Nearly 40 years after the original Star Wars arrived in cinemas, the story of how the plans for the Death Star were stolen is finally revealed in Rogue One, an event that lives up to all the expectations and then some. There are no major plot spoilers in this review, but there are some spoilers related to casting (generally nothing that wasn’t revealed in various trailers).
Jyn Ersoe (Felicity Jones), the long-lost daughter of Imperial scientist Galen Ersoe (Mads Mikkelsen), is freed from prison by the Rebel Alliance in a bid to find her father before he can complete his work on the Death Star. She’s teamed with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Her team grows to include Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Chirrut’s friend and fellow warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Can they outwit Death Star project director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)?
Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) has a darker story to tell to setup Episode IV, but he understands what makes Star Wars work, and does a remarkable job of creating a film that feels very contemporary yet still meshes with the Original Trilogy. He’s adept at thrilling action scenes, suspense, and getting the most out of his cast. Reshoots in post-production were directed by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy), who also co-wrote the film.
The screenplay by Gilroy and Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass), from a story by John Knoll (a longtime visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic and co-creator of Adobe Photoshop) and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, After Earth), makes for one of the best written Star Wars films. It’s exciting, dramatic, funny, finds ways to fit in many easter eggs without violating established continuity, and, most importantly, ends where 1977’s Episode IV begins in a perfect handoff. It’s also darker in tone, showing the gritty side of fighting a rebellion. It’s not all fresh-faced farmboys fighting nobly.
Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman, Zero Dark Thirty) plays with a darker palette to suit the material, but he ensures that the film can still integrate with the other Star Wars films when it needs to.
Besides filming at Elstree Studios (where the Original Trilogy was filmed) in England (London’s Canary Wharf subway station is also used in a scene), extensive location filming in Iceland, Jordan, and the Maldives brings the world of Rogue One to life most vividly.
Production designers Doug Chiang (visual effects production designer on Episode I) and Neil Lamont (supervising art director on Episode VII) use their previous experience to give us a mix of classic settings and new settings that adhere to the design principles of the Original Trilogy. They succeed quite well, as do costume designers David Crossman (costume supervisor on Episode VII) and Glyn Dillon (chief costume concept artist on Episode VII).
Industrial Light & Magic produced the bulk of the film’s visual effects, and they’re all quite fantastic, from new planets, to Imperial vs. Rebel dogfights, to the use of CG to create likenesses of actors who were either dead or too old. Co-writer/executive producer Knoll served as one of the supervisors.
Michael Giacchino (Star Trek , Doctor Strange) steps in for John Williams as the composer, and does an excellent job. He finds ways to use some of Williams’ themes when necessary, but it’s mostly his own compositions, and it still sounds like a Star Wars score.
Felicity Jones carries the film, taking her character from prisoner to reluctant ally of the Rebel Alliance to big damn hero, capably matched by Diego Luna’s Rebel intelligence officer whose conscience comes to the fore. The two develop a friendship, but refreshingly, there’s no romantic subplot.
Alan Tudyk (Wash on Firefly) comes close to stealing the film several times as droid K-2SO. It’s not a Star Wars film without a humorous droid. Tudyk performed both the voice and motion capture performance.
Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are memorable as warriors who used to protect the power source for lightsabers, and now find themselves allied with Rebels to strike a blow against the Empire that destroyed the Jedis. That warrior motif goes back to the Akira Kurosawa films that inspired George Lucas.
Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn are veteran actors who capably represent the Empire, one a scientist, the other an ambitious program director, and they get to play several dramatic scenes together.
It’s a good cast all around, with Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, an anti-Imperial revolutionary considered too radical by the Rebel Alliance (and whose name seemingly resembles Che Guevara’s); Genevieve O’Reilly returns from Episode III as Mon Mothma; Jimmy Smits also returns as Bail Organa, adoptive father of Princess Leia; James Earl Jones once again provides the commanding voice of Darth Vader, played physically by Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous; and Guy Henry is Grand Moff Tarkin, though CG is used to replace Henry’s face with the late Peter Cushing’s (a technique also used a second time in the film for another character, but no spoiler for that one).
Rogue One is an exciting film from start to finish, with great new characters and all the best elements of the franchise, leaving the Prequel Trilogy in the dust. If you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s a must see film, but don’t leave your seat until it’s over or you’re certain to miss some easter eggs.
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