A year ago, the freshly Disney owned Lucasfilm released Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After the hard road of the Prequel trilogy, the JJ Abrams touch meant that The Force Awakes was met with as much relief as the plaudits it received. I loved the film and watching it a year on, I still do, but that has as much for the brilliance of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as it does for the film itself. Abrams basically wrote a checklist of his favourite bits of A New Hope and recreated them in various forms. It works, to a degree, but will effect the films longevity within the cannon. Disney's newest gamble is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a film set between the events of Episode III and in the weeks leading up to Episode IV. Dropping the film into the middle of the cannon is risky and needs a steady hand. It is a gamble that has paid off, correcting the overkill of Abrams approach and shedding a new and complex light onto the heart of the rebellion.
Rogue One opens with the first slight of hand by director Gareth Edwards that immediately shows you that you are not in for your usually Star Wars ride. We meet former Imperial scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being confronted by his old comrade Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Erso's young daughter, Jyn, watches on as her world is changed as an argument over a weapon, a super weapon, turns deadly. Rescued by the hero of one of Star Wars: Clones Wars fame, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), we jump forward to an older Jyn (Felicity Jones) waking up in an Imperial prison cell, life we gather, has not gone too well. Jyn is rescued by the Rebellion and we meet the best character in the film, the reprogrammed droid K-2SO (voiced by the wonderful Alan Tudyk). Here we get thrown into the mission with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and, later, the incomparable Donnie Yen as the blind Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, the former defenders of the Temple of Whills on Jeda. Needless to say, mission and adventure ensues, which I shall not describe for point of spoilers.
What I will describe is the formulation of Rogue One. The film is a basic "Men on a Mission" movie, only led by an incredible woman in this case. The basic premise is the same as say The Dirty Dozen, The Train or, for the moral ambiguities we have in Rogue One, perhaps Peckinpah's Cross of Iron. The setup is straight forward, a disparate band of people, sent on a desperate mission with the hope of all resting on them. Where Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy really come into the fore is how they manage the balance between reverential and the new. Abrams was on a much tighter leash, Edwards' team have clearly been given more rope. Dropping subtle hints to the winder cannon with the odd name here, blink and you'd miss it cameo there, the hardened Star Wars faithful feel that they are being treated as equals and not spoon fed as before. There are some impressive CGI appearances of old favourites that feed directly into Episode IV. The plot is linear, mainly because you know where we end up. But, and this is where Rogue One stands on it's own, the action is shot in what can only be described as the best looking Star Wars film yet. All the action in ship and on planet is handheld, up close in a medium shot. The battles on the ground are shown from our team's perspective and that is a dirty world where fights are up close and brutal. When in the air/space, cinematographer Greig Fraser (who also shot Zero Dark Thirty) has clearly watched enough dogfight footage to understand where to place his cameras. X-Wings arrive in orbit with the camera just over the R2 unit, you feel on-board as they break into attack. Coupled to this, Gareth Edwards background in Visual Effects means that the ships look more real, more tactile and, importantly, have weight when they get hit or crash into each other. George Lucas based the fight over the original Death Star on gun camera footage which made that original battle so visceral. Unfortunately for our screening, at the BFI IMAX at Waterloo in glorious 70mm, we had a five minute preview of Chris Nolan's upcoming Dunkirk, for which he has attached real cameras to real Spitfire's and BF109's and actually dogfight them. Nolan wins, but Edwards' space battle come very close indeed.
The tone and feel of Rogue One is spot on, much of this has to do with the lead, Felicity Jones. She has a fine line to walk between lost girl and full on hero, but she treads it well. She is a star, the camera holds on her expression and while I don't think she smiles in the film, she conveys so many emotions with a look. Politically, I'm not sure what the film is trying to say. While the characters speak of Hope, they are happy to be sent on extra-judicial killings or attacks within crowded market places. It's odd to look at a Star Wars film and see grey, not black and white. The days of the simple good and bad are gone. Hopefully this is a sign for Rian Johnson's Episode VIII. On the whole, while a big Gareth Edwards fan to start with, I was delighted by Rogue One, even if I still want see his original darker cut. This is a good start for the Stories series. Roll on the Adventures of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian.
Rogue One is out now. See it in 70mm if you can.