Published January 16, 2017
Gareth Edwards’s ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’
‘Rogue One’ fully and completely understands what it means to be a Star Wars movie.
It means retreading familiar ground not with hesitation, fear, and blind adherence to form, but with bold surety and the strength to break and bend the rules where applicable. It means daring to venture slightly off the beaten path while keeping key elements within sight at all times, embracing the full scope of the universe it inhabits while still taking time to tell a strong new story. ‘Rogue One’ understands these things, and, most important of all, it understands that the key to being a great Star Wars movie is a willingness to redefine what a great Star Wars movie is in the first place.
“It does all this while never losing its own identity and feel, proudly infused with the spirit of Star Wars without ever feeling cheap or derivative.”
Rather than being a pallid retread of inedibly stale cliches, ‘Rogue One’ forges a new path toward its own frontier, which is ironic in light of the movie’s place in the Star Wars timeline. Set mere days before the events depicted in the original 1977 Star Wars movie, ‘Rogue One’ could easily have devolved into two hours of pointless fan service and disappeared into the foothills of the great mountain that is ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, but instead, it gloriously enriches and actually improves the older film, complementing it and intersecting with it so cohesively that they could almost be seen as two halves of the same production. It does all this while never losing its own identity and feel, proudly infused with the spirit of Star Wars without ever feeling cheap or derivative. This is also a noteworthy feat considering that as a standalone spinoff without an episode number or place in the grander Star Wars saga, it did not have any particular obligation to be anything more than a stopgap addendum to already established events, and yet it brings more fresh vigor and originality to the table than any recent franchise film I can think of. It’s a great movie, and it doesn’t even have to be.
From Godzilla to the Death Star
It achieves these things largely due to the confident strokes of its director, Gareth Edwards. Edwards, who first gained international attention with his deft and understated full-length debut ‘Monsters’, and popped his blockbuster cherry with the 2014 reboot of ‘Godzilla’, is seemingly building a career with his natural feel for convincingly placing the viewer amid unlikely events that are taking place on an enormous scale. He is, in other words, the perfect man to believably depict the Death Star as it ominously stalks whole planets. The destruction it brings is always carefully choreographed to show its impact on things whose size we already know and understand; the massive fallen statues and crumbling temples of Jedha are methodically overturned and shattered, rather than simply annihilated, with the resulting explosions shown from multiple angles and vantage points so we can better understand the terror and devastation.
And his artistry doesn’t end there. Nearly everything in the film is similarly tactile and tangible; Edwards understands that the Star Wars universe is a real place, but rather than try to recreate that reality by duplicating the feel of previous films, he sees the potential in modernizing its individual elements and making them real to a contemporary audience. The gunfights in ‘Rogue One’ echo the pacing of those in the original films, but still bring the grit and weight one has come to expect from modern action movies. An X-wing fighter emerges from hyperspace into a set-piece space battle, but we see it from a distinctly modern-feeling ship-mounted camera. Darth Vader mows down hapless Alliance troops with sanguine flair aplenty, but it never feels wanton and unjustified; in fact, it is a legitimately terrifying scene, so skilled is Edwards at making even something as overexposed and fantastical as Darth Vader seem fresh and real.
No chase scene or space battle occurs without the audience first being made to visually understand the layout and dimensions of the players and the setting, meaning that the ensuing special effects orgies never feel gratuitous, but simply satisfying payoffs that follow diligent setups. A two-legged scout walker turns the tide in a gunfight in what would have been a flagrant deus ex machina, had the walker not first been glimpsed through the townscape minutes earlier. Rebel starfighters zip and weave through space station superstructure, but only after the station’s shape and purpose has been thoroughly established. And those same fighters also spectacularly take down a four-legged walker, but only after the walker’s humongous size and apparent impregnability have been depicted in the previous scene. Setup, payoff. Setup, payoff. It’s not complicated, JJ.
Painting outside the lines
‘Rogue One’ is masterfully paced, opening with simple but striking compositions and character introductions conveyed with sparse conversation and bountiful reaction shots. One by one, the characters are established and the plot moves forward, in scenes that never feel offhand or obligated, but finely theatrical and, for want of a better word, loved. And when the time comes for Edwards to wring out the drama during the film’s dazzling climax, it doesn’t feel forced or color-by-numbers, simply because the preparatory work has been done. He even makes the wobbly closeups and muted, reverberating explosions that now litter all sci-fi and fantasy films feel rewarding and warranted. This is competent filmmaking done by a man who understands his craft, who knows how to mix modernity with classicism, and how to convey complexity by hinting at the spaces between his simple lines.
The cast is similarly selective with their brushes, with veteran character actors Forest Whitaker and Ben Mendelsohn setting their scenery-chewing dials at exactly the right levels, while relative newcomers Felicity Jones and Riz Ahmed find real people within their admittedly barebones story arcs. Jones’s authenticity is especially important and difficult to achieve, as she has some fairly hammy speeches and overwrought confrontations to sell, but she rises to the challenge quite beautifully. Her character’s entire arc essentially rests on her reaction to a recorded message, but what a reaction it is; she falls to her knees, devastated, and the audience falls with her. Edwards has enough faith in his actors’ performances to not saddle them with trite expositional explanations of how they feel or why. Their motivations are tastefully and convincingly written onto their faces, from Donnie Yen’s beatific smile and Diego Luna’s skeptical scowl, to Riz Ahmed’s flighty glances and Forest Whitaker’s desperately sorrowful stares.
It seems amazing that ‘Rogue One’ finds time and space for all these human emotions amid the rises and falls of a full-on space opera, but that is what the genre was originally meant to achieve, and the film stands as a testament to the fact that it takes more than box-checking self-service and special effects wizardry to do the Star Wars franchise justice. And it does all these things while still delivering a product that is fun, fresh, valid and relevant, and far superior in every way to the franchise entry that came before it. It is a film worthy of its place among the stars, and I want to watch it again right now.