ROGUE ONE. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker. Directed by Gareth Edwards. 134 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction violence).
Since Disney bought Lucasfilm (and therewith the rights to ‘Star Wars’) in 2012, they announced plans for Episodes VII, VIII and IX, with non-Episode spinoffs in the years between, officially labelled ‘Star Wars Stories’. ‘Rogue One’ is the first such Story to be released, and takes place between Episodes III and IV. When IV begins, Rebel Alliance leader Princess Leia is in possession of the plans of the Death Star, a planet-destroying weapon in the hands of the evil Empire. ‘Rogue One’ fills in how the Rebels got their hands on the Death Star’s plans, delivering a hybrid war-heist sci-fi flick powered by a big ensemble cast. It takes a little time to get the audience invested (tough because viewers of the original Star Wars trilogy know that they must succeed in their mission), but the final hour is a thrilling and absorbing ride.
Forget the Skywalker clan, our lead this time round is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), minor criminal and daughter of scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). When Jyn was a child, Empire troops led by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) killed her mother and kidnapped her father, and Jyn was entrusted to the care of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Her upbringing and eventual abandonment by Saw are largely left to the imagination – we pick back up with Jyn as the Rebels bust her out of prison as a young woman. The Rebels have heard rumours that Galen has helped the Empire build a super weapon, stemming from defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). As Saw has Bodhi captive on the moon Jedha, they are unable to confirm the news. Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his offsider, a reprogrammed (and now borderline sociopathic) former Empire droid called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), fill Jyn in with the pertinent details – in exchange for her freedom, the Rebels need her to get them in touch with Saw and his prisoner Bodhi, and thus garner enough knowledge about the weapon to perhaps destroy it.
On Jedha, Empire ships are harvesting kyber crystals from Jedi temples to power their new weapon. While looking for Saw, Jyn and Cassian run into two temple guardians, Force convert and blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his big gun-wielding partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). After a fracas with Empire troops, the foursome is captured by Saw’s disciples and taken to see him. Sidelining the bureaucratic maneuvering of the Rebels behind the scenes, meeting Saw is the first of the protagonists’ three successive goals: contact Saw on Jedha, then find Galen on the storm-swept Empire planet Eadu, and finally steal the Death Star’s plans from a high security data storage bank on the tropical paradise planet of Scarif. The first two points here are thin – some moments of the action are impressive, yet there is a sense of superfluity (the audience knows that they’re eventually going after the plans) and the characterisation is spread to thinly between a large cast to develop any genuine feelings for them. Laughs from the borderline psychopathic droid K-2SO and wows from Chirrut and Baze’s yin and yang fighting styles keep it clicking along nonetheless (their three actors deserve special praise for their performances). A weapons test of the Death Star on Jedha is also a hair-raising display of force and terrific use of CGI (unlike the CGI used to resurrect an oily-looking Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin).
So, the first half is fine. The second is thankfully terrific. The action is intense, DP Greig Fraser very much drawing on the visual vocabulary of war films, and it truly delves into the darker roots of what war truly means in a galaxy with such advanced technology and weaponry. Each character gets a few beats in the script from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, and while they may still not be particularly well-defined (none of the beats are very character-specific), each moment hits home as a deed inspired by a greater, nobler purpose. Diego Luna, slightly robotic in the first two acts, thaws somewhat and his chemistry with the always reliable Felicity Jones improves noticeably.
Keep in mind, however, that while this review was not written by a Star Wars mega-fan, I have seen all seven prior Episodes. I feel that some of the film’s best moments would be lost on more casual viewers. More specifically, the little thrills from seeing returning characters like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) to the full-body chills from seeing Darth Vader (the faceless Sith Lord still imposingly voiced by James Earl Jones) in full combat mode in a postscript scene. That said, the primacy of notions like sacrifice for the greater good and impossible levels of courage are universal, and will move even the newest of Star Wars converts.
Director Gareth Edwards was given an incredible opportunity; it must have been every creative child of his generation’s dream to get to play in the rich Star Wars sandbox. He earned it, and then some, setting a high bar for the rest of the spin-off films hurtling down the Disney pipeline towards audiences.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 15.
Walt Disney Pictures.