This is oh so deliberately NOT a Star Wars Movie. A moderately spoiler-free review of Rogue One.
For decades to come, we’ll be hearing geeky arguments about whether or not Rogue One should be included in Star Wars Marathons. These arguments will be insoluble, tedious, and inevitable.
This is because most of the actual interest of the film consists in the extent to which Rogue One inhabits the same universe as the other films. Not quite being a Star Wars movie is what Rogue One is all about.
We see the “Lucasfilm” logo, and the words “Long ago in a Galaxy far away”. But then we don’t get the scrolling context as preparatory reading matter. The words “Episode 3.75” do not appear on the screen. Nor is the score by John Williams, but by Michael Giacchino who tantalisingly joins up three or four notes of melodies that sound a bit StarWarsy before sending us in another direction altogether.
You briefly hear the voice of the only actor to appear in every single Star Wars movie.
Only in a the dying minutes of the movie, is a light saber brandished.
Perhaps the most remarkable special effect is the digital recreation of Peter Cushing, perhaps a chilling indication of what lies ahead for us. You’ll recall that Laurence Olivier was digitally recreated for us in that strange bit of retro-futurism with Jude Law (Sky Captain and the Something of Something). The active antagonist in the film is not, however, Moff Tarkin or Darth Vader but Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the director of the Death Star project, whose uneasy position within a fascistic order is well narrated. Vader and the Emperor, like Hitler, want results and don’t care who jumps on who in a competitive race to get those results.
Rogue One is a very studied attempt, and a partially successful one, to offer an experientially different perspective on day to day life in the Star Wars universe. In some ways, it’s like an adult mind trapped in a child’s nightmare. The street-level reality of imperial subjugation is effectively rendered within the context of urban terrorism, particularly within the bustling city of Jedha. How do you throw grenades at stormtroopers in a town full of children? Furthermore, the Rebel Alliance itself is depicted as fractured and dysfunctional. In this reality, there are rebels and there are rebels. Perhaps disunion is actually implicit in the very name “alliance”. Political movements that are uniform and unambiguously focused don’t need to be “alliances”. In Rogue One, the “mainstream” anti-imperialists, led by Bail Organa and Mon Mothma have become estranged from the “extremist” anti-imperialist Saw Gerrara (Forrest Whitaker in an extraordinary performance). It’s not exactly spelled out what being an anti-imperial extremist consists of. Saw really really really hates the Empire, and apparently you’re only supposed to really really hate it. A slightly more adult film than this would have spelled out a bit more explicitly what’s deemed the unacceptable level of civilian collateral damage inflicted by the Rebellion’s “extreme” elements.
At the heart of the desperate mission that Rogue One describes there’s a feisty loner (Felicity Jones), a disgruntled truck driver (Riz Ahmed) who has abandoned imperial shipping, and a jaded imperial freedom fighter (Diego Luna). There’s also a blind fighting monk in the Sōhei tradition whose devotion to the Force exceeds that of any Jedi. Played by Donnie Yen, this character is an uneasy presence within a Star Warsy movie – since he’s a walking reminder of where George Lucas got most of his ideas for the Jedi order. Source material is invading the fantasy. One should not neglect Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, a reprogrammed imperial droid who becomes the single wittiest automaton in the history of the franchise to date.
The climax of the film is its own starwarsification, the integration of what these characters have done into the comforting familiarity of the space opera we all know. And finally we hear John Williams’ familiar strains welcoming us back.
A narrative like this is all about the relationship between what we know and what we don’t know. It’s not a stand alone narrative, but neither is it an episode in a sequence. Gareth Edwards (who is unrelated to the 1970s Welsh rugby legend) has directed a movie that is, itself “Rogue” – it’s the joker in the pack, the movie that isn’t really part of the gang but which owes its existence to the gang. One is only ever a “rogue” relationally – to “go Rogue” is to acknowledge the very allegiance you are flouting. To judge this film purely on its own merits, one would have to find someone who knew nothing of any other Star Wars movie and ask them to watch it and tell you what they thought of it.
The quest to find such a person would be worthy of an action adventure film all of its own.