Reviewed for ABC’s The Final Cut—December 16, 2016.
Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars came with an ambitious plan to capitalise on the franchise’s endless popularity: a new trilogy and a series of standalone films set in the same galaxy, far, far away, rendering George Lucas’ beloved property as an immersive Marvel-style universe.
Yet for a series that’s always loomed disproportionately large in pop culture relative to the films themselves, might expanding the world stretch the material thin?
The first of these standalone entries is Rogue One, which effectively serves as a direct prequel to 1977’s original A New Hope. Directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), it details how the rebels seen fleeing Darth Vader in Lucas’ iconic opening sequence came to possess those Death Star plans — and indeed, in a clever addition, why the fatal weapon had a structural weakness that even a naïve Tatooine farm boy could exploit.
It’s a war movie as billed, and a heist movie of a kind, with a ragtag band of rebels infiltrating an Imperial base. It’s gritty and grim and infused with the weight of what passes for realism in the genre. Curiously, it also wants for a touch of that old Star Wars magic.
Opening jarringly in medias res, without the immediate comfort of John Williams’ bombast and the series’ familiar text crawl, the film plunges right into a chaotic galaxy in the grip of civil war, zipping between planets and action with a sense of destabilising uncertainty.
Edwards’ cluttered, textural mise en scène captures the dispirited oppression of the period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, where the Empire reigns and the fledgling Rebel Alliance struggles to hold itself together in the face of darkness.
TIE fighters patrol the skies and Star Destroyers hang like Nazi bombers over vaguely Middle-Eastern looking cities, ready to rain terror upon the rabble of mixed-species citizens squashed and squabbling in the grimy, Blade Runner-esque streets. Take your pick of political analogies and you’ll find it.
It’s a world that the Jedi, the closest thing to gods that existed, have long been forced to abandon (Obi-wan Kenobi is alluded to but remains in hiding), where the Empire’s just-finished ultimate weapon — the planet-killing Death Star — is set to crush the insurgents once and for all.
But a new hope springs eternal. Miscreant loner Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is picked up by rebel spies and taken to the alliance base on Yavin 4, where leader Mon Mothma and the assembled alliance strategists (neatly attired in sideburned 70s vogue) tap her for a dangerous mission — finding her pops (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial architect who designed the superweapon, and locating the plans to the Empire’s deadly disco ball.
En route she’s joined by a misfit rebel crew, including soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Zatoichi-like warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and a droll, reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who could be the Iron Giant’s wisecracking cousin.
They’re pitted against the sinister Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (a robust, threatening Ben Mendelsohn), who’s jockeying for political power with one Grand Moff Tarkin — played, via a feat of eerie and somewhat distracting CGI sorcery, by the late Peter Cushing himself.
Rogue One’s immediate ease with the known universe is an asset, and it thankfully doesn’t feel the need to offer constant nostalgic callbacks. Yet for all its X-wings, amphibious admirals and familiar hardware, what’s noticeable is a distinct absence of personality — that hard-to-bottle alchemy — that’s come to define the series.
That Force that binds the galaxy together, as Yoda once informed us, is strangely missing in Edwards’ film, and the events lose some of their grand gesture and myth in the process.
It’s all wars, and very little star, if you will. Where last year’s The Force Awakens managed to summon the old touch via JJ Abrams’ knack for mimicry, Edwards’ comparatively grungy dirge, leaning hard on battle imagery from World War II through Iraq, gives his movie a more human texture that’s arguably less enchanting.
To an extent, that’s the point. With its allusions to terror and moral vagaries — the rebels are no religious mystics — Rogue One suggests a complexity missing in Abrams’ film, and extends Lucas’ own socio-political dabbling from his prequels.
There’s weight to this world, no longer defined by clashes between politicians and spiritual warriors; instead, there’s a real sense of the desperation of the thousands of ordinary people and creatures that have always existed just outside the margins of the series’ frame.
“Some of us haven’t had the luxury of deciding when and where we get to care about something,” Cassian tells Jyn’s ostensible heroine, and it’s like a hardened fighter dressing down a sheltered college student.
Moments like this give Rogue One what passes for its distinct point of view — that of the grunts, the “rebel scum”, those without the birthright of royalty or the supernatural gift of the Force or even the wit and charm of a Han Solo. The movie is almost strenuously banal in negotiating this world, too often to a fault.
Unfortunately the weight doesn’t extend to the characters, who’re — presumably by design — archetypes that don’t accrue much emotional investment. Likeable, self-effacing performances from Jones, Yen and Luna can’t flourish given limited dimension, while the workmanlike dialogue doesn’t help — especially when majority comic relief defers to K-2SO, who embodies the least-amusing elements of C-3PO’s robo-shtick.
It’s no surprise that the film is most alive evoking the series’ signature aesthetic moves. Composer Michael Giacchino proves his mettle once again by stepping into to Williams’ baroque boots with a fantastic militaristic score, which barely needs to invoke the series’ classic themes by dazzling with its own mighty Wagnerian stomp.
And Darth Vader’s towering appearance really is a moment to behold: voiced again by James Earl Jones and framed in terrifying, horror movie circumstance, the Sith Lord’s reemergence is one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, offering a scary glimpse at how much fear this demonic figure inspired in his enemies.
But elsewhere the film is a less inspired retread of other glories, battles that evoke both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, and yet another dual-pronged finale in which a base must be infiltrated and a shield crippled while an elaborate battle rages.
Edwards and his team hold the material together respectably, but new ground isn’t being forged — even Lucas’ maligned prequels, whatever their faults, showed a visionary moving forward according to his own stubborn design.
Rogue One is a meat and potatoes affair — effective, satisfying, but cautious; an odd combination for a film series that was once at the avant garde of pop cinema. But with its rousing themes of rebellion and people united against tyranny, maybe it’s just the movie a 2016 audience needs.
Notwithstanding an admirably bleak denouement — the darkest of its kind, more Melancholia than Empire Strikes Back — by the time Rogue One arrives at its genuinely rousing send off, the film has delivered on its universal mantra of hope, and delivered its audience back into the comfort of a world where evil might be defeated by a one in a million shot to an exhaust port.
Originally published at ABC’s Final Cut.