One of the most trenchant criticisms levelled at last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was that it cleaved altogether too closely to the shape of the original Star Wars film (aka Episode IV: A New Hope). So much so that, at times, it felt as much like a remake as a sequel. It’s unfortunate, though completely understandable, that the exact same thing could be said of Rogue One, a new Star Wars spin-off movie that wriggles its way into the space between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. And that’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a good deal to admire here.
Rogue One follows the tribulations of young trouble-maker Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she gets drawn into the fight against the rise of the Empire. Along the way she gathers a motley gang around her, and together they embark on a vital but hugely hazardous mission. This entry certainly puts the ‘war’ into Star Wars, portraying it as an intense, dangerous, morally murky world in which polar definitions of good, bad, right and wrong are slightly redundant. Indeed, some of this stuff might be too strong for your average young BB-8 enthusiast.
Director Gareth Edwards has assembled an appealing and truly multi-cultural cast. In Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston’s Salford accent was explained away with the line, “lots of planets have a North”. Now, it turns out that a galaxy far, far away has a Denmark, a China, a Mexico and even a north west London, so hooray for that. They’re a talented bunch, too. Mads Mikkelson brings some genuine weight to the role of conflicted scientist Galen while Donnie Yen makes a strong impression as Chirrut Imwe, an ardent devotee of the Force whose blindness doesn’t prohibit his crack martial arts skills. Elsewhere, Diego Luna as Cassian and Riz Ahmed as Bodhi are very able additions.
Frankly, though, the script is sometimes flimsy and the dialogue is drab and nondescript. With such a bustling team, individual characters aren’t always given much of substance to do, but together they manage to excel.
Rogue One looks very handsome indeed, and in established Star Wars fashion it roams a variety of vivid locations, from Jordan and Iceland to the Maldives. This lends a strong sense of scale, though on the down side the first half is rather woolly in the pacing, so it’s at risk of becoming meandering. Once Jyn and company are fully engaged with the task in hand, it picks up considerably and gets the pulse good and pounding. Arguably, though, this could have done with arriving more quickly. After all, the audience knows full well where it’s going, so it pays to cut to the chase.
Being as it is a Star Wars spin-off rather than a fully fledged Episode, Rogue One comes without some of the series’ regular go-to elements, from the opening expository ‘crawl’ to a John Williams soundtrack. Thankfully, on this last score, Michael Giacchino makes for a very decent replacement.
For all its strengths, though, this feels fundamentally hobbled. For one thing, it’s the first Star Wars film to pay very little concession to the notion of ‘fun’. In an increasingly grim real world, to what degree do we want our blockbuster movies to reflect modern times, or else to offer an escape from them?
But really, the biggest failing here is that, rather like The Force Awakens, it often feels all too familiar. Any popular franchise is likely to stick to the formula which made it popular in the first place, but there’s always room for invention. In the case of Star Wars, there’s a whole universe going spare. But as it stands, the series has established a set of elements and simply falls back on presenting them in a reshuffled order every time. This goes far deeper than droids, TIE Fighters and lightsabers. Oh look, here’s the feisty disenfranchised youngster growing up on a farmstead. Here are the gnarly parent/offspring issues, and here comes the spiky pressure-cooker romance. Here’s the big pitched space battle, and here’s the bleedin’ Death Star again. And if this nit-picking comes across as, well, nit-picking, bear in mind that the one film that really did shake things up a bit, namely The Empire Strikes Back, is still regarded as the saga’s high watermark.
So Rogue One is no disgrace at all. For the most part it spins a compelling, engaging yarn, and it does at least try to take a different tack to what’s gone before. By comparison, though, it’s not in the same assured, spring-heeled league as The Force Awakens. And all things considered, here’s hoping that next year’s Star Wars: Episode VIII brings a big fistful of genuinely new ideas to the table.