This piece contains minor spoilers
Based on an idea by ILM’s SFX chief John Knoll (just how did the rebels spies steal the Death Star plans?), the story credited to him and Gary Whitta (final screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy), and directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One A Star Wars Story brilliantly straddles fan nostalgia of the deepest 1970’s Kenner / Palitoy kind, and 2016’s worrying adult political precipice. Words like hope, fear, order and terror cast about in this space war fable like shards of truth from one of reluctant Imperial scientist Galen Erso’s Kyber crystals – the Jedi may be a spent force just before A New Hope, but the Force of Others – foot soldiers, spies and renegades, rogues all – is as strong as ever here.
If you thought last year’s saga revamp The Force Awakens was a fan boon of familiar swashbuckling and familial strife, Rogue One is in may ways the ultimate back story fan film, succeeding despite wider audience confusion over where in the timeline it fits (and no, no Bothans died to bring us this film). An initially dispiriting return to the well of a familiar trope (The Death Star), instead becomes a thrillingly gritty, lived in story of disparate people in desperate times, living compromised lives with compromised ideals, until the ultimate threat defines and gathers those shards into a unifying cause.
To reinforce that this is “A Star Wars Story” within the wider universe, and outside the Skywalker saga, the film opens without an opening crawl or fanfare (although one enterprising fan has created one), and just the “far, far away” text – I’m not sure that fairy tale like introduction was even necessary, or appropriate, given the war story we become embedded in. Anyway, a brief prologue establishes heroine Jyn as a child, living in hidden isolation with her mother Lyra (Valene Kane), and father Galen Erso (Madds Mikkleson) a brilliant scientist in the field of harnessing the power of the Kyber: Force – attuned crystals revered by the Jedi, who use them to power their lightsabres. Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a masterful wheeler-dealer, arrives at their homestead with his genuinely creepy black armoured “Deathtroopers” to bring him back to the fold – his research is needed to power the Death Star’s planet killing laser.
The formerly duped Galen is hauled off, his wife murdered, and Jyn escapes, to be raised by insurgent Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) in his cadre, until she ends up embittered and fending for herself on the fringes of society. The grown Jyn (Felicity Jones) later justifies her abandonment of the cause by saying of Imperial flags, “It’s easy (to avoid them) if you don’t look up.”
So, she is sprung from prison by the Alliance, because an Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has had his conscience pricked by Galen, and sent to find Saw with a vital message from the scientist. The Alliance want to use Jyn as in introduction to mend fences with Saw, and discover what exactly Galen is up to. Whilst the Rebel council debate and wring their hands about Saw Gerrera’s “extremists” and whether negotiation or direct action in the face of overwhelming firepower is the best course (“Have Erso testify in open session!” one cries, still clinging to faith that the Emperor will listen to The Senate), Jedha City, a holy mecca to the Force faithful, is crushed in a Death Star eruption test strike of soil and structural debris. It’s hard not to think of Aleppo’s civilians in that real world wasteland of barrel bomb bursts.
Jyn earlier scoops up a crying child from the midst of an insurgent ambush on a stormtrooper patrol – as the Imperial high command announce the last of their forces have been evacuated, one chillingly realises they don’t give a fig for the civilians left behind.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Krennic crows, like an arms dealer at Christmas. Not political, my ass, Bob Iger. As long as there are underdogs struggling against tyranny, bias and indifference, whether in the middle-east, or against the rising enabled right of post-Brexit and the “unpresidented” Donald Trump, Star Wars will always be relevant. From that, the film just grows and grows into a juggernaut of thrillingly choreographed action and suspense, as well as a deeply felt conversation about galvanizing resistance in the face of evil and fractured political machinery. Rogue One instantly slots into the top three or four films of the entire saga.
There is very little to quibble with here. Personally, I don’t feel the characterisation and chemistry was as lacking as some others have claimed. We know these are a “Dirty Dozen” type band, up against it, backed into a corner and improvising a big score against a complacent enemy. “They have no idea we’re coming,” a nervous Jyn chivvies a jumpy band of volunteers. “We take the next chance, and the next, until we win, or the chances are spent.” She’s a born leader, whose time has come. Jones does so much with her eyes and body language – the scene where she receives her father’s hologram message and breaks down, realising he isn’t the man she believed him to be, is wonderfully affecting. Also brilliantly edited around the previously mentioned Death Star strike.
Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Saw is a tad eccentric, but it grew on me. His guerrilla, with staring eyes and paranoia (“ Did you come here to betray me?”) reminded me of both Blake and Avon in the finale of Blake’s 7, nerves stretched by a lifetime of conflict against an implacable foe. He’s a greyer version of Darth Vader, almost but not quite “more machine than man.” Any wonder he embraces his fate, redeemed by knowing that the spark of hope and rebellion has been relit in his protégé.
Equally jumpy (and understandably so) is Ahmed’s Bhodi, a probable conscript or haulier simply working “for the man” to make ends meet until his eyes are opened – his name in Buddhism means “enlightenment” or “awakening”. His is a wonderful performance of tics and hesitant, shuttered sentences, eager to help, steeling himself and the spines of others in the face of a fight he thought he’d never have to undertake.
The Zatoichi –like Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior –monk, and chain-gun wielding Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are two “Guardians of The Whills”, former protectors of the sacked Jedi Temples of Jedha, the former a philosophising believer of The Force (though not a Jedi level adept), the latter his more cynical companion, I suspect in the coded sense, who humours him, though probably envies his belief. Both get kick-ass and moving moments in the action and drama.
Jyn’s initial handler and comrade is Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) a ruthless fighter and spy who’s been fighting so long the lines have become blurred – “We’ve all done terrible things in the name of the rebellion.” But by making a choice to defy orders in search of that word again, hope, he becomes a better man. As Walter Chaw says in his review, “We’re powerful when we aspire to transcend what we are most easily. The picture makes an entreaty to the angels of our better natures.”
— Star Wars Legacy (@TheSWLegacy) March 20, 2017
Cassian’s loyal sidekick is an Imperial enforcer droid he’s reprogrammed, K2-SO, a towering CG creation brought to irascible life by Alan Tudyk, like a blunter, deadlier C3PO.
Their courage galvanizes the Alliance to join them in a rousing final act assault in space and on the ground around Scarif, the Imperial facility where the plans are stored. Many early edits died to bring us this film. Count how many shots and lines from the trailers are absent or changed in the final product and marvel at what we still got – a planet hopping, fast moving, thrilling, suspenseful, funny, immersive human drama for our age and all the ages, directed with verve and confidence by Edwards, lensed with beautiful clarity by Greig Fraser, and given heart by Michael Giacchino’s astounding score (knocked out in about four weeks!). A band of heroes themselves. The Force is strong in this one.