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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

I literally have 60 movie reviews in my backlog and probably won’t be able to get to any of them for at least another week, but I’m sure this queue-jumping exception is acceptable. I had been looking forward to the first Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One, since The Force Awakens made the whole world blow its collective load a year ago, and I’m happy to say it was well worth the wait.

For those who might still be confused, Rogue One is set before the start of the original Star Wars film from 1977, now known as A New Hope (Episode IV). Directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), the film tells the untold story about a bunch of rebels who risk their lives to steal the plans to the Death Star. It was quite a risk and an experimentation of sorts for Disney and Lucasfilm, as this is the first film in the franchise outside of the main storyline. It is also quite different in tone to the other Star Wars films in that it is actually a war movie (as opposed to space opera).

Well, the experiment paid off. Rogue One has a great story, wonderful characters (both new and old), a cast filled with some of my favourite actors, beautiful visuals and action, a grand new music score that contains traces of the classic one, an appropriate dose of nostalgia, and ample surprises and Easter eggs for the geeks.

First of all, all the concerns about the film prior to its release turned out to be unfounded. Some were worried about Gareth Edwards not being a great storyteller (I was one of those people as I thought his debut film Monsters was far too slow, and while I really liked his version of Godzilla, storytelling was not one of its strengths). Others panicked when there was talk of extensive reshoots or lost their minds because the trailer or posters weren’t as good as they had hoped.

I don’t know about the process, but the finished product was a success. Admittedly, the film starts off a little slow, though it never loses sight of the narrative thread or the focus on the characters. It builds things up throughout the course of the first hour or so, and by the second hour I found myself immersed in the story, the action, and the emotions. Yes, it’s darker in tone than what we’re used to and there is far less humour, but that’s how it was meant to be. Perhaps it wasn’t this way before, and the ordered reshoots rectified the problems. In any case, it was impossible to tell what was reshot because it all blended together seamlessly in the end.

The other interesting thing is that I don’t recall the majority of the scenes or dialogue from the trailers being in the actual film, which is extremely rare — but I love it. I’m always complaining about trailers giving away too much, and in this case it was turned out to be a pleasant surprise. If only they could do that for all trailers — give you a hint of what the movie is about using footage and dialogue that’s not actually in the movie!

 

Visuals is one of Edwards’ strengths, so I knew I would not be disappointed. Rogue One is visually stunning but different in feel to the other Star Wars films. It’s grittier and utilises a darker palette with a narrower colour range, one that really suits the tone of the film. The space battle sequences are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film, though I do wish there could have been more close-range combat.

The other thing that stood out for me about the film was the superb cast and outstanding performances. It has by far the best cast ever assembled for a Star Wars flick and contains some of my favourite actors: Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones, Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna, the awesome Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker, Aussie legend Ben Mendelsohn, rising star Riz Ahmed from The Night Of, ass-kicking martial arts star Donnie Yen, and the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk as bot K-2SO. All of them have real meat to their roles, and it’s hard to pick a standout from this list. I will say though that Mikkelson and Mendelsohn elevated their characters far above what they otherwise would have been had “average” actors been cast in their roles instead. The only disappointment is that the film did not have enough screen time to go around between all of them.

There are also a lot of links and connections to the Star Wars universe — I got all the major references but I’m sure I missed a lot of the Easter eggs. Oh, and there are plenty of appearances and cameos that will make the geeks spray their shorts.  I won’t give anything away except to say that movies these days can feature actors who are no longer alive or don’t look the same anymore. The technology is not quite 100%, but it’s better than what we’ve seen in most other films that have tried it.

I had many hopes for Rogue One in terms of what and who I wanted to see before I watched it. I would say they were pretty much all fulfilled, though I could not help but want more of certain characters and sequences. It’s like I got a taste of several cakes I wanted to try without being able to eat any whole slice. And as I result, while I was pleased, I was not pleased as thoroughly as I would have liked. I understand at 133 minutes the film was already pushing its running time too far, so maybe the extended version will show us what ended up on the cutting room floor.

On the whole, I give Rogue One a big thumbs up. The Force Awakens is fun family entertainment driven by nostalgia and perhaps a little too much rehashing for some, but it is light and simple enough that even non-fans of the Star Wars universe could enjoy. Rogue One is original, gritty, intense, and made more for the hardcore fans (which I don’t consider myself part of). Two very different films I enjoyed in very different ways. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as some of the early buzz from the premiere suggests it is (ie as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back), though it’s definitely good enough that I want to watch it again soon — and possibly again after that.

4 stars out of 5