When it was announced that we would be getting a bunch of spin off movies set in the Star Wars universe, unconnected to the main episodes, I was intrigued. There were a lot of interesting possibilities for these films to explore that the main episodes would not have the time to and a film focusing on the theft of the Death Star plans seemed like the perfect place to start, with Gareth Edwards being a solid choice as director (I’m someone who really liked Monsters and Godzilla). Now I’m going to try my best to avoid spoiling the film so if you just want my brief thoughts I’ll say that the film is very solid, the first half working more effectively than the second for me, although the film doesn’t reach the high of The Force Awakens.
The film focuses on the Rebel Alliance finding out about the Empire building the planet destroying superweapon, the Death Star, after a pilot defects from the Empire with a message from Galen Erso, the designer of the Death Star. To gain access to the message, the Rebels recruit Jyn Erso, Galen’s daughter, to get a meeting with the man the message was sent to, Saw Gerrera, to recover the message, before infiltrating the facility where the Death Star plans are stored to steal them, leading into the events of Episode 4. What works about the plot of Rogue One is that it takes the black and white morality of the other Star Wars films and inserts some grey into the equation. Sure we see that the Empire is still evil but here we see how the Rebellion is not the perfect organisation it was set out to be, there are splinter organisations that use more extreme methods, assassination of high profile figures are commonplace, secrets and lies are all over the place, the structure up top is beset by arguments and allies are killed when they are no longer useful. This sense of grey gives the Rebellion a more tangible feel than it had in the other films. We also get a better show of the Empire here, seeing prison camps they run, how they occupy planets and the science/record system they operate which does a great job of expanding the Star Wars world, a lot of elements around the main plot having the potential to be explored further in future spin offs. I also really liked how dark the film got at times, how bleak the whole thing was and the message of hope that came through all the darkness.
The main thing that prevents Rogue One from reaching the high of The Force Awakens though is the writing for the characters, the performances for the most part are strong but the characters are underdeveloped. Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso gives a good performance, showing the pain of the character and her growing sense of trust towards the Rebellion but the most interesting aspects of the character, mainly her relationship with Saw Gerrera as a child soldier, are overlooked. Likewise, there are interesting elements from Diego Luna’s performance, most of the grey areas in the film coming from him, but his arc at the end doesn’t quite work and the relationship between him and Jyn doesn’t fit with the writing for the characters in the rest of the film. Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe is great to watch, being a great font of wisdom and being an absolute badass in the fight scenes (although, it’s Donnie Yen it would have been more surprising if he wasn’t a badass) although his character arc isn’t completed in a way that actually fits the arc. Jiang Wen gets some entertaining moments and works well with Donnie Yen but doesn’t have much character, same with Riz Ahmed who is a lot of fun to watch has an interesting arc in theory but we don’t actually get it and some elements of his character arc aren’t fully explored, mainly what happens to him when confronted by Saw Gerrera. On a more positive side, Ben Mendehlson makes for an effective villain, his obsession with the Death Star and hatred of the Empire power plays making him a compelling character and there’s a good bit of dry humour from Mendehlson, Mads Mikkelsen is very effective as Galen Erso, his development feeling very natural and having some good emotional moments, plus his role in the development of the Death Star being very cleverly executed, Alan Tudyk as K2SO is a brilliant new character, his dry, sarcastic wit creating some of the funniest moments in the film and Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera is a great addition to the series, his whole character as a Rebel extremist is fascinating and I can’t wait to see more of the character when he appears in Star Wars Rebels.
On a technical aspect, Rogue One excels. The location work, production design and costume design is as strong as you come to expect from the Star Wars films, having another great mix of practical and CG effects. The action scenes themselves are brilliantly directed, having a sense of weight some of the other Star Wars films lacked and showing the imposing nature of the Empire, such as seeing Rebels running away on foot from AT-ATs and an incredible action scene at the end which I won’t talk about further. Michael Giacchino’s music meanwhile, whilst as good as you’d expect from a Giacchino score relies a bit too much on throwbacks to the original films. The use of old footage and recreating actors is a bit of a mixed bag. When old footage of X-Wing pilots is utilised it’s great, providing great connections to the original films (even if the sound quality doesn’t quite match up). The recreation of other actors, mainly Peter Cushing, is a whole different ball park. I won’t go into the ethics of it here, people a lot smarter and more informed about these things have already gone into it, but I will say that the effects used look off, falling into the uncanny valley.
Overall, Rogue One is a solid addition to the Star Wars series. Whilst the characters aren’t the best written, the story is well executed, tying into A New Hope effectively, and adding some moral grey into the Star Wars universe, whilst the action scenes are some of the most exciting and engaging in the series. It doesn’t quite reach the high of The Force Awakens but this is a good starting point for the other anthology films and I am staying optimistic for the Han Solo film (then again it’s not hard since it’s being directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller and is starring Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover and Emilia Clarke).
My Rating: 4/5