Directed by Garth Edwards, the film takes place in the lead up to 1977's 'Episode IV: A New Hope'
When you already know the outcome of a mission to steal the plans of the Death Star, the “That’s no moon!” that’s played a significant part in the ebb and flow of science-fiction fantasy filmmaking tides for nearly 40 years, building a story around a foregone conclusion is no easy thing. We all know that Luke Skywalker is going to blow it up, turning off his automated firing system and trusting in Alec Guinness’s spectral Jedi life hack to “Use the force” instead. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first stopgap Star Wars movie since the franchise relaunched last December with the thrillingly entertaining The Force Awakens, comes with its central premise being already solved, with all of its dramatic tension blasted away like a bullseyed womp rat. It’s a film where the choice of the verb ‘may’ as an expression of possibility in George Lucas’s most well-known Star Wars line seems redundant. May the force be with them? I think it’s safe to assume so.
Instead of being a film about what, Rogue One needs to be a film about who, why, and how; who are the rebels trying to steal the plans the Empire’s most dangerous weapon, why are they driven to risk life and limb to topple the imperial forces, and just how exactly are they going to do it?
Felicity Jones takes centre stage as the film’s reluctant rebel Jyn Erso, whose backstory gets fleshed out a little in the film’s opening sequence, which also serves as a reminder that the singular most lethal profession in the entire saga is being a parent. Jump cut a few years, and now Jyn is a prisoner in an imperial labour camp, hiding her identity to disguise her relation to her father Galen, one of the Empire’s leading engineers and the life and soul of the Death Star. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer in the Rebel Alliance, needs to break her out in order to secure an audience with Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, an asthmatic rebel extremist on the desert moon of Jedha, where the last remains of the Jedi way of life are to be found.
Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso [Lucasfilm]
Riz Ahmed also surfaces on Jedha as Bodhi Rook, a defecting imperial pilot, while Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen round out the band of brothers, as two locals whose involvement seems to stem largely from benevolent ass kicking. In fact, the only member of the Rogue One crew to have a fully explained history is K-2SO, the android archly voiced by Alan Tudyk, who we learned once belonged to the very Empire he now works to destroy, but who was hacked to drop truth bombs and Stormtroopers in equal measure.
Bearing in mind that Rogue One has been billed as a stand-alone adventure, it leaves its whys and whos on somewhat patchy ground; even Jyn and Cassian, the film’s de facto leads, never truly become the well-rounded characters the film’s 133-minute running time more than allows for, with director Garth Edwards putting all of the film’s energy into the how. In the scant emotional scenes they get, only Jones gets anything to work with, her Jyn a much-needed tonic to the film’s rather formulaic reluctant-rebel scenario. Rogue One is immediately darker and grittier than The Force Awakens, and notably much less fun. The adventuring of JJ Abrams’ chapter is replaced with a palpable sense that the Palpatine Empire is a desperate and dangerous place, where untrusting and reluctant conspirators band together to form a confederacy of one-time allies. Sapped of the all-for-one-and-fun-for-all joy that marked last year’s offering, Rogue One offers a more barefaced story, even if its principal villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, mostly seems to be driven by a ‘boys and their toys’ strain of evil.
Hopping from planet to moon to gulag faster than a Gungan can cross the line of racial insensitivity, the story ticks along as a satisfyingly quick pace, never really allowing you the time to wonder who the characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. A pair of 70s-era characters reappear in a number of scenes that go to show that while the series is set in a galaxy far, far away, it can still take some inspiration from a Galaxy closer to home, with the film just about pulling off what the chocolate bar tried so badly to do with Audrey Hepburn in its TV adverts.
By the time it all wraps up, bridging the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, the standalone story manages to favourably bridge the gap until Rian Johnson brings us Episode VIII next year.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A/133mins) is released worldwide on December 16th
Verdict: ★★★☆☆ Knowing the outcome before the film starts is Rogue One’s Achilles heel, but only half building a story around it means we’re left with just A Star Wars Story rather than a classic.