I found myself going around disparaging ‘The Force Awakens’, or at least indifferent to its ‘Star Wars’ charms. When I have heard people say “It’s shit,” I’m half in agreement and half thinking that I wouldn’t quite go that far. I know that people enthuse about it, but then I remember its overall clunkiness and unwillingness to move beyond fanboy call-backs, its neglect of key implications so that all the fun of sci-fi hardware and swashbuckling becomes vacuous. I can just about live with its humanising Stormtroopers (but why?) but Han Solo’s martyrdom is surely ill thought-out in its rush to be emotional. By putting his personal drama first and sacrificing himself, isn’t he ensuring the evolution of the new Death Star (or whatever) and therefore condemning entire planets to death and doesn’t this make him a selfish dick? And its a narrative built on self-reference that doesn’t transcend its reliance on nostalgia.
Luckily, ‘Rogue One’ is here to show how it’s all done. I liked Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters’ a lot (a sci-fi version of ‘Before Sunrise’ perhaps) but was not impressed with ‘Godzilla’ (effects strong; narrative weak). I was anticipating this expansion of the ‘Star Wars’ universe would similarly tip over into disappointment but that wasn’t the case. There will be nothing new story-wise but that isn’t what we came for: a certain predictability and simplicity is surely why these films have such mainstream appeal. And there’s enough details to satisfy fans that like to argue and make theories over minutiae (like what is Forrest Whitaker actually doing?). It was never possible to predict as a kid that the opening crawl of the original of ‘Star Wars’ would lead to ‘Rogue One’ decades later, or indeed that it would have such a grip on popular culture. I mean even as I write this, I am drinking from a ‘Rogue One’ tie-in mug my sister bought me at Christmas.
Despite being well over two hours, Chris Weitz’s and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay keeps things brisk so that the action breezes along until the final battle: it hardly seems that length. It probably has the least clunky dialogue of any ‘Star Wars’ film and it carries the most mature tone since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. The overriding theme is of self-sacrifice which is a far more tangible focus than the abstract born again resurgence of The Force. This also widens the naive black-and-white morality of the earlier entries in that it casts the Rebels as also having to follow an end-justifies-the-means agenda, making things a lot greyer than they have been previously.* It’s also more fitting for the template it derives from war films. Also too, it’s devoid of Muppets so that is a bonus.
‘Star Wars’ is known to make even an esteemed, capable actor look crap, but there is none of that here. It benefits from having someone as great as Ben Mendalsohn to flesh out an otherwise rote villain, and the commitment of Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and others to enliven the protagonists. But what it does have, which throws a spanner in the works and takes you out of the flow, is a CGI Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. We have actor Guy Henry walking about but the face is all CGI, giving a new Peter Cushing performance. Apparently. What is this new thing, a performance from a long respected and deceased actor, by a digital effect? I’m a Cushing fan – rarely could an actor bring such dignity to so much silliness – but I don’t feel on side with this, regardless that I can see why they would choose to do so (hey, gotta please the fans - callback!). It’s not quite the same thing as using a deceased celebrity’s likeness for advertisement purposes (that being nakedly about making money whereas at least this can be seen as in the service of story), but this is not a performance by Cushing. It’s being framed as enhanced make-up, but it’s beyond that: if IMDB ever puts ‘Rogue One’ as Cushing’s final performance, that would be a wrong-doing. “'Morbid and off-putting' or 'convincing'?” asks The Telegraph: I would say both.** And it’s also true that the sardonic robot K-2SO gets the best lines and proves the film’s break-out star, and that tells you something.
But back to the positive: Edwards’ incidentally breaks out some genuine beauty, which is not quite an ingredient quickly associated with ‘Star Wars’: the shadow-half of the Death Star, or the natural coastal beauty of planet Scarfi, for example. The reveals are mostly artfully done, with an eye on how they will have most impact: the AT-ST Walker appearing through the fog of war, for example. But then there is also C3PO and R2-D2 shoehorned-in briefly and one can see why detractors complain about the cameos (for me, they were not as cumbersome and pandering as those in ‘The Force Awakens’).***
Scarfi is where the final battle takes place - and what a battle it is. It’s multi-levelled but always fluid and coherent. Anyone looking to be awe-inspired will find it here: anyone inclined to marvel at spaceships and the swash-buckling end of sci-fi will not be disappointed. Rarely has the sheer size-of-things in such a space-based battle been evoked. And then there is some of the best saved for the last few minutes, showing how Darth Vader can take on a whole army without breaking a sweat. B. Alan Orange does have a point that this is so successful a moment that segueing into ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is going to make Vader look more subdued and disappointing. Nevertheless, so thrilling and epic is this battle that it may cause some to see this as the best in the series. For me, it’s alongside the Hoth battle.****
I did come away knowing that I had gone “Wow” a number of times. Even Chirrut Îmwe’s (Donnie Chen) first melee struck me as a touch above standard choreography for the series (yes yes, there is the fight with Darth Maul, but there is a fluidity here with action and editing that seemed attuned with the heightened expectations of contemporary action fans). As this review attests, whereas ‘The Force Awakens’ had the opposite effect, with ‘Rogue One’ I find myself lingering on all the positives and ready to defend it. I’ve always thought that the truly interesting ‘Star Wars’ material was in the secondary details – the Sand People; Boba Fett; Chewbacca (always secondary to Han); scavenging from a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert, etc. – which implies that it’s the Extended Universe of ‘Star Wars’ that interests me more, and I am sure I am not the only one: George Lucas’ true master-stroke was to let fans make ‘Star Wars’ their own, which is why it has lasted so long and we have the Extended Universe. ‘Rogue One’ is a great action flick that doesn’t let the inherent weaknesses of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise get in the way of exceptional set pieces.
* The humanising of John Boyega’s Stormtrooper doesn’t particularly provide a grey area as it’s all about redemption; and the tone of ‘The Force Awakens’ isn’t really interested in investigating his conflict to any great depth. He’s an innocent that’s been indoctrinated into something bad and wants out.
** There is no such ethical debate about the same techniques rendering a younger Carrie Fisher cameo as she was alive to give her consent at the time. Nevertheless, this too is jarring, our familiarity with this uncanny valley perhaps leading us to see the other effects as just a glorified video game. Indeed, the game adaptation will probably look just like this. Anecdotally, I was overhearing a conversation where a guy was saying the Grand Moff Tarkin and young Leia cameos were the film highlights, and I don’t think he was being totally ironic.
*** When does this moment occur: two-thirds of the way in? The point is that it was just before this gratuitous cameo that I realised the bulky profile of the man along the row was actually obscuring his son who couldn’t have been more than five years old. The boy had been totally quiet all this time sot that I hadn’t even known he was there, only climbing onto his dad and being restless for about ten minutes of the film at this point: when C3PO and R2-D2 appeared. He yelped with delight. Then he climbed back into his own seat and was quiet for the rest of it. Despite the questionable fact of whether he should be watching, the fact that it kept him quiet surely attests to how engrossing it is for even such a young audience.
**** It occurs to me that the Star Destroyers colliding is the manifesting of kids playing with their toys and bashing them together.