Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is under pressure to continue developing a weapon of mass destruction for the Empire. Having tried to escape by living a quiet life as a farmer on a remote planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy, he is forced to come back by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on the condition that his infant daughter will be left alone.
Years later, construction works on the Death Star (the ‘planet-killer’ weapon) are almost complete. Erso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) is now a rebel in hiding, and finds herself joining forces with a group of outsiders to assist the the fight against the Empire. The cause is aided by a pilot (Riz Ahmed) who is convinced by Galen to switch sides and tell Jyn about the Death Star’s weak spot.
The adventure story follows a fairly predictable path, yet director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) manages to make it all feel removed enough from the existing Star Wars universe to appeal to newcomers. In fact, where last year’s The Force Awakens veered too closely to becoming a reboot rather than the straight sequel it should have been, Edwards’ film has a distinctive tone all of its own. It’s bizarre, given the limitations of having to lead into the best-known film in the series, but even though we know Rogue One will end where A New Hope begins, the burden of creating a satisfying set-up doesn’t weigh down the action at all.
The two big positives in this movie are the great performances from the eclectic cast and the stunning visual effects. There are scenes of mass destruction, in particular focusing on the mammoth Imperial Star Destroyers, that are jaw-droppingly fantastic.
The cast, led by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy) are on excellent form. The relationship between father and daughter is exquisitely played out, with Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) managing to elicit great sympathy from the viewer whenever he is on screen. The main antagonist isn’t quite as intimidating as he should be, however, with Mendelsohn (A Place Beyond The Pines, Animal Kingdom) hamming it up but failing to hit the highs of the best villains in the series. We already new that a few familiar faces would be returning to the dark side, and these have limited success in adding gravitas to proceedings.
Darth Vader makes only a few fleeting appearances, which are ultimately a disappointment given that much more was teased in the trailers we had already seen for the film. An even worse fate befalls the computer-generated version of Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin, who has been resurrected from beyond the grave thanks to cutting edge technology, but is left looking like a walking corpse with an expressionless visage and a ‘plastic’ appearance.
There is one character that benefits greatly from the combination of a witty set of one-liners and tremendous CG. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) voices sarcastic Imperial Droid K-2SO, who has been reprogrammed to serve freedom fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The genuinely funny dialogue the metallic sidekick shares with Andor is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and his constant bickering with Jyn is even better.
Fears from some quarters that the story is heavy on real-life political commentary are actually not too far off the mark. It’s hard to disguise the Empire attack on the holy city of Jedha, defended as it is by a small group of poorly armed guerrilla soldiers using the urban setting and improvised explosive devices to fight back, as anything other than a reflection on current global conflicts. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that this is part of the reshoots that occurred earlier this year; the analogies have been deeply-rooted in the script from its inception. Similarly, it’s really not out of keeping from the general message of all the Star Wars films.
The film does suffer towards the end as we realise the desperate situation the characters are in, even though we are constantly hit over the head with the word ‘hope’. The subtle foreshadowing that is aimed for comes across as a ham-fisted attempt at reminding us we are just watching a prequel to an ongoing saga.
Despite these negatives, Rogue One just about works thanks to Jones and co. All things considered, this film has more value to it than The Force Awakens, which becomes a poorer experience with every subsequent viewing. At least with this film you can pick out the flaws instantly and enjoy the good bits for what they are.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released on December 16