From the Vault #16: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from Dec 19th, 2016, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

For a while, let’s be honest, we didn’t know if the Force was with Rogue One, did we?

The first in Disney/LucasFilm’s attempt to build an extended Star Wars universe, in the vein of Marvel Studios, was for many an anthology story we didn’t need telling – specifically how the Death Star plans came not to be in the main computer at the very beginning of George Lucas’ opus in 1977’s A New Hope. Would it launch a brand new approach to the revived Star Wars franchise or would it be a pointless, bloated stain to sit alongside the painful prequels? All the news of Gareth Edwards being locked out of the editing suite, Tony Gilroy coming in to film extensive reshoots, they all suggested a misconceived project which many would have considered a mistake.

Here’s the great news: Rogue One isn’t just the prequel you never knew you wanted, the kind of prequel which makes the official episodic prequels look increasingly paltry, but it’s also quite possibly almost almost as good as A New Hope itself.

How did Edwards pull this off, then? It’s remarkable to think this is only his third major motion picture, after developing the FX of breakout indie movie Monsters on his home software, and with Godzilla relaunching a visually and aesthetically impressive but frequently soulless franchise.

Rogue One, whether entirely by his hand or the pot of people from Gilroy to Kathleen Kennedy or even JJ Abrams, does what neither of his previous pictures truly managed – it makes you care about the people around all of the CGI, galactic battles and tethers to the original Wars trilogy. Every single character in what swiftly becomes an ensemble led by Felicity Jones’ plucky mercenary Jyn Erso has a satisfying, complete and developed story arc from beginning to end, in the kind of manner few continuing, large scale universes ever get to depict in the age of actors being signed up for ten films before they film their first one. Rogue One truly is an anthological tale, telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, while naturally leading directly into where, in many ways, the Star Wars story truly begins with A New Hope. It’s seamless in how it adds greater depth, context and continuity to the original trilogy of movies, the Empire and the Death Star itself. It’s a testament to a script and story which reward you across the running time.

It starts baggy and messy, mind you, with an opening half hour or so burdened with the labours of set up and establishment, introducing Jyn and her central arc as a young girl, abandoned by father Mads Mikklesen–essentially the Robert Oppenheimer of the Wars universe–and placed on a path where her own shaky ethics clash with a Rebel Alliance who, having been trying to fight the Empire for decades now, are going to extreme lengths to get the job done.

Rogue One picks up as it makes brave choices – Diego Luna’s Cassian kills an innocent courier with cold abandon before proving himself a rounded rebel determined to think of the bigger picture, while Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi moves from conflicted Imperial pilot to a true resistance fighter. Chris Weitz’s screenplay (with Gilroy principally) adds shades of grey heretofore unheard of in the escapist fable of the Wars universe, and it allows for a disparate group of characters with real meat on their bones. If one suffers it’s Ben Mendlesohn’s villain Krennick, one of our finest character actors reduced often to playing second fiddle to an ‘undead’ Peter Cushing and, of course, the brief but powerful appearances of Darth Vader at the height of his evil. The film redeems itself by coining a delicious new catchphrase that evolves Star Wars‘ most classic line to new heights, as it continues mythologising the Force in fresh and exciting ways.

For all this talk of character, introspection and darkness, Rogue One‘s key success is that it never once equally forgets it’s a Star Wars film, and delivers accordingly; a rousing score from last minute addition Michael Giacchino (which he put together remarkably in one month) almost ghost written by John Williams; a terrific blend of action sequences on land, sea, air and in space which recall classic Star Wars at its finest, and ultimately at the heart of it a timeless battle between underdog heroes and a vast, cruel Empire seeking domination.

Rogue One adds new and fresh dimensions to this wonderful universe, while telling a brave story, with indeed the bravest and most satisfying of climaxes you can imagine – one of those rare movies which just keeps on getting better and better and better the more it plays. The Force is with this film, and this film is very much with it.

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