Having not thought much of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and feeling like I was adrift in a sea of praise for it, I was sceptical about Rogue One, despite the positive reaction. The trailers didn’t help, in that I simply didn’t feel they made the film look much good. I feared that what I’d liked about Star Wars (loved, actually) obviously wasn’t what everyone else did.
I’d started to feel that way with the prequels (1999–2005), but for opposite reasons: though I could see their flaws as well as anyone, they didn’t bother me. I enjoyed those films, and still do. It’s a lonely feeling.
Plus, it’s an offshoot, a side-story. Surely the stakes would be so much lower that any of the main sequence films, where the fate of the galaxy is at stake. More like one of those Expanded Universe novels that I’ve never had the slightest interest in.
I dragged myself to the cinema anyway, and while I took a wee while to warm to it, I came round, and found myself on the edge of my seat. Also, quite moved. After Force Awakens, this is much more like it.
It’s ‘offshoot’ status actually helps it dramatically in two ways: stylistically and structurally. This is Star Wars unshackled by the usual house style: no silly wipes, no opening crawl, and planets can be identified in a subtitle rather than having to be super-distinctive (desert planet, forest planet, snow planet). It walks a line between how much of the usual business it wants to avoid and still stay part of the family. The score is its own beast, for example, though it flits around the familiar themes (it’s central motif is most like Attack of the Clones’, strangely).
Also, it’s story plays out fully, to its own end—when it’s done, it’s done, which is almost unheard of these days, and a genuine relief. Not that you could just watch this one—you need to see, at least, the original Star Wars for this to make any sense at all, but there’s no Rogue Two in store for this one to drop irritating hints about. After a bit of that in the prequels and dollops of it in Force Awakens, that’s very refreshing. (The original 1977 film remains the only one that can stand completely alone if it needs to.)
One of my worries from the trailers was Felicity Jones as the lead. I thought her performance was at odds with how the character was presented (a psycho hard nut, basically, while Jones was, well, a bit posh). I was misled. Some of the lines which I thought were rubbish (“This is a rebellion, isn’t it? That’s what I do: rebel.”) don’t appear in the film at all. Others work beautifully in their rightful context. “Rebellions are built on hope,” for example, made me cringe in the trailer, but in the film she’s quoting for effect, and it’s great. She’s great.
The whole cast is magnificent, in fact. Diego Luna (who’s always seemed to me slightly overshadowed by his best friend and Y Tu Mama Tambien costar, Gael García Bernal) has grown into the world’s most dashing man. His Mexican accent is like music, and he’s nuanced enough to more than earn the moment when the blind Îmwe (Donnie Yen, also wonderful) has to ask, “Does he look like a killer?” and Malbus (Wen Jiang, also wonderful) responds, “No, he has the face of a friend.”
Forrest Whitaker: great. Mads Mikkelsen: great. And while Jimmy Smits’ part is about the same size as it was in Revenge of the Sith, he’s good here, where he was wooden and uncomfortable in the prequel. It’s also marvellous to see Riz Ahmed among Hollywood’s most fêted.
It helps that they have great writing to perform. Like the first 40 minutes of Force Awakens, it’s lean, potent stuff. There are many characters on each side, hero and villain, and we care about all of them. Perhaps the most dazzling piece of introduction—a late swelling of the band of heroes by a small army for the final act—is presented with a short, simple speech, delivered by Luna in that knee-jellifying accent, that gives us instant understanding of, and belief in, the motivation, dedication and worthiness of these new comrades. Character design and make-up, too, help us identify, and identify with, what should’ve been a random bunch of nobodies. There’s one who’s so pug-ugly that you love him immediately. It’s a bit like the genius in Episode IV’s final attack of having a fat X-Wing pilot called Porkins—still beloved by fans, some of whom are incensed that he found no place in this story. Some of his fellow X-Wingers from 1977, you see, get to make an appearance, which is neat, but leads us to another issue.
An aspect of the prequel trilogy that does bother me is its shoe-horning in of familiar faces unnecessarily. It’s a cheap, lazy way to tap nostalgia, and makes this supposedly expansive galaxy seem very, very small indeed. Rogue One flirts with this, but thankfully not too much.
When it comes to bit players, there’s one egregious example of pointless galaxy-shrinking near the start (“Watch it!”), but for the main everyone we meet is where they ought to be. When it comes to Artoo and Threepio, their four-second cameo actually helps clarify why they ended up on the Tantive IV with Leia (which the prequels made seem like a stupid coincidence).
Of more significance are Vader and Tarkin. The latter is a big talking point, obviously, for featuring the very dead Peter Cushing. How they got round the Crispin Glover BTTF2 rule, I have no idea. I mean, who’s permission did they get, exactly, to use his likeness? Anyway, his first scene was over when I realised I hadn’t listened to a word that had been said for scrutinising “him”. He’s imperfect and impressive at the same time—a bit like Gollum in the Two Towers. Gollum, though, was his own thing: animation, design and performance were open to interpretation. This, on the other hand, has not only a real actor to impersonate, but one in a role known back to front and up and down by the target audience of this film. It’s a big ask, and a big triumph that everyone’s basically happy with the result. I assume Cushing’s estate is happy, too, and has been duly compensated, so I’m just left with the hope that they’ll redo it for later home releases once the tech becomes better and cheaper, they way they did with Episode IV’s Jabba in 2004 (though that’s still crap).
Vader is done perfectly. He’s introduced without his suit, what’s left of his organic form suspended in a tank, rhyming with Luke after his wampa encounter in Empire Strikes Back. I couldn’t help but look for signs of Hayden Christensen in the mangled form. This a beat where the prequels really help. When we see the fully suited Vader striding towards a nervous Ben Mendelsohn, he’s bona fide scary again, and the fact that little Annie Skywalker has utterly vanished makes him all the more so.
A big hats off to director, Gareth Edwards. I haven’t seen any of his other pictures, but I’d heard he operates a lot of the camera himself, often improvising and trusting that the edit will shape the unplanned moments he finds. When I read that, I feared for Bourne-style shakey-cam, but the action, both the hand-to-hand skirmishes and the aerial battles, is nimble, deft and clear. There was also a very pleasant sense that the actions of the pilots in live action cockpits related perfectly with the motion of their craft in the CG exteriors, which sold the FX and leant a reality to the dogfights. There was also a unity to the style, in contrast to the prequels where the CG animators created dynamic sequences in a modern style that never quite knitted with the Kurosawa-inspired static tableaux that Lucas would film with his actors.
A lot has been made of the fact that this is the war-iest of the Star Wars. I was worried that that would just mean callous violence. At first, I thought my worries were justified—lots of innocent bystanders, lots of offhand, execution-style killing (from the heroes). But in the mid-Act II climax, the sense of war was conveyed much more deeply, more Full Metal Jacket, with crossed wires, confusion and panic that results in the Rebellion accidentally stuffing things up with a poorly judged airstrike. In the aftermath, the Rebel Alliance errs, frustratingly, on the side of caution. Mistakes here are very, very costly, and the outcomes of any action almost impossible to predict. There’s something Adam Curtis-y about this idea that the situation is more complex that you think, and simple, reassuring narratives being insidious enemies.
This, for me, is the spirit of George Lucas: a philosophy. As the upcoming Episode VIII’s director Rian Johnson wrote in a tweet, “the prequels are a 7 hour long kids movie about how fear of loss turns good people into fascists.” However badly they were executed, they had (like Videodrome) a philosophy. (Force Awakens, in contrast, was as soulless to me as many have accused the prequels of being.)
All that said, the skepticism I brought to it wasn’t entirely to blame for its slowness to win me over. It’s taut in the second half, but there is some flab early on. The brain-sucking creature, for instance, could be cut right out since it does neither of the things it promises (verify the defecting pilot’s story and driving him mad in the process), but at least gets far less screen time than the comedy octopus that Han’s smuggling in Force Awakens. And Forrest Whitaker keeps the sequence watchable, channelling Paul Darrow in the last episode of Blake’s 7 (“You………have betrayed………me?” —Fabulous.)
So this is much, much more like it. It actually has some weight, some heft. Heart and balls. It’s a side-story that genuinely enriches the main one, even the unimpeachable Episodes, IV and V. What a thing to pull off, what a dance to perform!
In short, it’s restored my faith in The Force™.