The Rebel Alliance is having an identity crisis in Rogue One, the new “Star Wars Story” with the tale of how the Rebels stole the Empire’s Death Star plans. The Rebels want to challenge the Imperials but only dabble in light espionage: assassinations, trading secrets and smuggling, but they don’t want to be labeled as fanatics. They’ve even disowned an extremist militant arm of the Rebellion led by Forest Whitaker who seems fresh off viewing Apocalypse Now in every scene. Both groups are in revolt, seemingly killing the same number of faceless stromtroopers, so what’s the difference? Rogue One’s answer is: hope, but not a new hope, that’s the title of the Star Wars film to follow, this is the newfangled hope before the real hope.
Rogue One throws around the mission statement of ‘hope’ as a vague identifier for the cause but Star Wars has never been subtle with its shades of good and evil – hello, light and dark side. One of the Death Star plan heist co-conspirators, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) says, “Rebellions are built on hope.” Based on the sloppy dialogue of Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay, I got the vibe if you asked any of these characters what was for lunch they’d reply, “hope”. They live, breath and eat it, but no one seems to understand it unless someone has sneaked them a copies of episodes 4 to 6. It seems that way considering how many times this film gets snagged on fan service. For a universe made up of many galaxies, Star Wars continues to box itself in for the sake of the familiar and everything feels smaller.
Anything profound is lost on the rebels of Rogue One for a majority of the film. Each characterization is embedded in the Star Wars tradition of orphans, cynics and spiritual gurus. Once in the grit of battle, the characters emerge to realise the role they play in the bigger picture and each sacrifice makes an impact, eventually. I found it sad to see these characters finally click and then realise it was all too late; you can almost see it in their faces as all consuming fireballs approach. It got worse when I felt for the droid (Alan Tudyk) more than human characters. Bless Donnie Yen, though, for trying to inject a little soul into Rogue One with his blind warrior dedicated to the force. It’s easy to forget the Star Wars universe is reeling from a spiritual genocide, yet few people pause to question the one divine entity binding everything together. Sure, the Empire is trying to erase all knowledge of the Jedi (by the time we get to Force Awakens they are considered to be a myth) but Yen’s character emphasises the power of faith in dark times.
On the shadowy side of town, the Empire sticks to the Star Wars template for villainy with terror highlighted as a necessary evil on the pathway to peace, as long as its only on their terms. Hollywood’s go-to scumbag, Ben Mendelsohn gets more to do with a glorious white cape than what’s given to him by the script. Rogue One’s big act of wickedness is to bring Darth Vader back in a glorified cameo that reinstates him as an imposing bad guy in the days before his redemption. Ripping the humanity out of Rogue One is the Polar Express style of digital resurrection that occurs with Peter Cushing’s villain Grand Moff Tarkin. Here’s the precedent for actors needing to state in their will that they never want their image resurrected digitally by any blockbuster. Cushing’s estate okayed it but it still feels wrong. File this one away with the infamous Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner commercial and Tupac’s hologram.
The final battle gaslights you into thinking Rogue One is grand the whole way. It’s going to be the part most people will skip to when this thing hits DVD. The conflict is a tense, special-effects extravaganza not completely marred by an overreliance on digital creations. Edwards’ commitment to the aesthetics of the production design vintage of A New Hope removes the sleek edges of modern digital effects wrangling of pop culture relics. At times, Star Destroyers look more like miniatures and Edwards has an incredible handle on scale: a moment when the Death Star eclipses a planet’s sun is haunting.
Rogue One grinds through a lot of planet hopping, exposition and fan service to posture towards the optimism of a small band of rebels toppling galactic fascists, but it finds itself, and is redeemed, by the major battle sequence that closes out the film. In war – and this film is desperate to underline the ‘war’ in ‘Star Wars’ – hope is the ideal motivational poster but it can’t be instilled without sacrifice. When it finally shows up, Edwards gives Rogue One the guts to commit to a story that defines what separates the Rebellion from the militants and the Imperials.
The Popcorn Junkie