So much has been made about how Rogue One was looking to shine a searchlight on the dark, grimy reality of the conflict pervading Star Wars that it doesn’t appear the question of whether its universe actually lends itself to such an approach has been pondered as much.
For all its strengths and weaknesses, George Lucas’s original six-part saga was essentially a fairy tale intertwined with an epic tragedy, with clear-cut good guys and bad guys. What happens when you add extra pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that is apparently already complete?
The answer is a positive one. Rather than detracting from the source, it instead validates Lucas’s vision and the myriad possibilities it presents therein.
Even so, there is a great darkness at the heart of Rogue One. Instead of positing wide-eyed farmboys, indifferent droids, or carefree smugglers as its leads, the first Star Wars anthology movie’s protagonists aren’t just shoved into the action. By the time you meet them, they pretty much without exception have already been to hell and back.
There certainly isn’t much Luke Skywalker in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) – even Rey is carefree by comparison. Raised to fight and little else, she is our perfect entry point into the dark underbelly of the Star Wars universe: one in which the “dark times” that a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi once referred to are in full swing.
The Rebellion is fragmented among its more moderate and extreme factions (Forest Whitaker’s borderline unhinged Saw Gerrera and his Vader-esque injuries providing a none-too-subtle illustration of what the movement is in danger of becoming) and the Empire is tightening its grip on the galaxy – with the completion of a certain superweapon intended to snuff out any last breath of resistance.
The action is frenetic and relentless, skipping from battle to battle, planet to planet, a trail of bodies and smoking wreckage in its wake. In the event, the core ensemble comes together in surprisingly organic fashion: hard-bitten Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is very much thrown together with Jyn against his will, dragging along reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2S0 (a perennially scene-stealing Alan Tudyk) for the ride.
Along the way, defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and blind Force-embracing warrior/gun-toting cynic duo Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) complete the band of warriors, all getting their moments.
Amid such a desolate backdrop of dusty Stormtroopers, Imperial battle machines and war-scarred environments, levity is badly needed, and happily it is provided. Fan service and nods are liberally sprinkled everywhere in a welcomely non-intrusive manner that the Marvel and DC Cinematic universes could take great pains to learn from. This is accompanied by an added element, the nature of which we won’t spoil here, but it could prove to be a game-changer as far as cinema is concerned.
Yet, it isn’t all smooth flying. While it’s clear that changes were made in post-production (a surprisingly large number of scenes from the trailers are absent in the final cut), they don’t seem to have been made with the aim of balancing things out. You get the sense that a good 20 minutes at least could have been lost, most notably from the Scarif-set battle scene that challenges Return Of The King‘s finale for sheer unendingness.
Then we have Director Krennic. While there’s little wrong with Ben Mendelsohn’s performance, the character just doesn’t convince. Seemingly designed to look ineffectual alongside the saga’s more iconic villains, you have to wonder how someone with such a strong line in incompetence managed to rise so highly up the Empire’s chain of command. Admittedly, few villains stand comparison against Darth Vader (who is used sparingly, but splendidly), although he stands out as a misplaced note.