A year ago I sat down after seeing The Force Awakens with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Star Wars was definitely back, with a film that had all the trappings of the original trilogy, but with the feeling of a brave new era for the franchise. However, with The Force Awakens borrowing so heavily from the classic trilogy rulebook, it did seem like we’d seen it all before. And with much of its runtime being dedicated to setting wheels in motion for Episodes VIII and IX, it ultimately cost the movie something of an independent identity.
One year on, and I sit here having seen Rogue One, the immediate prequel to A New Hope, a movie that by all rights should be so weighted down with set-up for the original trilogy that its identity is instantly lost. But that’s not what happened. Rogue One is a spectacular piece of film-making, balancing the nostalgic look and feel of Star Wars with taking the franchise in a bold new direction and exploring what it really means to be under the heel of the Galactic Empire.
This First Impressions article will include minor plot point spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Rogue One yet, come back later!
Right from the bold opening, it’s clear this is a very different beast. Cutting through the traditional crawl with a smash cut is a brave move, but one that underlines the urgency at which the entire movie moves forward – this is as much a race against time as it is a battle against the Empire. Introducing us to Galen and Jyn early in a flashback also gives us an insight into what is to come, solidifying key character relationships early.
From here we’re given a whistle-stop tour of the crew that will make up our corner of the Rebellion, and what a great cast they are. Jyn is a battle-hardened, but never overly powerful, rebel with an underlying fragility, something which plays off nicely with Cassian Andor, a man who clearly in earlier times was very much like Jyn. Then there’s Baze and Chirrut, an almost comedic double act that bring us closer to the state of the Force in this era, with Chirrut’s unwavering belief showing that the Empire cannot simply crush the ideals of the Jedi. And of course there is K-2SO, Cassian’s plain-speaking droid, who has numerous scene-stealing moments – a real highlight of the movie.
Unfortunately, Bodhi didn’t really work for me, as he was relegated quite early on to being “and the other guy”. Likewise the movie’s portrayal of Saw Gerrera felt at odds with everything else – he was shown to be slightly mad in The Clone Wars, but in this he’s flat-out insane.
On the villainous side, we’re given Director Krennic, a fantastic villain whose own betrayal at the hands of (an impressive CGI) Tarkin shows the ruthlessness of the Empire. While his incompetency throughout begs a few questions, he’s a great foil to Galen Erso, and a great window into the inner workings on the Imperial ranks. But the real action revolves around Tarkin and Vader, with both stealing every scene they are in – it is just a shame they never meet in this movie.
Cameos fill in a lot of the other space, but never gratuitously so. Nods to Obi-Wan and Hera Syndulla were particularly welcome, as were the appearances of Bail Organa, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and more. It connects everything into one universe, breathing life into a period of the saga we were missing before.
The story revolves around three main planets, Jedha, Eadu and Scarif, each with a major battle taking place (with brief visits elsewhere, including Coruscant and Mustafar). Each one involves explosions, but each feels decidedly different thanks to the location, and the stakes at play – Jedha is about the Empire eradicating the Jedi’s history, Eadu about saving Galen, while Scarif is the battle to save the entire galaxy from the Death Star. It’s a wonderful build-up, and every battle feels very real. Deaths hit hard, and the gritty reality of war in the Star Wars universe is brought to the fore; in fact, very reminiscent of The Clone Wars and the way it shone a light on the reality of a galactic conflict.
And that’s the best way to describe Rogue One – a war movie. This isn’t a cheerful movie, and despite numerous moments of levity (including a bizarre pun from Vader of all people), this is a movie where allies die, heroes are lost, but the battle keeps grinding on. At the heart of it all, we see the formation of the Rebel Alliance, with Mon Mothma at the centre of a very disparate group. While talking has often been derided in Star Wars, it’s fascinating seeing the different factions play off each other, ultimately culminating in a decision not to capture the Death Star plans (one which results in groups going AWOL). It’s incredibly interesting to see war break out on a galactic scale, and how this crucial turning point came to be in the Star Wars universe.
While I could labour on individual moments all day, there’s one part I want to focus on, and that’s the final 10 minutes. Potentially the best sequence in any Star Wars movie, the capture and transmission of the Death Star plans ramps up the tension constantly. Building from Jyn’s confrontation with Krennic, (and following on from perhaps the best space battle in the franchise) we immediately witness the destruction of Scarif, before the plans are hastily brought aboard Admiral Raddus’ ship – the battle is won! Wrong.
Dropping out of hyperspace into the Rebel flagship, the Devastator makes a devastating (sorry) entrance into the battle, instantly disabling the sole Rebel ship that holds the plans. What follows is iconic – as Vader boards the ship, the Rebels desperately try to pass the plans on, while all the time, Vader mows down ranks of Rebels without mercy. It’s a chilling scene, and one that underlines the sacrifices that have led to this point. The relief when it is revealed the plans have ended up in the Tantive IV is palpable, and the final shot of Leia is a real punch the air moment. It’s a fantastic sequence, and one that will live long in the memory.
The best film of 2016? Definitely. The best Star Wars movie? Potentially, although it’s far too early to call. There’s so much left to discuss about Rogue One, but if there’s one thing that should be taken from my first impressions, it’s that I absolutely loved it. It’s a superb movie on its own, but as a new part of the Star Wars canon, it is indispensible. Revealing secrets we never knew needed to be revealed, and answering long-standing questions (Galen sabotaged the reactor!), while creating plenty of links to existing and future canon, Gareth Edwards’ debut film in the Star Wars universe is a complete success.