So I just came back from seeing Star Wars: Rogue One at the midnight release here in Sydney. And I have many, many feelings.
(It goes without saying that this review is completely free of spoilers, plot related or otherwise. You may read ahead without fear.)
As the very first spin off Star Wars film, Rogue One isn’t afraid to be different. It thrives on it. From the reduced, minimalist opening shots to the ensemble cast, grittier tone and heist plot, Rogue One is certainly a standalone title, but at heart is a true Star Wars film just as much as any of the others.
The difference is clear from the opening shot, where we’re not treated to any opening crawl, but thrust straight into the film’s central narrative. No slow introduction, no gradual reveal. It’s right into the fray from the get go. And this excellent pacing doesn’t let up for a second throughout the film. But this strength is simultaneously the film’s weakness. Certain scenes sometimes feel rushed, all fat chopped away to the scene’s bare essentials, existing only to deliver the audience information than as part of the film’s narrative. This works better with some scenes than others, some part of me wished they slowed down just a little to really drink in the setting.
Most noticeably, though, is the shift in tone. As a prequel, Rogue One is thankfully unrestrained by the films surrounding it outside of continuity and characters, so seized the opportunity to change gears and lanes, altering the series traditional bright and happy-go tone. There’s darker, more sombre tones here, both aesthetically and plot-wise. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen director Gareth Edwards’ previous films Godzilla and Monsters, but the film’s lack of hesitation to touch on themes of death, war and redemptions as a main vein was refreshing in a franchise that’s so inherently focused on set pieces and building a grander galaxy.
This isn’t just a heist story, this is a war story, too. The bleak, rolling landscapes, wide-shots of desolated planets and colour palette of mud-browns and khaki greens ground the story in more of a down-trodden . And interestingly enough, this is the first time that we’ve seen the “other” side of the political spectrum. For obvious reasons, our story and characters have been on the side of the Alliance – never the Imperials. Outside of oddly-shaped floors with polished floors filled with systems and machines that do Very Evil Things to Good People (all handled by endless squads of Bad Guys quaking in their boots whenever someone with authority comes around), we’ve rarely gotten a glimpse of what the Imperials do when they’re not oppressing people for fun. No spoilers, but we do get the slightest glance and it’s an interesting decision that they’ve made.
Star Wars has always focused on a very specific set of characters – be they Obi Wan and Anakin from the prequels or Han, Luke and Leia from episode four through six (something that episode seven duplicates). These specific people with special powers, abilities and training were at the center of the story, folding the events around them in a gravitational pull. The exact opposite is true here: the main cast is a collage of six, wild characters thrown together because of circumstance.
They are not special, they are not especially trained, and they barely even know each other. But that doesn’t matter, because they work brilliantly together. They’re everymen who have a job to do, and grow in the process. I could watch these people interact for hours, which is why our very little precious screentime with them feels so patterned down. They never really get a chance to truly rub shoulders and see the sparks fly. There’s certainly a few, but they’re circumstance of the central conflict and not because of character grown. But the cast is diverse and interesting enough that they stand out in a series that’s already ripe with fantastic game players. And while we’re on the subject: it’s truly awesome to see a blockbuster where the majority of main characters are non-America, lesser known actors, some of whom barely even have film credits in Hollywood films. It’s a breath of fresh air to see new faces on screen – here’s hoping more films follow suit.
But as a science-fiction film, the background where the plot unfolds is also important. Doubly so, being a space opera. And not only does the film live up to these – they’re possibly the very best seen in any Star Wars film to date. Industrial dust cities, rain-drowned factories and tropical paradise archipielagos are framed beautifully through the fantastic cinematography, transformed into perfect playgrounds of violence.
Which brings us to the battle sequences. Oh boy. The battle scenes. They’re frantic, wild and all around dazzling to watch. There’s one particular extended sequence, followed by a war in space that’s a pure cinematic spectacle. My dad (who went with me to Rogue One) took me to see Revenge of the Sith back in 2005, when I was ten years old. I remember sitting there with my jaw hanging open, unable to fully sink in what was going on but knowing that it was awesome and I was loving every second of it. The exact same feeling and overload of exuberance and oh-my-god-is-this-happening serendipity resurfaced on seeing Rogue One and I wore a face-eating grin for the whole scene.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect, but there are some weird inconsistencies that just don’t add up. One of the characters is blind (despite being able to fight just fine), and it’s interesting how a universe that can create lightsabers¸planet-destroying death machines, hyperspace travel can’t find a way to restore one guy’s eyesight. But robots, drones and more with actual eyes? Easy. Obviously it was done more for the sake of character than anything, but it was a quirk that bothered me. Science-fiction usually handwaves their inconsistent levels of technology – a sentence or two explaining why this character’s blindness couldn’t be repaired would have sufficed, but this might not have worked with the relentless pace the film was trying to achieve.
I’m not entirely sure if I like Rogue One more than The Force Awakens. Both are fantastic entries in the series, but also wildly different. The opposite of TFA’s criticism is Rogue One’s biggest achievement: the film does not play it safe, it does not rely on past titles as a narrative and aesthetic framework, and it does take a risk and move in a different direction while still being a Star Wars film. I will not be spoiling anything, but the ending sequence is completely left of center and very out of character for a Star Wars film. I can almost imagine the writers fighting with the producers to keep this ending instead of a more…well, you’ll know exactly what I mean when you see it.
All in all: Star Wars: Rogue One is a bold film that solidifies its contribution to the Star Wars franchise. It’s not without errors, and sometimes it feels a little less human than previous entries, but if anything it only give the film its own unique identity in an industry where same-same is the standard pre-requisite to achieve funding. It’s incredibly re-watchable, and deserves to be watched again and again. It’s a self-contained, flawed masterpiece. It’s not a major meal: it’s a snack between meals that’s just as satisfying and as every bit of tasty. Come hungry for a vivid, visceral piece of cinema and you’ll leave full.