Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I am not a Star Wars fan.
The film is not without it’s flaws of course, and I must admit that the flaws in Rogue One are rather glaring, but set within one of the darkest and most gripping sci-fi adventures I have ever seen.
As part of this review I will be limiting most of my examples to the temple of Jedha. It’s early enough in the film to keep this nice and spoiler-free, and the scenes in Jedha are a perfect microcosm of Rogue One as a whole.
On the heels of Episode VII which details the third of the Empire’s colossal doomsday machines, you’d think the first of the Death Stars would be rather underwhelming in terms of size when compared to it’s far bigger namesake, and the converted planetoid Star Killer Base. And yet in this instalment to the universe we see the apocalyptic machine from a new perspective: below, from the surface of a planet, or in close orbit, seeing that grand machine dwarf suns, blot out stars and make even the terrible Destroyers overhead seem insignificant.
And just like that the notion of trying to destroy such a thing becomes not only impossible but absolutely imperative, making the mission so much more important.
One of my biggest grievances with the Empire, Vader, Sidious and so forth is that they have always been the bad guys because they are. It’s all very Black Hat, no actual threat, menace or malice per se, just a villain that shoots at the protagonists, and has to be stopped because they have a world-ending gun that makes planets pop like three day old balloons. Compelling enough reason, sure, but it lacks a certain amount of personal resonance.
Then we come to Jedha City, a former temple of the light side of Force, now the hub of relentless mining operations, under the perpetual shadow of a Destroyer with constant traffic passing to and from the surface. The streets are packed with people but they are shoved forcefully aside when imperial troops need to pass, and Jedha is not alone. Throughout the film’s frenetic first act we’re shown scene after scene of how the Empire forces oppress, subjugate, and otherwise laying waste to the lives of those planets under their flag.
All of this is brought home by the perspective of one so far beneath Imperial heel that she has all but lost hope, and Rogue One does an excellent job of making you realise why, and why rebellion seems like the only viable option.
This is not a happy film.
My gods people die, lots and lots of people die. And the people who live can’t exactly be said to be entirely happy. No heroes, not even villains as-such, just people at war, doing what they need to do to survive the hells of Imperial oppression and cutthroat bureaucracy. The small perspective and incredible fragility of these characters makes you generally fearful, despite the fact that you know the outcome because failure means the death of an entire trilogy.
Ambiguity of purpose can be best summed up in Forest Whitakre’s character Saw Gerrera, dubbed an extremist by the rebellion. He is immediately presented as a redeemer, only to be shown later as paranoid and hateful, with some unapologetic and unsubtle parrallels drawn between him and Darth Vader, showing how wickedness can lie on both sides, and in the heart of the best of us.
The Force is taken from magic to faith in brilliant form in the character Chirrut Imwe, blind guardian of the temple on Jedha. Despite the rather sceptical remarks of his ally, friend and protector Baze Malbus, Imwe keeps faith in the force which he sees better than the world around him, and has some ability to influence in limited ways, permitting him some Daredevil-esque combat skills where they are needed.
Imwe also resolves two rather important questions I’ve had about the Force for some time. The first is in a quote, “The force moves darkly around those who are about to kill.” succinctly tells me what defines light and dark within the Force and how it is decided, and also neatly opens the possibility of Grey Force users. The second is an instance in which he strolls through a killing field, chanting a mantra to the force, and is never struck; the stormtroopers have been uncharacteristically accurate in their gunfire so far, and suddenly the whole thing makes sense! Stormtroopers are actually very good at what they do, but the Force genuinely protects.
I find this entirely satisfying.
Vader… and Other Callbacks
For the first time, I have been genuinely scared of Darth Vader. This may very well be his best appearance in the franchise as a figure of fear and dread, and the grovelling of others in his presence suddenly makes sense. He’s always cut an impressive figure, sweeping through halls of the dead in his long black cloak, filling a rail-less walkway with his daunting welsh physique and magnificent african-american baritone. In this film however we see some of the ferocity we so rarely witness, no restraint, just murder! No further description, just watch to the end.
However, despite a plethora of very well delivered eastereggs, nods and references to the Star Wars universe, and especially to the film that follows, it is here that we find our worst moments in this film. It seems odd that the addition of certain details that offer a layer of consistency with the rest of the films should break the immersion so hideously, and the worst offenders are amongst Star Wars’ best loved characters. C3-PO, you need to shut your golden mouth and accept being background detail for a change, and R2, you do not need to be seen with him, you’re better than that.
Grand Moff Tarkin features heavily in this film as hierarchic foil to ambitious Orson Krennic, and kudos for wanting to keep Peter Cushing’s face on the character, but a far superior job was done on Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy and all it took was a bit of ambiguous lighting. In many ways it would have been better if they had done a worse job, as the facial graft falls right into the pit of the uncanny valley.
In short, the flaws in Rogue One are made very painfully obvious. I’m sure there were plenty of flaws that I did not pick up on because I was still enjoying myself, but I felt like I was forcibly reminded that this was a Star Wars film in ways that made me remember why I was frequently bored by the other seven films. I didn’t completely throw my hands up in disbelief until the giant evil lava castle.
Cool New Stuff
K-2SO, the towering new droid voiced by Alan Tudyk. Not one moment of this unapologetically blunt droid’s screen time is wasted and that is no small feat for the comic relief! Perhaps because he was permitted to state the obvious very plainly, it means that every line is a contribution to the narrative on some level. It does help that it’s also hilarious.
Kudos as well to Felicity Jones for the role of Jyn Erso, I don’t think I’ve been quite so impressed by a female protagonist before. There are a wealth of fantastic female characters these days, but I think Erso is a new favourite. She’s compelling, even if she falls into one of the more grievous traps of being a hero – the loss of a father figure – she still offers enough complexity in a short space of time that she may very well go down as one of the best heroes of the series, despite complaints from some of the real die-hards.
So speaking as someone who has not thoroughly enjoyed a Star Wars film, I have to say that I am in awe. Gareth Edwards has left me deeply impressed by the kind of scale that the universe can offer. It’s a sure sign that I’ve enjoyed a film when I’m suddenly inspired to take it to the tabletop, so if anyone has a Star Wars role-play going on feel free to share some stories, here in the comments, or fetch them over the Quotes from the Tabletop.