Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards (2016) BBFC: 12A

This spin off of Disney’s Star Wars sci-fi franchise will please hardcore fans far more than the average audience member.

In terms of chronology and entertainment, Rogue One sits between the swashbuckling first Star Wars (1977) film and the ponderous bloat of the Phantom Menace (1999) prequels. 

It has all the virtues and flaws of director Gareth Edwards previous effort, Godzilla (2014). That monster box office success was visually stunning but dramatically inert, revealing Edwards tremendous ability for conjuring up beautiful images but a fatal lack of aptitude for character, dialogue or drama.

The strength of JJ Abrams billion dollar success The Force Awakens (2015) was to capture the joyous spirit of the 1977 original film, while paying service to the fans with the inclusion of favourite characters, scenarios and design. Lacking Abrams gift for zippy showmanship, self confessed super fan Edwards plays loudly to his fellow nerds in the gallery but forgets to bring the fun for everyone else. The attention to drama is perfunctory while cool looking space stuff is drooled over from too many angles.

This film isn’t short of ravishing vistas and gloriously detailed design and there’s no faulting Edwards attention to detail. Graphics, costumes, sets and uniforms are lovingly recreated in an appropriate style. The CGI is faultless, except when it’s deployed to bring back to life characters from the first film. At first shocking and intriguing, the longer we spend with these unconvincing creations the deeper we’re lost in an uncanny valley of dead eyed CGI.

The filmmakers are so proud of their technical cleverness they pause the film so the audience can gasp at the marvel of the inclusion of yet another minor character. This kills momentum and makes the galaxy seem a very small place indeed, undermining all the impressively epic world building.

Edwards seems to share a belief with Batman Vs Superman (2016) director Zack Snyder, that looking cool is more important than coherent cinematic storytelling. For example a moment of intended poignancy is undermined by the directors insistence we bask in the gloriously beautiful glow of laser powered mass destruction. We’re encouraged to passively admire a billowing cloud of annihilation as we would a particularly colourful sunset. This is at odds with our natural reaction which would be to recoil in horror.

It’s worth comparing how in Terminator 2 (1991) James Cameron treated a similar piece of large scale obliteration as angry and painful. In the hands of Edwards the tone suddenly shifts towards the romantic, because nothing says ‘I love you’ more than a mushroom cloud. Cameron did use a mushroom cloud to invoke passion, love and reconciliation in True Lies (1994), but did so in a cohesive manner which combined story and character in a succinct and tonally satisfying image. Edwards fails to do this, opting for ‘gee, doesn’t this look cool’, instead. We’re not looking at the characters which would us insight into their emotional state, the cameras eye is on the beautiful scenery. 

Similarly to Godzilla, we begin with a short scene which introduces the major characters while killing off a significant other. And again, all of this is immediately redundant as the story skips several years to find the child at the centre of the scene is now an adult. All the information we are given in this first segment is offered again at regular intervals. The dialogue is nothing if laboriously functional in providing us with what we need to know. 

With her face set to stern and her laser gun set to kill, Felicity Jones stars as Imperial prisoner Jyn Erso. She’s co-opted into the rebel alliance because her dad is the designer of the evil Empire’s new fangled super weapon, called the Death Star. A team of assassins, spies and saboteurs is gathered and off they pop to break into a highly secure imperial base to steal the technical plans, in order the Death Star can be destroyed. Far too much time is spent with Ben Mendelsohn’s career minded evil scientist, Orson Krennic.

Despite Jones being at the centre of the action, it’s a male dominated film, with all her key relationships being with men. She’s a daddy’s girl through and through. Her gang are racially diverse, but she is the token female smurf, err woman. There are as many robots on the team as there are women.

Alan Tudyk voices droid K-2SO and gives the comic sidekick a degree of warmth notably missing elsewhere. Though the heavy handed robot humour isn’t hugely funny, we should be grateful for these scraps. I suspect the widely reported weeks of costly reshoots involved crowbarring this character into as many scenes as possible, he’s a jack in the box of intrusive appearances.

For a leading proponent of sci-fi, George Lucas has never shown any interest in exploring the moral and dramatic possibilities inherent in Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

The rebel alliance is reliant upon deserters, traitors and fifth columnists. There are shifting allegiances and employments as people are variously press ganged, manipulated and sold down the river. In an attempt to add dramatic weight to acts of derring do, contemporary political signifiers such as militant splinter groups, friendly fire and the destruction of ancient religious artefacts are included. 

Ruling the galaxy with a tyrannical fist must be exhausting and we see how Darth Vader spends his down time. This removes another layer of mystique and menace from the most feared cyborg in the galaxy. Taking a cue form The Revenge of the Sith (2005), he also gets his own flying Yoda moment. The man has a million stormtoopers at his disposal, but honestly, you just can’t get the staff and he has to do it all himself. Still, it looks cool,and that’s Edwards primary interest.

Rogue One begins abruptly and ends in a similar fashion. It dispenses with the opening crawl and the  classic John Williams theme is mostly absent.

 Technically Rogue One is episode III and a 1/2, but that’s half a star too many.