Star Wars devotees have long known that the galaxy has innumerable stories to tell beyond the Skywalker family saga, and moviegoers are getting their first taste of that with this spin-off.
Set just before the events of Episode IV, Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the blueprints for the Empire’s planet-annihilating superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Galen (Mikkelsen), an Imperial science officer and secret Rebel sympathiser. Separated from her father at a young age, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a hard-line Rebel fighter. When Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected, delivers a message to the Rebels from Galen regarding the Death Star, Jyn is roped in to reach out to her father. Jyn teams up with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna), who has his suspicions regarding Jyn’s loyalties. Also part of the team is K-2SO (Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid; Force-sensitive blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and Chirrut’s partner, the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang). Standing in their way is Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), the treacherous director of advanced weapons research who is overseeing the Death Star program.
The premise for Rogue One seems like a no-brainer in hindsight: a war movie, with spies going behind enemy lines to complete a high-stakes mission, set within the Star Wars galaxy. Director Gareth Edwards has done everything humanly possible to assuage fears that this is merely a cash grab. Rogue One looks and feels like an authentic part of the Star Wars series, but has plenty of surprises in store despite being a prequel. We have a rough idea of where it will all lead, but the journey is still an exhilarating one with just the right amount of grimness. There still are jokes and amusing characters, but this is the right pitch of grim. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (with Gary Whitta and John Knoll receiving a ‘story by’ credit) has a satisfying amount of depth to it. We get to experience the shades of grey and the confusion cast by the fog of war, somewhat refreshing in a franchise that often trades in moral absolutes.
Rogue One’s visuals remain faithful to the look of the original trilogy, while also feeling dirtier and more tactile than ever. We revisit the Rebel stronghold on Yavin IV, and travel to new moons and planets including Jedha, home to a holy Jedi city; perpetually-stormy Eadu and Sacrif, a paradise-turned-warzone. There is no shortage of battle sequences both on land and in space, including a full-fledged dogfight which provides astounding spectacle.
The effects work is an ideal combination of digital and practical, with what appear to be miniature effects used to depict the Star Destroyers in certain scenes. Every hit of blaster fire, each clump of dirt kicked up in an explosion, every time a Stormtrooper gets clunked on the head – it all feels real. That said, there are some digital face replacements which aren’t 100% convincing.
Creating a new Star Wars character must be a daunting task, given the iconic status of Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader et. al. Lead characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor will remind fans well-versed in the Star Wars expanded universe of Jan Ors and Kyle Katarn respectively, who recover the Death Star plans in the video game Star Wars: Dark Forces. Given her slight frame, Jones might not seem like the most obvious candidate for an action heroine, but she pulls it off. While many protagonists have back-stories as tragic as Jyn’s, the Oscar nominee sells Jyn’s defiance in the face of sorrow. Despite both characters being played by English women, Jyn is sufficiently different from The Force Awakens’ Rey, steelier and world-wearier, if understandably nowhere near as fun.
Luna’s Cassian Andor is gruff yet suave while not being a knockoff of the galaxy’s #1 loveable rogue, Han Solo. The development of Cassian and Jyn’s working relationship is believable and is mercifully devoid of twee romantic comedy bickering. They might not like each other, but they have a job to do, and are going to complete said job at any cost.
In Hollywood, Mikkelsen is known mainly for his villainous roles, and Rogue One gives him a chance to showcase his softer side as Jyn’s tortured father. The character has relatively little screen time, but Mikkelsen makes considerable impact in the given time. Whitaker gives Saw a dangerous edge – he’s ostensibly one of the good guys, but his extreme methods warrant wariness. The character first appeared in the Clone Wars animated series, and it’s fun to see a pre-existing character incorporated into a live action Star Wars film.
Donnie Yen’s casting as a blind martial artist monk who spouts fortune cookie aphorisms should be greeted with an eye roll or two. While falling back on these stereotypes is not particularly progressive, it’s hard for us to get upset at Yen delivering an epic smack-down to a pack of Stormtroopers. Those familiar with Jiang’s work might have a hard time picturing him as a burly bruiser, but his Baze Malbus fits that position just fine, and complements Chirrut nicely.
There is a grand Star Wars tradition of comic relief droids, but K-2SO differs from his predecessors in that he actually is intimidating. The character’s design is striking and Tudyk’s bemused, ever-so-slightly stilted delivery sounds just right emanating from the lanky, powerful droid. Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is not as memorable as the other characters, but he does get the distinction of coining the call-sign Rogue One.
Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is everything this reviewer hoped for in a villain. Krennic is cold, supercilious and brutal, fitting right in with the Imperial higher-ups of the original trilogy. At the same time, he is eager to please and seeks the validation of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Speaking of Vader, he is used judiciously here, Edwards resisting the temptation to be overly reliant on one of the greatest screen villains ever. James Earl Jones returns to provide the voice, with “a variety of large-framed actors” donning the helmet.
Reshoots months after production had completed and the replacement of composer Alexandre Desplat with Michael Giacchino led to rumblings that Rogue One might be on shaky ground. Edwards has soundly disproven sceptics with a film that hits all the right notes. There are homages to the series’ past without it turning into a mere parade of fan-service, the action sequences are plentiful and visceral, and the characters are easy to care about. Consider this battle won.
Summary: A riveting, richly-realised adventure tinged with the right amount of darkness and maturity, Rogue One transcends the notion that spin-offs aren’t as worthy as the ‘real thing’. An auspicious first entry in the Star Wars anthology.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars