Back in 1977 George Lucas’ homage to Flash Gordon and other serials of the 1930s and 40s took on one of the key narrative devices of these B-movies, namely the allusion to a larger set of narrative possibilities inherent in each specific piece showcased. This is hardly new – it’s also the stuff of comic books, after all, fodder for most modern blockbusters, with readers finding a single issue both looking forward and backward. This sense of setting event in medias res profoundly shaped the way the first Star Wars was received. When Obi-Wan on Tatooine watches Luke twirl a saber and talk of knowing his pilot father from the Clone wars, or even the “used universe” aesthetic that delineated the look of the film in contrast to the Kubrickian cleanliness of design that 2001 and other contemporaneous films employed, our collective visit to the Galaxy far, far away felt like you were dipping yourself into a vast ocean of possibility. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that Lucas bucked studio wishes and got his way and tacked “Episode IV” onto the opening of the film, creating the sense that we were seeing simply a part of a whole, grasping a small part of a far greater story.
It’s the opening visual device of Star Wars that quite literally set the stage for the next four decades of these adventures, with words speaking of events that had already transpired before we as an audience got a chance to meet Luke, Han, and Leia. It’s instructive to truly understand the source for Rogue One to read again the words that opened that episode, forever recontextualized by this new work:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
During Disney’s Celebration event in the UK they screened this crawl as a tease for Rogue One, whereupon something quite remarkable happened while John Williams’ famous theme blared. The normally oblique text vanishing point shifted, the camera floating to a different angle in order to face the words floating against a starfield head-on. The shot then plowed inwards, providing the most literal visual metaphor for what this new film is. For Rogue One is fundamentally a shift of perspective on something we collectively know well, while equally it’s a deep dive into a narrative only hinted at before. It’s a work that by its nature secondary to the main saga, providing on one level nothing more than a dose of nostalgia, some coloured in bits that were served well with simple imagination, and a heap of visual echoes to the original film that it leads into.
For the cynical, then, Rogue One will be superfluous, a mere cash grab for the weak minded who will succour at anything Star Wars.
As objective as I can be (and I admit, given decades of appreciation of the series of films, to be conscious of bias) the cynical braying need not be heeded. For while Rogue One may not be a perfect film, it does what it needs to do perfectly. In many ways it’s superior to The Force Awakens. In many ways it’s the true prequel film that fans felt they wanted. And for the future of storytelling in the world of Star Wars, it’s but the first step into a far greater universe.
Gareth Edwards has proven to be an inspired choice for directing the project. From Monsters through Godzilla he managed to provide a sense of the enormous while still very much concentrating on the human scale set in contrast against the larger situation or object. Here we have a slice of bureaucratic infighting, political manipulation and other connivances that belie the unimpeachable efficiency of the Imperial government. The core narrative surrounds the building of the ultimate superweapon, that so-called “Death Star” evoked in the crawl from its companion film. Krennic (played by a sinister Ben Mendelsohn) tasks Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) with resuming his work as chief engineer on the project. As his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) manages to escape, it’s her journey that we follow.
A ragtag bunch of rebels – including Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang and a reprogrammed killer robot voiced by Alan Tudyk – set out to steal said plans. Things go awry, space battles take place, and the connective tissue between Rogue One and A New Hope is seemingly forever sewn, making overt what until now was either seen through speculative fiction or simply in our imaginations.
On the one hand the film will suffer perhaps from exasperated parents needing to explain why BB-8 or Rey aren’t in this film, even if another raven-haired woman very much drives the action once again (as, frankly, they have done through all the films). For those feeling that J.J’s outing was mere nostalgia bait they will likely be fuming this time, as the visual and narrative connections (primarily once again to both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi) will hardly be subtle.
Yet to the film’s immense credit it’s a work that stands on its own within this context. Sure, the boundaries are established already, but this is a rich sandbox within which to play, even if it has strictly delineated borders. It thrives when creating its own settings, characters and situations that run in parallel with what has come before (or, diagetically, after as well). Without the need to fully world build real sacrifices can be made, auxiliary characters written out without fear that this makes them redundant or not central to the key storyline.
Rogue One is kind of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Star Wars big screen adventures, mixing tragedy, comedy, adventure and dash of moral philosophy while shining a different lens on the events with the peppering of familiar characters to tie it all together. In many ways the echoes are even stronger to the oft-derided Episodes I-III, further alluding to the greater storyline that Lucas built up and that other filmmakers are now free to explore.
Spaceships woosh by, lovely visuals are captured including a beach-front battle that gives a new sense of wonder to the palate, pitting large, elephant-like AT-AT walkers towering over palm trees to make for a lovely collision between natural and industrial aesthetics. Slick “Death Troopers” wander around and speak in sharp metallic tones, and the sarcastic and gormless K-2SO is a terrific sidekick, even if his matter-of-fact style surely will connote to viewers a similar character from sister studio Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
What’s notable, and should not be understated, is that the film has fun with the material. Without the need to spend lots of time on the tedium of politics the film whisks by, making for a highly satisfying pace. In fact, many key scenes from the early trailers have been excised, along with several “cool” visuals used on poster art and the like. It’s a testament to the film that they’ve honed the work in a strong fashion, eschewing meandering scenes in favour of character building and action sequences. Yet this isn’t just some fluff – the mission, after all, needs to be a success, and the stakes are quite high. That said, it’s not like it’s a suspense film, as we’ve already read that crawl that gives away the ending.
The cast is great as well, with special mention to Tudyk who delivers another ace vocal performance. Jones’ work is usually hit and miss, but her sass and energy provides the heart of the film. Luna’s mercurial nature gives a hint of real sacrifices, providing some grey to the usually black-and-white division between rebel and empire. It’s a real pleasure in particular to see Jiang and Yen do their stuff, their camaraderie infectious and their cultural connection to the Asian films, particular by Kurosawa or the Zatoichi series that so heavily influence Lucas when writing his tale.
Then there’s Forest Whitaker, playing a rebel warlord who has quite literally lost a large part of his humanity. It’s a great role to consider, yet its execution is perhaps a little more rushed than it may have been in original drafts. Similarly the affected accent makes unfortunate connections with the egregious Scientology propaganda work Battlefield Earth rather than, say, the Jedi-like role Whitaker performed in Ghost Dog. Still, the terrific actor makes the most of it, and his portrayal overall is one to be lauded.
Michael Giacchino’s score dances around motifs and orchestrations that Williams made famous, just as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and even Wagner birthed the original iconic music. In fact without a crawl the orchestra hit provides the film’s first shock, immediately calling attention to a solo ship flying gracefully over the rings of some unknown planet. Again, in medias res, but this time in the middle of another middle. Rings within rings are at play here, and the music does the same, prodding at known tune but just different enough to almost feel unsettling. When the rousing, recognizable theme erupts at the end as the teal director’s credit appears, it all does genuinely feel like the extension of a tradition rather than an upstart or an usurper.
It’s no easy task to give a motley group such as this enough to care about the disparate members but again the script manages to both economize and elucidate, providing enough back story to keep it interesting without devolving into pedantry. This is the freedom of these standalone films, one that I’m pleased to see Edwards and co. have taken up to such an extent (it’s the most obvious criticism that can be levelled at J.J.’s entertaining episode, where at times it doesn’t quite strike the balance required between carving its own path and embracing the past).
Rogue One is able to do this, of course, because its mandate is nothing more than an entertaining film that feels like it belongs nestled up to the first Star Wars film. By being a one-and-done you can make the choices that are both satisfying and commensurate with the genre. Instead of the massive fantasy world you’re looking at a typical Word War Two adventure thriller, where a group of commandos breach enemy lines in order to capture secret plans. It’s intoxicatingly archetypical, and it has the kind of freedom and effervescence of pace and tone that we haven’t really seen since Lucas’ first foray.
Back in ’77 Lucas didn’t have to guarantee that anything would come of his space folly, so A New Hope plays to a satisfying conclusion, making no claim or need for the story to continue. Continue it has, of course, but with each iteration there’s just that much more baggage that needs unpacking, that much more setting up while respecting what’s gone before. Rogue One’s very limitation in terms of scope is what gives it its delightful liberty, essentially carving out a rigid time and place within the greater story and saying, hey, go have some fun, tell me a story about what happened to those people I read about in that crawl.
Ever since Disney took on Lucasfilm and hinted at new directors its these projects I’ve personally been most excited for. There’s a spirit of possibility here exhibited in the animated works like Clone Wars and Rebels, yet those too have the task of working within episodic structure. Serving as a single star within a constellation, it’s this singularity that gives the film much of its strength. The film absolutely lives off what has come before, and I’m frankly unable to say just how it’d play seen divorced from this context. But as pure retcon-meets-thought experiment, Rogue One scratches an itch that has been tickling since that initial screening in ’77.
Finally, there’s the inclusion of characters and events not telegraphed by the seemingly endless teases for the work. Yes, you should go in and be surprised (pleasantly, one hopes) about how these characters mesh to what we already have become intensely familiar with. Treading lightly on these surprises, there’s some pretty astonishing uses of both archive material from ’77 as well as new CGI recreations that will leave most fans positively gleeful and many audiences scratching their heads about how such a thing is accomplished. This surely will become old hat (just as groundbreaking effects work on all these films has), but as a kind of new paradigm that builds on work dating back to Gladiator and earlier it’s still pretty fun to see.
On the one hand these direct, overt connective elements are what may irk some, but I for one liked how they were sprinkled throughout as a form of sampling or music concrete, where bits and pieces get repurposed. This is how the models were scratchbuilt back in the day using bits from aircraft and tank kits (these greebles now obsessively re-modeled in the glorious CGI visuals), or how Lucas took actual gun-camera footage from dogfights and then replicated with his fancy ships to give an organic quality to the action and movement. And, yeah, an Imperial Probe Droid shows up in the background, Probot being my favourite character for no particular reason, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to see it whizz by.
In the end, with less to do Rogue One does more, giving us a terrific, nostalgic flick with the liberty to burn its bridges after it has crossed them. The film firmly establishes rich characters and situations and then promptly refuses to be precious with any of it. By delving into a more adult genre of adventure filmmaking Rogue One’s stakes feel higher than, say, the similar adventures of Return of the Jedi, without the need to pepper in metaphors that require Ewoks to make the point.
It may not be too deep, but there’s still depth here. It may not be building a whole universe, but it’s a well-drawn world being sketched. It may not have characters meant to thrive over the span of many entries, but that doesn’t lessen when things turn for the worse. Rogue One is by both its origin and its nature not the beginning of something nor the end, but at the same time it is setting in motion what’s to come after the next two episodes culminate the Skywalker Saga. This is the template for the standalone films – ambitious, respectful of the past while forging its own tone and vision. It opens up the possibility for darker stories yet to come, but equally lighthearted and silly ones, childish or adult ones. The scaffolding of Lucas’ universe is such that creative people will make of it what they will, and this work not only builds on what’s already been done on that front but very much sets in motion what’s likely decades of similarly tangential works connected to the core saga story.
Thus Rogue One answers a question fans rarely would have asked – After the crawl stops flying past camera and the Skywalker tale is told is there still room for energizing, cinematic stories set in that galaxy far, far away?
The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes.