Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Just a few years ago I hadn’t even seen the original trilogy and didn’t care about the franchise at all, now after two films I’m thoroughly enjoying the reinvigorated ‘Star Wars’ films and really looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Set immediately before ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ this ‘Star Wars story’ shows how the rebel alliance got their hands on the blueprints for the Deathstar. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) daughter of the lead scientist creating the weapon (Mads Mikkelsen), is brought into the alliance as her connections may be key in stopping the Imperial forces from using their star-killer. Forming a disparate group of rebels they take on the mission against all odds.
I have now seen this twice, the first time while in France although we were able to make it to a ‘VO’ showing with original dialogue and added French subtitles. The second was in English with no subtitles. I enjoyed it both times, maybe because I’m not a huge ‘Star Wars’ fan I didn’t need to overthink the characters and story, I just enjoyed it as a sci-fi with a ‘mission’.
It’s being called a ‘stand alone’ movie but let’s be honest, that’s not 100% possible as it is part of a wider franchise, the full title says it’s ‘A Star Wars Story’ and therefore ties in with that ever-growing universe. As the time space this is set within has constraints, it does stand as the only ‘Rogue One’ film there will be as there’s no scope for another to be squeezed in before ‘A New Hope’, also as it doesn’t focus on the Skywalker family it stands a little apart from the others but it’s very much part of the series.
The storyline is good, we do know how and when it will end but they still manage to make a full and cohesive narrative out of the mission, bringing in elements of intelligence-gathering, war, rebellion and family. Even though we know the mission will ultimately be a success, there’s a certain level of tension with regards to how the characters themselves will fare and interest in how things unfold and tie into the wider franchise. There’s not much to surprise, it so neatly ties in with established franchise history that especially for those who read the books and watch the animated series’ it can’t add all that much to the universe except gap and detail filling. Also, it’s another film in the series that revolves around a Deathstar (they appear in most of the films), maybe we can get a totally differently designed weapon in one of the next films as the ‘episodes’ advance more into uncharted territory.
The assembled cast are excellent, fronted by the consistently brilliant Felicity Jones (also in ‘A Monster Calls’ which will be reviewed soon). The ensemble has a number of at least interesting characters, such as Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who is little used but still manages to be imposing. Sadly the potential of the cast and characters aren’t fully maximised, specifically it lets itself down with a lack of clear cohesion in this team. There are individuals and a few partnerships but even when they stand together they never feel like a unit that have bonded to support each other in their shared goal. It feels like an odd oversight, which leads me to think this may be a result of reshoots and alternate edits sacrificing the moments that would’ve helped solve this issue, which I will come on to in a bit.
My favourite human character is Chirrut (or ‘magic stick man’ as my friend referred to him) played by Donnie Yen, who stands out from the rest partly because his character does seem to try to connect with others around him, displays a little humour and the way Yen’s martial arts skills have been incorporated into his unique fighting style is superb and works fantastically well. It’s a little worrying that the clear stand-out character coming away from the film is an android, K2SO brilliantly voiced by Alan Tudyk (who was also the voice of Sonny in ‘I, Robot’). His allegiance to the team is stated as a result of programming and following commands, so although he does appear to go beyond the realms of his duty, albeit grudgingly, it’s hard to attribute this to anything beyond a facsimile of loyalty or friendship.
Director Gareth Edwards knows what he’s doing with SFX, that’s where he’s come from. I loved his understated debut feature ‘Monsters’ and really liked his take on ‘Godzilla’. Here, his love of Star Wars is clear and he has revelled in the opportunity to include cameos, some big some small, some brief some lengthy, some good and sadly some that fall short. It would be any fans dream to be able to feature some of these things and characters, and overall it works even if moments feel a little too shoehorned or fanboy. Some of these moments make use of John Williams’ original score to highlight key characters, while the rest of the composition by Michael Giacchino is new but uses similar arrangements and phrases that feel very familiar and work well.
Making use of old unused footage of rebel fighter pilots shot for the original films was one indulgence that I had no problem with in principle, even though it does still stand out like a sore thumb as they were clearly shot on a different camera. Sadly, what I had more of a problem with was the fully GCI recreated actors. Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, is recreated to return in the role of Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s not the morality of this technique I have a problem with, if the family are happy enough for it to be done then there can be a place and cause for the technique to be used. However, it never looks perfect, and so putting a fully CGI person next to live actors means we enter the ‘Uncanny valley’ where they never look good enough to be considered ‘real’ and I find it distracting, especially when such shots are extensive instead of fleeting appearances more in the style of a cameo.
With the sad death of Carrie Fisher I do realise that it may change the perception of the scene I’m about to discuss, so here’s a spoiler alert so skip this paragraph if you haven’t yet seen the film and intend to. The very last scene features a CGI re-created Princess Leia as she was in ‘Episode III’, who turns to face the camera and delivers a very optimistic line. I can’t express enough how much it would have been better if she hadn’t turned around, I actually believe it would have been brilliant end to the film. The fact that the last shot of the film is of Princess Leia now takes on a whole new poignancy after the sad death of Carrie Fisher, still I’d have left the cinema far happier if the last scene was so slightly different, cutting off the last bit. In fact, I’d recommend anyone unsure if I’m right, to try this simple technique when you watch the film next time, possibly at home, as soon as you’ve seen Leia’s back, close your eyes or skip the film straight into the end credits, you’ll see what I mean!
Thankfully Fisher had finished her work on the next ‘Star Wars’ film, and so although I expect a slight re-edit (unless she’s already being written out of the series anyway with what was planned) it’ll be a more satisfying end to her time in this universe that made her so recognisable and loved. It’s a sad thing to be concerned about whether a late actor finished their next role before their death, it feels slightly in bad taste when there are grieving friends and family, though it does show how beloved Fisher was particularly in this iconic role and how much fans want to see more of her at her best.
Since my second viewing of the film I watched a video in which super-geek YouTuber Jenny Nicholson explained why she wasn’t impressed and why other people’s reasons for loving it don’t hold up. She made some startlingly good points that I really can’t argue against, including the fascinating fact that there are shots and moments in the first teaser trailer that don’t appear in the film, including what looks like a scene that would totally change the final act. This raises the possibility that there’s an even better film left on the cutting room floor that was scrapped in favour of the edit that’s screening in cinemas. I highly doubt we would get this released, though there may at least be deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray that could shed light on this mystery. The editors, while not giving much in the way of details (probably under pain of death… or firing) have admitted that re-shoots and re-editing changed the film considerably, especially the final act. People have praised the film for being dark, I think it may have originally been a lot darker and more mature, reworked with the lucrative younger audience in mind.
Spin-offs are a difficult thing to get right, which is probably why they rarely do very well critically. This has proven to be a far bigger success than anticipated. While I enjoyed it and think it holds up very well alongside ‘The Force Awakens’ which I loved and kicks the backsides of those pesky prequels, there’s desire and scope for a ‘Star Wars’ film that is truly darker, grittier, and not merchandise-friendly, which this so easily could’ve been. In the end it’s a welcome variation in the tone of the franchise but doesn’t stand alone as much as it had the rare chance to.
‘Rogue One’ is nominated for at the BAFTAs for best Make Up and Hair, as well as for Visual Effects. I think it will get a handful of nominations at the Oscars, mainly within the ‘technical’ categories. A huge box office hit and initial critical success, I wonder whether the praise will last as it’s rewatched in the future, I do think the flaws may become more noted but still it’s a huge amount better than some instalments in the franchise and entertaining enough to forgive it some shortcomings.