Making Star Wars: The Force Awakens must have been terrifying. The first Star Wars film in two decades which would continue the story of the original trilogy, checking in with beloved characters for the old fans, while also introducing new heroes for the new fans. It was a daunting task – too daunting for the many filmmakers who actually turned down the job – that required some serious testicular fortitude from director JJ Abrams and his crew. But that probably doesn’t compare to the celestial body sized cojones (“THAT’S NO MOON!”) required by director Gareth Edwards and his cast and crew to make Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Up until now, every Star Wars movie has been about the Skywalker lineage, whereas Rogue One is the very first of Lucasfilm’s brand new standalone Star Wars stories, filling in the gaps between the existing main “Saga Episodes”. This mythology elaboration worked amazingly successfully in the now defunct Expanded Universe novels, video games and comic books, but it’s never actually been attempted on screen before.
To raise the stakes even more, for most fans of this franchise not named George Lucas, the words “Star Wars prequel” is essentially equivalent to such other lovely pastimes as kitten kicking or paper cuts. As such this film, set just prior to the events of the original Star Wars: A New Hope, needed to do a lot to redeem that descriptor. And I can gleefully declare that it has in the biggest possible way! This is easily the best Star Wars prequel ever made – admittedly a low bar to begin with – but much more assertively than that, what director Edwards and co have produced here is the best Star Wars movie since Empire Strikes Back. Hell, it may even surpass that seminal piece of Hollywood science-fiction!
What’s even more remarkable about this gargantuan feat, is that unlike the oft maligned Prequel Trilogy, where Lucas intentionally never touched on the specifics of events before the release of the movies, we generally know where the narrative in Rogue One is headed. There are some eyeball-popping, fist-pumping surprises – including some of the best moments in the entire Star Wars mythology, as well as unexpected character beats and appearances that should leave fans slavering in geeky euphoria – but for the most part we know which way the Force flows here. And yet the movie never fails to engage, excite and awe as it tells this story.
Said story being just how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the Death Star plans that eventually ended up in the fateful possession of Princess Leia. But this is before any iconic characters of that ilk took centre stage. This is the tale of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a brooding heroine with a tragic past, who gets reluctantly roped into a Rebel Alliance mission by Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), after an Imperial defector reveals the existence of the Empire’s secret doomsday weapon, the planet-killing Death Star. They need to locate and secure this pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and whatever intelligence he carries. Intelligence that somehow relates to Jyn’s past.
Also pulled into this momentous mission by simply being in the right/wrong place is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind, stick-wielding man of faith who may not have any Force powers (though his martial skills may hint otherwise), but worships it nonetheless. He is accompanied by his steadfast companion, the stoic human tank Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). This motley crew is rounded out by K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Andor’s acerbic reprogrammed Imperial droid.
Standing in the way of this mission is Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the scheming, white-caped head of the Death Star project. His ambition would see the galaxy engulfed in terror. Or “order”, as he calls it. And that’s all the story you’re getting out of me, as the script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on an idea by Industrial Light and Magic guru John Knoll, jukes and jives its way through some unexpected vectors. There’s a bit of a slow down in the film’s middle, but it’s still a boisterous, rip-roaring tale, that shows us sides of characters and factions we may not expect, and should be experienced as cold as possible, so I will definitely not spoil it here.
What I will say is that for those fans who have not been paying attention to the film’s marketing juggernaut, it may be a surprise how much more dramatically hard-edged a film Rogue One is. Edwards was not making false promises about this being a Star Wars war movie, as the film’s bonanza third act plays out with a gritty wartime intensity unlike anything else in the franchise. Adding to this are the locales used by Edwards and co, as they ditch the usual Star Wars backdrops to instead stage their action in lush tropical jungles and sandy beaches – all soon to be pock-marked and bomb-charred. Young soldiers, bedecked in eerily Vietnam War-esque attire, stand shaken in drop ships dreading the battle to come or frantically diving behind cover as their companions are felled around them, upping this wartime authenticity.
And helping to sell this drama even further is the fiery performances by the lead cast. Jones and Luna in particular bring a molten intensity to their performances, through both subtle depths and explosive thespian outbursts. Jones has the heavier lifting to do here, and the Oscar-nominated actress does not disappoint one bit – Jyn is one of Star Wars’ finest heroines. Mendelsohn is also magnetic as Krennic as he fights both the Rebels and his own political battles, while veterans like Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen show up with limited screen-time, but turning in extremely memorable performances. The entire cast overall really do top drawer work here.
But while not as dramatically weighty, it’s Yen’s Chirrut Imwe and Tudyk’s K-2SO that steal the biggest audience-rousing scenes (well, almost, but I’m not spoiling those incredible surprises). Yen’s blind man of action is the very definition of badass cool, while Tudyk’s K-2SO, with his tar-black streak of gallows humour, offers most of the necessary levity in an otherwise grimly serious movie.
Serious but not dour, as Edwards shoots the film beautifully, staging vistas of stark beauty that stand unique to the Star Wars franchise. That… difference is evident in the very fabric of this film, from the gorgeous colour palette to the jaw-dropping action choreography to even composer Michael Giacchino’s rousing reworking of John William’s iconic score. All of this just goes to reinforce the standalone, original nature of Rogue One – a truly appreciated quality here.
The Force Awakens was a fantastic film, but it was sometimes too concerned with fan-pandering and recycling old narrative ideas and calling it cyclical poetry. Rogue One is not afraid to be its own thing and does so masterfully. It follows through on its promises of this new approach to the Star Wars universe with a confidence and swagger that will undoubtedly see fans around the world go gaga over it. To paraphrase the film’s most quotable, t-shirt worthy line, this rebellion was indeed built on hype. But I’ll be damned if every tiny infinitesimal fragment of hype wasn’t wholly justified. Rogue One is Star Wars at its very best.