By: Muneeb Arshid
So then, shall we go back to that galaxy far, far away? To a time when Darth Vader was still alive and the Death star was in its infant years.
Yes, a time like that did once exist, and it exists in a certain prequel of the original trilogy, or was it a sequel to the prequel trilogy? Let’s just call the whole thing off and just simply talk about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
So, this film does fit in before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and it does a marvelous job in making sure that you know that fact as well. Yes, there’s Darth Vader and even a spoiler-tastic appearance towards the end that leads into the original film, but the film’s message is one of hope, literally. Felicity Jones‘ character talks about hope a couple times as though winking at the camera that that is where the film is leading towards. Not a good or bad thing, just an observation.
Now, if you read my review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you would know that I liked that film very much at the time, so much so that if I were to review it now, I’d probably give it a lower score than the 8.9 given last year. But, even after four viewings of Episode VII, I am still a huge fan. To get the first “non-episodic” release in this series is refreshing, especially with a director like Gareth Edwards at the helm, the man who created the 2013 version of Godzilla. Before getting into what works and what doesn’t in this film, a little plot synopsis will come that will be as “unspoilery” as possible.
The story goes that Imperial director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) recruits Mads Mikkelsen‘s Galen Erso to help complete the design of the Death Star. This happens when Jyn (Felicity Jones), Galen’s daughter is still a child and is subsequently orphaned, or so it seems, but she remains hidden from the Imperial Army and is eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a veteran of the Clone Wars (place that in the Canon will you) who has no alliance with either the Imperial army or the Rebel Alliance.
Fast-forward to 15 years later, an older Jyn is now in the custody of the Imperial army and is freed by the Rebel alliance and subsequently filled in on the fact that an Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (brilliantly played by Riz Ahmed) with connections to Galen has a message to the Rebels about the secrets of the Death star. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is tasked with the mission along with his Imperial defect droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk in a very strong, witty performance) and with Jyn tagging along. Eventually, the plan is revealed to be to find the plans of the Death star so that the heroes in Episode IV could take care of the rest, 39 years ago!
The trek through space takes the crew from planet to planet trying to first find Rook and then look for Galen. Star Wars is always great at showing multiple different planets with weirdly distinct names that show up in the corner like they’re supposed to mean anything. I couldn’t have cared less about any of these places shown in the film, but the construction of the planets was absolutely gorgeous. As you watched the events take place, and the heroes arriving at each destination, it was quite easy to see the distinguishing features of each planet which is what every movie with multiple locations should be able to do. They should never all look the same and not be able to leave an impression on the viewer’s mind.
The problem with this film, as my byline would have told you already, is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a Star Wars film, it just doesn’t have the charm of the previous films. Well, not the Prequels of course. You know there’s a lot of “Star Wars-ing” going on, with nods to characters and the Jedi and Darth Vader, who is actually in this, but for the first two acts at least, the film feels slightly off. It feels slightly off because of a pretty lackluster script where the actors don’t feel comfortable with their dialogue. It is definitely a script that could’ve gone through a couple passes for further editing and refining before being pushed to the director and the actors. The story itself, while working towards filling A gap between Episode III and IV, doesn’t grip you until the final act and the climax where the film admittedly takes a turn for the better with its great war sequence.
The other reason why the film feels off could also be the lack of any known characters. This being the eighth movie, there have always been characters that we’ve been able to recognize in all movies subsequent to Episode IV. This film falls in the same ballpark as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, where we know exactly which universe we’re in, but at the same time we don’t feel comfortable being in this universe.
But, like it’s been mentioned, there are good spots in this film, and most notably the third act, where director Gareth Edwards turns up the ante and provides the viewers with a final climax that we’ve never seen in this series. His promise of the film being about war is duly fulfilled and at the same time, we get an actual space battle, something that was criticized by some fans in The Force Awakens. He brings his experience from shooting Godzilla to the forefront during the final sequence, and you can see why Kathleen Kennedy and Co. hired him for this film. His two films can be compared together as having very similar problems when it comes to the script. The first two acts of Godzilla, as refreshing as that film was, had a very ropey character thread running down its seams, and the same happens here in Rogue One.
Going back to positives, Greig Fraser, he who shot Zero Dark Thirty brings his A-game once again and is a reason as to why this film looks gorgeous through and through. A veteran of the war genre, Fraser is able to successfully capture key character moments while also ramping up and maintaining the shots through the lens of the war. He seamlessly transitions from space battles to blaster battles on the ground, utilizing the modern fast-cut editing approach in a somewhat competent manner, which in itself is a major complement.
Complementing the film as a whole is the soundtrack of this legendary series. Now, John Williams did not compose the score for this film, rather focusing on the score for The BFG and more importantly for Episode VIII next year. Michael Giacchino, a long-time composer for J.J. Abrams and many more modern films took the helm for his own take on the legendary score. Some of the classics like the Imperial March and shades of the original theme that we will hear next year are still present, but for the most part, Giacchino has composed his own, moderately average soundtrack. Just like the plot in the first two acts, the soundtrack doesn’t have that oomph which may be connected to not associating itself well with the story, like previous versions have done.
Gareth Edwards has succeeded in making a war film for the Star Wars universe, and quite successfully at that. However, as a Star Wars film, it does a competent job in telling the prequel story that we all wanted, but nothing more than that. And if I were ranking the films, this film would go in at #4 behind Episodes IV, V and VII in no particular order.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story receives a very commendable grade of B- from TFL (7.4/10).