‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ brought back the franchise in a big way last year. Not only was it a huge box office success but it also ended up being one of my favourite films of 2015. In terms of films I was excited for this year, ‘Rogue One’ was hard to beat. Being the first of the ‘Star Wars’ spin off films, it was tasked with continuing the momentum ‘The Force Awakens’ kicked off and prove that Disney’s plan to release one ‘Star Wars’ film a year was a good thing. Considering all this, it’s impressive that ‘Rogue One’ is as entertaining as it is. Unfortunately, however, it is also flawed, and it fails to reach the heights of its predecessor. It’s not a bad film by any means, but also not a truly great one, and yet it manages to be thoroughly entertaining.
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, directed by Gareth Edwards, follows the events leading up to the very first ‘Star Wars’, in which Jyn Erso and a bunch of ragtag rebels must steal the plans to the Death Star and deliver them to the Rebel Alliance. If ‘Rogue One’ has one problem that sticks out the most it’s character. Being a team movie, it obviously needs to introduce a lot of new characters in a short time. Unfortunately Jyn is the only one who we get to spend enough time with to actually know and care about. She’s not the only likeable character, but she’s the only one who is made so through the script itself and without the help of stereotypes. This first act issue is at least allayed by the performances of the cast; they all bring their A-game here, most of all Felicity Jones as Jyn. Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn also elevate their characters considerably with wonderfully convincing performances; the latter plays a truly intimidating villain in Orson Krennic. Donnie Yen also deserves mention for oozing cool the way the best ‘Star Wars’ characters do. If only some of these secondary characters had a bit more backstory fleshed out or even hinted at, the whole film would have been much improved. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ had a similar task, and premise, and it managed to introduce five loveable rogues with such success that audiences had trouble choosing a favourite between them. In ‘Rogue One’ it’s hard to pick anyone other than Jyn, except perhaps K2-SO, a droid voiced with excellent deadpan delivery by Alan Tudyk, who steals many scenes with his witty comedic relief. If only comedy made up for character.
That may seem overly negative, perhaps misleadingly so, because in fact I really enjoyed ‘Rogue One’ despite its flaws. It has one thing that I believe to be the best among all ‘Star Wars’ films: action and cinematography. Actually those are two things I believe to be the best among all ‘Star Wars’ films, and almost all of it is, in true Gareth Edwards style, saved for the end. While the first act is disappointing, and the second also a bit clumsy, the third makes up for the wait. The last half hour of ‘Rogue One’ is some of the best action cinema I have seen all year, if not ever. I sat in awe at the way the conclusion played out, not least of all because of the deftness with which the camera showed it. This movie is beautiful. In fact, it’s beautiful from the very opening scene, and the visuals just steal the whole film by the end, including the incredible CGI battle scenes that are breathtaking in scope and detail. ‘Rogue One’ won back a lot of points for its ending and it deserves so much credit for that. I left the theatre open-mouthed.
Actually there’s one more character who could be in contention for the favourite from ‘Rogue One’ but it’s not really fair since he’s had many movies already to set him up. Darth Vader is used sparingly but perfectly in this movie, commanding the screen whenever he is on it and proving why he is one of the greatest villains of all time. One scene of his towards the end of the film uses him to his full potential in the kind of spine-tingling way we’ve imagined him from the beginning but rarely seen. And Edwards careful use of Vader works to remind us of the Empire’s fearsome power while ensuring that he doesn’t overshadow Krennic as ‘Rogue One’s villain.
In addition to the film’s main flaw, there are some editing issues with ‘Rogue One’ that affect its pacing and hint at its messy production, as it underwent reshoots at the eleventh hour and hired Michael Giacchino to compose the score mere weeks before release. The music isn’t bad in any way, it just isn’t really memorable. Finally, there’s the CGI resurrection technique that will ultimately be the film’s legacy. Never have we seen the CGI resurrection of characters on a scale such as this, and in ‘Rogue One’ it is a mixed bag. While the character in question makes sense in the script, the technology isn’t quite there just yet and the special effects become quite distracting, straying into the uncanny valley. I fear even these few short scenes will quickly age the film as the technology improves, but only time will tell.
If this all sounds disappointing, well it is, but ‘Rogue One’ still managed to enthral me despite its flaws and it still manages to be a competent film, a more fitting entry to the ‘Star Wars’ universe than any of the prequels, and one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had in the cinema this year. Somehow, I am more excited for more ‘Star Wars’ after seeing it than I was before, and with a galaxy so big, and so far, far away as this, it’s an exciting time to be a fan.