Any sceptisim over whether Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas would lead to diminishing returns from a series that had been almost undone by its creator’s meddling ways and ham-fisted prequels was eroded by a positive response to last year’s Star Wars Episode VII - A Force Awakens. Yet, despite a huge box office take of more than $2bn, there was not universal acclaim for the efforts of J.J. Abrams for his film which drew closely on past themes of the original trilogy (some might say ‘copied’). With Rogue One, the first of three standalone Star Wars movies planned by Disney to sit outside the main canon, Godzilla (2014) director Gareth Edwards will likely evoke the same response from fans as J.J. Abrams faced: striking gold at the box office by being faithful in look and feel while getting pulled up on script shortfallings.
Rogue One tells of how the Rebel Alliance came to get hold of the Death Star plans that were used to destroy the Empire’s planet-killing weapon in Episode IV - A New Hope. The challenge facing Edwards was how to make this an interesting episode in itself, touching on the wider Star Wars universe with the restriction of ending at a point where we already know what happens next. Enter a cast of brand new characters - with a sprinkling of familiar faces with a minor part to play - to give us a fresh perspective on the battle between the Rebels and the Empire.
One of the most successful characters in Rogue One is the Empire’s Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who is overseeing the building of the Death Star. His snide demeanor is well placed as he seeks to gain favour with the Emperor and Darth Vader, which makes for some of the best scenes - his motives are some of the key drivers of the movie. The film’s opening scene when Krennic confronts Galen Erso (an equally compelling Mads Mikkelsen), who he needs to complete the Death Star, set up the film well. The expanding of the key rebel players is where you could argue Rogue One stutters.
There is more pressure on Episode VIII to deliver some tangible evidence of the Star Wars franchise being driven forward with fresh ideas from its new owners.
In Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) we have an earnest anti-heroine who’s at pains to tell us rebellions are built on hope, and we must watch as she is brought closer to those who will enable her to enact that hope. Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is supposed to be torn between orders and morals, but his moment of clarity is unconvincing. Re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by a deadpan Alan Tudyk to add comic value) feels dropped in to fill the C3P0/BB-8 hole while pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is given little to work with. The most interesting of the rebels is blind Force-believer Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) with some nifty martial arts and his ally, heavy weapons expert Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), though, again, their background is left somewhat mysterious (perhaps set to be used in another standalone entry).
Getting them all working together is done via a messy series of disjointed cut scenes and unclear exposition, so by the time they are all hurriedly placed into the base of underground rebel alliance fugitive Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) it’s pretty obvious they will need to become a team. What happens next is evidence of why Edwards was such a good choice of director - in his expert hands, we witness the battle sequences A Force Awakens was crying out for, including an epic finale with a few cards up its sleeve right up to the credits.
There’s a lot of fan service found in Rogue One which marks it up for reaching a level of engagement Lucas never mustered with his own prequels, and it will no doubt be a welcome addition to original trilogy marathons as a taster of things to come - it’s that on point in terms of story arch. The let down is, like A Force Awakens, the new is overshadowed by the old and there is more pressure on Episode VIII to deliver some tangible evidence of the Star Wars franchise being driven forward with fresh ideas from its new owners.