Director: Gareth Edwards Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk Running Time: 133 minutes
The ambition to have a Star Wars movie come out every single year may end up hitting a point of diminishing returns, but for now the annual return to a galaxy far, far away is still fresh enough to be music to the ears of fans and lining to the pockets of Disney. No one knows quite like they do how to appeal to a wide range of demographics; though The Force Awakens definitely owed a lot of its success to the memories it stirred in fans who had been left in the cold by the prequels, it aimed and succeeded at continuing the series tradition of kid appeal, something that goes right back to George Lucas’ attempts to recreate his own childhood joy watching pulp sci-fi serials. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is unlikely to sell as many toys as last year’s film, but it should provide older fans that have grown up with Star Wars with they’ve always wanted: more of the actual wars.
Set shortly before the events of the original Star Wars, Rogue One is the story of how the plans for the Death Star arrived in the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is an Empire prisoner with a long rap-sheet and survival skills provided by absent father figures. Rescued but essentially recaptured by the Rebels, she’s given the task of locating her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), head of the team that has designed the Death Star. Galen himself was kidnapped years ago to work on the superweapon by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a childhood trauma for Jyn that left her mother dead and her in the care of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a paranoid extremist even to the Rebels. Jyn is not in it for their revolution, but in the Star Wars universe the lure of the Dad is impossible to resist and it’s not long before she’s leading a motley crue. These rogues include Diego Luna as an unscrupulous Rebel operative, Riz Ahmed as a defecting Imperial pilot, Ip Man Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as a blind Force-believing martial artist and his sceptic assassin friend and Alan Tudyk who provides the voice for K-2SO, a 7 foot tall Imperial droid that’s been programmed to work for the other side, reaching Marvin the Paranoid Android levels of quippy pessimism in the process.
It’s a large and diverse cast of talented performers, but one of the ways that Rogue One breaks from the series norm is that it never quite invests in getting to know these characters. They’re a shadier bunch that fit the story, but in the hastily moving plot they don’t connect much with each other, which makes it hard for them to connect to us. Felicity Jones plays Jyn as capable but can’t give her much personality. Amidst the constant action chaos, there isn’t much room for Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelson to act in, which is not just a waste of great actors but a harm to the story, considering how key they both should be to Jyn’s motivations. Brief bright spots aside, the film tends to pass most of the cast by. That a fatalistic air hangs over these characters stories may mean that the writers and director Gareth Edwards were more focused on the bigger picture than getting to know them. Knowing what happens after all, has never been a problem with movies about World War Two or Vietnam and Rogue One is a war picture in so far as a Disney product can be. Rather than the operatic tragedy that comes with death in the series up to now, Rogue One is focused more on smaller stories, on the cost of death in war that adds up through volume of numbers. Still, a little more to the personal relationships could have helped the emotions to come through.
If Edwards has brought over his character struggles from previous films like 2014’s Godzilla, it must be said that he has carried over his strengths as well. Scale and spectacle are where the director’s talents are, both of which help give Rogue One a look just distinctive enough to other Star Wars films and a grandness befitting the genre. Jetting around various locations-an old Jedi temple, an Imperial base-Edwards keeps the camera back to take them in. Planets feel planet-sized and considering how important the threat of the Death Star is to the plot, it’s never looked bigger than it does here. The firepower of the (not yet) fully armed and operational battle station is shown from the ground level, which makes for a stunning display of special effects.
Fans who are looking for something new in their Star Wars should be happy enough with what Rogue One provides. It plays around with series iconography, with the opening crawl avoided and lightsabers having their briefest screentime by quite some distance. Despite skewing older, it’s less reliant on nostalgia than The Force Awakens, there are cameos yes, but it feels more comfortably at place in the series without the pressure of having to relaunch it. The action is frantic but easy to follow, featuring a wide variety of guns, ships and fighting styles. It’s thrilling to watch Donnie Yen smack his staff into Storm Troopers and fun to watch K2S0 toss people around, a robot in Star Wars that’s finally effective in a fight because he’s as strong as, well, a robot.
There is plenty to like in Rogue One, but not a lot to love, not with flat characters too busy rushing to the set piece to get to know each other. It makes for a solid addition to the series, but much like how things are left for the Rebels at the end, there’s a sense that the truly great work is still to come.(3.5 / 5)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be released at midnight, December 15.