It is a good time to be a fan of blockbusters. Marvel releases a slew of films every year, and Lucasfilm have plans to release a Star Wars movie every year, during the winter, like a science fiction themed Christmas present. The latest adventure from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, deals with events before Episode Four: A New Hope; the infamous mission to secure the plans to the Death Star that the rebellion use to destroy said nefarious doomsday machine. So then does Rogue One set a trend of good Star Wars films being released regularly or does it set up a pattern similar to another space-based sci-fi franchise.
As already stated the film focuses on the operation to steal the plans to the Death Star. However, it is a little more complicated than that. The film focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) a research scientist who is coerced by the Empire to design their superweapon. Jyn is roped into the Rebel’s plans to meet with Galen, to discuss ways to destroy the weapon he designed. These plans all fall-through and Jyn, with a ragtag band of rebels, must fight to bring peace to the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Empire, represented by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Darth Vader (Voiced by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin, are putting their plans in motion to tighten their stranglehold over the galaxy.
As part of what is to be the Star Wars Stories series of films, Rogue One must also expand the universe that Jedi and the Empire exist in. This means that the movie has to introduce those of us who didn’t explore the expanded universe (which Disney has stated is no longer canon) to the vast reaches of a Galactic Empire, all the while being an entertaining, enjoyable film on its own; a lot of things to try to deal with. While it makes a valiant effort to address this stuff, Rogue One feels as though it rings a little empty.
That is not to say that it is by any means a bad film, for example, the world is richly designed, detailed, and realised. You feel the heat from Jedha, the dirt and dust, you can smell the universe almost. That texture gives, and has given, Star Wars an edge over more clinical and clean images of the future or the Science Fiction past. There a load of easter eggs and cameos dotted about the film, linking it to the original Star Wars Trilogy. All the details create a more realistic and believable world that is fantastically and creatively constructed through shot composition and editing, even during the more complicated action set pieces. The sequence at the end especially looks very similar to the D-Day landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan, complete with World-War-Two looking helmets. SImilalry with the presence of giant AT-AT’s the sense of the helplessness of the rebels situation is presented well by having small people scampering between the legs of the giant war machines.
Another great strength of the movie is in the secondary characters. Alan Tudyk proves that he is perhaps one of the greatest character actors of his generation, with reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2, which provides muscle and humour in equal measure, as well as the saddest part of the film, for me at least. Similarly, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wenn play expertly off each other as warrior monks, Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, who also provide light relief and a sense of scale to the belief system of The Force. The primary cast is also
good, Felicity Jones does a fine job as Jyn Erso, a lost girl with no real attachment to either side, the Rebellion or the Empire; Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is a damaged soldier tied to the resistance and forced to do bad things for a good cause. Similarly Mads Mikkelsen, who is always good in whatever he turns his hand to, as is Ben Mendelsohn whose Orson Krennic is the perfect villain, plotting, pathetic, arrogant, insecure, ambitious, and incredibly dangerous.
However what let the film down for me was the story. While I left the theatre wanting to see more of the character’s backstory before the events of the movie, which is usually a good thing, I found myself wanting to see more of the story of the movie. There is a large chunk of it missing, namely the bonding that usually goes on in these ragtag-team-up films. Instead of the feeling of a cohesive group setting out to accomplish the same goal, the final moments of the film suggested that each group had their own story. Similarly, the narrative feels incredibly rushed, moving us quickly to the next planet or next set piece without leaving us too long to let us get to know the characters, let them develop or really change the galaxy around them. The moment where Jyn Erso gives a speech about hope at a meeting of the rebel leaders is a good example of causing those unwanted questions like, why is she entrusted to be part of the council after being coerced into joining? How come the people she met presumably that day are ready to throw their lives away with her? While the film may take place over a longer time frame, I would argue that it would make a better film if we saw these character bonding moments on screen. Other examples include the conclusion of the arc for Forest Whitaker’s grizzled rebel extremist, Saw Gerrera and Cassian’s sudden character switch. This rushed narrative makes the plot feel more like a to-do list, a bad ass to-do list, but a to-do list all the same.
I could go on to talk about the political themes in the film, or the diverse cast, but I don’t feel that I need to. Star Wars has always had a basic politics of Good versus Evil, one that has been part of fantasy since almost as long as people have been telling stories, as such it can be easy to attach and interpret meaning from a film that is almost black and white. I will say though that there is an attempt to paint the rebellion in more subtle shades of grey through the actions of Cassian, but by the end of the film we still cheer when the Rebels ram two Star Destroyers together, killing hundreds of thousands of people. The cast itself is great, diverse or not, it is always great to see different nationalities represented in blockbusters, and after all, it is a wide galaxy, presumably the humanoids can’t all be Caucasian.
While I definitely had a blast during the film, exploring the universe with its likeable characters, fantastic action set pieces and fan pandering, after pondering upon the film, I have concluded that the movie is missing a good standalone story, instead focusing on shallow spectacle that while it is entertaining at the time, leaves audiences feeling unsatisfied in the long run. I will recommend it to friends to see it in cinemas, but I only really see it sticking around longer than it should because of the Star Wars label on it.