The first Star Wars spin-off is an amiable enough sci-fi/fantasy adventure, until its titanic third act…
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn
Release Date: 16th December, 2016 (US)
Studio: Walt Disney/Lucasfilm
“Save the rebellion! Save the dream!”
Expectations are a funny thing. They can ruin an entire moviegoing experience, or perhaps elevate it – providing they were low enough to begin with. Rogue One was always burdened by some fan expectation, but, compared to The Force Awakens, the build-up and media hype this time around actually felt a little conservative. Rumours of reshoots have dogged the production over the last six months, while the mere fact that it didn’t continue the main saga story undermined its importance slightly.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what Rogue One needed. While JJ Abrams was tasked with resurrecting Hollywood’s most iconic franchise and making a masterpiece out of The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards needed only to deliver an entertaining standalone adventure – one simply good enough to justify Lucasfilm’s decision to pursue stories away from the Skywalker family tree. For the first seventy minutes of its runtime, the film meets this requirement admirably – taking fans to exotic new worlds and introducing a range of exciting new characters. The story itself is bread-and-butter stuff, but the performances and inventive action set pieces keep you invested enough not to really notice.
And then the third act kicks in. Without spoiling any moment or scene in particular, the big finale elevates this spin-off above and beyond any expectations I once had for it. It’s a sprawling, chaotic tapestry of rebellion and desperation that manages to retain its blockbuster scale while never losing focus on the stories and characters that truly matter. It’s often harrowing, high stakes entertainment that transports you into the action and makes you fear for the lives of everyone around you. From the moment we reach the tropical shores of Scarif, the movie kicks it up a level and aggressively vows to never look back.
“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.”
One of the things that makes the final battle so impactful is the manner in which it is shot. DoP Greg Fraiser and the film’s VFX team combine their respective talents to create one of the most beautiful-looking blockbusters of the year. For all the Tony Gilroy/reshoot talk, director Gareth Edwards’ stamp is most strongly felt here. His boots-on-the-ground approach to this battle allows for some of the most creative action set-pieces we’ve ever seen from a Star Wars flick. Elsewhere, the utterly frightening depiction of those towering AT-ATs is not unlike something out of Monsters or Godzilla.
The film builds to its marvellous crescendo at such a relentless pace, the momentum can, at times, have a bit of a dizzying effect. Much of the groundwork laid in the first two acts feels rushed or poorly developed, and as a result, it’s a little erratic. Furthermore, while the final third greatly benefits from the story’s breakneck tempo, it couldn’t have hurt to slow it down once more for those last few scenes – if only to allow the viewer a moment or two to catch their breath and soak in their experience.
Rogue One‘s connections to the wider Star Wars universe feel pretty hit-and-miss. Many have branded Edwards’ efforts in certain scenes as ‘fan-fiction’ – and, at times, that criticism isn’t completely unwarranted. There are moments and characters stitched into the story that feel so out of place, it’s obvious their only role was to excite hardcore fans. The use of a certain Sith Lord, however, is impeccable. The filmmakers show great restraint to ensure every second of screentime he possesses captivates the audience to the same intimidating extent he did back in 1977.
It may lack some of the quality-in-depth that made the original Star Wars trilogy so beloved, but Rogue One is vitally both creative and emotionally resonant enough to justify this new wave of franchise spin-offs – as well as register as one of 2016’s best blockbusters.