Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
"Whatever expectations are carried in are brought to a stop, hard."

A film without an opening crawl, where the camera pans up from a planet to a ship travelling in space, this is Star Wars, but from a certain point of view. In the same way that Dredd is the more faithful adaptation of 2000AD's signature character because of its deviations, Rogue One captures the feel by doing something new with parts that seem familiar.

Yet it's also about fitting a story, and no small one, into a small space in a tale that we have watched unfold and be retold since 1977. Rogue One's differences from its companions are at first structural, technical, but very quickly they become moral. Whatever expectations are carried in are brought to a stop, hard.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and they are not alone - this is a 12A and deservedly so, with regular "moderate violence", and consequences thereof. The Rancor's keeper wept but his tears were an aside in another's story. Here death, devastation, loss, grief, revenge, and yes, hope, build towards rebellion.

Felicity Jones is Jyn Erso, whom we first meet as a child. The sinister figure of Director Krennic takes her family, and in that role Ben Mendelsohn's uncanny similarity to Sir Ian McKellen becomes indicative - in a large cast all of whom deliver strong performances, it's three roles made possible by motion capture and computer wizardry that steal the show. Jyn is joined by Diego Luna's Cassian Andor, and there is a chemistry that recalls that of Fisher and Ford, but Andor's sidekick is a treat. Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, a skeletal droid who provides both laughter and lethality. The other two roles are more important to what comes next, but worth preserving as secrets - suffice to say that even in death, stars can play important roles. Building to a thrilling denoument across volcanic landscapes, verdant beaches, crystal-infused deserts, this is a film about characters drawing a line in the sand.

Some draw the line harder than others. Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera is a cyborg guerilla, leader of a group whose resistance is uncompromising. Riz Ahmed's Bodhi Rook is a defector atoning for something, pushed and prodded in ways seen and unseen to rebellion. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang's Chirrut and Baze are temple guardians bereft of a temple, and though there are many with whom they share an enemy, they are very clearly friends. In small moments, gestures, Rogue One, which is itself almost an act of fan-fiction, manages to give space for interpretation. Star Wars at its strongest was ever thus - a sense of a place and time not only long ago and far away but where things had happened before and will happen after - here the after is immediately available, the last shot (and this does not constitute a spoiler) is a moment before the opening shot of the chronological first, the now Episode IV, A New Hope.

Gareth Edwards directs, and if ever someone deserved to play with the Star Wars franchise it is he. Monsters was a triumph of small-budget science-fiction film-making and truth be told, getting the keys to Godzilla wasn't reward enough. With writing duties shared across four people it's hard to attribute ideas but Star Wars alums John Knoll and Gary Whitta can perhaps be credited with some of the depths of reference to canon (including a few nods to the animated series Star Wars: Rebels) and Chris Weitz and almost certainly Tony Gilroy for the grittiness. In the same way that the original trilogy cribbed from anything and everything worth taking Rogue One does, but it's stealing from a different set of shelves - heist movies, war movies, movies with numbers in their titles like The Dirty Dozen and Ocean's Eleven and Force 10 From Navarone and counting all the way down to The Big Red One and Zero Dark Thirty.

Michael Giacchino's score borrows liberally from John William's work but there are playful homages to themes as if they are in construction too, awaiting deployment. There are echoes of that in production design, first drafts and prototypes here seen as first drafts and prototypes. There are other precursors - a blue squadron here, a younger version there, but never a sense even when others are "standing by", that Rogue One is resting on any laurels.

There are ground battles and space battles and duels and explosions and some stunning effects work - notably there are SFX contributions from firms other than Industrial Light and Magic - and there is a good story here despite the fact that audiences going in might think they know the ending. Indeed, one of the strengths of Rogue One is that it carves a space where it can make clear that there is a difference between endings and consequences, and it is all the stronger for it.

There are difficulties, however - this is, almost literally, marginalia - it is Star Wars considered as a fractal where every allusion and reference can be explored and exploited. For every Admiral Thrawn there's a Constable Zuvio, for every butterfly on the wing there is a jar of ether and a pin. This is also a moderately violent 12A, and that tonal dial is a difficult one. It's tempting to hang a "Star Wars for grown-ups" tag on this but that would do a disservice to this film and its stable-mates. Perhaps better to consider this a mature reflection of Star Wars, and, perhaps, on Star Wars. A love-letter, undoubtedly, but one that's also aware that Frank Booth talked about love-letters too. There will undoubtedly be some, perhaps even many, for whom Rogue One will not work. If American Graffiti and THX1138 were early line-ups, if Star Wars was a rock n' roll act, then The Force Awakens is perhaps a loving tribute with some of the original line-up and Rogue One is a cover-band. It's not the same old song, the same old way, but it's got that rhythm, that swagger, that X-wing and that swing.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2016
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Rebels set out to steal the plans for the Empire's deadly Death Star.
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Read more Rogue One: A Star Wars Story reviews:

Jane Fae ****

Director: Gareth Edwards

Writer: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Jimmy Smits, Mads Mikkelsen, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O'Reilly, Ben Daniels

Year: 2016

Runtime: 134 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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