In the opening moments of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Darth Vader has boarded the Rebel Vessel Tantive IV. He’s interrogating the ship’s Captain; strangling him in mid air, violently interrogating him until his unsatisfactory answers are wasting his time. Ending the Captain Antilles’ life, and tossing his lifeless body to the floor he barks an order to an underling:
“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans! And bring me all the passengers, I want them ALIVE! “
Rogue One, the first ‘stand alone’ film of the ever expanding Disney owned Star Wars Cinematic Universe, is the story of the Rebels who sacrificed themselves to retrieve the plans and revealed the ‘wamp rat’ sized weakness in the gargantuan moon sized space station; the Death Star.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is an imperial prisoner. After discovering that the Empire’s been building this super-weapon, Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is charged to retrieve Jyn and recruit her to convince her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), one of weapon’s lead designers, to reveal its weaknesses.
The opening of the film is a snooze fest. In the initial stages of the film Jyn is the weakest character. While Felicity Jones’ performance soars once she steps up to Quarterback this Kamakaze team, she’s talked at for the opening exchanges. Luna’s Andor is a much more fascinating and underrepresented soldier of the Rebellion, an assassin and political disruptor, who can be trusted to ‘put down’ elements that he retrieves if they threaten to play games as double agents, or if they literally are lured by the Imperial dark side. Jyn is a gateway to two characters, her father Galen and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who knows where her father is stationed (unfortunately the Empire doesn’t have a Linkdin). Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is a fascinating character in concept alone. Becoming the first character to be introduced in the animated series to gain live action treatment, he is part of a rebel cell that is too extreme for the main consortium. The Rebellion is a group that aren’t necessarily as unified as we’ve come to see in the Episodic arc. There are fractured cells, willing to embrace chaos, terror and guerrilla warfare to stall the Empire’s progress of galactic occupation. These characters have more in common with 70s espionage characters in Spielberg’s Munich than anything we’ve seen before in the Star Wars Universe.
Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, a reprogrammed imperial droid and Donnie Yen’s blind force mantra chanting monk Chirrut Imwee are far and away the most effective characters in the film. For K-2SO, his clinical appraisal of the stakes of the characters, the film and the level of trustworthiness of different motivations feels like he’s speaking to the audience’s mindset in the early acts of the film. You too are watching in a detached curiosity, questioning the character’s risk calculations as they hop from one perilous Empire controlled planet to another. Once you meet Imwee and his partner, the medi-gun blaster wielding, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) the film immediately leaps forward. From the second you get some of that ‘magic’ and hear his mantra, “I am one with the force, the force is with me,” you’re reminded that the Empire’s oppression is absolute, and the gritty, bloody, fighting is worth it. Once they lift off in their stolen imperial ship and begin their perilous mission, you share an empathetic awakening with K-2SO. The inherent drama of this kind of sacrificial move begins to gel the team together. “There are no atheists in fox-holes,” and the force is on the side of our Rebellion.
The final act of the film, the essential suicide mission to retrieve the plans from an Empire strong-hold on Scarriff is where Rogue One is undeniably incredible. When the small outfit of alliance soldiers risk life and limb for the plans the audience has a great satisfaction of already being aware of their success and yet conversely you’re aware that each of the characters is not likely to survive what they’re about to undertake. The tropical jungle spilling onto white sand beaches is reminiscent of the imagery of World War 2 in the Pacific.
The scale of the super weapon and its omnipresence, and finally Edwards being allowed to let Darth Vader off of the leash is something to behold. He is levels of terrifying that really haven’t been touched in the live action films to date. The Death Star’s destructive force has alway been shown in slightly abstracted ways. The explosion of Alderaan in A New Hope is nothing without seeing Obi Wan describe the rippling cry out that weakens him. Rogue One shows that not only is the weapon configured for whole scale planetary annihilation, but it’s also got an ability to casually exact the kind of planet altering destruction of an asteroid or super volcano. It’s the Empire equivalent of a Death slap on the wrist.
The next paragraph may be considered a spoiler, so scroll past the quite quickly.
There’s just something so perverse about the lengths that the filmmakers behind Rogue One went to integrate Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin into the film left a gross taste in my mouth. The late Peter Cushing, returns to the Star Wars Universe in digital form, and instead of the Tron Legacy novelty of brief seconds of Jeff Bridges being made to look younger, you have a literally reanimated Cushing interacting across from Ben Mendelsohn Director Krennic. Apart from being unfair to the those artists who created this monstrosity to have it interacting with the full awesomeness of Mendo’s range of expression; it renders the scenes that show some valuable hierarchical ‘suck-holing’ occurring in the upper echelons of the Empire as they attempt to curry favour from old burnt face, Emperor Palpatine, almost unwatchable without partially covering your eyes. If they can cast another actor to play Dumbledore, Kenobi etc, you could have targeted an accomplished badass like perhaps Mark Rylance with the help of the folks who did the wigs on True Detective and BOOM! Tarkin.
This is where I get 100% spoiler-ish so I’d skip if you haven’t seen the film.
Showing the audience a digitised Carrie Fisher / Princess Leia is the filmmakers is demonstration of a lack of faith in the Rogue One’s ability to stand apart from the episodic entries in the series. Even showing her in that iconic white outfit, from behind and simply hearing her voice would have been enough. It seems that playing in the sandbox of these films means not only interfering with the dead but also giving Carrie a digital ‘nip-tuck.’
Come out of spoiler hyperspace.
For a sublime third act, Rogue One is a resounding success. For the perversity of slavish desire for performers to be as interchangeable as video game characters, this Star Wars dude does not abide.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman