It takes a pair of Death Star-sized balls to release a Star Wars prequel at this point. As George Lucas learned back in 1999, hitting fans’ nostalgia circuits will only get you so far: you also have to deliver an experience that feels fresh. (The absence of Gungans helps too.) Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One walks this tightrope with very little wobbling. There are plenty of series callbacks to please devotees, but also a slew of offbeat new characters, first-rate visuals and a truly ballsy third act.
The pitch, courtesy of VFX legend John Knoll, ILM’s very own Obi-Wan, is beautifully simple: a World War II men-on-a-mission movie, rejigged for the Star Wars universe. Instead of the guns of Navarone or V-1 rockets, the target is that mother of all giant orbicular firearms, the Death Star. And instead of a pack of army grunts, the heroes that comprise this scraggly suicide squad are a bunch of assorted underdogs from throughout the galaxy. Future Star Wars ‘stories’, such as the forthcoming Han Solo spin-off, will doubtless be lighter than the main Episodes, but director Gareth Edwards here ramps up the stress-levels. Gone are the series’ trademark wipes and other retro editing tricks. There is a comedy robot, lumbering tinhead K-2S0 (Tudyk), but his wisecracks are subdued, fuelled by cynical sarcasm, rather than slapstick. Rogue One is dark and earnest: for the first time in the franchise, it feels like anyone, and anydroid, is expendable.
At points the gloom threatens to eclipse the fun. Like Luke Skywalker and Rey, heroine Jyn Erso (Jones) has a tragic backstory, meaning she’s had to grow up alone. But unlike them she’s a fairly dour screen presence, already battle-hardened when we meet her. Jones brings impressive intensity, as does Luna as a Rebel intelligence officer with a secret mission, but it’s hard not to pine for the presence of a Solo, or even a Dameron. In this critical phase of the conflict, quips are in as short supply as kyber crystals. On the plus side, for the first time in Star Wars history an instalment amplifies its Eastern roots. The original was influenced by Kurosawa classic The Hidden Fortress, and here Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen play riffs on the same Fortress characters that inspired R2-D2 and C-3PO in the ’70s. Yen in particular is riproaringly badass as the blind Chirrut Îmwe, a kind of space-Zatoichi who employs what can only be described as ‘Force-fu’. It’s a new direction for the saga; it’ll be interesting to see if it’s one that gets expanded in Episodes to come.
The most crowdpleasing stuff, however, comes courtesy of the villains. Mendelsohn is gloriously hissable as white-caped, permanently furious Imperial slimeball Director Orson Krennic: when someone pleads with him, “You’re confusing peace with terror.” He sneers back, “Well, you have to start somewhere.” But post-viewing chatter will be all about the return of two characters: Darth Vader (who gets to finger-point and Force-choke his way through several scenes) and another iconic original-trilogy baddie, resurrected via CGI. The latter is very close to escaping the Uncanny Valley and shows just how far digital artistry has come in the past decade. The Dark Lord of the Sith’s appearance is the more impactful, though, undoubtedly contributing a couple of entries to future Best Vader Moments lists, and finally answering the question, “Who would choose to live in a fortress with a lava waterfall?”
At points Rogue One does resemble Star Wars bingo: here’s a glass of blue milk, there’s a mouse-robot sound effect, there’s that character you like doing that line he’s famous for. Some of it’s clumsy, some of it’s great (watch out for some ingeniously repurposed archive footage from A New Hope). But like The Force Awakens before it, the movie gets better the more it deviates from past triumphs. Unlike Awakens, which slid into Star Wars cliché as it went, this standalone story struggles through a slightly uneven middle section but ends on a high, with a triumphant third act set on the tropical planet of Scarif. Taking its cue from Churchill — “We shall fight them on the beaches” — it’s part heist, part battle, a thundering action spectacle with AT-ATs stomping down palm trees, death troopers splashing in azure waters and some truly surprising twists. It’s here, when Rogue One shakes off formula and goes rogue itself, that it finally fulfills its promise.