Twenty years ago, there was a multimedia Star Wars attack: Shadows of the Empire was a book, a comic, an album, a toy line and a video game. It almost became a movie, but it fell through. After countless other side stories across multiple platforms, most of which are no longer considered canon, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first ever non-mainline Star Wars movie. There are plans for one of these every second year now and, as long as they have worthy stories to tell, they can just keep on coming.
Petty thief Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, Inferno) is the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange), chief engineer of the Death Star. Just before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, Jyn is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to make inroads with guerilla extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, Arrival) about a possible way to combat the Empire. She teams up with Alliance Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, Blood Father), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, Moana), Guardians of the Whills Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang, Gone with the Bullets), and defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Amed, The Night Of) in order to find the Death Star’s plans, and its weakness.
With an ensemble as large as this one, it takes a while for every piece of Rogue One to find its way onto the screen. While Jyn and Cassian are the nominal leads by virtue of appearing the earliest, they aren’t able to come into their own until they form a team. None of the characters are as deep or instantly loveable as fanatics may be used to, but they all work well together, and they’re remarkably well cast: Jones has a magnetism about her, and Yen and Jiang provide a fascinating insight into a side of the Force that has literally never featured on screen before — Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy’s (The Bourne Legacy) script digs incredibly deep into offscreen lore, and spelunkers should take special note of what they have long-believed theories are now officially true.
On the villainous side, Ben Mendelsohn (Netflix’s Bloodline) has an unplaceable accent and has to do most of his acting against a computer generated recreation of Peter Cushing, who has been dead since 1994, as Episode IV legacy character Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin gets many more shots than you might expect from a computer-recreated character, and he still exists in the uncanny valley between man and machine; it makes Mendelsohn’s scenes seem somewhat less real, but he is still suitably menacing.
Because it exists in a side pocket, Rogue One takes more risks than your standard franchise entry. There’s an outcome that it has to work toward, but most of the characters are unknown entities and can behave outside of standard type set: there’s more moral ambiguity than one might be used to in a Star Wars movie, in that the Rebels emotionlessly kill people they no longer have use for; on the other hand, the Empire is still pretty bad.
Aesthetically, Rogue One looks just as a Star Wars film should: the analogue displays are consistent with the original trilogy, the creature effects look practical, even if they aren’t, and the explosions are suitably loud and exciting to look at, but possibly no one will ever be able to explain why beach Stormtroopers wear what look like shorts. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), on his third feature and with his biggest budget to date, understands the action that he has to deliver and the shots that need to be set up, which is definitely more than can be said for other directors who also had their small starts catapulted to giant blockbusters.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sets a precedent for Star Wars. It is a slick film that ties into the legacy of both the original trilogy and the better parts of the prequel trilogy, and it provides an answer to a question that many fans have been scratching their heads over for years. There’s a sense of familiarity and a refreshing sense of being offered something we haven’t quite seen before, and that Rogue One is actually entertaining about it makes the experience all the sweeter.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened in Australian cinemas on December 15, 2016.
Directed by: Gareth Edwards.
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whittaker.