Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Sarah Ward

The first theatrically released side story in Star Wars history adds more than just the expected to the popular franchise.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars films have never been short on stirring speeches, calls to proceed against seemingly insurmountable odds, or underdogs trying to find a way forward against formidable foes; indeed, that’s what much of the now eight-movie space opera saga George Lucas started with 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope is predicated upon. Still, one such missive of inspiration offered by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, Inferno), stands out. Speaking about the impact that the element of surprise can have — and the corresponding lack of expectation or awareness by those on the other end of their attack — she leads a rag-tag team of rebels on a seemingly futile quest.

Someone might have given the same encouragement to director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) when he took on the task of helming the first official, live-action, theatrically released Star Wars side story, which ranks as the first film in the series not to bear an episode number in its moniker. If so, he listened. Benefiting from a somewhat greater sense of freedom from the need to match, connect to and rework a predecessor made several decades prior — a task that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens handled well — it’s telling that he fashions his addition to the fold out of heist hijinks and wartime repercussions rather than laser-powered swordplay. Even with the movie bridging a gap and explaining a plot hole in the existing series timeline, slotting in between the prequels and the original trilogy, Rogue One finds a way to forge its own path rather than rely upon frequent nods, winks and links.

That’s not to say that the familiar Star Wars building blocks don’t remain evident, nor the expected character types, circumstances and conversations; just that Edwards and writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) don’t make as a blatant a nostalgic case as they might’ve had this been a Star Wars film proper rather than A Star Wars Story — and even the most avid fans of the series might be surprised at how refreshingly pleasant that feels. When recognisable faces show up and overt references are made, it almost distracts and detracts from the otherwise lived-in air of no-nonsense duty that surrounds the on-screen newcomers to the franchise. Jyn may rally her supporters in their efforts to eradicate the planet-annihilating weapon viewers of A New Hope know as the Death Star, but theirs isn’t an upbeat mission. 

First seen as a child (Beau and Dolly Gadson), as she watches an altercation between her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange) and Imperial Military director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline), the seeds of her determined spirit are well and truly sown. 15 years later, after being raised by veteran resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, Arrival), Jyn is given the opportunity to put her resourceful ways into action when the Rebel Alliance call upon her help. With former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, The Night Of) switching sides with a message from scientist and Death Star architect Galen, she’s enlisted to seek him out. Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, Blood Father) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, Moana) may see her as a means to an end, but when the Empire comes calling, conflict begets camaraderie in the face of a common enemy. 

Rogue One may already appear packed with players, but it features more still, such as a blind but wise adherent to the now dormant Jedi ways, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), and his assassin companion, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen, Gone with the Bullets). That equates to ample drama but little depth, at least as far as each is written. A resolute Jones, menacing Mendelsohn, placidly charismatic Yen and under-used Whitaker stand out as reaching beyond the material, though everyone gets their moment, including the CGI ghosts of actors long passed returning as figures from films gone by. For their part, Weitz and Gilroy mightn’t trade in complex characters, but nor is anyone rendered simplistically; intricacy, however, is reserved for the movie’s political ruminations.

With its capable heroine treated as a given rather than an inclusion requiring in-film justification, the majority of its ties to the other features handled in the same manner-of-fact manner, and visuals as gritty as such a vast movie franchise can allow — and all in keeping with Rogue One’s focus on outliers battling an oppressive system, and on the undersung rather than the saga's leads — Edwards guides an effort that ponders not just the causes and forces that drive the opposition to the Empire, but the costs. Every instance of visual texture enhances and interrogates this point, with this a grimier instalment where the less poised and polished is juxtaposed against the white of Krennic’s coat and the darkness of other sinister players; or the organic and earnest against the shiny and soulless.

Here, as the score heaves with restraint and the imagery highlights both the detail and the scale of the action, these previously unknown soldiers toil so that the heroes we’ve already heard of can eventually prosper, making the weight of their endeavours — and, as Jyn mentions, the unpredictability that follows — unexpectedly hard to shake. Of course, such thoughts run only as deep as appropriate in the Star Wars canon, yet, alongside the impressive action scenes that comprise much of Rogue One’s running time, they carve a considerable niche in this densely populated cinematic galaxy far, far away. So does a film that achieves the best kind of fan service or saga expansion aspired to (or both, rolled into one): rousing interest and emotion, letting the acquainted spend more time in beloved worlds and exploring previously contentious plot points, but engaging on its own merits.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Director: Gareth Edwards
USA, 2016, 133 mins

Release date: 15 December
Distributor: Disney
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay