Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, supposedly, something of a sideshow, a distraction from the wait the release of Episode VIII, now pushed back until December 2017. But this provides, perhaps, the film’s greatest strength.
The story of Rogue One is well established — the opening crawl of the first Star Wars film, in 1977, talks about Rebels scoring their first significant victory over the Galactic Empire in a battle in which they also capture plans to the Death Star, plans that eventually make their way into Princess Leia’s hands; Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels captured these plans. So Star Wars fans will know, not long into the film, where Rogue One is headed. What makes it an outstanding contribution to the Star Wars universe, then, is how it gets there.
The story opens with Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, on fine form) arriving on the remote planet where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is hiding with his family, having given up work on the Death Star. Krennic, in possibly the strongest scene in the film, and in certainly the best-crafted dialogue, tells Erso that he is to return to work on the project. His daughter Jyn, at this point a child, overhears the conversation and flees; as a grown woman, played by Felicity Jones, she finds herself enlisted to help find the plans to the Death Star, along with a group of fellow Rebels.
The story itself, then, is a pretty standard Star War. But having been taken out of the official story-cycle canon and spun off into a stand-alone film, Rogue One is able to develop as a film in itself, rather than as an instalment. It’s also been taken out of George Lucas’ hands — it’s directed by Gareth Edwards, with a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. And the result is a very enjoyable two hours. It is, essentially, Star Wars’ Greatest Hits, from the score, which builds from hints into John Williams’ class Star Wars anthem, to the visual reconstructions of characters from the very first film, with cameos and vintage footage along the way. It is, very much, A Star Wars Story.
It’s a very well-acted film, for the most part — Jones is a strong lead, delivering the somewhat ponderous dialogue (“A rebellion begins with hope” nods back, clangingly, to the subtitle of the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope), while Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, the robot sidekick, less as the prissy English C-3PO, and more as a slightly snarkier Sheldon Cooper, finding genuine humour in his role. Mikkelsen as Galen Erso is a broken but not defeated man, while Mendelsohn finds both malevolence and sycophancy in Krennic, the lead engineer on the Death Star project. James Earl Jones is back as the voice of Darth Vader (hardly a spoiler; Vader features in the film’s trailer), but the suit is occupied this time not by Dave Prowse but by Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous, one of whom manages to give Vader a rather incongruous swagger and hipsway as he first marches toward Krennic. Meanwhile the Rebels at their base on Jedha are played as a World War II-era RAF squadron.
Gareth Edwards’ direction is also, for the most part, very good. The first twenty minutes of the film are a little unfocused, hopping from planet to planet and flinging possibly more characters at the screen than are entirely necessary (Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus, for example, adds little to the story, while Chirrut Îmwe, the blind almost-but-not-quite Jedi played by Donny Yen does little more than show off what he can do with The Force), until it settles down into a well-paced narrative that could have done with a touch more editing than it ended up with, climaxing with a space-battle scene with spaceship harm that is almost balletic in its destructive force.
Rogue One is not an official part of the Star Wars series. But it’s a lot better than several films that are.