Beleaguered prequels aside, there’s something about the Star Wars films that brings out the best in their directors: Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand and J.J. Abrams all produced career-best work with their instalments of the franchise. Now comes Gareth Edwards with Rogue One, the hitherto untold story of the rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star. But can the young director, following up his coolly-received Godzilla, deliver the goods as well as skirt rumours of troubled reshoots and studio interference?
The answer, triumphantly, is a resounding yes. Let’s get this out of the way nice and early: Rogue One is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, effortlessly capturing the spirit of the original trilogy while telling an exhilarating and emotional story that feels urgent and indispensable. Comparisons to last year’s The Force Awakens are unavoidable, but Rogue One is a very different beast to Abrams’ episodic adventure. While everything about Edward’s film, from the costumes, creatures, and pulpy narrative, screams classic Star Wars design, Rogue One isn’t nearly as slavishly beholden to formula as The Force Awakens was.
The invariable call backs to previous instalments are subtly woven into the fabric of the film – don’t expect anyone to self-consciously mention trash compactors – the story justifying its multiple cameos well enough that it’s easy to forgive some slightly distracting digital necromancy. Just as 1977’s Star Wars was influenced by classic westerns and samurai films, Rogue One is rich with cinema, with the opening sequence brimming with Kurosawa, battle helmets lifted straight from The Longest Day, and new droid Kaytoo’s gunslinging invoking a certain Man with No Name. Performances, too, are a highlight, with every member of the multinational ensemble making an impression; shades of a darker, morally compromised Han Solo flicker in Diego Luna’s Captain Andor, while Riz Ahmed is game as a slightly underwritten defecting Imperial pilot.
Temple guards Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) offer two of the most captivating action sequences this side of a lightsaber fight, and Forest Whitaker leaves the audience wanting more of his rebel of rebels Saw Gerrera. Fans of Ben Mendelsohn will be unsurprised to learn that he is delicious as the ambitious Imperial Admiral Krennic, while Mads Mikkelsen imbues his small role as Galen Erso with pathos and complexity. Rogue One excels at delivering snappy, nuanced characterisation. At times it feels as if more of Jyn Erso’s (a terrific Felicity Jones) backstory could have fleshed her character out, but on balance we are given everything we need to know about her out of the gate. She’s antagonistic to authority whatever its political colour and it’s self-interest that initially drives her personal rebellion, underpinning the uneasy alliances cobbled together between a galaxy of rebels
If any serious criticism can be levelled at Rogue One, it’s the breathless pacing of its opening sequences, which bounce from planet to planet in order to bring together its disparate players. It’s often said that in the post-Watergate doldrums of the 1970s, Star Wars was just the escapist, exciting adventure that people needed. What better film, then, to lift us out of 2016’s numbingly relentless horrors than Rogue One, an exhilarating triumph that name-drops extremism and invokes hope in equal measure? A shot in the arm of apathy, a timely Christmas fantasy, proof of a fully-rejuvenated franchise.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell