Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriters: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mandelsohn.

Lucas Film and Disney have collaborated to bring us the first ever live-action standalone feature film from the Star Wars universe and, courtesy of a chilling script from Chris Weitz (assisted by Tony Gilroy) and a similarly startling visual construction from Godzilla (2014) director Gareth Edwards, have provided a spectacular action sci-fi movie that is not only fitting of its ‘Star Wars’ title but may even be as good as movies from the original trilogy. Perhaps this is one film better left to fans of the franchise than potential newcomers, but gosh is it good if you’re already invested.

Taking place just before A New Hope in terms of the Star Wars universe’s timeline, Rogue One centers on the rebellion’s quest for hope against the increasing power and dominance of the imperial army and specifically focuses upon the story of Felicity Jones’ character Jyn Erso as she journeys from innocence to nonconformity and right through to heroism. In this respect Rogue One’s screenplay is that of a typical Star Wars film, but only in this respect. Chris Weitz’s story will undoubtedly have you clutching at the arms of your cinema seat and clenching your fists in bursts of anger, sadness and excitement through methods not often seen in the Star Wars universe or mainstream blockbuster movies in general. The director, Gareth Edwards, must take praise for his visualisation of Rogue One’s themes in correspondence with Star Wars Episodes 1-6 (including his self-professed favourite film of all time, Rogue One’s follow-up ‘A New Hope’ – 1977), something which the director completed with a seamlessness that slotted the series’ incredibly important debut stand-alone feature film alongside those of its main titles. Part of that seamlessness was born out of the director’s use of practical effects, sets and stunt work, all of which occurred despite his industry history as a visual effects expert and his notably CG-clad directorial work, showing an understanding of not only the source material but also his craft. These elements weren’t without notable CG pay-offs however, with sequences of engulfing destruction on a massive scale really helping to drive home the universal risks at stake in the movie, with further use of this CG making for some incredible nods to ‘A New Hope’ and almost unnoticeable motion capture animation.

One of the standout uses of motion capture/CG was in the performance and presentation of K-2SO (Tudyk), a former Imperial droid reprogrammed to assist rebel forces in the fight against his creators. The character slotted in to the movie with an acceptance that came courtesy of his excellently animated robotic skeleton and infectious personality, and was a stand-out of the film not only for the creators’ technological feat but also because of the droid’s combination of comedic timing, physical dominance and its excellent look that made him about as ‘cool’ as any other character.

Vitally, Edwards’ movie managed to create an excellent cast of characters alongside K-2SO that rivaled any other movie in the franchise man for man (or woman for woman as may be the case), with Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor each bringing their own elements of worthwhile characterisations to the film. It was, however, Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, a ‘the force’ believing blind man with a knack for beating people with a stick, that was the stand-out side character in the movie. Imwe’s overwhelmingly strong belief in the force created an understanding and identifiability for the extraordinarily gifted martial artist of whom headlined the distinctly unforgiving team of rebel fighters, and harkened back to some of Star Wars creator George Lucas’s original inspirations found in the likes of ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954), thus becoming not only a stick-wielding force to be reckoned with but also one of the main points of investment in the film, making him the coolest of all the cats; the standout character of the bunch.

Ben Mandelsohn’s villain, Orson Krennic, was also a character that demanded interest courtesy of an intricate construction of his persona and a story arc that actually developed (take note other mainstream blockbusters). He was, truly, a despicable villain that somewhat awkwardly connected with the darker sides of yourself that you’d probably not like to admit exist. However, Krennic was also a character that was somewhat subject to knowledge of the other Star Wars films and therefore worked as a reminder that not everything in this movie was as great as it could have been.

Rogue One’s biggest issue was without a doubt its reveling in its own hype; it was the monster of its own filmmakers’ fandom. If you had never seen a ‘Star Wars’ film, or even if you’d only started with ‘The Force Awakens’ (2015), then you’d likely find difficulty in understanding Mandelsohn’s character’s powers or struggles, and you’d therefore likely find less enjoyment in the story as the stakes wouldn’t seem so high. This doesn’t only apply to the villain or his affects either, as much of the film relied upon knowledge of the original trilogy in particular to make any sense, simply because the filmmakers didn’t want to waste any time explaining that which they expected you to already know. Perhaps this was an intentional move to push the ‘universe’ concept the big studios find so valuable, but it will certainly divide the fans of the franchise from a number of newcomers, something which wasn’t helped by the screenplay’s brave and fan-satisfying distancing from the typical cliches of the genre and ‘Star Wars’ in particular.

One newcomer who had little trouble in adapting to the ‘Star Wars’ universe was Felicity Jones who played the film’s central character Jyn Erso with the same hidden bravery that has come to define so many of her more critically acclaimed performances, not least that of her Oscar-nominated display in The Theory of Everything (2014). She was a solid crutch for the entire plot to rest upon, and despite being overtaken by more interesting and elaborately presented secondary characters and performances, was as vital to the success of the film as any other on-screen talent. Hers was a more understated role that was less interesting to watch simply because it was the centrepiece of the movie, and in this respect the film was very typical of its own series as she suffered from her story being told sufficiently enough to satisfy the mythos surrounding the character (and therefore not build any external intrigue with the audience) in much the same way that Mark Hammil and the Luke Skywalker character suffered in the original trilogy.

Some of Rogue One was entirely fresh and some of it so very familiar. It was this mix of old and new that seemed to continue through to the movie’s score, which was not composed by John Williams for the first time in the franchise’s history. Instead, Michael Giacchino, close friend to The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams and the composer of the music in the ‘Star Trek’ reboots, was tasked with merging some of Williams’ original work with some equally compelling and at times daunting musical compositions that would help audiences to reminisce on the old while still ushering in the new. In Rogue One, as much as in Star Trek (2009), Giacchino knocked it out of the park. His work was sensational in all aspects, and certainly completed the composer’s mission of moving the universe beyond Williams with the respect the legendary composer truly deserves. It was of testament to Giacchino that the score was implemented with the same emotive effect that his predecessor’s work was in all seven of the other movies, and a true joy to witness in correspondence to this generally very impressive film.

It is clear, then, that Rogue One was more than just ‘another spin-off’ in our current climate of movie universes and franchises, but it was also a well developed and challenging stand-alone film that honoured its own universe while still creating an intelligent story that demanded more investment from its audience than is typical for movies of its type. From its performances to special effects, direction to score, and particularly through its screenplay, this ‘Star Wars’ movie was as much of an on-screen adventure as one can hope for. Sure, it may be a little challenging for non-fans and there may be one or two divisive moments for fans and non-fans alike, but this particular Star Wars movie is certainly good enough to be compared to the classics of the franchise and there is simply no higher praise than that.

Score: 20/24

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