Sunday 18 December 2016

Film Review: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Rogue One sees director Gareth Edwards prove that the Star Wars series has legs outside of the central Skywalker drama.

After jumping 30 years into the future for The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise hops back in time for a brief standalone adventure set mere days before the 1977 original. Rogue One sits directly adjacent to A New Hope and follows a band of courageous rebels who infiltrate a high security Imperial facility to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia is in possession of in that iconic opening scene.

Of course, that means we already know how this one ends - but Rogue One is more about the journey, not the destination. It's filling in the blanks and fleshing out the story to add depth. This is the untold prologue to George Lucas' original masterpiece - and thankfully, incoming director Gareth Edwards does the daring tale justice.

First, let's begin with the positives. Edwards' sense of scale and spectacle in Rogue One is second-to-none. The battles and skirmishes feel grounded and gritty; a form of well-choreographed chaos that sees particular emphasis placed on the 'wars' in Star Wars. Fans will rejoice during the punchy action sequences that keep the scale both small (no universal threat) but also hugely important for our core characters. It's a personal film that revolves around a young tearaway girl and her father - and this emotional core does enough to give Rogue One emotional heft outside of the gorgeous action.

Said rebel is Jyn Erso, who is played by the excellent Felicity Jones. It's great to see another headstrong female at the forefront of a Star Wars movie but Jyn isn't just a carbon copy of Rey. Her arc throughout the film is well-defined and one scene in particular sees Jones flex her Oscar-nominated acting chops. Rogue One has plenty of flaws but Edwards' direction, Jones' performance and the overall Star Wars aesthetic (grubby and grimy) don't rank among them.

Other positives include Diego Luna as rebel recruiter Cassian Andor. Cassian is an ambiguous character with unclear motivations at first. His uncompromising nature makes him an asset and a danger to the fledging rebellion. His arc, along with Jyn's, are the clearest in Rogue One. Everyone is supplementary or window dressing - a point which leads into the negatives.

Is Rogue One perfect? No, not at all. Not by a long shot. In direct contrast to The Force Awakens (which opens strong and frays at the end), Rogue One spends the first act on shaky ground before building towards a euphoric finale that is one of the best battles we've seen in a Star Wars movie.

The first 30-40 minutes of Rogue One hops around and feels unfocused - too many locations, too many plot machinations without fully-fleshed scenes to soak in. When the film settles into a groove, things start to smooth out - but before that we get quite a lot of set-up and it often feels a disjointed.

A lot of people are also going to be peeved by some creative choices concerning classic characters that needed to be navigated in some form or another. Without going into spoilers, certain characters are rendered in CG and these models sometimes dip into the uncanny valley. Those unaware of this (i.e my girlfriend) genuinely couldn't tell the difference - but long-term fans might find this choice baffling and maybe even disrespectful. Me? I wasn't bothered - I genuinely thought the CG looked great and was worked into the film without going overboard.

The supporting cast don't soar in the same way as Rey, Finn or Poe from The Force Awakens. As I mentioned, Jyn is a great protagonist with a clear arc and some great acting from Felicity Jones; Diego Luna is a fountain of charm as Cassian; furthermore, Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk are frequent scene-stealers as blind martial artist Chirrut and reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO. However, aside from Jyn and to a lesser extent Cassian, the character work could have done with some more polish to add a dash more charisma.

Missed opportunities include Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), a character whose arc is already resolved before the film starts and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Whitaker is way off base with his scenery-chewing performance. He's the only major red flag in a film filled with performances that range from adequate (Australia's Ben Mendelsohn) to exemplary (Jones).

Michael Giacchino's score doesn't pack the same punch as John Williams' iconic riffs. Granted, arriving to the project late in the day practically gave him 30 minutes to compose something but it's a very slapdash effort nonetheless.

The final 60 minutes of Rogue One are excellent. Without dipping into spoiler territory, the film preludes A New Hope to perfection and the appearance of a certain Sith Lord is handled brilliantly. Vader has never been scarier than he is here.

The Verdict: 8/10

Imperfect but much better than any prequel has any right to be. The firm focus on war gives Rogue One a distinctive purpose within the overarching franchise narrative and Edwards can be proud of his ability to pave new ground and pay homage to Lucas' original at the same time. The first two acts are clunky but the third really soars - like, 'this is the best action since Jedi' soars. Stick with it and Rogue One will reward you.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas across Australia now

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