The phrases “Star Wars” and “prequels” do not often sit well together, George Lucas’ second trilogy of films released between 1999 and 2005 faced with the impossible weight of expectation set by the original trilogy released between 1977 and 1983 and also fatally compromised by the director’s singular control over every aspect of the production regardless of whether he possessed any particular skill such as screenwriting.
With the entire Star Wars universe purchased by Disney in 2012 for over $4 billion, it was inevitable to recoup that expense they would wish to build a second structured film franchise to match their vastly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first step was J J Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which for all its glorious entertainment value could at kindest be described as “derivative,” while others might point out that for all the superficial changes it was a largely a remake of the 1977 original.
Undeniably the gamble paid off, with The Force Awakens currently the largest grossing film of all time in North America, but having played it safe for their first outing and established there is still a vast and enthusiastic audience, if Rian Johnson’s as-yet-untitled Episode VIII hopes to match that performance it will have to break free in a new direction rather than repeating past glories.
Yet in the meantime Disney have also offered a side-dish, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, subtitled A Star Wars Story on the posters but not on screen, the antithesis of The Force Awakens in that it looks backwards instead of to the future and manages to tell a new story while ostensibly examining a part of the history of the Rebel Alliance which is already known to anyone who has ever seen the films, the theft of the secret plans to the Death Star which will form the basis for the attack on that space station in the skies above the gas giant Yavin.
There are parallels between Lucas and Edwards: both received wide attention for their debuts, low-budget science fiction films set in disrupted worlds, THX-1138 and Monsters, then moving onto projects which featured ensemble casts and driven by a strong sense of nostalgia, American Graffiti and Godzilla, before blasting off into outer space, though where for Lucas it was uncertain territory Edwards’ trajectory has already been charted.
Written by The Golden Compass‘ Chris Weitz and The Bourne Legacy‘s Tony Gilroy from a story by Industrial Light & Magic’s chief creative officer John Knoll and After Earth‘s Gary Whitta, the structure is different from any previous Star Wars film in that it does not follow a single path but is a more fractured narrative jumping between the various characters who will ultimately be drawn together on their journey towards the daring raid on the Imperial Security Complex on Scarif.
That fractured nature is exacerbated by the fact that, even at 133 minutes, Rogue One can feel rushed and disjointed, particularly in the early scenes, and it is likely that there is much footage on the cutting room floor which will hopefully be included as deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release, or better still, reinstated to allow this to become the magnificent epic it sits on the cusp of becoming.
A consequence of this is that the characters – even the leads – feel shortchanged, and it is a credit to the talent of the large cast and Edwards’ skill at drawing performance from actors evidenced in his previous films that they are all convincing when given so little development, most of their screentime purely reactionary to external elements. That decision is justifiable, as while it is an origin story for these characters it is not for the wider universe, and with so far to go it is better to exhibit brevity than to dwell too laboriously over introductions.
Like Anakin Skywalker, like Luke Skywalker, like Rey, Jynn Erso (The Theory of Everything‘s Felicity Jones) has been abandoned, by her father, Imperial science officer and weapons specialist Galen Erso (Doctor Strange‘s Mads Mikkelsen), by Saw Gerrera (Arrival‘s Forest Whitaker) in whose care he placed her, and she has little trust for anyone: when saved from the Imperial forces who hold her prisoner, her first instinct is to run from her rescuer, Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Elysium‘s Diego Luna).
Ruthless in his devotion to his goal, Andor and the resourceful but reticent Jynn must track back to the verify information which has been received from a source only she can verify about a threat to the very existence of the Rebel Alliance, an Imperial superweapon capable of destroying entire planets, currently in the final stages of construction and soon to be tested, their team including warriors Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe (Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen), former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced by Con Man‘s Alan Tudyk.
A BAFTA winner for his special effects work before moving into directing, Edwards knows how best to present and integrate effects into a scene so they do not overwhelm the drama, and for the most part Rogue One is a showcase of fully realised and diverse worlds, a tour through the worlds of Jedha, whose scope, landscapes and architecture echo the prequel films, quietly bridging the gap between Lucas’ digital monstrosities and this era, the harsh and mountainous Eadu, the beaches of Scarif, or the unnamed volcanic landscape which may very well be Mustafar.
Vast and intimidating in their monochromatic bulk, the iconic images of the Imperial Star Destroyers and the Death Star are perfect recreations inside and out, and they have never looked as vast and threatening as when presented in IMAX, but the work is not flawless, the carefully modulated voice of Grand Moff Tarkin as provided by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows‘ Guy Henry a good deal less jarring than the digital mask he wears, glaring terrifyingly across the uncanny valley.
What is integrated to better effect is footage of the internal operations of the Death Star, emphasising how accurately Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser have captured that era in design and lighting even down to the red lenses in Darth Vader’s helmet, and unlike The Force Awakens there is only one scene which feels overfamiliar, the approach to Scarif recalling the mission to Endor, although the reuse of phrases from elsewhere in the saga feels as contrived as the repeated references to hope, as though anyone could be unaware that these events will lead directly to A New Hope.
A tale of those who operate in the shadows and the sacrifices they make, what is fascinating to witness are the divisions both within the Imperial factions, Tarkin and Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Lost River‘s Ben Mendelsohn) vying for dominance and the Rebel leaders Mon Mothma and General Draven (Genevieve O’Reilly and Alistair Petrie) believing Gerrera has done more harm to the cause than good with his extremist brand of anti-Imperialism. For once the Stormtroopers are actually successful at hitting something, though usually each other.
That this is “anthology” film is a one-off means that there is no security for any of the characters who have no established later continuity to offer them a safety net, and their separation from the main sequence is emphasised by Michael Giacchino’s subtle use of motifs from throughout the saga but his refusal to use any of the main Star Wars themes; like his soundtrack for 2009’s rebooted Star Trek, that can only be heard when genuinely earned by victory.
Rogue One is not a perfect film, never flying as high as it should nor breaking out of the borders which constrain it, but building to the final extended assault on the beaches of Scarif and in the skies above it avoids the egregious flaws endemic to Lucas’ own prequels and effortlessly surpasses all of them by the simple virtue of not being incompetent, and perhaps the true hope for the Rebel Alliance is that Edwards will join with them again – though it is unlikely that even he could save those Bothan spies…
Rogue One is now on general release and also screening in IMAX