Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen. Directed by Alexander Freed.
There is so much to like in this anthology-style Star Wars movie. Not least because it’s the first film set before A New Hope that doesn’t suck. After last years brilliant sequel The Force Awakens, expectations were high for this movie to build on the promise of an essentially Lucas-free Star Wars universe.
It delivers, and more. Director Gareth Edwards – who cut his teeth with the interesting Monsters, and then divided audiences with Godzilla – outdoes himself here, melding big action with actual characters. It helps, of course, that he’s working on a story that was rooted in Lucas’ original mythos. Those opening scrolls in A New Hope tell us rebels stole the plans for the Death Star, and while the prequels Lucas made decided to ignore the Clone Wars and the stealing of plans in favour of a fairly pedestrian love story and some awful dialogue, it’s the fans of the movies that are now making them.
It’s easy for people to blame Lucas for the bad movies, and with good reason, he only directed four. Yes, the best of the series The Empire Strikes Back, was directed by Irvin Kershner and Return of the Jedi by Richard Marquard. Now, the story by Star Wars veteran and VFX maestro John Knoll tells the story of Jyn Erso, a cocky loner who dislikes authority and looks to forge her own path in this world, but is drawn into the Rebel Alliance because her father happens to have designed the Death Star, and she was raised by the extremist anti-Empire Saw Gerrera. In Rogue One she forges an alliance with some misfits, and together they basically make the original Trilogy possible.
So what’s so good about it? Well, for starters it’s written really well. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy know their action movie franchises, and have both cut their teeth as directors, while Gary Whitta who fleshed out the story with Knoll helped bring back the Planet of the Apes films. So of course it’s got a good story to it, but it’s directed differently to the classical David Lean style of the original Trilogy or even the overly polished CGI of the prequels, this has its own feel. The uniforms are creased, the armour dirty, the underside of the ships are rusted and chipped, this is a world that exists but is slowly falling apart.
Then of course there’s the cast. Felicity Jones is great as Jyn Erso, defiant, rude but also an enigma and one you want to know more about. Not the whiney dick that Anakin Skywalker was or even the wet blanket Luke was, no, Erso carves her own niche as ruthless, vicious and also a little bit cheeky. Of course like all Star Wars movies her supporting cast steal the show, from Diego Luna’s rebel Cassian Andor, to Forest Whitaker’s Robo-cop style Saw Gerrera, who adds some much needed prestige.
Then there’s the double act of Donnie Yen as blind force user Chirrut Imwe (“I am one with the force and the force is with me”) and his pal Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus who’s oversized gun is the must have cosplay item. Of course there are other veteran actors, like Mads Mikkelsen as Erso’s enigmatic father, and Ben Mendelssohn as director Orson Krennic – not since his turn in Animal Kingdom has he been so slimey, so unlikeable and so brilliant to watch.
But the two stand outs are Riz Ahmed as former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook showing that Finn was not the first defector in the Empire, who wrestles with his heart and his past and of course Alan Tudyk as smart-ass robot K-2SO, better than R2D2 and less annoying that C3PO, Tudyk is every bit as good as he was in things like I, Robot or Firefly and uses the performance capture technology like Andy Serkis does. There’s also some great cameos from old classics, but to tell them would ruin the movie, needless to say James Earl Jones’ much publicised return as Darth Vader isn’t the only cameo that’ll make you scream with joy.
And there’s the action, gun fights, stick fights, aerial battles and the best climax to a Star Wars movie ever, a full half hour-forty five minutes on the beach planet base of the Empire where rebel ships do battle against Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters, the Death Star, base cannons, AT-ATs and Storm Troopers, it’s no wonder they reshot stuff, the climax is so thoroughly enjoyable they probably wanted to make the beginning just as good – which it is.
Of course we sort of know the outcome, we’ve seen the four movies that follow, but it doesn’t matter, these characters are new and their plight makes us want them to succeed, so when the AT-ATs come through the palm trees like huge dinosaurs it means something, it means danger and it means practical physical effects. Which is helped, of course, by brilliant stunt work, well made sets and a great score by Michael Giacchino who after his work on the Apes movies, Doctor Strange and Star Trek has now become the new John Williams, his new themes are great and his subtle use of the original stuff means you’re never left wanting.
Are there criticisms? Yes, there’s an all too long build up to the inevitable, which means some of the conflict drags, and far too many people get dying, huge speeches to make their deaths really meaningful as well as one or two ropey bits of CGI (when you see it you’ll know) but all in all it’s such a classic and well made film that this falls away, and you’re swept away in the adventure. If some people are balking at making proper Episodes about the Skywalker family then directors should make more film set in this universe; tangential stories, old republic tales of a time before Anakin.
And of course this film sets up even more possibilities, along with the only true moment where Darth Vader’s non-costume appearance is threatening and not discount Doctor Eggman from Sonic.
It’s rollicking good fun.