By Jack Dignan
Remember many years ago when the world was greeted by a little trilogy called the Star Wars prequels? Do you guys remember those? They were set before the events of the original trilogy, showcasing the origins of so many characters, and they sucked. They were major disappointments, and fans (myself included) remain upset to this very day. Thankfully, when Disney purchased the rights to Lucasfilms, they set to make things right. They tried to bring balance to the force, in the shape of a new trilogy as well as standalone movies. The Force Awakens, the first instalment in the new trilogy, blessed our screens last year, and this weekend sees the release of the first standalone film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set before the events of the original trilogy, it's the prequel we all deserve.
While the trailers give a general gist of what the movie is about, they don't spoil a lot, and to keep that up, neither will I, so this plot outline is going to be very vague. But essentially, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who's a young rebel on the run. She's taken in by the resistence, who come to her with a proposition. If she helps track down her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who's critical to the devlepment of a superweapon known as the Death Star, then they'll clear her name of all previous crimes. She accepts, joined by a crew consisting of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and an imperial droid named K-2S0 (Alan Tudky). Together, they form Rogue One, bonded together to find Galen and steal the plans of the dreaded Death Star.
Right from the film's opening, Rogue One feels like a distinctly different entry to this saga. With no opening crawl, it throws you straight into the midst of space, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Before anything even begins, it feels fresh. It feels new. And it is. There's no fancy transitions, there's no Jedi and, with the exception of the occasional Darth Vader appearance, the film doesn't involve the Skywalker family. It's new and fresh and it absolutely rules. The film plays out like a war film set in the Star Wars universe. It's dark and gritty, but scattered with much-needed humour that's driven from the characters, and it works to perfection.
A rule of thumb when it comes to Star Wars is that the story always moves forwards. There's no dawdling and no flashbacks. Rogue One, in its glorious standalone nature, decides to break the mould. It begins in the past, a young Jyn getting the centre stage (or at least part of it, as the earlier scenes are definitely more about her father, as advertised in the trailers. Don't worry, this is not a spoiler. I'm not going to spoil a thing). There's even a flashback sequence, allowing for Jyn to receive a little more characterisation and allow for a deeper emotional bond to form between her and the audience. Throughout the course of the film, she goes from rebel to soldier, and she makes for a highly compelling protagonist.
Felicity Jones is an absolute treasure, and she gives a tremendous performance here. Her personality is distinct and lively, and everything that happens in the film always seems to tie back to her. Jones nails the action, the humour, the emotion and the scoundrel ways of her character. Without delving into specifics, the plot for Rogue One proves to be much more sophisticated than anticipated. While pitched and advertised as a mission to retrieve the Death Star plans, that's merely what's on the surface. The film goes a lot deeper than that, and it's Jyn who takes us on this thrilling adventure, full of twists and turns that consistently had my jaw dropped to the floor. There's so much more to this movie than the trailers advertised, and fans are in for a real treat.
While I was a big fan of Jyn and the story she tells, especially how it relates back to her father, the characters I loved the most were the supporting cast. Chirrut Imwe, a blind man with strong beliefs in the force, was by far my favourite character. One of the earliest scenes he's in is one of the coolest moments of the entire film, and everything with him in it after that was just brilliant. He's charismatic, extremely likeable, kicks ass when he needs to and brings a particuarly innocent style of humour to this dark world. While not a force user, he's a force follower, and this made for some highly investing plot elements. His friendship with Blaze is fun, but it's not until the third act where Blaze really stood out. However, that's not to say he was at all bad in the first two acts.
In fact, every member of this group of rebels felt like an authentic, three dimensional character. They all have history, personality and standout moments. Even the droid, K-2S0, manages to have a character arc. Alan Tudyk is the perfect choice for this droid, and every word that comes out of his mouth is utterly wonderful. To begin with, he merely feels like the main source of comic relief, and yes, his sarcastic wit was a highlight, but he ends up being in the same league as, say, R2D2 and C3P0. Gasps, belly laughs and joy were all brought on from his character, and I just loved him to pieces. There's so much I want to say about him, but I won't. I'll be saving a lot of it for the spoiler review, which will be up in a few days time.
Also on board the crew are Cassian Andor and Bodhi Rook. While Bodie may be my least favourite, that's not to say I didn't love him. I did. He really surprised me. He ends up being of great importance all the way throughout the film, and the performance is great. The same goes for Cassian, who I felt was probably the most developed and realised character in the movie. There's even times where I felt as though he was of more importance than Jyn, but every time I thought that Jyn would come back into action and show everyone who's boss. The dynamic the two of them have is really something, and while it was starting to lean in a direction I was unsure about, they managed to turn things around and do it well.
With all the heroes covered, what about those bad guys? The villains in Star Wars are always iconic, even the ones from those not-so-great prequels we can now forget about. The main antagonist in Rogue One is a conniving little shit who goes by the name of Orson Krennic. He's manipulative and after whatever gets him the highest position possible amongst the Empire, and I loved him. He's a charming character, especially for someone in his position, and I found every scene he's in to be rather compelling. Also amongst the big baddies is Darth Vader, who makes his triumphant return to the big screen after so many years. His screen time is scarce, but used to perfection, his presence constantly looming while the entire operation is being performed. Also, not going to lie, when he first appeared on screen, I was in too strong a state of awe to actually hear some of the words he was speaking, so that's one of the many reasons I look forward to rewatching it tonight.
2014's Godzilla reboot was met to mixed, but generally positive reactions from fans and critics alike. What was undeniable about that film, however, was how well it was made. Director Gareth Edwards put himself on the map with that film, following his debut with Monsters a few years earlier. He's a true talent, and he handles Rogue One with care and enthusiasm. If you've seen any interview with him for this movie, you'll see just how big of a Star Wars fanatic he is, and his love and admiration for this universe becomes abundantly clear while watching this film. It's set in the period of A New Hope, and it feels like it. The cinematography is stunning, the landscapes well realised and the overall grittiness oozing from the screen. It's a dirty Star Wars movie and Edwards is sensational.
Rogue One marks the first time that a Star Wars movie wasn't scored by legendary composer John Williams. This made me anxious, and the last minute swap of composers didn't help ease the tension, but thankfully, Michael Giacchino pulls through, delivering a score that's reminiscent of Williams's classics tunes while also standing its ground as its own thing. I wouldn't go so far as to say he better suits this universe than Williams does, but it's an interesting take, and I loved it. Will I be marathoning the score back to back with the first 7 scores? Absolutely. It deserves to stand alongside them, and I'm actually very excited to listen to it outside the context of the movie. Much like his previous scores, I feel it'll make for a good listen at home.
Every Star Wars film has iconic moments, whether good or bad. Even the prequels do. I know I quote Anakin's sand speech more than I quote anything Luke says in the original trilogy. Okay, maybe that's a joke, but still. Rogue One is full of crowd pleasing moments and fan throwbacks that will ultimately make their way into the Star Wars hall of fame, and to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if this film's entire third act made it into this imaginary but totally real hall of fame. The third act of Rogue One is the most exciting, suspenseful, shocking and wholeheartedly satisfying 45 minutes of 2016. It wraps the film up perfectly, while also setting up A New Hope. The film's story comes to a close in its own right, yet it's ending plants the seeds for the original trilogy to grow from, and I've never reacted quite as strongly to anything compared to how I reacted to this film's final 5 minutes. My smile has never been so huge.
To sum up, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story manages to succeed in almost every way, working as its own thrilling adventure as well as a leeway for the original trilogy to begin. With great characters, an effective score, stunning cinematography and near flawless visual effects, Star Wars manages to be the best thing about the year, two years in a row.
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