Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen and Jimmy Smits.
Writers: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
Director: Gareth Edwards.
Reviewed at the Australian Premiere; Wednesday, December 14 at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter Cinema 1, Fox Studios.
Director Gareth Edwards takes an unapologetically hard line with Rogue One, the first of Disney’s planned series of stand alone Star Wars films. His version of the ever-expanding Lucas-verse is dirty, violent and vast; everyone bears a grudge, carries a vengeful sword, pulsates with a determination to either halt the march of evil or forge its destructive path. It carries the burden of being about odds and stakes, of legacies and consequences, of understanding destiny and the degrees of virtue and sacrifice required to honour it.
Edwards, working with scripters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, has delivered a Hollywood franchise entrant that harkens back to an era before those words carried ugly loading. Chronologically, it exists in a time and place just prior to the events of Star Wars: Episode IV and it feels of that era in terms of narrative and thematic shadings. In this Marvel tentpole world, where faux dramatics are conjured to create the illusion that superheroes are fighting for something of some value, Rogue One is indeed rebellious, posing a quest that resonates with emotional engagement and grand illusion.
Which accounts for the dirty, desperate soldiers willing to risk all in Rogue One. Edwards’ heroes are angry, sad, complex characters, the kind whose psyches can just as easily invoke violence and anger as they can a purity of character and rare heroism. This illuminates the direct lineage between Lucas’ Star Wars and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both share a single hero’s journey on a grand scale, physically and psychologically, shaded in light and dark and disguised as a B-movie space opera. Luke was driven by a sense of righteousness that soon turns to sour vengeance; our new heroine Jyn Urso (a commanding Felicity Jones) must confront that dichotomy reversed, having seen her mother murdered and father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) long since made a puppet of the Empire.
Jyn carries the burden of a hurt, hate-filled soul, a spiritual weight that has seen her disappear to the edges of society, and Rogue One soars emotionally on her gradual understanding and acceptance of the Rebel’s cause (just as a wide-eyed Luke came to understand the balance between his Jedi faith and human rage). Jyn has no royal romantic foil or a rogueish space pirate to lighten her load; her offsider is Rebel security heavy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, superb), a driven assassin willing to kill his allies for the cause. Edwards understands that a universe under Imperial rule is one of death and carnage; to suggest Rogue One’s intense battle scenes and cataclysmic destruction might be too intense for the under 10s is to conveniently ignore the fate of Jawas, Ewoks, the people of Alderaan, Death Star workers, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, to name only a few.
Rogue One is steeped in essential series mythology, including most profoundly the patriarchal bond. A mid-section sequence set on the rain-soaked Imperial outpost of Eadu explores this thematic element with visual and emotional bravado; in a film of sublimely constructed passages, it may be the most breathtaking. It is also a crucial sequence as it leads to the formation of the unbreakable bond shared between Jyn, Andor, turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind Jedi devotee Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen), his accomplice, the ace marksman Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Villainy comes in the caped form of Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, whose seething callousness and desperate lust for power make him a truly malevolent figure (though his human frailties are exposed in one memorable encounter with a certain Imperial Lord).
Gareth Edwards’ respectful and deeply rooted adherence to lore should not imply Rogue One is constricted by its legacy. It is, in fact, the most daring film to date in the Star Wars canon; bold storytelling flourishes are entirely convincing, silencing detractors of a certain ‘exhaust port’ plot development in Episode IV, while bright, beautiful sunlight and stunning space-scapes (gorgeously blending the real-world lensing of Aussie DOP Greig Fraser with the out-of-this-world work of the effects crew) give the film a patina unseen in the seven films to date. Edwards even dares to CGI-conjure characters from a bygone time who performed integral roles in both the implementation of and fight against the Death Star; that first glimpse of a long-gone Imperial leader is one of many extraordinary moments in Rogue One.
All of which may be why some analysis has stated that Rogue One is, “one for the fans.” In many ways, it most certainly and proudly is, given the thrill associated with hearing well-place sound cues, glimpsing a familiar face in the corner of the frame or piecing together fragmentary elements that non-fans will miss entirely. But that comment, “one for the fans”, also insinuates that something about Rogue One keeps it confined to the Star Wars universe, that it fails to break free of the lore that has gone before.
That is certainly not the case; Rogue One embraces its heritage then honours the past by crafting a magnificently large, fittingly glorious story of dignity, redemption and, of course, hope. It is about the birth of a rebellion, of what it takes to inspire the repressed population to unite and fight, of the bravery of the freedom fighter. In this year more than any other, that should resonate with a thunderous echo. Rogue One is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, yet feels more immediate, even prescient, than any Hollywood film in recent memory.