Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk
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Rogue One is the least Star Wars of all the Star Wars films to date. That’s the best thing about it – and it’s evident from the off, when the infamous pre-title phrase appears and then… nothing happens. Skipping the crawl altogether, this prequel jumps straight into the action. There’s no explanation. No Star Wars theme. Even the comedy droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), when he eventually appears, is a sarcastic, cynical character. The message is clear: this ain’t no George Lucas movie.
In fact, this is closer to a war movie, or a Western – in the grittiest sense of the word. Playing out like Guns of Navarone in space, it assembles a rough and ready ensemble of outcasts from across the galaxy to nab the Death Star plans that made the Rebel Alliance’s victory in Episode IV possible in the first place. Those are courtesy of Galen Erso, the Death Star’s inventor, played by Mads Mikkelsen with a weary, Oppenheimer intensity – or, to be more accurate, his daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has to grow up alone, after a fateful visit from the Empire to her family’s farm as a child.
Felcity Jones, who has repeatedly impressed ever since she was in Chalet Girl and Cemetery Junction seven years ago, rises to the challenge of leading a Star Wars film wth all the charisma, gravitas and tough-as-nails mettle of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, bringing an orphan’s tragic backstory to her gruff grifter’s exterior. She’s hugely likeable, but never hugely happy; while she, and others, talk of creating a new hope for the downtrodden republic, she’s a figure of downcast determination. That darker shade of Star Wars is matched by Diego Luna, whose Han Solo-like ruffian, Cassian Andor, is more rogue than rebel. Together with Tudyk’s morose robot, whose blunt delivery is the perfect opposite to the polite C-3PO, they make the most depressing gung-ho heroes in recent memory.
They’re joined by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as loyal, kick-ass sidekicks – who, if anything, are more R2-D2 and C-3PO than K-2SO – and the remarkable Riz Ahmed as the pilot who betrays the Empire to bring the gang together. Along the way, they collide with Forest Whitaker’s fanatical fighter Saw Gerrera and Ben Mendelsohn’s Imperial Director Orson Krennic, and a lot of stormtroopers. Each of the supporting characters bring a little more shade to the Star Wars universe, from Yen’s Zatoichi-like blind samurai, complete with a mystical faith in the Force, to Whitaker’s Gerrera, whose extremist strategies nudge the rebellion into provocatively grey areas. This isn’t a primary-coloured adventure; it says a lot that Mendelsohn’s scene-stealing villain is almost the most enjoyable person in the film, from his ambitious stare and flicking tongue to his dashing white cape. (“You’re confusing peace with terror,” one person tells him. “You have to start somewhere,” comes the ambiguous reply.)
The script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, blends all these notes together with the passion and excitement of Star Wars geeks getting to write the ultimate piece of fan fiction – and, the further they push us into new territory, the better Rogue One gets. But the more they push, the more the formula seems to shove back, and, even without talks of reshoots and re-edits during production, there are pieces in Rogue One’s collage that don’t quite fit – Gerrera makes an exit for no explained reason, while Ahmed’s pilot transforms from a muddled wreck into a sharp, quick soldier without anyone commenting on it. And, in a burst of well-intended enthusiasm that recalls The Hobbit films, a string of jarring cameos from familiar faces severely distracts from the solid work elsewhere, when a vocal guest appearance would have been more effective. There’s clever fan fiction, and then there’s unnecessary fan service.
Those blunders aside, there’s a genuine thrill to seeing how this slick vessel slides into the slipstream of the giant ships of old – a tour of the saga’s grimy underbelly that director Gareth Edwards assembles with singular style. From the absence of retro wipes to Michael Giacchino’s cheekily unpredictable music, Edwards makes sure the tone remains consistent where other elements don’t. And that tone builds to a frantic, riveting final act, which takes us from the dark opening half into dazzling daylight, throwing us head-first into a beach-storming sequence that doesn’t shy away from recalling Saving Private Ryan. Like an early set piece, which places us in the midst of a Death Star strike, there’s a horrific tension in seeing what once was a distant conflict up close, and that stunning climax leaves your jaw hanging right up until the wittily edited final frames.
It’s in those shots of sand and blood, though, that Rogue One really finds its feet. Despite the odd blip of convention, this sci-fi blockbuster succeeds at being the B-side to The Force Awakens’ A-lister. It doesn’t have the same feel-good rush as the previous year’s official Episode, and it’s all the better for it.
Rogue One is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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