For a fable of galactic proportions, Star Wars has never been afraid to confront the realities of war or the destructive excesses of absolute power.
The destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope or the freezing of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in carbonate in The Empire Strikes Back are but two examples of the franchise’s willingness to throw some stinging reality into its epic storytelling mix.
After all war is hell so why not show even in part; but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – it’s the first of stand alone movies that don’t dovetail directly into the latest trilogy series that began with The Force Awakens – takes things to a whole new level foregoing Ewoks battling for their homeland on Endor in favour of a grittily realistic portrayal of a battle that doesn’t necessarily come with a full, emotionally-satisfying happy ending.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), the film has more in common with the narrative DNA of The Seven Samurai than it does with any of its Star Wars kin, acknowledging the truth that rebellion cost a great deal and everyone involved must pay the price at some stage.
That sobering truism is brought to the fore a number of times in the film but most particularly in one scene aboard a rebel ship racing on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star from the Empire – Rogue One is an origin story of sorts, filling in the cinematic blank spot that fuels the events of A New Hope – where the hero of this tale, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of unwilling Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is engaged in a game of suffering oneupmanship with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna).
Obviously it’s not a game at all; both characters have suffered greatly throughout their lives losing family members and a great deal else to the terror unleashed by the Empire and the intent is not much a race to ultimate bragging rights but an establishing of the costs of standing up, even momentarily, to a autocratic monolith of absolute power.
Standing up for freedom and opposing tyranny costs, the roiling energy of its emotional aftermath the fuel that sustains rebellions which Jyn, a late convert to the Rebel cause who has engaged in more petty thieving than noble opposition to dictatorship, rightly observes are powered by hope.
It’s a pithy thematic connection to the film that began the whole Star Wars saga back in 1977, A New Hope, now tagged as the fourth episode in an ever-expanding canon of heroic storytelling, one of many that gives the film its uncontested identity as a member of the perhaps the greatest sci-fi franchise to ever grace cinemas (as a Star Trek fan, there is an obvious reservation to declaring it the greatest though my heart says so) .
Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy give the film its own unique sense of self despite the many fan references such as the appearance of R2-D2 and C-3PO at the Rebels base on Yaven 4 which, like much of the rest of this remarkably immersive and emotionally-resonant movie, remains intensely visually faithful to the films which have gone before (and which, in the backwards way of doing things that prequels made after the initial film require, now follow it narratively).
It’s a perilously balancing act of sorts, giving Rogue One its undoubted membership of the Star Wars club, which it wears proudly, Easter Eggs in abundance for the fans eagle-eyes enough to spot them, while making it very much its own gritty war film identity.
But Edwards and Co., pull it off seamlessly, making it clear by references large and small that this is a storytelling successor worthy of Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarken, all of whom makes appearances thanks to the wonders of CGI, but that it aims to push the reality envelope considerably, part of the new wave of narrative honesty in the franchise which isn’t afraid to emphasise more than was previously the case, that fighting for what you believe in is never a neat and tidy business.
Clearly of course Jyn, Cassian and the others which includes defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Force-sensitive warrior monk Chirrup Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his friend and protector, mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are successful in their daring endeavour to steal the Death Star’s plans – the planet-killing weapon is revealed in all its terrible glory in some visually evocative scenes over the Jedi-centric moon of Jedha and the planet Scarif on which the climactic battle of the film takes place – but its how they get to this well-known end point that provides Rogue One with its pleasing and impacting sense of gritty emotional reality.
It is of course, as some have suggested, a film for the fans.
But rather than being a pejorative, this is the film’s strength giving it a substantial narrative platform, and it uses it supremely well, to explore the ramifications of standing up against tyranny.
The previous Star Wars films didn’t stint on admitting to these grim realities, but Rogue One is the first film in this now-venerable and still fresh and vital franchise to look you straight in the eye and admit to the horrors unleashed when good people everywhere say enough is enough and take a stand.
It’s impossible to provide examples without delving far too deeply into spoilers territory but suffice to say you are are left in no doubt, even as you marvel as the faithful rendering of A New Hope‘s visual aesthetics down to console designs and stormtrooper uniforms and even the controlled chaos of Yaven 4, and soak up Michael Giacchino’s score which is faithful to John Williams’ template even as it creates it own musical identity, that war is hell.
That’s not to say that the gloriously epic qualities of the first films aren’t in place – they most certainly are and in ways that please and exult fans – but Rogue One also possesses a storytelling muscularity, a willingness to tip its hat to the truth of rebellion, of power inequity, of rebellion versus autocracy, meaning that people who have never watched a Star Wars film in their life will find a powerful entry point to the franchise.
Rogue One is a brilliantly good piece of storytelling on any level, faithfully recreating the world of Star Wars while pushing the possibilities of its narrative arcs to new and unexplored places that sets the franchise up for a considerable continued run at the cinema, something Disney, rather pleasingly for this reviewer who fell in love with A New Hope in 1977 and has never looked back, looks more than happy to push along at every opportunity.