My favourite memories of Star Wars aren’t from the movies, but from playing with my toys as a child, making up new adventures and visiting strange new planets. This is the strength of Star Wars: it implies a wider universe, giving us a framework in which to project our imaginations. And it’s this spirit of playful invention that director Gareth Edwards has captured in Rogue One. He gives us a new adventure in the Star Wars universe, one that indulges our nostalgia for the familiar iconography, but expands the franchise in untested directions. And it works. Because Rogue One feels like the Star Wars film I’ve always wanted to see.
Spoilers ahead! You’ll probably want to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie.
The plot (and outcome) of Rogue One is summarised in the opening crawl of A New Hope. Yet despite the preordained ending, Edwards manages to sustain tension by giving us a cast of characters who give the story added emotion and urgency. When the Rebellion receives intelligence that the Empire is building a superweapon capable of destroying planets, a team of spies must locate and steal the plans. There’s an ominous sense of inevitability about the plot. We already know that the Death Star plans end up with Princess Leia. But what Rogue One shows us is the cost of that mission, the sheer number of lives and ships sacrificed just to get the plans in Rebel hands.
Rogue One represents a departure from the usual black-and-white heroism of the saga films. It is primarily a war film – a gritty look at the sacrifices and choices that are necessary for both sides during wartime. At times it feels more like Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now than a Star Wars movie. It’s also a dark film, rivalling The Empire Strikes Back for the darkest entry in the series. Any illusion that the Rebellion is full of honourable heroes is swiftly forgotten in the first hour, as we witness a fractured insurgency group that runs the gamut from pacifism to extremism, populated by morally ambiguous characters who aren’t afraid to make sacrifices for the greater good. These are people who have done terrible things in the name of freedom, and the weight of their choices sits on their shoulders for the duration of the film. This grittiness is the strength of Rogue One; it is the first Star Wars movie in which we’ve seen the “dirty work of Empire at close quarters,” to steal an apt quote from George Orwell. And it recognises that neither side can keep their hands clean.
The film is aided by strong casting. The core group of Rebels, led by Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso, all put in consistent performances. Each of them has a character arc which is satisfactorily wrapped up by the end of the film, whether it is overcoming cowardice or rediscovering faith. My personal favourite was Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic. He spends most of the story competing with Tarkin for the Emperor’s favour, and his desperation as things begin to fall apart is wonderful to watch. He’s one of the best Star Wars villains in the entire saga – ambitious, believable, cruel.
One of the challenges of making a Star Wars movie is finding that perfect balance of old and new. This is where Edwards has excelled. Just when the film strays into new territory, confronting us with a grittiness which doesn’t feel like our usual Star Wars, there’s a humorous or poignant reference to the rest of the franchise, pulling us back into familiar territory. Audiences will recognise numerous nods to the original trilogy, from unexpected cameos to the little accoutrements that adorn the galaxy. But this is Disney’s first standalone film, and Edwards has made some deliberates choices that separate Rogue One from the rest of the saga. Although we get the classic “A long time ago…” title card, there is no opening crawl. This feels like a statement; a reminder that Rogue One is the first of a new spinoff series. Yet as the film hurtles towards a conclusion and the plot builds towards the opening scenes of A New Hope, the visuals likewise align towards the aesthetics of the original trilogy. The costumes, the haircuts, the designs are all straight out of 1977.
The film draws on existing material whilst simultaneously expanding the universe. I was impressed by how deep Edwards mined into Star Wars mythology. Characters Chirrut and Baze identify themselves as Guardians of the Whills, a mystic order that seems to be tasked in watching over the abandoned Kyber Temples on Jedha. In George Lucas’s original screenplay for Star Wars, the Journal of the Whills was a plot device that linked the Star Wars galaxy to our own – the events of the films were being transcribed into the journal. Lucas abandoned the idea, but the term Whills has lurked in the background of Star Wars ever since, especially in mystical allusions to the Force and the Jedi. It’s great to see this concept continued into the rebooted canon. There’s also some delightful references to Star Wars: Rebels – not only is the Ghost glimpsed in the final battle scene, but a loudspeaker announcement at the Yavin 4 temple mentions a certain General Syndulla.
Fans will also appreciate the attention to continuity, especially as parts of the film anticipate plot developments in A New Hope. In the final battle, we see X-Wing pilot Red Five killed in action, freeing up his slot in Red Squadron for Luke Skywalker. The carnage inflicted on the Rebel fleet at the end of the film likewise explains why the Rebels have so few starfighters to launch at the Battle of Yavin. And, of course, we learn why the Death Star has its crucial weakness. In fact, by filling in these background details, Rogue One improves on the experience of watching A New Hope. It adds depth and meaning to seemingly minor details.
However, for everything I enjoyed about Rogue One, I did have a few minor quibbles about the tone of the film. And it’s worth noting that the film’s tone is something that has already caused some consternation. When the reshoots were announced, the prevailing rumour was that Edwards’s first cut of the film had been too dark, and the reshoots were needed to inject a lighter, more heroic tone into the ending. It seems as though this rumour may have been correct. Some of the film’s grittiness wears off in the final act, as the tone shifts back to the swashbuckling heroics we normally associate with Star Wars. Perhaps this is Edwards’s way of signaling a transition into the themes of A New Hope – as the Rebels steal the plans, they are transformed from a fractured group of militants into a group of heroes. It could be argued that this is part of their journey, as they finally unite to face the Empire. But it does clash with the bleak, gritty tone established in the first act. Jyn’s last scene, in particular, feels like something that was added as an afterthought. I would be interested to know Edwards’s original intentions for the ending.
There are a number of cameos which are made possible only through incredible CG effects. Most notably, Peter Cushing’s infamous Governor Tarkin has been brought back to life, serving as the perfect political foil for the ambitious Krennic. But whilst Tarkin looks convincingly real for 80% of his screentime, there is a bizarre 20% that feels like the uncanny valley, as if the texture of his skin isn’t quite right. Other CG cameos, such as Red Leader, are fleeting enough to not attract the same criticism. However, the final cameo, at the very end of the film, also invokes the same sense of unease – perhaps because we are so familiar with this face.
I will reserve judgment for now on Michael Giacchino’s score. Although the soundtrack didn’t make a strong impression on me during my first viewing of the film, I began to recognise and appreciate its recurring themes on my second viewing. I’ll be listening to the soundtrack a few times before I attempt a verdict.
Rogue One is a perfect introduction to the spinoff series of standalone films. Its plotline is so inextricably tied to A New Hope that it functions as a prologue to the original trilogy. It will be interesting to see how the standalone films fare when they are not so intertwined with the plot of an existing saga film. Rogue One would certainly have lost some of its potency if we didn’t already have some inkling of the outcome. Disney/Lucasfilm wanted to reassure audiences that the standalone films could be successful. The film, to paraphrase Governor Tarkin, functions as a “statement, not a manifesto.” If this is what Disney/Lucasfilm can achieve, then the future of Star Wars is in excellent hands.