting, with their own motivations and stories. Some could have been fleshed out a bit more but they got enough characterisation for their role in the movie – and it is really a positive that I left wanting to know more about them because it means I was invested. Felicity Jones’ portrayal as Jyn Erso was better than it appeared in the trailers, which had been cut to make some of her lines appear rather cringeworthy. She’s not immune from it, but it is a far stronger portrayal than it appeared it would be and her journey is one you want to follow.
The standout is Alan Tudyk’s performance as sassy C-3PO, better known as K-2SO. He’s might act primarily as comic relief, but he also has some solid character growth which is rare amongst the droids in the Star Wars universe. Diego Luna plays a great second hand next to Jones, while Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are a solid combo, and while it was great to see them actually use Yen’s martial arts ability here (unlike The Raid cast in Force Awakens) his character ends up being far deeper than just a tool for some cool fight scenes. Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic as the affably evil lead antagonist, and is exactly what I was looking for in his portrayal. Despite it being an ensemble piece though, this movie doesn’t really stand out because of its characters, but rather the story itself.
The special effects here are for the most part both seamless and impressive. The space and land battles that go on in this movie (and there’s plenty of both on display here) are spectacular and you never really feel like you’re watching a bunch of computer generated images interacting separate from the practical side of things. The only time the CGI is noticeable is in its usage on some human characters, which often errs into that creepy uncanny valley territory. It’s not too bad though, and it’s worth it for the sake of the story.
Rogue One still feels like a Star Wars movie, but the story it tells and the way it is told helps it to stand apart from the mainline series. It builds upon the established universe and narrative we already have, but doesn’t feel intrusive in doing so. There’s a surprising level of depth into the story and as a result it adds a lot to our understanding of the time frame immediately before (and in a way during) A New Hope.
Despite a horrid start, Rogue One: A Star Wars story manages to find its footing and tell a compelling and engaging story. The action is great and is backed with some likeable characters. What Rogue One does well is combine some great moments that work on their own merits with a healthy mix of nostalgia inducing joy, making for a fantastic addition to the Star Wars canon. The Force is strong with Disney, and have now delivered two strong movies for the post-Lucas era of perhaps the biggest movie franchise of all time.