Ever since Disney purchased the rights to Lucasfilm for a whopping $4 billion, we knew the Mouse House would try and bring a new lease of life to the Star Wars series, turning it into a lucrative franchise once more. With The Force Awakens, we witnessed this defibrillation, through the successful reboot of George Lucas’ operatic narrative tendencies and aesthetic traits, a moulding of old and new, with the likes of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reintegrated into the ranks of the new characters: Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren. It was a profitable powerhouse, roping in approximately $2 billion. Star Wars was back, and it looked like it was staying for good.
But the main concern was how far could they take the Skywalker storyline. Surely there are other stories to tell? Other directors to take up the mantle, implementing their own vision, their own aesthetics?
This is where Rogue One enters into the fray.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, and starring the likes of Felicity Jones, Donnie Yen and Forrest Whitaker, Rogue One is a film that relishes in its franchise trappings, while providing an entirely new perspective and style that we’ve never seen before. It also veers into dangerous territory, situating itself as a standalone prequel to the original Star Wars, released back in 1977.
This style, in relation to its place within the narrative, is all at the behest of Rogue One acting more along the lines of a contemporary war film, of the same ilk that the likes of Saving Private Ryan arose from. It would show the darker side of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire, prior to the events of A New Hope and the introduction of Luke Skywalker into this conflict. It would depict the construction of the Death Star, as an ode to the destructive weapons introduced in war by the likes of Oppenheimer. It would show the sacrifices made for the good of those affected by the oppression of the totalitarian Galactic Empire. It even looked to feature its own beach assault scene, in an ode to the Normandy Beach landings.
This was also promising: a Star Wars film, released for the general public, with the nerve to depict the darker side of warfare.
But does it live up to this promise? The answer: a resounding yes.
Edwards and producer Kathleen Kennedy have built upon the established brand that is Star Wars, bringing new pieces to its chessboard. What could have been an unnecessary re-tread of events becomes a fascinating exploration of war, with an entirely new set of characters intermingled within a universe populated with familiar faces, sets and props.
To start with, the film itself is beautifully shot, if beautiful could be applied to the harsh imagery of war. What allows Star Wars to stand out is the level of polish that its directorial players bring to the table. With Edwards, this is especially apparent. Coming hot off of the underrated Monsters and the blockbuster Godzilla, we see Edwards and his Director of Photography, Greig Fraser, bringing a rough edge to the glossy space opera that was Lucas’ original vision. Handheld camerawork puts us on the edge of our seats, we feel mobile, with the squadron leading the charge against the Empire. Edwards even orchestrates a number of characteristic flourishes, such as one haunting shot of the silhouette of the revered Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), overcoming the measly figure of the antagonist Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
We also find Kennedy and Edwards bringing in a hugely diverse cast, which truly embodies the expansive nature of world war. We have a strong female protagonist in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a male counterpart in Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) that both have considerable depth and conviction. We have a pair of Asian stars bringing real charisma to their partnership in Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen, and Baze Malbus, played by Jiang Wen. And we have the complicated yet subtle nervousness and hesitant heroism introduced by the ever-greater Riz Ahmed. It’s a tremendous assembly, and one that really sells the importance of the Star Wars franchise, as a groundwork to showing off talents that may not be as well-known to the average eye. And through the war setting and tone, it doesn’t feel obvious: it blends in with the global reach this war has had on the galaxy, showing a plethora of people working together for the greater good. A strong moral, and one that is so prevalent for this time.
As mentioned, Edwards doesn’t veer away from the formula however, bringing in a number of nods and references that will set the Star Wars fan on edge. There is the publicized presence of Darth Vader within the film, with James Earl Jones bringing his classy, baritone articulation to the most famous villain in film history. There is the excellent production design, thanks to the efforts of Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont, who imbue the new narrative with familiar sights such as the widely-loved X-Wing fighters and the looming presence of the Death Star. However, there is no juxtaposition between the references and the new vision. Edwards seamlessly involves them within the war ethics at show here: X-Wings providing air support akin to the aircraft in a war environment, AT-AT’s providing the ominous threat that a weapon such as the Zeppelin. Even the location of Mauritius, used to stage the final confrontation, features a number of beach-like environments, rebels wading through shallow waters to escape their demise, all so reminiscent of the many representations of D-Day we have witnessed.
What I’m trying to emphasize is how far the franchise has diverted from the standard, operatic fair, to produce a film that really has something to say on the diversity, fear and expanse of warfare. Consider a scene involving a guerrilla band attacking an Imperial tank and the squadron of Stormtroopers defending it. Grenades are thrown, tank shells fired, the surroundings devastated. Both sides are equally brutal in their tactics, and our heroes Jyn and Cassian have to fend for themselves, attacking both sides and helping the innocents caught in the crossfire. This scene perfectly embodies everything that the film succeeds so well in. Diversity, with the cast and the Arabian aesthetic brought to the guerrillas, providing a potent subtext to current events. Grey morals and the devastating effects of war, through the cataclysmic destruction brought by the Empire. But there is also the presence of hope: Jyn dashes to save a young girl, carrying her to safety, despite her importance in the task at hand. This is a film that understands where it comes from, and yet wants to and dares to take it in more prevalent directions.
While it may seem like I’m gushing, there is little doubt that Rogue One is exactly the kind of blockbuster I have been discussing in my previous article on the importance of Science-Fiction filmmaking. It is a film that renders an exciting adventure, with a number of memorable sequences and a third act that races along with a breakneck pace. It features familiar faces, sets, sequences, easing the audience into the tone of the film. But it is a film that speaks volumes about war, its devastation, its expanse, its horrors. And it is through the protagonists that the film seeks us to aspire to: a greater sacrifice and effort for the good of the people around us, despite the morals of either side of any conflict. This, I believe, is a valuable message, and Edwards and Kennedy must be praised for attempting to implement this into a film franchise as revered and adorned as Star Wars.
Merry Christmas to you all! Do yourselves a favour and go and see this movie!