Film review | Rogue One: A rough diamond in a sea of garish orbs

Smeared with grime and possibly the most 'mature' entry of the lot, the first of the Star Wars 'Anthology' movies is also the most satisfying, full-bodied film in the celebrated space opera saga • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
28 December 2016, 10:18am
Clockwise from left: Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Jiang Wen, Donnie Yen and Felicity Jones complete the rag-tag bunch that is ‘Rogue One’
Clockwise from left: Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Jiang Wen, Donnie Yen and Felicity Jones complete the rag-tag bunch that is ‘Rogue One’
The Star Wars franchise is, without a doubt, one of the largest and most glittering cogs in the corporate Hollywood machine. 

One of the shiniest baubles in Disney’s newly-expanded empire – its parent company, Lucasfilm, having been bought off Star Wars creator George Lucas for a princely $4 billion – the saga that has been transporting several generations to galaxies far, far away occupies a unique space in contemporary history. 

To wit: it is both a cynical exercise in dollar-raking, merchandise-enabling profiteering while also being a richly expansive universe whose child-like charm and pin-sharp grasp of the fundamentals of mythic storytelling make it a cornerstone of our cultural memory. Lucas, working off Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking comparative study of the figure of the Hero in various world myths, crafted a timeless tale of the orphan farmer boy rising up to topple an Empire – while discovering the darkness that lies in his path and saving a princess along the way. 

Combining these classical sources with pop culture artefacts like Flash Gordon serials and more elevated cinematic cues like the films of Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa (borrowing heavily from 1958’s The Hidden Fortress in particular), Lucas created an appealing melting pot that just worked. 

Trouble was that while the man was an excellent imaginer and initiator, it seems as though Lucas’s gifts at executing an effective film-as-a-film left much to be desired. Indeed, while he is credited as both screenwriter and director of the first Star Wars film to grace the screens – Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) – he passed the buck to others for the saga’s soon-to-follow sequels, as the Empire Strikes Back (1980) was directed by Irvin Kershner off a script by Leigh Bracknett and Lawrence Kasdan; and The Return of the Jedi (1983) taken up by director Richard Marquand, with Kasdan sharing scriptwriting duties with Lucas (who, we should add, did in fact sketch out the overarching story of both films). 

Mood board: While Luna’s Cassian Andor (left) and Riley’s Jyn Erso struggle to maintain trust, Cassian’s trusty droid K-S2O keeps us entertained with sarcastic zingers
Mood board: While Luna’s Cassian Andor (left) and Riley’s Jyn Erso struggle to maintain trust, Cassian’s trusty droid K-S2O keeps us entertained with sarcastic zingers
The idea that Lucas couldn’t quite live up to the promise of the fantasia he had dreamed up for an eager world to lap it up appeared to be tragically validated when he in fact returned to tell the first part of his trilogy. The much-maligned prequel saga – encompassing Episodes I to III of his ambitious, sprawling story and gracing the new millennium with a momentous blockbuster disappointment – appeared to miss the mark on various levels; and it was only after J.J. Abrams finally took the leap to restore the saga’s reputation with Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year – a rebranding exercise to end all rebranding exercises – could Star Wars fans breathe a sigh of relief. 

Here was a film by someone – or a carefully selected team of individuals painstakingly aware of what makes their corporate machine tick – who appeared to understand Star Wars even better than its creator, and which gladly gave fans what they wanted, nevermind that upon closer inspection, its bare bones are pretty much a replica of ‘A New Hope’. 

But now, with Disney keen on getting the most out of its golden goose, apart from having Episodes VIII and IX to look forward to in 2017 and 2019 respectively, we will also be getting ‘anthology’ movies spliced in between. Ostensibly, these films will be set in the same Star Wars universe but tell stories that are off the beaten track to the ‘main’ trilogy. 

The first of these is Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) and letting us in on the story of how the Death Star plans – so crucial to the climax of a New Hope and to young Luke Skywalker fulfilling his own Hero’s Journey – were actually acquired. Coming as it does from the upper echelons of the corporate machine that rules the box office – and a merchandise line that keeps on giving – with an iron fist, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that, by actually telling a bona fide war film, Edwards’s movie is something of a radical gem: a rough diamond in a sea of blindingly glittering blockbusters. 

Nuanced: Ben Mendelsohn as the eminently hissable Director Orson Krennic
Nuanced: Ben Mendelsohn as the eminently hissable Director Orson Krennic
Our heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a wandering criminal trying her best to hide the fact that her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a reluctant Imperial engineer press-ganged into completing the Death Star when Jyn was just a child. But the Rebel Alliance has finally tracked her down, and is keen to tap into her family history to get the upper hand over the Empire, whose new super-weapon threatens to entrench their hold over the galaxy once and for all. 

Thing is, Jyn’s family history includes a truant adoptive parent, of sorts: the extremist rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who raised Jyn until her past was too much of a liability, and who is now holding a compelling hostage, the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who claims to have seditious instructions from Galen Erso himself.

While on paper, the Alliance appears keen to let Jyn simply tug at her father’s heartstrings so that she may bring back something useful about the Death Star, rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has more sinister – and covert – orders. With frayed nerves and nary a hint of trust between them, Jyn, Cassian and Bodhi set out on their mission, picking up the not-Jedi blind fighter Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his trigger-happy sidekick Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) along the way. 

To say that Rogue One doesn’t exactly feel like a Star Wars movie is to pay it the ultimate compliment. After all, what is the point of these ‘Anthology’ films if they’re not allowed to let loose a little bit? Happily, Edwards – working off a script by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz – is allowed to craft a bona fide war film (it has an opening that echoes Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and a cast of rag-tag characters to match) while also revealing that sustaining a rebellion is hard – and often morally compromised – work. 

Where the original trilogy excelled at crafting an operatic sense of childlike wonder and awe and fist-pumping thrills (something The Force Awakens riffs off of masterfully), Rogue One is allowed to smear on some grime and show us the consequences of going to war: be it through the brutal, on-the-ground skirmishes in jungles and beaches, the family-destroying ideological ruptures or the brittle ground on which the rebellion treads, with Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) struggling to give the whole movement a united front. 

We will fight them on the beaches: Director Gareth Edwards brings a raw realism to the battle sequences of Rogue One – possibly the first bona fide ‘war’ movie in the Star Wars stable
We will fight them on the beaches: Director Gareth Edwards brings a raw realism to the battle sequences of Rogue One – possibly the first bona fide ‘war’ movie in the Star Wars stable
All heavy stuff, surely, and all handled in a way that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. And though some fans keen for a more typical Star Wars experience may bristle at the comparatively dour mood of Edwards’s stab at the saga, there is certainly enough action to keep everyone on their toes – and remember, these characters are all expendable – while a dose of (admittedly cynical) humour is piled upon generously by Cassian’s catty droid sidekick K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). 

But what will almost certainly help bring the hardcore fans into the fold, is, in fact, Edwards’s treatment of the dark side. Apart from resurrecting a beloved actor for a key role through a shockingly effective use of CGI, this critic can report that Lord Vader himself more than gets his moment to shine. Thankfully, voice-master James Earl Jones is still with us, and his fathoms-deep timbre returns in full force to send shivers down our collective spines… to say nothing of Vader’s pulse-pounding performance in the film’s coda… but the less spoiled of that, the better. 

But it’s a new character who shines brightest in the dark corner above all. Eminently hissable for the most part, Mendhelson’s Krennic gains poignancy and nuance as we see him raked over the coals of the callous, House of Cards like power interplay that the fascist Imperial elite are engaged in, and his fate arguably attains the apex of tragedy during the frenetic battle sequence that rounds off this, arguably the most full-bodied and satisfying film to bear the ‘Star Wars’ stamp.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...