Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Film Review
Cast: Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Director: Gareth Edwards
It was always going to be a hard ask.
Tell a self-contained story where everyone knows the conclusion and where it leads.
For the uninitiated, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is essentially Star Wars 3.5, offering an entry point into A New Hope and leading into the Rebels getting their hands on the plans to destroy the Death Star.
So, in many ways, the conclusion is assured - the journey there perhaps a little less so.
Brit Jones stars as Jyn Erso, whose Oppenheimer father Galen (Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen) works for the Empire and who's been helping to build a planet killer (aka Death star). However, Galen has put in place a weak point to ensure the Empire's evil plans don't come to fruition.
Angry and disillusioned from seeing her mother murdered in front of her, Jyn is determined to get the plans - and with the Rebel Alliance growing weaker as the might of the Empire rises, it's a race against time...
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is as dark an entry into the Star Wars universe as Empire Strikes Back, even though it lacks the rich emotion of that film.
The rag tag band of fighters come together with a level of grit, betrayal and mistrust and there are scrappier elements in place as they do so. A fiery and determined, though unshowy, Jones leads the pack fairly well, but is occasionally constrained and saddled with some Rebellion based bon mots to trot out ("Rebellions are based on hope!" being just one) and as a result, the rest of the cohorts fade really in comparison.
It's a shame, because characters have traditionally been what defined the Star Wars universe - from the swagger of Han Solo to the garrulous charm of Lando Calrissian, the more rogueish elements have always fired on a greater scale.
Ahmed threatens to make a presence early on, but is wasted in the wash; a blind Bulletproof Force Monk (played by Donnie Yen) becomes the mystical waffler who gets to kick ass by using the Force (and appears to be part of a gay inter-racial relationship with Wen Jiang's Baze Malbus in a bit of a welcome Star Wars first); Mikkelsen's usual terrific presence is consigned to scrappier moments; Whitaker is a version of Blue Velvet's Frank Booth with gas mask and Luna is slightly bent out of shape as the rebel tasked with doing the unthinkable.
Yet in amongst it all, Mendelsohn shines as a Nazi-esque Empire commander whose ambitions are being thwarted and who exudes menace.
But Edwards' Star Wars is a grittier film - this is a flick where terrorism is de rigeur, where market places are scenes of discord, car bombs and street fights. Planet-hopping, politics and a rebellion worn down are all dangled teasingly in front of fans and sit alongside a sarcastically dry droid (played by Alan Tudyk) and a CGI character (reminiscent of PlayStation cut scenes) that may polarise as many as Jar Jar Binks did but for different (and spoilery) reasons.
Fan service inevitably comes into play. Whether it's the slight tweaks to the classic John Williams' score or the cameos as well as the line call-backs, the pay-off proves to be too disappointingly juicy to resist once again, and shows the film-makers are mainly those who need to be reined in. And humour becomes an increasing crutch as the back half of the film plays out.
All that said, there's a grubbiness to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Hope is crumbling and it infects large frames of the film. And while you can't deny the power of the characters' ultimate fates is weakened by a lack of time with them and overall chemistry and flatter roundings of them all, this was perhaps one hurdle the film-makers (and consequent reshoots) were never going to be able to overcome in this pre-ordained film that had to tread a certain path.
Ultimately though, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brings the fans what they want - a controlled final battle sequence that swaps chaos for calmness of execution on the beaches and is reminiscent of Churchill's assertion that they will fight them on the beaches. It is perhaps testament to Edwards' strength in previous entrants (the soldiers falling from the sky in Godzilla, the appearance of the Monsters in Monsters) as the battle reaches fever pitch that these sequences don't feel cluttered or overdone.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a Star Wars film aimed at the adult fans who grew up with the first saga and were so let down by the prequels. It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and with a first portion that muddles a little and meanders, it lacks the immediate grabbing of the throat that those originals had.
But as an entrant into the Star Wars universe and as a film that refuses to follow the over-indulgent fan service and pathetic nostalgia that The Force Awakens was so bathed in, it revels in its darkness and occasionally borders on stuttering uncertainty.
Definitely lacking a little bit of character of its own and wallowing in its own exposition that stifles some of the potential, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is undoubtedly a solid Star Wars experience and a sign that given a bit more freedom to go their own way and maybe take some chances - go rogue even - this galaxy far, far away still could have a lot of excitement to offer.