Choosing to go backwards feels an unusual step for a franchise with a patchy history of doing so but that’s Star Wars for you. A phenomenon with its own rulebook. How many other series could get away with two comebacks, a strangely dated font (even director Gareth Edwards agrees on that one) and each time expanding and complicating its narrative whilst somehow skewing mainstream? Set as ever ‘a long time ago’, longer than last year’s most recent addition and longer than the originals but not quite as long a time ago as the the prequels (perhaps a ‘somewhat long time ago’?) Rogue One is the second film to come from the Disney reboots in what’s looking like an annual treat for the foreseeable future. If this one’s anything to go by at least, an annual treat it will be.
Rogue One is the first ‘anthology’ spin-off from the main series and spins off from the opening crawl of A New Hope – count how many times the latter word’s used! – in which a group of rebels make to steal the plans for the Death Star so as to put them in the hands of Princess Leia. And breathe… Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, daughter of the planet destroyer’s architect. Mads Mikkelsen puts in a good show in that role but it’s Jones who carries the film and with surprisingly few lines too. Jones’ achievement here is to become her character entirely and do so in such a way as to make her instantly relatable. Her co-stars across the board make up a worthy ensemble, peppered with impressive names from Forest Whitaker to Genevieve O’Reilly – even Jordan from British duo Rizzle Kicks. It’s a pleasure to see such dramatic presence on screen and assures of a real passion behind the scenes – this isn’t a mantle being carried lightly. Edwards is not here to cash the buck and this is as close to auteur cinema as you’re likely to find in a galaxy far far away.
There are two mightily powerful moments in Rogue One and I’ll tread carefully so as to avoid spoilers. The first is the moment in which you realise that you have no idea who will come out of this alive. The second is the film’s climax and you need to see this one and experience it for yourself to truly live the impact. In its best moments Rogue One doesn’t feel like a Star Wars blockbuster, these are the moments where the film can stand out on its own feet, it’s like watching a scrappy and visceral war film. Think: Zero Dark Thirty but in space and with a $200 million budget. Edwards’ direction is authentic, his hand is thankfully not blurred by the weight of the franchise and it’s easy to be reminded of his 2010 Monsters as the camera quivers and travels with his dynamic eye.
As far as that budget goes, boy is it utilised. From gloriously real planets and spaceships right down to worlds that exist to the smallest detail. The most striking CG comes in the form of two cameos that sit a little uncomfortably in the line of uncanny valley and, in one case, potentially in taste, yet are none the less remarkable. Equally awkward, and a touch disappointing in an otherwise perfect cinematic experience, are the occasional dropped cliché whilst four significant female roles do not a gender-balanced film make.
Rogue One, dare it be said, is a finer work than The Force Awakens. Freed of the pressure of being ‘that comeback’ the film excels as not simply a great stand-alone Star Wars film, but a classic of the big screen.