Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker
Runtime: 133 Minutes
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents the first in a series of spin-off films of the Star Wars universe, exploring different genres and methods of filmmaking with different visions for displaying this well-worn world. In the case of Rogue One, it’s a war movie.
There’s a certain amount of trepidation to be had going in, considering the fact that this doesn’t connect as broadly to the overall ‘Skywalker’ narrative of the Episodic saga. This is where the film’s masterstroke lies; instead focusing its attention on bringing to the forefront of the story the incidental details of a much larger universe, as seen and experienced through the eyes of bit players who lay the foundations for the works of greater or more worthy individuals further down the line.
The screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy is pretty fantastic at balancing character and action with its narrative form. The story elements so tightly wound and well implemented that, in some cases, actually manage to make parts of the original film even better by association. There’s a breakneck pace to the opening act which establishes all the major players and their roles within the story, as well as building their actual character traits on the go. There’s exposition in abundance, but it’s hardly noticeable when being delivered by such talents as the actors depicting them, as their characters are built and introduced through action.
These are the grunts of the universe, recruited by the Rebellion through chance and circumstance to take on a challenge and fight back – and the cast sells the hell out of their roles. Felicity Jones shows some range as Jyn Erso, a child of war-hardened by experience but still pining for the family she lost long ago. What her character lacks in certain regards to traditional personality, Jones makes up for in her emotional range as specific points. Diego Luna’s Cassian is a world-weary Intelligence officer not above getting his hands dirty and fulfilling his duty. Chinese action star Donnie Yen is spectacular as Chirrut, a force sensitive blind warrior with exceptional reflexes, accompanied by Jiang Wen’s assassin, Baze Malbus, who doesn’t get as much character work but gets along just fine through interaction and reaction. Same goes for Riz Ahmed’s wonderfully neurotic pilot, Bodhi, and Forest Whitaker in a thankless role earlier in the film where he acts as the convergence point for all the main players.
Even Ben Mendelsohn’s villainous Director Orson Kennic gets some fantastic scenery chewing moments; a character of real, expressive personality and egotism that makes him a memorable and enjoyable presence. They all fit into the canon well, the men on a mission template bodes well for its urgent pace of characterisation, and the screenplay makes sure that everyone has at least some sort of role to play in the final act action blow out on the beaches of the occupied Imperial planet, Scarif. The action set-pieces are gorgeously staged and physical endeavours have a real forceful and impact on the ground, but they all really come to a head towards its dizzyingly entertaining climax.
There's enough levity and precision to combat the darkness of its subject matter, provided through great comedic lines – mostly deriving from Alan Tudyk’s fantastic droid, K-2SO – and humorous physical and practical ingenuity to its creature designs and gleefully loopy moments. It keeps the spirit of series alive, whilst also combating the gruff nature of its themes involving hope in the face of destruction and desolation. Michael Giacchino’s score is so good that, were you not told that it wasn’t John Williams orchestrating, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It hits every beat that it needs to and it hits them all well.
That’s really a summary of the entire movie overall. It fulfils its duty as a Star Wars picture on pretty much every front, cameos, catchphrases and all. If anything, it actually retroactively lessens the effect of The Force Awakens’ Starkiller Base. The Death Star is a frightening entity of destruction that looms large over the film with a sense of dominance and import. Yet it also brings something more to the canvas, and that lies in Gareth Edwards direction.
The filmmaking on show by Edwards is spectacular, bringing unprecedented scale to the Star Wars universe in ways unseen. Utilising real-world environments and exterior locations to a unique extent, as well as a number of new and different planets to explore, this feels like the biggest the series has ever looked or felt onscreen despite its relatively small scale story. It boasts an abundance of memorable and divergent imagery, from sweeping shots of fallen landmarks and tight handheld combat sequences to the image of the Death Star blocking out the sun from the sky, the digital and practical effects work is jaw-dropping to say the least. There are some inspired action sequences that see familiar series figures in otherwise alien environments, including one that will surely be regarded as one of the all-time great Darth Vader moments.
If there are major criticisms to be found in the film then they only really fall down into incidental details and minor nitpicks at best. The ending stretch of non-stop action feels a little overlong in places, the occasionally gratuitous cameo appearance and a single sequence involving a fan favourite that – while a great dialogue exchange in itself – doesn’t really serve much to the main storyline beyond taking a minor detour in its setup for future conflict. There really isn’t a crippling blow to be had in the film's narrative or in its structural momentum, never mind its well developed and likeable characters that we see through to the bitter end.
It might not be overly exceptional on some fronts, chiefly in that the film isn’t really grappling with any major commentary or theme beyond what is established in both its storyline and the cannon, but it doesn’t really actively seek to be much more than exactly what it is; a damn good Star Wars movie. It might even be a great Star Wars movie, only time will tell whether or not it sustains its grandeur. As an experiment, though, it falls nothing short of a wonder in its execution, elocution and enthusiasm, and bodes incredibly well for future spinoff instalments to come.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a stunningly confident stride into new territory for the series title, Gareth Edwards best feature film, and one of the biggest and boldest instalments to date.