With a new Star Wars film in cinemas not long ago and another one not very far, far away, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had a job to do, and it wasn’t just about stealing Death Star plans. One year after the whopping success of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Rogue One is the first of the standalone films and it needed to set new rules to distinguish itself (and future instalments) as such. Also tasked with redeeming the word ‘prequel’ to Star Wars fans, Rogue One is a tale to which we already know the ending, which poses a challenge in creating high stakes. So the question is: mission accomplished?
The ‘New Hope’ in the title of the first Star Wars film, Episode IV, refers to the stolen plans for the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Rogue One is the story of the rebel spies who secure them and deliver them to Princess Leia.Rebellions are built on hope, says Cassian Andor, the conflicted rebel fighter who initially serves as Jyn Erso’s escort and eventually as her comrade in arms. Jyn is the daughter of weapons developer Galen Erso, a defector from the Empire who is violently forced back into service, leaving his only child to be raised on the outskirts of society by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera. While Galen goes on to build the Death Star, Jyn becomes a criminal outsider who wants nothing more than to keep her head down at all costs. This changes when she is apprehended by members of the Rebellion, who offer her pardon in exchange for access to Gerrera, believing that he will lead them to her father. As Jyn becomes more involved, she discovers that her father implanted an intentional flaw into the Death Star’s design. His insurgence inspires her to join the cause, risking everything to ensure that his plan is a success.
Alongside Jyn’s story, we get a window into the activities some of the series’ most beloved characters during events taking place at this time, which predictably is the film’s greatest strength. On some level Rogue One feels like a gift to the fans who hated the prequels, even an apology of sorts. The internal references come thick and fast, for the casual cinema-goer (Hey, look! It’s Darth Vader!), to the aficionado (Hey look! It’s Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba!) to the not-insignificant percentage of the population whose religion is recorded on the national census as ‘Jedi’.
Some of its cleverest tricks involve the unlikely presence of characters such as the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (a marmite issue amongst fans, but this reviewer ate it up with a spoon) and also a young Princess Leia. While the CGI has become almost shockingly advanced, there is no over-reliance on it in the look and feel of the film. Underlining the ‘war’ in ‘Star Wars’, this is a mud-splattered, gritty affair, much of it spent down in the trenches. The battles felt real and so did the stakes, particularly in contrast to the verbose series of increasingly bland light-saber duels that marked the prequel trilogy. There’s only one light-saber to be seen in Rogue One (and man, will you know it when you see it), barely a whiff of Force-use, and zero back flips. And most importantly we get to see a genuinely terrifying Darth Vader, in a scene that pretty much steals the entire film.
The most radical aspects of Rogue One as a film are in its changes to the Star Wars formula and iconic stylistic hallmarks. This needed to be done, and it needed to be done here, in this outing: no opening crawl, no John Williams score, no camera ‘wipes’ (the distinctive technique used in the previous films to transition from scene to scene). There are new text indicators at the bottom of the screen, relaying the names of the various planetary locations depicted. Even the logo is different. All of these deviations make sense, mainly because they have now established that what previously were considered ‘the rules’ don’t have to be adhered to, providing creative freedom for filmmakers and preventing audience fatigue. It’s a positive step for the franchise; for the fans it will simply take some getting used to.
Rogue One isn’t flawless; the characterisation is patchy at times, some sequences slow it down, and many of the things to love about it are the things you already loved. But it does the job it sets out to do, taking important steps forward, delivering a worthy prequel, and leaving fans with a whole lot of hope for future films.