Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope

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We’re back at it again with the films, after a temporary and unannounced hiatus. I’m a little rusty, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story (2016), directed by Gareth Edwards (who depending on your familiarity with cinema, is either famous for making Monsters or for making Godzilla) was not a film I was in any way acquainted with before watching it.I did not like Godzilla (2014), although I appreciated a lot of its aspects. So with my expectations vague and largely absent, and from my previous experience with the over-hyped, under-baked Episode VII (see thoughts here),  I went to a midnight screening on the 14th of December, in IMAX with company.

And in a truly ironic fashion, it was the Star Wars film I had been (mostly) hoping for since last year. A piece which actually told a story that wasn’t just a rehashing of what had come before. Instead of a recycled New Hope, what we got was a film which did as much as it could and possibly more inside the restraints it was under, namely the baggage of being part of the Disney monolith. It manages to carve itself just enough of a niche to feel fresh and distinct, both from the Star Wars saga, and as a film in general.

Spoilers.

Based off of a few lines in the original 1977 film, the story of Rogue One explains how the rebels got ahold of the plans to the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) plays the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who designs the flaw in the superweapon which is exploited at the crux of the original film. Familiarity with the original Star Wars is needed to really understand the weight of Rogue One, but at this point its difficult to scour the Western world to find people not already familiar in some way with George Lucas’ original space opera.

So Jyn plays out her story, that of the abandoned daughter looking for her father, and the grand story, that of her teaming up with a rag-tag crew of rebels to steal the plans from the Death Star. The characters are honestly very strong, each one (or more often duo), is genuinely well-rounded and three-dimensional, and the very real interactions between them all makes for a film about camaraderie, even if Jyn is our anchor that everything else orbits around. Unlike Episode VII, which wanted to put the focus on the three key individuals, Finn, Rey and Kylo, this film is more than content to allow everyone their own piece of the pie. The characters in this really feel like soldiers in a war, and it has to be the case, since a large part of it involves the darkness of being expendable warriors in a galactic battle. How do you make a story that’s so small in the grand scheme of things feel so big? By creating characters who you care for. And I’m not usually one to go on about British actors, but seeing Riz Ahmed up there, such a world away from Four Lions (2010) really made me happy in a film nerd way. Also Simon Farnaby from Horrible Histories and The Mighty Boosh had the tiniest cameo and I loved it. But enough about British people.

On the other side of this, lays the machinations of Director Krennic (played by one of my favourites, Ben Mendelsohn) and him against both the rebels and the dangers of his higher-ups, a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (since Peter Cushing is dead which I did not know going into this and so did not realise his entire performance was CGI) and of course, Lord Vader.  While some dialogue on both sides sometimes veers towards the cringe and on-the-nose,  most of the films’ characters manage to chart a course between the stereotypes of action movies and the dangers of just being compared to the gigantic toybox of previous Star Wars characters..

It’s difficult to talk about some of its good aspects, because with a production this expensive and no doubt highly scrutinised, they’re all to be expected. The production and sets are incredibly elaborate, no expense spared and as a result the world just looks gorgeous, half of it digitised to such a high watermark that it really does look beautiful. The cinematography as well, follows in the District 9 (2009) vein, pushing us close into the action, right smack bang in the middle of the conflicts, and as result the battle sequences take on an incredibly powerful and taught tension. The ending sequence in particular, a battle on an idyllic beach world reminiscent of WWII Japanese beach warfare and the jungles of Vietnam is the best example of this, but there’s another absolutely brilliant scene of a rebel ground attack on some stormtroopers, and our heroes stuck in-between which really nails you into the fight. The sound design must rightfully take credit for that too, since its dense, very well layered texture weaves the world into being, especially with a movie saga with such a distinct audio aesthetic.

If anything, what I really want to talk about is how impressed I am with this film’s ability to mine the Star Wars of old, without just giving it a new coat of paint as Episode VII fell victim to. It’s fan service is weaved into the film so that if you don’t follow the canon in-depth, you can still follow the film. Subtle (and not so subtle) nods are jacked into the film, allowing those with the knowledge to perk up and recognise them (a great replication of the rebel sitting in the little tower at the rebel base made me smile), while those who aren’t as familiar will just ingest it as world detail. For all those reviews talking about it being a Star Wars film for the fans (well the one I found) ,  it simply just provides its fan service more organically and subtly than the previous carnival show.

So if the film isn’t another New Hope as the title suggests, well what is it? Well its a lot of things, elements of comedy, heist, personal revenge, family drama, corporate drama, I could go on. I think at its heart its a film about what causes us to sacrifice for our ideals beyond ourselves. It’s also a film which is broaching the technical forefront of the world we live in (resurrecting actors from the dead only continues to blur the boundaries of life and death) and the VFX in the film is extensive, as CGI only continues to get ever more realistic and grandiose in scope. In 10 years we can look back on Rogue One and see how far we’ve come. It’s cast as well, draws from all sides of the human spectrum, and the inclusion of Asian actors in a time when the cinematic market is shifting to a more global revenue shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they are made to be an integral part of the film, rather than a tacky add-on to shamelessly appeal to what the West would deem ‘foreign markets’.

Again, it’s that same core of humanity which drives this film, the humanity of relationships and power and friend and foe. The reason Star Wars is so powerful is that it taps into those great myths and stories we’ve been telling ourselves throughout the centuries, and when done right, a story which felt small in the original Star Wars, only given a few lines of exposition to explain how Luke could triumph, can feel gigantic and monumental in its importance. And that’s what I loved about this movie, is that it made the story on the ground feel big. It acts a memorial to their fictional sacrifice, and the wellspring that it draws that from is embedded in the millions of souls who have fought in battles across history.

Also there’s a bit in it where a ship crashes into another ship which causes it to crash into another ship which then breaks the magic gate which is preventing them from succeeding and its fantastic. And there’s a bit with a blind monk which draws on all those old Japanese movie clichés and it just was great. Go see it.

-Alex

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope