If Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens was Disney and Lucasfilm taking a calculated risk, then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents 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 a resounding “Yes”. Director Gareth Edwards’ story of a ragtag band of Rebels on a mission to steal the Death Star plans has barely arrived in cinemas, and it’s already generating strong buzz from critics and fans alike. Some people have even started ranking Rogue One among the top Star Wars movies ever – read on to find out why!
5. A fresh perspective and darker tone
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. At the same time, the movie’s biggest flaw is that it takes a “Greatest Hits” approach to the series, relying on nostalgia to win us over, rather than dazzling us with something truly new. Fortunately, Edwards and his team avoid this pitfall with Rogue One.
Sure, Rogue One takes place around the same time as A New Hope, and the production design, score and several surprising cameos (more on that later) are all lifted from the original films. Yet it still feels like we’re watching something fresh. A lot of this comes down to Rogue One‘s novel perspective; in this flick, we’re witnessing events from a different point of view to the existing entries in the saga. 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 “core” movies themselves. Indeed, it really pushes the envelope in terms of how dark things get – with several moments that rival anything from The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith!
4. Smart use of Easter eggs
Rogue One doesn’t rely heavily on nostalgia, however, that doesn’t mean it completely ignores the wider Star Wars saga. On the contrary, the movie is loaded with clever nods big and small to the franchise’s history.
So, while casual viewers will enjoy the film as a standalone outing, hardcore fans will squeal with joy as they spot each major reference and tiny Easter egg – from a jug of blue milk to the arrival of breathing-impaired Dark Lord – that ties Rogue One into the overarching Star Wars universe.
What’s even more impressive is how well Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy work these callbacks to Star Wars canon into the script organically; heck, some of Rogue One‘s references to A New Hope refer are actually key plot points in the movie! To say any more runs the risk of spoiling the movie, but so let’s just say that early comments about Rogue One functioning as Episode III.V aren’t that wide of the mark!
3. Seamless effects and stunning cinematography
Every entry in the Star Wars franchise to date has been a visual knock-out, and Rogue One is no exception. The movie’s visual effects are truly best in class, particularly those used to digitally resurrect the late Peter Cushing to reprise the role of Grand Moff Tarkin. The CGI also combines seamlessly with Rogue One‘s practical sets and effects, resulting in some of the most believable alien environments ever seen on screen.
Director of Photography Greig Fraser’s cinematography is the real stand out, though. 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 like the Maldives and Iceland, creating an aesthetic that’s easily a match for the best Star Wars has to offer.
2. Immersive, well-choreographed action scenes
Star Wars has never been short on action (it’s in the name, innit?), and Rogue One is certainly no disappointment in this department.
Edwards – already an established action auteur after helming the recent Godzilla reboot – brings a refreshingly immersive feel to the action scenes, making us feel like we’re right there alongside our heroes as blaster fire streaks around them. Indeed, Rogue One’s climatic battle on land, sea and air not only rivals anything the main franchise films have to offer, but even eclipses the finale of The Force Awakens!
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Rogue One‘s grungier vibe lends itself to more of a “war movie” approach to set pieces that immediately differentiates them from those of the wider saga. But ultimately, the success of the movie’s action scenes boils down to Edwards and his team choreographing action sequences that are exciting, easy to follow and – despite Rogue One‘s sci-fi/fantasy setting – convincingly real.
1. Great characters and great performances
You can have the best visuals, the slickest action scenes, the coolest Easter eggs and the freshest perspective, but if your movie doesn’t have great characters, you might as well not bother.
Fortunately, Rogue One features a strong roster of likeable heroes and loathsome 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.
Jones and Luno are complemented Alan Tudyk’s sparkling performance as reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, a sardonic death machine who provides many of the film’s best laughs. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn strikes a nice balance between hammy theatricality and understated menace as the evil Director Krennic. Mendelsohn even manages to find an almost sympathetic quality in this ambitious grafter trying to climb the rungs of the Imperial ladder, setting him apart from the more two-dimensional Imperial officers we’re used to seeing.
The rest of the characters are admittedly more broadly drawn. Still, thanks to the strong line-up of actors who bring them to life – including Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso, Forest Whitaker as eccentric zealot Saw Gerrera and Riz Ahmed as Imperial defector Bodhi Rook – even the most thinly sketched supporting roles benefit from a least some dramatic shading.