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Just like Anakin on Mustafar, we were all burnt by the prequel trilogy. From 1997 when the Special Editions arrived and started antagonising the hard-core fan base with revisions to George Lucas’ legacy the Star Wars we had all known and loved up to that point was irreversibly altered. When the prequels were announced, released and crucified in succession, the faith of the fandom took a monumental blow, but in fairness to Lucas, meeting the compounded expectations of an entitled audience was an impossibility and ultimately, a thankless task.
Jump ahead to 2015 and a new hope arrives… well… The Force Awakens was released, anyway. Pure, unabashed nostalgia-bait that played on the emotions and memories of original trilogy fans, while introducing fresh characters in familiar circumstances. Finally, another “good” Star Wars film!
Spin-off’s aren’t a strange concept within the Star Wars legacy. Way back in the mid 80’s we were graced with not one… but two Ewok movies, and it’s a testament to those two features that I literally just shuddered as I typed that! But with those films and most of the expanded universe jettisoned from franchise canon it was up to Gareth Edwards to direct a feature worthy of the Star Wars name.
Set just prior to the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One eschews the iconic opening crawl and fanfare in a move that will no doubt ruffle some traditionalists the wrong way. The title cards for each planet are likely to do the same but they add to the heist/ caper aspect of the plot. There are moments that feel akin to The Dirty Dozen as we are back to the “lived in” feel of the classic trilogy. Grubby, scuffed and cobbled together, the ships, costumes and sets give a sense of “life”. Something distinctly lacking from the prequels with their shiny surfaces and early 00s computer generated environments.
I adore Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and enjoyed his take on Godzilla for the most part, even if it did need a good twenty minutes lopped off it. Here, he takes a gargantuan leap into the unknown with an untested spin-off full of unfamiliar characters and worlds, in a story from John Knoll and Gary Whitta. And it’s this unfamiliarity that provides the strongest aspect of Rogue One… Stakes. Actual, bona fide stakes. This is practically unheard of in a prequel as an attentive audience already knows the outcome from viewing past (future) instalments. In Rogue One we don’t know these people or their outcome within the war. We follow their adventure, captivated and gripped by the fact that although we know they ultimately succeed in their mission, we don’t know how many of them will make it or at what cost. Bring in as many ancillary characters as you like to the Han Solo prequel, we know Han, Chewbacca and Lando are safe as houses.
Felicity Jones was a safe set of shoulders on which to rest this motion picture. She imbues Jyn with just the right amount of drive and fight. A couple of her stirring speeches lean a little too heavily into Braveheart territory but that’s more of a screenplay issue. I’d love to see Jyn pop up in other Star Wars features further down the line. The rest of the dirty half dozen is fleshed out by Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk and Donnie Yen. The latter two being the standout characters for entirely different reasons. Tudyk’s droid K-2SO provides some much-needed comic relief in what is quite possibly the most relentless and serious Star Wars movie to date, while Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe adds a spirituality that would usually be covered by those guys with the laser swords and giant brown bath robes. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is the agitator of Rogue One and the Imperial overseer of the Death Star. Cold, harsh and full of sneer, it’s great to hear his native Aussie tones where we’re so used to hearing plummy British accents. This is most certainly a character who we’ll enjoy boo-hissing at with each consecutive re-watch.
Whereas The Force Awakens repackaged large chunks of Star Wars lore and allowed us to revel in the familiarity, Rogue One tests the audience by targeting a familiar time-frame and giving us something wholly new. It’s not going to be for everybody but the darker hues, the volatility and glimpses of pre-established elements where the perfect blend for me.
Say what you like about the prequels. One thing you can’t deny is the exceptional scores from John Williams. His themes are the glue that binds. You might even say they are the force that holds George Lucas’ legacy in place. With a year to prep his orchestrations, Williams can create worlds within worlds, and truly masterful motifs. Michael Giacchino only had four and a half weeks to complete his score. There are hints of greatness but I found myself in an uncanny valley of listening to something that sounds “almost” exactly like Star Wars but missing that intangible extra that perhaps more time would’ve afforded.
There are several cameos, sly nods and surprises peppered throughout. I’m not going to give any away but there was only one instance where it niggled me slightly. We also have a couple of fully realised CG performances who’s faces may or may not throw you out of certain scenes. Overall, the Easter Eggs aren’t obnoxious, the visual design and special effects are incredible and I’m still trying to decide how far up the pecking order Rogue One fits in the Star Wars ratings. Lower than the original trilogy, miles higher than the prequels but fighting mid-ships with The Force Awakens.
If you are lucky enough to catch this Star Wars spin-off at the IMAX you’re in for a treat. Rogue One is pure “event cinema” and the audio/ visual spectacle at BFI IMAX proved to be nothing short of jaw dropping. As with The Force Awakens last year, the sheer scale and scope on offer cannot be matched in the standard multiplex. As someone who spent years as a 35mm projectionist (don’t worry… I got taller), the delight that comes purely from a technical standpoint couldn’t fail to put a wide eyed grin across my face. The visual effects, the bold cinematography and the luscious sound design should be enjoyed in the grandest way possible. THIS is what blockbuster cinema should be.
The Force Awakens and Rogue One proved that in the right hands, Star Wars can be a joyous thing once more. There are new adventures to be had and old stories to be unearthed. With Episode VIII and the Han Solo prequel due over the next 18 months, fans of this beloved space opera have a lot to look forward to. Personally, I’m hoping for a Yoda/ Yaddle (look her up) romantic comedy in Summer 2020.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now
Ben and I will be discussing Rogue One and the Star Wars franchise on our podcast Sudden Double Deep early next week. Come find us on iTunes and Stitcher!
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