Rogue One is a pleasant surprise in more ways than one. It was reshot – not always a bad thing but not ideal either – and by dint of it being a Star Wars prequel had to deal with the inevitable comparisons with George Lucas’s reviled prequel trilogy. It also felt like the story of how the Death Star design came to be in the hands of the rebel alliance at the cost of many Bothan lives was something that was best left in the margins, a heroic sacrifice made more poignant by our imagination filling the gaps. Most of all, these types of ‘gaiden’ movies don’t tend to carry a lot of artistic merit, as the likes of The Scorpion King and Minions show.
Rogue One overcomes the negative expectations with a downbeat tale of the rank-and-file Star Wars rebels, who we had come to assume certain familiarity with, fighting not for hope and freedom but to compensate for loss and displacement. We get to see things that were always secondary to the heroics of the Skywalkers and their friends, the everyday grunts who prop up the rebel infrastructure, and even dissension amongst the various rebel leaders who – aside from Admiral Ackbar – had always seemed such uninteresting cookie-cutter good guys. For this alone, Rogue One is a valuable addition to the Star Wars lore, but there are other things to enjoy. It starts slow – even slower than A New Hope – and takes some time to introduce all the major players1: Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, is the heroine, who is thrust into the centre of the events due to the identity of her father Galen, a rogue Imperial scientist (Mads Mikkelsen in yet another role that doesn’t make full use of his charisma) who is crucial to the building of the nascent Death Star. Reacting to the rumours of this superweapon, the Rebel Alliance tasks Cassian Andor (a well-cast Diego Luna in a sombre role) to use Jyn first to gain access to a fundamentalist rebel (Forest Whitaker in a curiously curtailed role) for some apparent reason, and then to Galen himself. After it becomes clear that the Death Star is a reality the rebels cannot afford to ignore, and after some of the rebel leaders display a level of ready pessimism that would make Marshall Petain blush, Jyn, Cassian and their friends decide to Dirty-Dozen it into enemy territory to steal the Death Star design. If the film had dragged in the early goings, and the father-daughter narrative is uninteresting, the last hour of Rogue One really picks up steam and provides some of the most exciting – certainly the least predictable – moments in the whole series.
Star Wars had become, through decades of franchise world building and fan worship, more beholden to inward tradition than most, and Rogue One doesn’t fundamentally change that. It is yet another film with the Death Star as the big macguffin, an orphan as the hero, X-Wings battling it out with Tie Fighters, talking droids with awkward gait, and the Force as the unseen yet abiding spiritual presence for all concerned. But within those prescriptions director Gareth Edwards is able to bring some fresh perspective which turns Rogue One into more than just a routine series filler. The Death Star’s destructive power is more limited this time but is made much more intimate and real; the orphan doesn’t have a destiny to follow but is rather a pawn amongst bigger players, trying to make the best of the hand she’s dealt; in K-2SO, we finally have a talking droid with an actual personality as well as good lines, making up for four films of C-3PO’s blithering antics. The Force is freed from the exclusive preserve of the Jedi: non-Force users believe in it, rally around it and are guided by it. The biggest achievement of Rogue One, however, might be that it restores some of the mystery and terror to Darth Vader, whose aura had been much diminished by Revenge of the Sith as well as endless exposure to non-canon commercial ventures.
It’s difficult to tell how the other ‘Star Wars stories’ will turn out, though Disney will no doubt exercise their usual care and attention that has now firmly revived the cinematic relevance of the franchise. In a way Rogue One was the riskiest undertaking, because of the lack of a recognizable protagonist on the level of Han Solo or Boba Fett2. But this very fact allows the film to go in directions that would simply have been off-limits otherwise, and so we benefit from a Star Wars film that can at times feel genuinely fresh.