rogue one: a star wars story

review by liam farrell

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The Star Wars saga is the granddaddy of cinema franchises. The beloved original trilogy was a phenomenon, capitalising on a nostalgic audience desire for swashbuckling epics, and spawning a litany of offshoots of varying quality in both media and merchandising. A new trilogy began with last year’s The Force Awakens, essentially a ‘Greatest Hits’ comeback tour for the franchise. The film was billed as a return to the series’ origins, succeeding largely to wash away the sour taste the prequels left in fans’ mouths.

Make no mistake, Rogue One’s main purpose is to test the box-office appetite for the upcoming series of anthology films to be released in the years between the main instalments. Disney want to ensure that Star Wars nails down an annual slot in the ever-crowded and increasingly conservative blockbuster landscape of reboots, sequels, and whatever films happen to be next up on Marvel’s Stalinesque five-year plan for big-screen domination.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a kind of prequel to the original trilogy, slotting in between episodes III and IV. It drops us right into the franchise’s universe, all the iconic elements untouched. The plot concerns the theft of the plans for the Death Star, which as you may remember is the large spaceship/weapon/moon, blown up not once but twice in the original trilogy. The task is undertaken by a group of intergalactic misfits, to whom the film wastes no time in introducing us.

Chief among them is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. Her performance is certainly one of the strong points of the film, balancing a flinty determination with a buoyant charisma, and creating a very credible heroine to build the film around.  Her story takes centre-stage, as a rain-spattered prologue sheds light on her relationship with her Imperial engineer father Galen, played by a sadly underutilised Mads Mikkelsen.

As was the case with The Force Awakens, there are a huge number of new characters in the film, which brings advantages and drawbacks. As well as allowing for the film’s much praised racial diversity, they offer great variety, as we’re never given the opportunity to tire of any individual character’s quirks.

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However, it does mean that potentially interesting avenues of exploration are side lined in favour of a streamlined narrative. The cast is stacked with talent, but it’s a shame to see great actors such as Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Ben Mendelsohn (trapped in a weak Imperial subplot) not getting the requisite space and time to develop their characters. They often feel crammed in alongside fan-pleasing cameos (watch out for some unnerving CGI) and stock Alliance heroes and Imperial villains. It’s an aspect of the film which feels slightly muddled, and where the impact of the film being taken off director Garth Edwards by the studio for extensive reshoots and editing starts to become evident.

Where Rogue One does excel is in its action sequences, as Edwards choreographs a number of thrilling set-pieces. An early guerrilla clash between Stormtroopers and hooded insurgents is an exciting close-quarters encounter which allows martial arts star Donnie Yen to showcase his skills. However, the film undoubtedly saves its best for last. The crescendo is an epic extended ground and air battle which ebbs and flows to create a gripping finale. It’s in this sequence that Rogue One is at its best, pure Star Wars spectacle with all the bravado a modern blockbuster requires.

Rogue One is a good Star Wars film, and one that will certainly please fans. It brings viewers likeable characters, big action, and enough nods to the main series to keep interest ticking over until the arrival of Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII next year. It’s arriving in a predictable blaze of hype, and will make the studio heaps of money.

But when the dust settles and the hype machine rumbles on elsewhere, Rogue One will seem like little more than a decent series entry, too indebted to its parent franchise to justify its existence as a standalone film. One wonders if Garth Edwards’ initial vision had all of its individuality flattened out during the reshoots. Though there’s plenty to like, Rogue One doesn’t deviate from the formula enough to dispel the sense that Star Wars has become just another risk-averse franchise trading on nostalgic identification. Although considering its history, this could be simply the real marker of the franchise returning to its commercial roots.