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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

| Cinema | 12/01/2017

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Rating:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – the latest container strapped to the back of the Lucasfilm juggernaut – has hit cinemas and is unsurprisingly delivering impressive returns at the box office.  Chief Features Writer Ian Cater went to see the movie for What’s On London and, after giving fans a chance to see it for themselves, sets out his views below.  Warning: this review contains spoilers.

As a lifelong lover of Star Wars, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what makes the franchise so fantastic.  I used to think it was the crude but effective polarisation of good versus evil, diluted by a ‘real-world’ recognition that both have their day.  Or the way George Lucas allowed characters to develop over time, keeping the camera on a handful of heroes and villains in a crowded universe.  Or maybe the blend of humour and darkness, which became so horribly skewed towards the former (missing its target) in Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

But I was wrong.  Because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has none of these qualities, yet still represents a welcome addition to the Star Wars oeuvre.

rogue-one-a-star-wars-storyIt’s undoubtedly a more grown up film.  British director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) has worked hard to reflect the fact the world has changed since Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 1977.  Back then, Lucas stuck to what he thought cinema-goers could handle: a two-sided conflict, where the main players hung around and, for the most part, respected hierarchies.  Edwards has released Rogue One from these shackles, believing that fans – young and old – can stomach more involved narratives.

Although he tends to prioritise character volume and story speed over nuance, Edwards deserves credit for creating a far darker movie than his predecessors, blurring the boundaries between right and wrong through violence on a scale fully justifying its 12A certificate.

Many headed beast

The original trilogy mirrored the duelling nature of twentieth century warfare.  Rogue One, in contrast, resembles Syria where several factions fight an oppressive regime.  As Assad uses extreme means to behead the hydra, here the Empire aims to defeat its diverse dissenters by press-ganging Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) into building the Death Star, a space station that can destroy entire planets.  In an early indication of a more complex world, the weapon’s commissioner – Ben Mendelsohn’s sneery Orson Krennic – says it’s needed to keep peace.  When Erso argues he’s “confusing peace with terror”, Krennic replies in true imperialist style: “Well, you have to start somewhere.”

cu_wrleukaassk2Erso is a reluctant regimist, closer to the Rebel Alliance whose existence is most threatened by his work.  The resistance movement, a bedrock of the Star Wars family, takes a darker cut-throat form.  This is personified by Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, who – despite playing the heroic male lead – accepts the need to kill friend and foe to protect the mission.

That mission is to destroy the Death Star, made possible when Riz Ahmed’s TIE fighter pilot defects to a band of anti-imperial extremists, led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), with a message from Erso.  Despite a common enemy, the Alliance has become estranged from Gerrera over his violent methods.  But this is no time for dogma.  So the Alliance makes contact by delivering Jyn Erso to Gerrera, who helped raise the girl after Krennic’s men took her father.

The Alliance gains hope – a precious commodity in darkening times – when Jyn learns that Erso has hidden a fatal flaw in the Death Star’s structure.  Although its leaders are initially suspicious, the Alliance eventually sends troops to support Jyn and Cassian’s efforts to obtain the weapon’s blueprints from the imperial base on Scarif.

Casting call 

If you’ve kept up so far, well done; if not, you’ll see the potential flaw in Edwards’ ambitious style.  And I haven’t even mentioned a third group of rebels (the Guardians of the Whills, led by Donnie Yen’s Chirrup Îmwe), various weird and wonderful beings in Jedha, or the Scarif Stormtroopers decked in the United Colours of Benetton.

star-wars-rogue-one-04Although the cast of thousands generates stunning pace and merchandise sales, it risks bombarding the audience with too much information.  More damagingly it sacrifices character development, which in Edwards’ highly caffeinated approach must be instant, with no time for percolation.

This impacts most on Felicity Jones’ Jyn, whose transformation from uncaring millennial (when Gerrera asks if she can stomach seeing the imperial flag, she responds: “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up”) to valiant freedom fighter is too sudden.  It sells her short, contrasting unfavourably with how directors let Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley grow into their roles in A New Hope and Episode VII – A Force Awakens.

Setting the action to light-speed also deprives some of the screen-time their talents deserve.  Mikkelsen and Ahmed warrant meatier roles and, although eye-catching, Whitaker’s appearance is too brief.  This is a great shame as Gerrera seems to represent this film: a fine mix of compassion and cruelty.  We see the former in his exchanges with Jyn; the latter we’re left to infer from an ominous orchestra and deep, Vader-like drags he takes from an oxygen mask.

Not so special effects

However, none of these flaws prevent Rogue One from pleasing most Star Wars fans, and stem from a desire to cram as much as possible into one film.  This is understandable given so many characters will be restricted to this cameo, perishing on Scarif in action sequences straight out of a Vietnam War movie.  Although a bold move in a film aimed at a young audience, this bleakness is consistent with the original story and death is handled stoically throughout.

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Elsewhere, Edwards has managed to soften some scenes with moments of humour – mostly Alan Tudyk’s excellent lines in his role as surly upstart droid K-2SO – and nods to the original trilogy which are knowing, regular and, on the whole, unjarring.

The exception is Lucasfilm’s use of CGI to bring old characters – Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia – to life.  It would argue that it has the technology at its disposal, and Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) play important roles in the story.  Cushing died in 1994 and, although still alive when the film was made, Fisher no longer resembled the young woman who held the Death Star plans at the start of A New Hope.

But neither is necessary to the plot, especially when the CGI efforts remain imperfect and distracting.  It seems vanity got the better of Lucasfilm on this occasion, as it went to great lengths in its efforts to recreate the past.  Reports suggest it’s considering whether to use the same technology in Episode IX, following Fisher’s sad passing.  If so, it should resist repeating this mistake and stick to the vast amount of acting resources readily at its disposal.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now, certificate 12A.  All images used above are ©Lucasfilm.

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