This review contains spoilers
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
When The Force Awakens was released last year, I felt ambivalent. Not that it was a bad film, but my love of Star Wars had dissipated. My hype was non-existent I waited over a week to see it. In the wake of almost universally positive reviews, I felt obliged to judge it, holding too strongly onto the works which had come before. I’d been raised on the prequels and The Clone Wars (2008-14); this would never be my Star Wars.
But in the year since, things changed. I went back to the old podcasts I loved. I played the LEGO game with a friend. I’ve kept up with Charles Soule and Phil Noto’s Poe Dameron series month by month, falling in love with the character even when Oscar Isaac isn’t playing him. Through the trailers, I stayed actually pretty hyped for Rogue One.
I’d avoided Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) when I’d seen reviews criticising its focus on human characters, barely giving the monster any screentime. Yet if this is what Edwards brings to Star Wars, I can’t imagine how incredible Godzilla must be. But I’ve avoided IMAX for a long time too, still scarred by the horrific experience that was Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians (2010). Star Wars deserves to be seen on the big screen: it demands to be immersive. Rogue One‘s 3D isn’t anything spectacular, remaining more a superfluous spectacle than anything with a narrative purpose, drawing the eye’s attention towards elements which are not the camera’s focus.
Expanding the Star Wars filmic universe beyond the trilogies has been in the works for a long time. Even if discounting the Ewok films (1984-85) and The Clone Wars (2008) theatrical pilot, as far back as 2011, whilst promoting Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston, designer of Boba Fett, raised the possibility of directing a solo film based around the character.
Where the universe had been dominated by books, video games and comics, a film offers a chance to expand the universe in its original medium. Books, with too many releases for anyone but the most dedicated reader to keep up with, should not be given primacy or dominance. We shouldn’t need to turn to fan films to see a new cinematic vision. Maybe, at points, Rogue One can feel like a fan film of sorts, exploring unexplored corners of the universe without the involvement of Lucas or the saga’s major players – but it has enough talented people and enough of a budget that it never diminishes its authority as a Star Wars story.
The Rebel Alliance’s quest to retrieve the Death Star plans had been told numerous times in the old Expanded Universe, through Kyle Katarn’s missions in Dark Forces (1995), or the adventures of Twi’lek mercenary Rianna Saren in Lethal Alliance (2006); the Death Star plans became an easy object of video game missions. We already knew what Vader was doing before A New Hope thanks to The Force Unleashed (2008), disempowering him with an apprentice of his own, Galen Marek.
But Rogue One is able to prove its existence in opposition to Legends. Where the prequel trilogy detailed the fall of the Republic, established in the Journal of the Whills that prefaced A New Hope‘s novelisation, Rogue One takes what was once exposition in the opening crawl to A New Hope (1977), fleshing it out into an engaging narrative, the previous chapter in a Flash Gordon serial that Lucas forgot to show us. Though not an essential component of the series, it is far from unnecessary.
It may only be a story: a parable, a chapter within an anthology in a fictional universe. Rogue One brings with it an awareness that it is outside the saga: the film’s logo de-emphasises the Star Wars aspect, whilst the pre-credits opening and lack of opening crawl refuses to give us established conventions (although The Clone Wars somewhat already did this.) Rogue One embraces using flashbacks, showing the younger life of Jyn and her father Galen, and training under Saw Gerrera. Structurally, it avoids the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ of the saga: though we root for Jyn as a protagonist, the film shifts between multiple character groups and dozens of worlds. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) followed a linear path between Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City; here, we don’t need to follow Jyn between worlds for another setpiece to arise.
The universe is diverse, not defined by one location. The Force Awakens created new yet familiar planets – Jakku was still a desert world; lightsaber battles were still fought in snow; Anch-To was a tourism advert for Ireland more than anything else. Yet Rogue One is truly creative with its worlds: Scarif’s design is unique, split in two through Imperial presence, and bringing the Empire to palm tree beaches, recalling both the Pacific War and the D-Day landings on Omaha – defining Star Wars by its military history.
Rumours questioned whether extensive reshoots softened Rogue One‘s tone (they didn’t), but the film is still dark, still gritty, placing the viewer within the greatest war scenes ever seen within a series titled Star Wars. Stormtroopers aren’t shiny and pristine, but covered in grit. There may be no blood to show, but the universe is still populated by suicide bombers, assassinations, rain, destruction and death. Outside of the binary of light and dark, we see multiple forces uprising against the Empire on Jedha. The characters we root for are terrorists. But Rogue One remains faithful to the spirit of Star Wars, without ever contravening the notion of a gritty war movie.
Seeing Felicity Jones portray Jyn Erso here a few weeks after after her role as Lizzie in A Monster Calls (2016) takes some getting used to. In A Monster Calls, she was at her weakest, an ambitious artist and mother suffering from cancer. Yet Jyn must carry the weight of a franchise and a galaxy, as the strong female protagonist for a million girls to look up to. Though her character isn’t as developed as she could have been, we still get a good sense of who she is, seeing her young teenage rebellion. Her relationship with Cassian never becomes explicitly sexual nor romantic, a welcome relief within an industry dominated by heteronormative relationships.
Central to Rogue One is a sense of spirituality within war. Though the Jedi are nowhere to be seen, their legacy lives on, passed on through rumour and hearsay. Spirituality has surrounded Star Wars since its inception, through Yoda’s role as a spiritual guide or master, or, the Prequel Trilogy’s depiction of the Jedi Temple, monk-like robes and vows of chastity. Even as far back as A New Hope, Admiral Motti spoke of the Jedi as an “ancient religion”. Rogue One‘s theme is at the very centre of Christian theology: hope.
Outside of Midichlorians, the force still carries a power to non-Jedis. Donnie Yen’s character, Chirrut, connects the film back to its influences from Japanese cinema, in the films of Akira Kurosawa. As a blind swordsman, he utilises the power of the force through his staff; lightsabers are merely tools, imbued with spiritual significance. Even without the Jedi, like the fan film Kara (2016), the force still pervades all living things, manifesting in new ways. Chirrut’s faith is more explicit than any other Star Wars film has ever made it: he repeats the prayer “I am one with the force, the force is with me” , essential to his character.
But Rogue One owes more of a debt to Kurosawa: like Seven Samurai (1954) (or indeed The Magnificent Seven (1960)), a group of rogues band together, each with their own qualities, plot functions and backstories, and internal and external conflicts. Similarly, like the simple villages of farmers whose lives are interrupted in Seven Samurai, the film opens, we become aware of a traditional way of living, as Galen is recruited by the Empire:
Rogue One embeds itself with references to the other films, yet it does so with purpose. Whereas The Force Awakens could easily be criticised for its structural and thematic similarities to A New Hope, Rogue One depends upon interconnectivity. Like with Disney’s other major theatrical property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars films serve a dual purpose: exist as standalone, whilst teasing future instalments and referring back to previous ones.
Rogue One brings us back to the world of 1977. Cassian sports a hipster moustache. Spaceships are lo-fi, though they had been sent to space on the first NASA missions. The Death Star plans aren’t hosted on an online network, but exist as a physical computer. Certain shots, like the Death Star’s lazer being powered up, recall A New Hope instantly. The major players are all here: the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV, Tarkin, Vader, Leia, Mon Mothma, AT-ATs and Probe Droids, archival footage of X-Wing pilots Garven Dreis and Jon Vander, taken from outtakes from A New Hope. The film weaves a web of references: glasses of blue milk; the Whills; a spaceship populated entirely by Mon Calamari; the traditional C-3PO and R2-D2 appearance (having already appeared in every Star Wars film); Saw Gerrera returns from a small role in The Clone Wars; K2SO talks about having a “bad feeling”.
Some scenes seem pure fan service: Ponda Baba (aka Walrus Man) and Evazan walk past our protagonists on their way to Tatooine, wanted in 12 systems, returning to the screen for the first time since the Holiday Special (1978) – existing not to advance the plot or connect the film, but to give a chuckle to fans and confuse newbies.
But Rogue One doesn’t neglect the Prequels: rather than 70mm, its beautiful cinematography is still shot on digital, with state-of-the-art lighting equipment. Genevive O’Reilly reprises her role as Mon Mothma from Revenge of the Sith (2005), an aged Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, whilst Vader takes a home on Mustafar.
Perhaps more controversial is the return of Tarkin, performed not by Wayne Pygram but Guy Henry (better known to British viewers for his role in Holby City), imbued with CGI to resemble the late Peter Cushing: not as the back of a head or a reflection on a window, but in full motion as an essential character. Had the film been set further away from A New Hope, recasting should have been the priority, yet set in the days leading up to A New Hope, I fully accept the limitations. Tarkin seems photoreal, existing within the scene; I was only ever taken out by his voice. Rather than a prose character written by James Luceno, Tarkin is given new life. Tarkin’s role is necessary, though it could have easily been filled by a greater dominance by Vader, Krennic, or another Imperial officer.
But Guy Henry will never be Peter Cushing. The young Princess Leia closes the film, but her presence never seems off to me. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as 1980s Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (2016) seemed creepy as hell to me. But, as ever, art is subjective.
Yet, even with James Earl Jones’ voice, Vader never feels entirely authentic. His suit, worn by monster actor Spencer Wilding, feels too shiny and pristine to be the same one as in A New Hope, even with the red lenses. Vader is never menacing; he looks like a cosplayer. Where the film’s ending intersects with the opening of A New Hope, Vader’s rampage, murdering multiple rebel fleet troopers per second, seems entirely unlike the more calm and reserved Vader of A New Hope.
But Rogue One can never be A New Hope. The Death Star plans are introduced in loaded euphemisms, as Daniel Mays’ character warns of a “planet killer”. The Death Star seems a perennial obsession of the Star Wars universe, through A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, yet Rogue One elevates its importance.
Fuelled by Kyber crystals, the Death Star reappropriates the peace of the Jedi for evil intent, just as Coruscant was reappropriated for the Empire’s ends. Rather than an overlooked flaw, the reactor port is intentional sabotage by Galen. Where A New Hope never truly managed to communicate the emotional impact of the loss of Alderaan on Leia, Rogue One shows the sheer impact of the Death Star in devastating fashion, ripping a planet apart as a gradual process, as our characters desperately run from its impact. (The Force Awakens deployed this similarly well with the destruction of Hosnian Prime.)
The film’s closing act becomes its most daring, making us aware of both the futility and heroism of the protagonists’ journeys. Their stories do not end all at once, but as a gradual process as the Empire regains a greater stronghold: first Saw Gerrera, then Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze, then Jyn and Andor as Scarif is destroyed. Our protagonists are not special. How many others came before in trying to fight the Empire, or in trying to salvage the Death Star plans? As Rebels (2014-present) reinforces, there is nothing inherently special about Han, Luke or Leia. Anyone else could have been in their position: the only thing special is that they were the ones that survived. One move different, they could have died at any second. Like Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men prequel Deadly Genesis (2005), we become attached to a group of alternative protagonists, who exist only to die as casualties of war.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Tarkin orders the destruction of Scarif, our protagonists still upon it. Not only does this show Tarkin’s ruthlessness, but it becomes a propaganda coup: the Empire erases their failures from existence, no matter the loss of life. As Jyn and Cassian embrace on the beach, recalling the ending of Miracle Mile (1988): as much as our characters have spent the entire film trying to escape nuclear destruction, one can only outrun death so far.