If Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a calculated risk on behalf of Disney and Lucasfilm, then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was more of an out-and-out gamble. Could a spin-off film set outside the main instalments in the franchise and not focused on the Skywalker family actually work?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Director Gareth Edwards’ story of a ragtag band of Rebels and their attempts to steal the Death Star plans has barely arrived in cinemas, and it’s already generating strong buzz among critics and fans alike.
Much like the Death Plans themselves, Rogue One is not without flaws – the beginning is a bit choppy, and the supporting characters are a bit thinly drawn – but its nevertheless a worthy new entry in the Star Wars saga, and here we look at the five main reasons why!
5. A new take on a familiar galaxy far, far away…
The Force Awakens is a solid film and it did a lot to reignite interest in the Star Wars franchise after the disappointment of the prequels, but if it has one flaw, it’s that it took a “Greatest Hits” approach to the series, preferring to rely on nostalgia over showing us something truly new.
Fortunately, Edwards and his team have avoided this pitfall with Rogue One.
Sure, it takes place around the same time as Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, and the production design, score and several surprising cameos (more on that later) all serve to evoke the original films, but it still feels like we’re watching something fresh.
For starters, we’re witnessing events from a different point of view to the other events in the series. Instead of swashbuckling Jedi, dashing smugglers and vivacious princesses, we’re down in the trenches with average soldiers, pilots and survivors, all of whom lack the moral certainty of the typical Star Wars protagonist.
This lends proceedings a different tone, too. While Rogue One is undoubtedly a popcorn blockbuster with some fun moments (it is a Star Wars movie, after all!), it’s also a bit grittier than the episodes themselves.
In fact, there are times when it really pushes the envelope in terms of how dark things get – with moments that rival anything from Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – so much so that to go too much farther would be to lose the vibe of the franchise entirely.
4. Forget Christmas – it’s time for an Easter Egg hunt!
Just because Rogue One doesn’t preoccupy itself with rehashing what came before it doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with nods big and small to the wider Star Wars saga.
On the contrary, whilst casual followers of the series will no doubt be able to enjoy the film as a standalone adventure, there’s plenty of Easter Eggs here to leave hardcore fans squealing with joy.
Whether it’s something as small as a jug of blue milk or as momentous as the arrival of a certain breathing-impaired Dark Lord, the filmmakers have done a lot to ensure this spin-off is still rooted firmly in the Star Wars universe.
What’s most impressive here is actually how well Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have managed to not only work these continuity references into the script organically, but actually integrate many of them as key points in the narrative.
To say too much more would be to spoil things, but suffice it to say that early comments about Rogue One more or less functioning as Episode III.V aren’t that wide of the mark!
3. Set blasters to “fleek”
Each entry in the Star Wars franchise to date has been a visual knock-out, and Rogue One is no exception.
For starters, the visual effects on display are truly best in class, particularly those used to digitally resurrect characters previously portrayed by now-deceased actors. The combination of practical sets and effects with CG artistry is equally laudable, especially given how seamless so much of this effects work appears.
But in the end it’s the cinematography by DP Greig Fraser that really stands out, reminding us that when it comes to special effects, nothing beats nature itself.
Capturing a multitude of different worlds, moods and colours – hurrah for a blockbuster that eschews an omnipresent palette of drab hues! – Fraser wrings every inch of beauty and otherworldliness out of locations such as the Maldives and Iceland, resulting in an aesthetic unlike anything seen before in a Star Wars movie.
2. There’s action scenes, and then there’s Star Wars action scenes
Star Wars fans are often quick to point out that the movies are more than mere action films, and whilst that’s certainly true, the fact remains that while we come for the stars, we stay for the wars. It’s a good thing too, as Rogue One definitely features more than its fair share of pitched gun battles and interstellar dogfights.
Edwards – already an established action auteur after helming the recent Godzilla reboot – does a masterful job of making us feel like we’re right there alongside our heroes as the blaster fire streaks around them. In fact, Rogue One’s climatic battle on land, sea and air not only rivals anything the main franchise films have to offer, but actually easily eclipses the finale of The Force Awakens!
It doesn’t hurt that this film’s grungier vibe lends itself to more of a “war movie” approach to set pieces, but what it really boils down to is that Edwards and his stunt team have worked hard to choreograph action sequences that are exciting, easy to follow and – despite the sci-fi/fantasy setting – real.
1. New faces, new favourites
You can have the best visuals around, the slickest action scenes, the cleverest Easter Eggs and the freshest perspective, but if your movie doesn’t have great characters played by talented actors, you might as well not bother.
Fortunately, Rogue One features a strong roster of likeable heroes and hissable villains, none more so than Felicity Jones as tough-as-nails survivor Jyn Erso. Jones perfectly embodies both the kick-ass exterior and vulnerable interior of her character, giving us a hero we can really root for.
Similarly, Diego Luna puts in a solid turn as Rebel officer Cassian Andor, and his struggle to reconcile the idealism of the Rebel cause with the harsh realities of warfare provides much of the film’s heart.
They’re both complemented by a sparkling performance by Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, a sardonic death machine who provides many of the film’s best laughs, as well as one of its most moving moments.
Across the aisle in the Imperial Camp, Ben Mendelsohn strikes a nice balance between hammy theatricality and understated menace as the evil Director Krennic, finding an almost sympathetic quality in this ambitious grafter trying to climb the rungs of the Imperial ladder.
The rest of the characters are admittedly more broadly drawn, and it’s a credit to the actors who bring them to life – most notably Forest Whitaker as eccentric zealot Saw Gerrera and Riz Ahmed as Imperial defector Bodhi Rook – that they are able to add some dramatic shading to these thinly sketched roles.
That’s a wrap for this edition of Soapbox – now it’s your chance to join in! Agree? Disagree?