Director Gareth Edwards seems to have surprised even the most cynical of us with an addition to the Star Wars anthology that offers a wonderfully fresh approach to an all-too-familiar universe.
George Lucas’ titanic franchise does not have a good track record with prequel films. Criticized for excessive CGI, wooden performances, and characters that made the Ewoks seem like the intellectual choice, Episodes 1 through 3 appealed to the new generation of Star Wars addicts whilst simultaneously showing lovers of the original trilogy the door. Strangely, though, this is precisely why Rogue One ticks so many boxes: as if to invite those poor fans back inside, the latest addition to the franchise mixes old and new with a prequel that keeps very closely to the aesthetic and tone of the films that built the empire.
Extrapolating from the title crawl that served as prologue to A New Hope, Rogue One is the story of the soldiers who stole the plans for the Empire’s super-weapon, the infamous Death Star (call it the catalyst for the original trilogy). Mads Mikkelsen is Galen Erso, the man responsible for the construction of the aforementioned ‘planet-killer;’ forced against his will by Ben Mendelsohn’s quietly terrifying Director Krennic into assisting the Empire, Galen submits to servitude, confessing to his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) in what is Mikkelsen’s most substantial moment that it was the only way to wreak his revenge. Anyone who has seen A New Hope will know exactly how this revenge manifests: a small exhaust port built deep within the Death Star that has the potential to cause a cataclysmic explosion, provided a pilot can light the fuse.
Rogue One is very much the story of Jyn Erso from this pivotal moment onward, as Jones offers us a stoically rebellious protagonist who seems intent on subverting the will of whomever she encounters. To Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker), rebel extremist short on both limbs and sanity, Jyn is politically apathetic, happy to let the Imperial flag fly because it’s not an issue “if you don’t look up;” to the rebel alliance, however, she is the only one with the sense to act against impending catastrophe, shocked by the lack of fight displayed by a wary group of rebel leaders. It’s the story of a character for whom political opinion moves from unattainable luxury to passionate necessity – not unlike many of us during our formative years, I’d imagine.
What really sets Rogue One apart, though, is the combined effort of the entire cast. Although the development of Jones’ character is crucial, her fellow rebels often steal the show, providing as they do a rag-tag group of misfits with whom we find ourselves surprisingly sympathetic. Offering a great blend of comedy value and emotional attachment is Alana Tudyk’s K-2SO, a hijacked Imperial droid with an attitude problem, whilst Donnie Yen brings us Chirrut Imwe, a wandering guardian of the Jedi temple whose faith in the force is matched only by his faith in his partner, the brutish Baze Malbus (Wen Yiang). For me though, the star of the show was Mexican Diego Luna, whose pained portrayal of Rebel captain Cassian Andor serves to prove yet again that the concepts of good and evil are never as monochromatic as we might assume.
Of course, it’s not all about the new additions to the Star Wars character roster. Ground-breaking CGI brings Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s youthful Princess Leia into the 21st century with startling accuracy, whilst staple figures from episodes 4 to 6 – Stormtroopers, Imperial Walkers, or the imposing Star Destroyers – litter the film with the almost unique purpose of bringing a fond tear to our eye. In fact, the only thing missing from this shameless display of nostalgia is the opening crawl with which we associate Star Wars films. I’m not going to delve into the most shiver-inducing reprisal of the day, though, because I fear I might be a little biased; suffice it to say that Darth Vader, in all his enigmatic, imposing glory, is simply as wonderful as he has always been.
Gathering pace like an avalanche, Rogue One peaks just as it should, in a powerful third act that boasts potentially the best battle scene we’ve yet to experience in a Star Wars film. The intentions of director Gareth Edwards are clear: this is a war film, first and foremost, and the extraordinary sense of soldierly comradeship that guides the scorching final moments serve to prove that even central protagonists are not always granted immunity from the terrors of conflict. The buzzword is sacrifice, and plenty of it; though we are often offered glimmers of hope, the outcome of this particular battle was always destined to be dire for the plucky band of rebels.
Rogue One was built with Star Wars fans in mind; the slightly doe-eyed reverence of films gone by is evidence of as much. What is remarkable, then, is that it manages to offer so much more than just a trip down memory lane, in offering a unique and compelling tale populated by equally compelling characters. A slightly bumpy landing gives way to an accelerating plot that explodes into a proudly original finale the likes of which the Star Wars franchise was simply begging for; taken from no more than two lines of opening crawl, Rogue One has a depth that goes unnoticed, and is a far more subtle approach to the galaxy far, far away than could ever have been imagined.