This is not a Star Wars movie. At least, it’s not the kind of Star Wars you’d recognise. Whereas the episodic movies are all about the magic of the Force, ‘chosen ones’, and good conquering evil, Rogue One is about the brutal tragedy of war. So much so, that I’m pretty surprised Disney let director Gareth Edwards make a Star Wars movie so dark.
There are no heroes, just people fighting with whatever they have left against an enemy so powerful it seems hopeless. The Rebellion is on its last breath, still going because they don’t know what else to do, arguing amongst themselves and mistrustful of everyone. This isn’t the Alliance we were introduced to in A New Hope - this is what was happening behind the scenes, in the dirt, up against the wall - basically doing whatever it took, even if that meant becoming just as bad as the enemy you were fighting.
Sounds depressing right? In a way, Rogue One isn’t a happy movie but it’s no less impressive because of it. As much as I love Star Wars (and I do), it always felt like a fairytale to me. No one really dies, the bad guy repents and finds peace, the day is saved and then everyone has a party. It’s fun but it’s not real. Rogue One is real. It’s brutal and it hurts but it is oh-so powerful you can’t help but be swept up in it. With so much of the story already told and an ending you know is coming, Edwards had a much more difficult task ahead of him than JJ Abrams did with The Force Awakens (opens in new tab). But thanks to a healthy respect for the source material, and a willingness to not let it dictate too much, we not only have another standout Star Wars film, we have the best one since 1977.
If you’ve been following the trailers, much of the plot will already be known to you and I’d rather not spoil the bits that aren’t - that said, there are some spoilers below so if you haven’t seen Rogue One yet, I’d suggest coming back to this review when you have.
We learn early on who Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is to the Empire, and who Jyn (Felicity Jones) is to him, and it’s through this connection that the Rebellion hopes to destroy the new planet-killing weapon: the Deathstar. Felicity Jones’s character is a hardened criminal with no love for the Empire or the Rebellion but she agrees to team up with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to try and track down her father. The performances of these two leads were essential for making the movie work and thankfully, Edwards chose well. Jones plays the defiant Jyn with ease and when she learns certain secrets, you really believe her whole world is turning upside down. But it’s Diego Luna that impresses with his tough, war-worn Rebel Captain, proving he belongs in Hollywood. You don’t need to know his character’s backstory, it’s written all over his face.
Unusually, there’s isn’t really a main villain of Rogue One. Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is obviously the Empire’s representative of the movie, and the one who faces off against Jyn during the climax, but he doesn’t have loads more screen time than Vader or another iconic Star Wars bad guy who makes an appearance. That’s because this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s isn’t about a good guy and a bad guy fighting each other for the control/freedom of the galaxy. It’s about two opposing ideologies, and what a group of individuals are willing to sacrifice for those ideologies. Despite this, Ben Mendelsohn’s performance can’t be faulted and whether he’s intimidating Galen or cowering under Vader, he improves every scene he appears in.
Speaking of Darth Vader, Disney wasn’t lying when it said it didn’t want him to overshadow the movie, and the Sith Lord is only in a couple of scenes. But what scenes they are! Nothing has been lost of the Vader we’ve all come to fear and, in fact, we now have a nice balance between the slow-moving, almost one-dimensional, Vader of the original trilogy, and the back-flipping Anakin of the prequels. The geek in me is desperate to talk more about his role in the movie as this doesn’t really cover it, but the reviewer in me is going to keep quiet and let you see for yourself.
Unsurprisingly, the remaining performances are also superb (well, Disney wasn’t going to go to all this trouble to get a mediocre cast), but a special shout-out has to go to the scene-stealing K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Providing some much needed humour to this dark movie, his opening line to Jyn says it all. Throwing her to the ground he proclaims: “Congratulations, you are being rescued. Please do not resist.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without the rude droid, Rogue One might have been too depressing for audiences. The rest of the Rogue One team are no less important or well portrayed, but to say any more would invite more significant spoilers.
The ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ references are in Rogue One, but they’re (mostly) subtle and when you least expect them. Equally, when you’re sure one’s coming, Rogue One smacks you in the head and reminds you, this isn’t that kind of movie. A good example of this is when K-2SO is retrieving the plans for the Imperial base on Scarif. You think he’s going to plug into a wall like R2-D2 did in A New Hope, but he doesn’t. You find him holding down another Imperial droid, drilling a hole into the back of its head and draining it of information, and the moment is no less sinister because it involves robots rather than humans.
Does Rogue One work as a standalone movie? Well, no, not really, but that isn’t the point. Everything that’s needed for a ‘good movie’ is there - a beginning, middle, and end - but it only affects you so much because you know what it means within a wider context. That’s why we care about this story in the first place. Without that, it would still be enjoyable but you’d have to ask why the movie didn’t continue on to the destruction of the Death Star and the victory of the Rebels. But Rogue One isn’t just a great Star Wars movie, it’s actually making the original trilogy better too by filling in plot holes that have been annoying Star Wars fans for years - you know what I’m talking about!
The climax is everything I hoped it would be, more reminiscent of the footage of the Invasion of Normandy during WW2 than Star Wars. This, and the lead up to the final battle, is where we see the real chaos of war and why - so often - no one wins. Being the good guys doesn’t necessarily stop you from being scared and making bad choices, and it certainly doesn’t mean everything’s going to work out. We might already know that the Rebellion get their hands on the Death Star plans but we never knew, until now, how close they came to losing it all, and what they sacrificed in the process. The moment you finally see the plans handed over, you realise there’s no happy ending here, just another battle to fight.
Go to page 2 for Total Film magazine's review by Matt Maytum.