Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

(M) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Gareth Edwards.

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker.

The gang's all here, led by Felicity Jones, for the first Star Wars spin-off story.

There's a school of thought that taking Star Wars away from George Lucas was the best thing to happen to the franchise.

After the incredible Episode VII: The Force Awakens and now this strong spin-off – both of which leave Lucas’ prequels for dead – it’s hard to argue with that way of thinking. If only someone had done it sooner.

But it should be noted Rogue One is not as good as The Force Awakens, despite what some people are claiming. It’s great, yes, but it lacks the heart, the depth of character, the interactions, and that mystical magical something – the Force maybe? – that JJ Abrams managed to sprinkle on top of Episode VII.

For those of you struggling to keep up with this increasingly sprawling series, Rogue One takes place mere days before Episode IV – A New Hope, with its actions effectively setting the events of Lucas’ 1977 groundbreaker in motion. This is less Episode 3.5 and more like Episode IV – The Prologue.

Pivotal to it all is Jyn Erso (Jones), a tough former freedom fighter rescued from an Imperial prison camp by the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels hope Jyn can broker a deal with extremist Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), who is holding captive of an Imperial defector (Ahmed) with links to the Empire’s new superweapon – one that can destroy an entire planet (anyone wanna guess what that might be?).

As mentioned before, what's missing from Rogue One is character depth, which in turn affects the character interaction. We get to know Jyn’s backstory and motivations pretty well, and somewhat too Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Luna), but the rest of their band – Ahmed’s Bodhi and in particular Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut and his offsider Baze (Wen) – are left lacking, with little discussion given over to why they are suddenly part of this ad hoc team. It’s the film’s biggest flaw because it feels like large pieces of important conversation are missing and the relationships between the key characters are ill-defined, stripping away some much needed heart and empathy from this unit we’re following into battle. It’s particularly frustrating because Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze are all obviously cool characters, played well by three good actors.

The film still survives and thrives despite its shortcomings. These richer character layers have been jettisoned for a more streamlined, relentlessly paced story that races from one shoot-out to the next. It’s enjoyable stuff that never lets up or drags at any point in its two hours-plus running time.

One of the many, many criticisms of the prequels was they made the universe too small (Darth Vader made C3PO, knew Greedo, and fought alongside clones of Boba Fett’s dad? Huh?). Although Rogue One throws in some welcome nods to the other films with the presence of familiar faces, they never feel gratuitous or serve to shrink the universe. With its new planets and raft of new characters, it expands the Star Wars galaxy, helping restore a sense of vastness and richness to the cosmos.

Given how ingrained in Episode IV’s story it is - the end of Rogue One almost runs straight into the start of A New Hope – it's surprising how fresh Rogue One feels. Yes, it's a Star Wars film through and through, but it's unlike any of its seven predecessors in some ways. It's filled with gritted teeth, desperation, and a nervous energy – the much-touted line that it feels like a war film is on the money. Whereas JJ Abrams nailed the mythic quality of the series in The Force Awakens, Edwards has pinned down the military side – JJ got the “star”, Edwards got the “wars”.

Speaking of stars, Mendelssohn is the stand-out performer amid a strong field (Jones, Whitaker and Yen are all great) as high-ranking Imperial Director Krennic. Jyn is an excellent heroine and Andor a fine second fiddle, although the scene-stealer is K2-S0 (voiced by Tudyk), another droid you'll love in the fine tradition of R2-D2 and BB8.

As mentioned, there are some returning familiar faces, but it must be said that some of those faces look weird – the power of CGI brings back a couple of characters via a quick trip through uncanny valley. It’s startling and distracting at first, even if it’s great to see these figures back on the big screen.

In short, Rogue One works. It’s a cracking sci-fi adventure worthy of the Star Wars brand. There’s no opening crawl, no Jedi, no mention of the name Skywalker, and plenty of new music, but Rogue One does a great job of walking the fine line between being a Star Wars film and not feeling like any other Star Wars film.

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