A spoiler-free review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
While some over-exuberant fans praised The Force Awakens for taking them back to their childhoods, there was a significant portion of the Star Wars fandom who felt that the recycled plot, confusing character arcs and return to a status quo resolved in Return of the Jedi was not satisfactory. The charm, or magic as some called it was certainly present in whispered glimpses; but these glimpses could only disguise the shallow plot machinations and rushed production if you consciously chose not to look. With another year to gestate The Force Awakens could have been good; the characters and their arcs could have taken true form. Unfortunately money talks, and it was not to be.
One year later and where The Force Awakens failed, Rogue One has succeeded – and spectacularly.
For Star Wars fans the film has needed no introduction (and no, no Bothans were harmed during the production). After the pulp sci-fi stylings of the Prequels and the civil war-lite of The Force Awakens, we are finally back in the era of the OT for the first of the standalone anthology films.
As returns go, it’s the one that Star Wars needed.
After a single viewing the most joyful aspect of Rogue One is the fact that the awe is genuine – we are back in the conflict of the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire for pure reasons, and without the bad taste that the unexplained conflict of The Force Awakens emits. It’s an unfettered kind of amazing to be back.
Seeing Original Trilogy Stormtroopers back on the screen is fantastic, but it is the worlds that the characters inhabit that make us truly feel home. Jedah is a jewel in Star Wars design, reminiscent of other dustbowl planets but with enough of its own identity to appear new and vibrant. The street scenes are alive with a sense of reality that Star Wars has not had since Return of the Jedi. Because it unfolds naturally as part of the storytelling, it took a second viewing to realise how Saw’s den occupies the cantina role – yet without the painful elbow to the ribs delivered by Maz’s castle.
The biggest nostalgic cheers are saved for the climactic space battle. Seeing real X-Wings (there by in-universe logic rather than cynical production design) in combat against a range of different TIE Fighters and ISDs is truly something – especially for those of us who grew up watching Return of the Jedi on repeat and playing the X-Wing game series.
Yet there is more to the film than pure, nostalgic fan service (however well it’s done). The biggest, purest success of Rogue One, away from the subjectivity of finally seeing my Star Wars once more, is that the characters work.
Without labouring the point of how much better this film is than its immediate predecessor, the cast of The Force Awakens suffered badly from being at the mercy of the PLOT throughout their entire adventure. That doesn’t happen here.
Characters are established early on, with their own motivations and end goals firmly in place. When a character does something in Rogue One it feels genuine, and the payoffs for each are clear. It seems such a basic thing to praise a film for, but the stark difference between the characters of Rogue One and the walking plot devices in The Force Awakens only underlines how fundamentally flawed the latter film is.
Beyond the joy of the experience, Rogue One feels most alike to Revenge of the Sith. It is a war film, coming together like an extended, close to the ground Battle of Hoth in new environments and with new challenges. It feels visceral and real, and the victory that we know is coming is hard-fought.
This would have been enough. I was already satisfied, long before one scene in the closing moments. All I can say is that halfway through the viewing I felt Vader’s earlier appearance was extraneous. I was wrong.
His appearance is completely justified.
The closing five minutes of the film collapse into a rush of adrenaline and fan wish-fulfilment as we see around the corners of the material we know so well. I was already impressed with the film before the climax, but the fury of the ending instantly pushed Rogue One into the top echelons of my personal rankings.
Even within the shape of a Star Wars world we already know inside and out, within a story we know the ending to, Rogue One shows us new worlds, new environments, and new concepts. It’s a marvellously fresh step into the Star Wars universe, and feels true to Lucas in the way that we were promised back in October 2012.
In the hands of Gareth Edwards’ assured direction, some fine writing, strong performances and some incredible production design, Rogue One gets Disney’s Star Wars on track at the second time of asking.
It’s a feat of blockbuster franchise filmmaking – and means that for Star Wars, there is once again hope.
- A character saying “may the Force of others be with you” is a beautiful Easter egg.
- That said, there are two separate and incredibly brief cameos that make sense but felt jarring on first viewing. Second viewing not so much.
- The Force is handled wonderfully.
- It’s amazing to see Vader’s castle and how he spends his spare time.
- The re-animation of certain key characters is appropriate to the time frame and level of conflict, but it sure is creepy to see.