Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Star Wars is a film franchise that has changed cinema, and regardless of how you feel about it, you can’t deny that the franchise will never, ever go away. For some, that is horrible – there are some people who truly do despise Star Wars. However, for me and countless other people, Star Wars represents the very best in cinema, and manages to be a shining beacon of a blockbuster in a world controlled by superhero films and Transformers. In the very first foray into a film in the Star Wars universe that isn’t directly related to the Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy or Sequel Trilogy, Lucasfilm has created a very good standalone film that manages to be a great film on its own, as well as staying true to iconic Star Wars folklore. As with my review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, this review will contain spoilers, but I will warn you of when they are coming, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, then just read until you’re told not to, and then skip to the last paragraph of the review.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not quite as good as the original Star Wars films, which were utterly magnificent. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is also not close to being as awe-inspiring as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, because that was a return to characters we’ve adored for years, and sentimentality and the fact that it was a damn well-made film made it one of the best films of last year. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t quite the best Star Wars has to offer – but I’ll be damned if it isn’t still a pretty great film, and while it may not live up to its iconic series that it is derived from, it is still a pretty entertaining and wonderfully intricate film that will satisfy fans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it alienated a few newcomers somewhat – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not the most accessible film if you aren’t aware of the Star Wars mythology. But I’ll discuss that later on.

The story behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a pretty simple one – it is set between Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and just before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and is concerned with a group of rebels charged to steal the plans of the Death Star. Leading them is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the architect of the Death Star. She teams up with a rag-tag team of rebels and outcasts, and they set forward to go against the Galactic Empire, composed of some of the most evil creatures in cinema history. This is the best part of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – it is simple. There isn’t a huge concept here, and it is a relatively simple story that is executed really well. Now if you haven’t seen this film and want to avoid spoilers, stop reading here, and then skip to the last paragraph, because the next few will contain some spoilers and discussions of key moments in the film.

Let’s be honest here – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not a normal Star Wars film, and it may just be the darkest film in the Star Wars canon. It is not surprising that this film is being directed at older audiences, rather than playing to the fact that Star Wars is a franchise that the entire family can enjoy. There are so many extraordinarily dark moments in this film, and it really does manage to be a lot more bleak than a lot of other Star Wars films. I’ll cut to the chase – can you name another blockbuster film where all the characters, even the main protagonists, die at the end? You may call be sadistic, but I found the fact that our main characters all perished a wonderfully refreshing surprise – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ends on such a bleak and depressing note, it is unlike any other blockbuster in the fact that it is way too dark to be as hopeful and entertaining. It was an interesting decision to kill off major characters, especially considering Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is going to do gangbusters at the box-office, and by killing off the characters, there is certainly not a chance that there will be any temptation to make this into its own sub-franchise. Bravo, because in a world where everything is getting a sequel, reboot or remake, it takes a lot to just make a standalone blockbuster.

In terms of the Star Wars universe, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story contributes a lot and does things slightly differently in order to create a new experience, while still keeping the elements that made us love Star Wars in the first place. For example, we have an entirely new group of heroes that aren’t similar to the original heroes in the main series. They are unique, and unlike in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, they don’t serve as surrogates to other characters from previous films. Another great part of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that the Galactic Empire has never been more despicable – cruel, evil and utterly remorseless, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story builds on the fact that these are very unsympathetic, evil men that want to destroy everything that goes against their beliefs. Orson Krennic (played by the magnificent Ben Mendelsohn) is one of the most compelling villains in Star Wars history, and he is obviously joined by two of the other most iconic villains, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. I almost screamed in excitement when I saw both of them, because while I knew Darth Vader would be in the film (and voiced again by the iconic James Earl Jones, no less!), I wasn’t expected Grand Moff Tarkin to appear. Obviously it wasn’t quite the same – Peter Cushing died in 1994, and they clearly rendered the late thespian with CGI technology – on this note, many people have been complaining that this is distracting, but they did what they could, and I actually love the fact that we are able to have gotten so far in technology that we can now render dead actors as alive in a way. For better or for worse, its an interesting development.

The thing that is problematic with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that it feels like it was made for fans rather than mainstream audiences. There are so many little nods to previous films, and cameos and developments, that can only truly be appreciated if one knows the previous films. It seems like while Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was very much able to bring new fans to the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was deeply rooted in the idea that people seeing it will understand the obscure references. Personally, I loved it – but I’m a fan of Star Wars. For a newcomer, they might be a little alienated by this film – and only to have it end with everyone dying. If you haven’t seen Star Wars before, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not the film that will make you a fan.

In terms of performance, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a bit of a mixed bag. I have to give credit to this film for being one of the most diverse blockbusters in cinematic history – the cast is composed of actors of various ethnicities, and in itself, it is led by a woman. However, the performances here aren’t on the same level as the other films. I’ll be honest – I kept forgetting Felicity Jones was in this film, seriously. I feel bad – Jones seems like such a genuinely lovely person, but she is just so dull as an actress. That dullness worked in The Theory of Everything, but here, she just blended way too much into the background and just coasted through this film, and I found myself actually thinking she did even less when she was in the scene as to when she wasn’t.

In short, Felicity Jones was not a compelling lead in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and I didn’t really care for her character, when I really should have, because Jyn Erso is a far more interesting character than the bland portrayal we received. Diego Luna and Riz Ahmed are very good, and did a great job with their roles. I have to say that the best performances in this film came from the extraordinary Ben Mendelsohn, who was such a cruel and compelling villain, and Donnie Yen, who is also extraordinary. I must also give kudos to Alan Tudyk, who is the very best part of this film, and brings wonderful humour to the otherwise often dour and bleak film.

The less said about Forest Whitaker the better. I like him as an actor, but the fact that this man has an Academy Award, yet still gives performances like this is just unfortunate and sad when you consider he beat Peter O’Toole for Venus. Sadly, Whitaker gives one of the worst performances in the franchise.

I didn’t really connect with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as much as I wanted to. By the end of it, everyone was dead, and I didn’t really care. It was a bleak and interesting film, but it certainly wasn’t up to standard with the previous Star Wars films. But it was still a pretty good film, and a great addition to the Star Wars canon.

Moving away from spoilers, I’ll just say that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may not be the best film in the Star Wars canon, but I still really did like it. It had the same heart and soul of the previous films, and it managed to combine the reasons why we originally loved the films, and combined it with something a lot more mature. I think Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a very good film, and fans will love it. I may need to see it again to fully engage with the complexities, but otherwise, it is still a pretty great film, and fans will be satisfied.

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