Notes from Rogue One

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.
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