FILM REVIEW: Rogue One (2016)

The Verse’s Tom Hyde tells us his thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in his Rogue One review.

Stars, war, but little magic.

It’s clear from the opening ten seconds – with no text crawl in sight – that this, the first instalment of the Star Wars anthology films, is something aberrant. Instead, Rogue One is an opening crawl, or at least, one paragraph of A New Hope. Launching with a musical stab, it thrusts you into the cold vacuum of space with no hint of John Williams fervour. This diversion from Star Wars tradition is bold, even rogue-like; and it’s just the beginning. With Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards (MonstersGodzilla) succeeds in exploring and expanding the Star Wars universe – it’s just a shame he does so by abandoning its spirit.

The first shots we see are some of the most beautiful throughout the movie (and indeed any movie this year). A sharp, avian ship is seen skating the rings of a Saturn-like planet, uncharacteristically silent for a Star Wars craft. The planetary vistas are just as breathtaking, environments ranging from Icelandic utopias to molten hellscapes (and everything in between – there’s a lot of them).  After the first introductions are made – to the characters of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and Death Star director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) – the film jumps from planet to planet in search of any available exposition, and too, side character to introduce. This sporadic set-up is reminiscent of August’s Suicide Squad, with its 1000+ character backstories and theme songs rattled off with no feeling nor conviction. Could this be the haul mark of a helmer biting off more than he can chew?

Unlike Suicide Squad, however, the cast of characters in Rogue One is diverse and interesting, if a little underdeveloped in places. As always some stand out more than others: Donnie Yen’s blind (wannabe?) Jedi monk is one of the most compelling additions. His mantra, “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” ranges effectively from humorous to disquieting – introducing a previously under-explored concept of doubt into the ever ethereal Force. Another worthy addition is Ben Medelsohn’s Orson Krennic, overseer of the Death Star’s construction and imminent reveal. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a non-Force sensitive, prototypically evil officer of the Empire, but Krennic is the best developed. His ambition is displayed through his obsequiousness, and dramatised effectively through his competition with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing’s CG ghost).

But, by far, Rogue One’s best addition is Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid with a temperament halfway between that of C-3PO and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Marvin. Tudyk’s impressive physical and comic performance is indeed the most (only?) charming aspect of the film – a quality somewhat lacking elsewhere.

This absence is most notable (and possibly fatal) in Rogue One’s heroine, Jyn Erso. In the opening shots of the film we see Jyn become separated from her family as a child, left to be raised by a (particularly underdeveloped) rebel zealot called Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Subsequently, it makes perfect sense for her character to be gritty and morally ambiguous (a possible antidote to The Force Awakens’ chirpy and personable Rey). However, this does not excuse her – or any character for that matter – from being unlikeable. Jones’ performance is strong, embodying a physicality alike those of past heroine greats such as Sarah Connor (Terminator) and Ellen Ripley (Alien). However, unlike Jyn, these characters maintain their strength without becoming standoffish. In Rogue One, Jyn is as hostile to the audience as she is to other characters.

Admittedly, as the film progresses, she does soften. Her arc is foundational to the film, with the second act being devoted largely to that. But it’s an uphill battle, made slightly arduous by the required (and occasionally unbelievable) emotional development. I do fear – with Jyn serving as Rogue One’s thematic figurehead – that her short-comings as a character simulate those for the film as a whole, highlighting both its biggest opportunity and problem: how much of a Star Wars film is Rogue One?

Intuitively the answer is: very, it’s in the subtitle, duh! But it’s not quite that clear.

Rogue One is primarily a war film, to a degree that no other Star Wars film has ever been: it’s real, muddy and impure; not the classic good vs evil struggle we’re used to seeing in a galaxy far, far away. It draws inspirations from historical wars and their classic cinematic depictions, with the third act battle evoking Normandy beach scenes, and the battle at Jedha reflecting more contemporary struggles. This commitment to verisimilitude is interesting for a few reasons: it’s the first time we see both sides displaying acts of evil, with Rebel fighters accepting collateral damage, even knowingly killing civilians; and it makes for the most topical Star Wars film to date. It also facilitates one of Rogue One’s biggest successes: the Death Star. This is the first Star Wars film to include the Empire’s ultimate weapon and it not be destroyed, positioning it where it belongs: as a true symbol of fear in the galaxy, not just a dam to be busted. With the ‘low powered’ test shot on the city of Jedha, we see the Death Star at its least destructive, but most impactful. Its best depiction yet.

Unfortunately, Rogue One’s divergence from tradition in favour of real world inspirations does come at a price: it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars film. For those people who found The Force Awakens an overly nostalgic, indulgent, fan-serving remake (there’s a lot of them), this may be a welcome change – and indeed an expected one, with Rogue One being marketed as stand-alone anthology film. But for the rest of us who believe Star Wars is its tradition, indulgence and nostalgia, ROGUE ONE falls short on all counts. The question is: how do we judge Rogue One? Judged as a sci-fi war film it’s good, even great at times; but judged as a Star Wars film? The Force could be stronger.

The Verse Staff

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