If JJ Abrams had the weight of several worlds on his shoulders when he made The Force Awakens, spare a thought for director Gareth Edwards. In taking on Rogue One, the first in a planned string of Star Wars spin-offs, the British filmmaker has an equally difficult task: not only does his film have to follow a numbered sequel like last year’s Episode VII, but it also attempts to tell a (relatively) self-contained story away from the new trilogy – and, just to add to the creative tension, it’s effectively another prequel.
This is, after all, the movie that reveals how the Rebels got hold of the plans to the Death Star. That is, it’s the jumping-off point for A New Hope, perhaps the most important genre film of the late 20th century. With series creator George Lucas’ own prequels holding a contentious place in the hearts and minds of fans at best, you can see just how drastically Rogue One could go wrong.
The plot basics have already been pored over to such an extent that, if you’re a Star Wars devotee, you’ll probably know them by heart, but here they are: the Empire has constructed a new super-weapon roughly the size of a small moon, with the project headed up by stony-faced Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn in a billowing white cape) and designed by scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). With Galen drafted into service as the Death Star’s architect against his will, daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) escapes the Empire’s clutches and grows up into a tough, solitary 20-something, who’s snatched up by the Rebel Alliance after it gets wind of the villains’ secret weapon.
Realising that a planet-killing machine could see the Empire seize control of the galaxy for good, the Rebels assemble a team of mercenaries, including Jyn, intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and a pair of warrior friends from the desert planet Jedha, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). Their mission is to figure out what the Death Star is and, with the help of its original blueprints, work out how the Rebels can destroy it.
From Rogue One’s opening shot, Edwards, who previously brought us the indie hit Monsters and the 2014 Godzilla reboot, establishes his own distinct tone. Effectively, he doubles down on the ‘used universe’ look which distinguished the Original Trilogy and was, I think we can agree, disappointingly absent from the scrubbed-up digital polish of the prequels. From a windswept planet the Erso family call home, to the crowded, bustling marketplaces of Jedha, Rogue One is a film with dirt under its fingernails and grime on its skin. Together with cinematographer Grieg Fraser and ILM’s eminent VFX team, Edwards creates a version of the Star Wars galaxy that feels both familiar and suddenly dangerous again.
Remember how Mos Eisley really did feel like a real hive of scum and villainy? Rogue One establishes a similar sense of its own internal reality. On Jedha, insurgents can strike against Imperial tanks and troopers at any moment. Fights and battles are stylised, but there’s also an ever-present sense of uncertainty and danger. Michael Giacchino’s score plays on this: passages from John Williams’ classic motifs are present, but they’re joined by foreboding string sections and the stark beating of drums, like something from an old Hollywood biblical epic.
The Force Awakens was escapist space opera; Rogue One is a space opera, too, but it’s also a ground-level war film, as indebted to stuff like The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare as old samurai epics or matinee serials. (Indeed, Rogue One is a fascinatingly cine-literate film: when old Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) huffs on an oxygen mask, it recalls Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. One briefly-glimpsed monster recalls another David Lynch film, Dune.)
That Rogue One deals with characters who aren’t integral to the Original Trilogy also adds to the drama; sure, certain events feel preordained, but in terms of the bigger Star Wars saga, the mercenaries introduced here are, in the Chinese philosophical sense, straw dogs: these are ordinary people with no Jedi abilities. Who’s to say what will happen to them?
It also helps that the core cast is, almost without a exception, spectacular. For the first 40 minutes, Felicity Jones gets relatively little dialogue as Jyn, yet her physical performance is such that she comes across as an immediately human and sympathetic character. Much of the story set-up is told through the pain and distrust which flashes across her eyes; when Jyn agrees to join the Rebels, it’s easy to share in the sensation that she’s found a cause worth fighting for. Every member of her group is carrying some form of physical or psychological wound which makes them immediately relatable; Riz Ahmed as a former Imperial pilot is one standout. Even K-2SO, who could serve as mere comic relief, has a vulnerability beneath his brusque exterior.
In many respects, Rogue One is everything you could want from a Star Wars film. The filmmaking, particularly in the first hour, looks superb on the big screen. The action sequences have grit and invention. Each setting has an elemental sense of hot or cold, arid or wet. Above all, we’re introduced to characters who we come to care about almost without even realising it. On the villain side of things, Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic isn’t as interesting as the petulant brat Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens, but he’s an appealingly nasty, odd creation – a kind of space-faring David Brent, a social climber desperate to rise above his status as a mid-ranking Imperial.
Where Rogue One starts to let itself down, however, is in its distracting habit of referencing other Star War movies. Without drifting into spoiler territory, the movie’s at its best when it stands alone: sure, the Death Star’s a hub for the plot to revolve around, but there are certain other story arabesques and flourishes that might have sounded like fun on paper, but merely serve to remind us that we’re sitting in a movie theatre. As movie-going punters, we can’t know for sure to what extent the rumours of extensive (and expensive) reshoots are true, but from this writer’s perspective, there are undoubtedly moments in Rogue One – particularly in the final third – which feel like events tacked on after the fact.
Having said all this, Rogue One‘s faults – as frustrating as they are – can’t diminish what it manages to achieve. It’s an action adventure with proper dramatic weight. It introduces, from scratch, a set of characters who feel immediately of a piece with the existing Star Wars universe, and also recognisable as individuals. Above all, Rogue One is a hugely expensive film shot and acted with what feels genuine passion – and that, for all its flaws, is really what we need from a Star Wars film.
Star Wars: Rogue One is out in UK cinemas on the 16th December.