Tuesday, 3 January 2017

"We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!"

"...Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR..." This vague line from the opening crawl to Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) is the launchpad for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm's first standalone movie that falls outside of the Episode structure.

It certainly takes a brave man to tackle a Star Wars prequel at this point. As George Lucas learned back in 1999, hitting fans' nostalgia circuits will only get you so far – you also have to deliver an experience that feels fresh. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story thankfully walks this tightrope with remarkable ease and no small amount of spectacle. There are plenty of series callbacks to please the hardcore fanbase, but also an abundance of offbeat new characters, first rate visuals and a truly ballsy third act.

Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One has clearly been crafted with care and considerable attention to detail, and it unfurls a fascinating corner in the galaxy far, far away that will thrill fans as they revel in its meticulous world. It works in its own right as a full blooded action adventure, though there is no question it will mean more to those who have pored over trading cards and staged their own standalone stories with action figures.

What first delights is quite how real the world feels. Director Gareth Edwards' previous films Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) focus more on human characters than beasts, and Rogue One is similarly boots on the ground level. The pitch, courtesy of visual effects legend John Knoll, Industrial Light & Magic's very own Obi-Wan, is beautifully simple – a classic World War II mission movie rejigged for the Star Wars universe. Instead of the guns of Navarone or V-1 rockets, the target is that mother of all giant orbicular firearms, the Death Star. And instead of the usual ragtag platoon of army recruits, the heroes that comprise this scraggly suicide squad are a bunch of assorted underdogs from throughout the galaxy. Future Star Wars 'stories', such as the forthcoming Han Solo spin-off, will doubtless be lighter than the main Episodes, but Edwards here ramps up the stress levels. Gone are the series' trademark wipes and other retro editing tricks. There is a comedy robot, the lumbering reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), but his wisecracks are subdued, fuelled by cynical sarcasm, rather than slapstick. Rogue One is both dark and earnest – for the first time in the franchise, it feels like anyone, and any droid, is expendable.

At points the gloom threatens to eclipse the fun. Like Luke Skywalker and Rey, heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has a tragic backstory, meaning she has had to grow up alone. But unlike them she is a fairly dour screen presence, already a battle-hardened rebel (but not yet a Rebel) when we meet her. Jones brings impressive intensity, as does Diego Luna (Milk) as a Rebel Alliance intelligence officer with a secret mission, but it is hard not to pine for the presence of a Han Solo, or even a Poe Dameron. In this critical phase of the conflict, quips are in as short supply as kyber crystals. On the plus side, for the first time in Star Wars history an instalment amplifies its Eastern roots. The original was influenced by the Akira Kurosawa classic The Hidden Fortress (1958), and here Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen play riffs on the same Fortress characters that inspired R2-D2 and C-3PO in A New Hope. Yen in particular is riproaringly badass as the blind Chirrut Îmwe, a kind of intergalactic Zatōichi (2003) who employs what can only be described as Force-fu. It is a bold new direction for the saga – it will certainly be interesting to see if it is one that gets expanded in Episodes to come.

Arguably the most crowd pleasing stuff, however, comes courtesy of the villains. Ben Mendelsohn is gloriously hissable as Imperial weapons Director Orson Krennic, exuding both menace and fury – when someone pleads with him, "You're confusing peace with terror." He sneers back, "Well, you have to start somewhere." But post viewing chatter will ultimately be all about the return of two characters – Darth Vader, whose brief but chilling appearance restores his credibility after he was last seen howling "Nooooooooooooo!" in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith (2005), and another iconic original trilogy villain, resurrected via staggering digital effects. The latter being very close to escaping the Uncanny Valley and shows just how far digital artistry has come in the past decade.

At times Rogue One does resemble Star Wars bingo though – here is a glass of blue milk, here is a mouse droid, there is that character you like doing that line he is famous for. Some of it feels clumsy, some of it is great (watch out for some ingeniously repurposed archive footage from A New Hope). But like The Force Awakens before it, the movie gets better the more it deviates from past triumphs. Unlike The Force Awakens, which at times slid into Star Wars cliché as it went, this standalone story struggles through a slightly uneven middle section but ends on a high, with a triumphant third act set on the tropical planet of Scarif. Seemingly taking its cue from Winston Churchill – "We shall fight them on the beaches" – it is part heist, part battle, a thundering action spectacle with AT-ATs stomping down palm trees, death troopers splashing in azure waters and some truly surprising twists. It is here, when Rogue One shakes off formula and goes rogue itself, that it finally fulfils on its promise.

The opening shot confirms that Rogue One is going to be anything other than Star Wars-lite, and everything from shots of locations, fallen Jedi temples and the Death Star itself feel wholly large screen, with Edwards frequently demonstrating his knack for scale. And despite the fact viewers ostensibly know the outcome, Rogue One grips till the very end.

The biggest surprise is quite how emotional it is, with several scenes – and one hologram message in particular – primed to hit the heart strings. Rogue One might trade heavily in nostalgia but it is bold enough to take risks, and will leave you stirred, fired up and raring for more. Now, if only there was a follow-up we could go away and watch immediately...

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may be short on whimsy but when it gets going there is enough risk taking and spectacle to bode well for future standalones.

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