We’re finally here. The first live action Star Wars movie that attempts to branch out from the saga of the Skywalker family and explore the greater universe depicted in those films.
But in order to test the waters, this first spin-off is not that far removed from the story we already know. In fact we kinda already knew how this whole thing would resolve: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story follows the group of rebels who steal the plans of the Empire’s most powerful weapon. It is not a particular story that needed to be told, but at least there was a chance to create something new within a familiar ground.
And to some degree it did.
This film introduces us to a new hero, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, injecting some much need charm into a rather flatly written character) who holds a personal vendetta against the Empire. She is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to help them contact her father Galen (Madds Mikkelsen), who has been helping the Empire with a secret weapon. Jyn is thrown on the mission along with rebel assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), and along the way they encounter many other characters like extremist Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker), Jedi stand-in Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed partner Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and Empire defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed).
During the course of the movie, this band of misfits must travel from place to place to solve the mystery of what the Empire is actually building and how to destroy it before it’s too late, with Imperial spook Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) constantly after them.
It is when director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) is allowed free reign that Rogue One shows what a Star Wars film can be. The film works best when it’s about this group of people with different backgrounds that have become unlikely allies with a sole purpose. Edwards possesses a great sense of scale and under his direction the world around our main characters seems bigger, dirtier and grittier than we’ve seen before. It seems real. And while the villains are as one-dimensional as any other bad-guy in this franchise, sans Darth Vader, the heroes are very interesting on their own, painted in shades of gray which makes them fit perfectly into the world Edwards is trying to create.
Unfortunately, Rogue One is also victim of the same forces that made The Force Awakens a derivative product prisoner of nostalgia at the expense of creativity. The film is often too afraid to be different and to create its own path, and is constantly throwing call backs and references to other films, desperately reminding us that this is in fact, a Star Wars film. A couple of character inclusions and the ending are specially troublesome, as they showcase just how desperate the attempts to please fans are, to the detriment of the story and characters this specific film seemed to be focusing on, taking the spotlight away from them.
All this back and forth between something new and something familiar, possibly result of the extensive re-shoots that the production was involved with, makes for an uneven experience in a film that struggles to find its own identity. Adding to the confusion, Tony Gilroy was called late in the process to write and handle some of those re-shoots himself. The Force Awakens, while playing it safe, at least knew from the start what kind of film it wanted to be. An example of Rogue One‘s identity problem is clearly showcased in just how different the ground and space battles look and feel. On one side you had grittiness and violence that show the stakes are really high, and then you have perfectly choreographed video game-like dogfights. Another example are the opening and closing shots: Rogue One starts trying to have its own voice, be free from the main saga, and ends up a slave to it.
On the music front, Michael Giacchino takes the honor of being the first composer other than John Williams to score a live action Star Wars movie, and fortunately he comes out mostly unscathed. Alexandre Desplat who worked on Edwards’ Godzilla was attached to the project for a long time, but had to step down, reportedly due to scheduling conflicts created by the re-shoots (though I’m guessing the producers felt his approach wasn’t familiar enough). While I think Desplat could have offered something truly special, Giacchino might be the closest to a classic Williams composer we have today and was bound to land a Star Wars gig sooner or later (in fact I was championing him for The Force Awakens). Giacchino’s work offers replacements for most of the thematic elements from previous Star Wars films, such as the hero’s motif, the evil Empire, and a Force related-cue, while also including a few Williams cues that fit nicely into his own style, all padded with standard Giacchino action music.
In the end, the positives outweigh the negatives, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes as a perfectly enjoyable film that will please most fans. The problem is, it could (and it should) have been so much more if it wasn’t for studio interference, but I guess in this new era for the saga this is just something we have to settle with.
- The good:
- Edwards take on the Star Wars universe. The main cast of heroes. Michael Giacchino’s score.
- The bad:
- Whenever the film stops being Edwards’. Weak main villain. Too much fan service.
- Bottom line:
- You’ll enjoy it if familiar is something you need in a Star Wars movie.