Putting the war in Star Wars, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One thrills and chills. An excellent ensemble cast add grit to the mythology.
“That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” grasped Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi with innate gravitas on first sight of the evil Empire’s planet-killing weapon of mass destruction and instantaneous pop culture icon, the Death Star.
Stumbling across the enemy base in deep space, the Millenium Falcon was buffeted by the rubble of what the motley band of heroes including Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo would soon learn was formerly Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) adopted home planet of Alderaan, its destruction ordered by Peter Cushing’s merciless Grand Moff Tarkin.
Given the magnitude of it power, it always rang a little hollow, then, just how easily its defences were breached in the final act of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
It’s a quibble righted in Monsters and Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars: Rogue One, the first in a series of backstory fillers that will also include a Solo origin starring Alden Ehrenreich as the lovable rogue and Donald Glover as sometime bestie Lando Calrissian.
Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy build in a plausible reason best left for audiences to discover themselves. What I will say is that another subtle addition to the Death Star’s creation ties it directly to the great mythical heart of George Lucas’ enduring space opera. It is powered by crystals once harnessed by the still missing in action Jedi, thereby referencing the struggle to balance the dark and light sides of the force. While we’re twice treated to a display of its terrifying might, it’s in a smartly channelled way that doesn’t diminish Alderaan’s shock fate.
Joining Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Fisher’s Leia, Felicity Jones’s jaded Jyn Erso is a welcome addition to the universe’s kick arse heroines. Seemingly betrayed by her father Galen, an always-magnificent Mads Mikkelsen as the Oppenheimer-like scientist responsible for the destroyer of worlds, she finds herself unwillingly drawn into the more desperate machinations of a Rebel alliance that’s willing to get its hands dirty in the pushback against the ascendant Empire.
Echoes of the past abound. Jyn also has daddy issues with a sparely used Forest Whitaker as surrogate father figure Saw Gerrera, signalled as, rather than seen to be, an extremist who’s given the cold shoulder by the Rebels and had his origins in animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
In the grand tradition of buddies at war movies, Jones’ Jyn is joined in this frantic race to cripple the Death Star by Mexican actor Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, an intelligence officer and another morally conflicted ‘hero’ willing to shoot a man in the back at point blank range, recalling a certain Cantina slaying, pre-Lucas messing.
The foolhardy mission also recruits Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen as Force-worshipping blind monk Chirrut Imwe, a thrilling fighter, and fellow Chinese star Wen Jiang as his gun-totting guardian Baze Malbus, with vaguely queer overtones I so wish they’d pursued a la, “I love you,” “I know.”
A scene stealer, Alan Tudyk voices reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, a dab hand at delivering a sarky line with impeccable timing and a darker take on Anthony Daniels’ fretfully camp C-3PO. Four Lions’ Riz Ahmed is Bohdi Rook, an Imperial pilot who defects to the light side.
Weitz and Gilroy keep their backstories light, though apparently fleshed out a little by reshoots, commanding an unexpected emotional weight at the price each has to pay. Beautifully shot by Greig Fraser with a real grounding by fabulous location work, this is a murkier take on the Star Wars universe mired in the trenches, with Edwards staging an ever-escalating series of jaw-dropping battles across far flung corners of this much-loved galaxy.
After Adam Driver’s psychotic spoiled brat of a villain Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, Ben Mendelsohn’s ambitious Krennic, obsequiously hankering over an unseen Emperor’s attentions, the epitome of the banality of evil, is lower key, but equally fascinating. When he’s force throttled into line by Lord Vader himself, gloriously voiced by James Earl Jones once more, it’s a moment of sheer geek glee. Michael Giacchino is a superb substitute for John Williams on the powerful score.
While The Force Awakens played more overtly into fans’ hands, aping major plot beats of the original trilogy, it was arguably more accessible to new audiences than this starker tale with its heart-breaking finale, but where it all leads and just how it connects to Episode IV is quite wonderful, with several cameos set to make those who love this franchise squeal. One appearance in particular is something of a game-changer and will surely divide opinions, opening a gateway to the past that once set ajar, may never be shut again. But there seems to be no shortage of hunger for these yarns, and Edwards has delivered an epic worthy of its forebears.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords