Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of the Star Wars anthologies planned by Lucasfilm/Disney, is a force to be reckoned with. Sporting a stellar cast while expanding the Star Wars universe in unimaginable ways, it has fast become one of my favourite films ever. I’m wondering how objective I’ll be here. Spoilers to follow.

We’ll start with the glaring negatives. I don’t love every single thing about Rogue One, but I do actually genuinely enjoy a good 99% of it. That remaining 1% seems to be reserved for that strange, unnecessarily creepy interrogation scene inflicted upon Bodhi Rook. That’s literally the only thing I could say the film would benefit without because it doesn’t really serve a narrative function. But the rest? Even if I have any criticism of it, I just find it works so tremendously well with every thread of story.

Gareth Edwards made the most impeccable fan film. I’m aware of his fanboy status with the Star Wars series, and I think it’s absolutely evident in this film. He has a tremendous amount of respect for existing canon, even going so far as to reach into archival footage and design work to enhance the story he had in mind. What I’ve noticed every time I’ve seen the film is the amazing amount of detail and depth of field present in each shot. Because truly, every shot is beautiful. Greig Fraser did a fabulous job capturing the tone and setting. His cinematography is dynamic and engaging, and nothing is superfluous. I fall more and more in love with the editing each time I see the movie because what a wonderfully thrilling action adventure this turned out to be! Despite expecting every beat of the narrative, I still get a sense of renewed excitement as it unfolds. I still feel my breath catch in my throat at the battle sequences, and how they are expertly interspersed between exposition and filler stuff. This is as solid a blockbuster as I’ve gotten for a good minute. It’s absolutely exhilarating and I just never wanted to blink and risk missing any of the sumptuous imagery.

There’s a lot to be said about the CGI in this movie. I personally really like it, even if I’m fully aware how rubbery and uncanny Tarkin looks. But I genuinely don’t see a problem with the Leia animation in the slightest. Anyway, if anything, these little ‘inconsistencies’ create a sense of nostalgia in me that completely vibes with A New Hope, released in 1977. It reminds me of other pioneer effects films like The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) as well. Somehow, I normally find myself paying too much attention to CGI when it’s ‘too good’ these days. I really have to work hard to suspend belief while watching many effects-heavy films released after Cameron’s Avatar (2009). In contrast, I feel very much at home watching something Rogue One, as it pays homage to films that came before it in more ways than one. Many of the sets look and feel so tangible that it feels like a world that’s lived-in. It’s prop-work and location shoots and real, physical action. It all works to create a cinematic experience that’s easy to invest in.

Part of that investment definitely comes from the characters populating the narrative; they are diverse in appearance as well as characterisation. Never in all my years as a movie lover have I felt that so many people from disparate racial and cultural backgrounds have at least a modicum of balanced representation. The script really delegates its best lines to some very unexpected characters such as Bodhi, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus and Cassian Andor – these are all men of colour. They get to be charming and funny without any jokes being made at their expense, and are fully fleshed-out characters you can root for. Chirrut and Baze are a gorgeous pair, and even though they remain the most mysterious in backstory, their humanity spawns from their inexplicable relationship, and their need to protect one another and the rest of the crew. The monk/warrior dynamic is also rather freshly portrayed, as both tropes are not mutually exclusive for either character.

Bodhi’s character development in particular shocked me from my very first watch. He has the most onscreen development, as he goes from a meek Imperial cargo pilot to a full-on Rebel, piloting and even naming an entire squadron as the film hits its climax. He gets to go through all the motions and finally learns to assert himself, bringing his redemption arc full circle (“This is for you, Galen”). Riz Ahmed is able to channel is usual charisma into a different kind of energy for Bodhi; one of nerves and anxiety, but utter earnestness nonetheless.

Bodhi is the true untainted Hero in this story for me, and his relationship with the droid K-2SO is something I especially love. Alan Tudyk brings a lot of personality into K-2, and it’s a thrill to see just where he bleeds through in the animation, and listen to how much he can convey with his voice. Although its allegiances mostly lie with Cassian, K-2 forms a sweet bond with Bodhi as a fellow ‘defector’, so to speak. I like imagining how they would have gotten along had the ending been a little different; they would have been excellent friends.

Cassian is another absolutely compelling character whose arc is much more subtextual. He is far from perfect, which makes him a wonderful co-protagonist. It’s made clear that he’s done atrocious things that he regrets, all thanks to Diego Luna’s sensitive, layered approach to the character. As much as Cassian chastises Jyn Erso for her lack of commitment to a cause, I love that he clarifies that he’s “been in this fight since [he] was six years old”. It’s part justification,  part exposition for the wider audience since that really tells viewers all they need to know about Cassian’s wavering convictions. He logically knows that the Rebellion is the ‘right’ faction for him, but his real allegiances are probably murkier. He is all about self-preservation.

Which brings me to Jyn herself, played so skilfully and empathetically by Felicity Jones. I grow to love her more and more with each rewatch, because much like Cassian, she is definitely flawed. But I suppose what some audiences find difficult to swallow with her (I have seen a fair share of Jyn hate floating around…) is that she’s quite a prickly character from the get-go. She doesn’t get the quippy lines about hope until the very end (something she learns from her Rebel counterparts), and she definitely proclaims to be politically inactive until it proves beneficial to her. But that’s all within her arc, and these aspects of her change as she develops. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up” is probably one of the most heartbreaking lines I’ve ever heard straight from a protagonist’s mouth, because it simply highlights that Jyn’s main purpose is also survival. Both she and Cassian are battle-hardened in different ways, but more similar than they first realise. Their relationship is richly textured and the tension between them actually works very well because they are two sides of the same coin. When Jyn finally breaks a real smile towards the end at the film, she’s doing so out of relief that all their efforts paid off. She grows so much from a girl obsessed with self-preservation into a martyr.

Another aspect of the film that’s really admirable is the fact that its cameo appearances don’t feel forced in the slightest. Yes, it’s fan service, but it simultaneously tells the story, so I’m totally okay with that. I think I read a headline or tagline or something recently that insinuated that Rogue One is a perfectly adequate war movie, bogged down by it’s connection to Star Wars. I disagree. The film works as a standalone but is so much more enhanced by those references, because what would the ending feel like without Leia’s reaffirmation of “Hope”? It would be empty and bleak because everyone we’ve grown to love over the course of the movie had to sacrifice themselves for a cause they believed in. There was a delicate balance that needed to be maintained when putting together that final sequence and the editors did a phenomenal job. The final Darth Vader action sequence packs such a good punch because Vader is finally terrifying to me. Witnessing him slaughter Alliance troops in cold blood in the wake of the realisation that all of the Rogue One crew had already fallen created a sense of menace in him and hopelessness in the impending situation; that sequence still sends shivers up my spine. It’s just so cool to watch. Then Leia appears within three minutes of it all happening, and faith is restored. It’s a wonderfully intriguing and fluid way to cut together a final sequence and almost-epilogue of sorts, and definitely something I haven’t really seen many other big movies do.

Overall, Rogue One is a combination of spectacle and character that really feeds my soul as a movie-watcher. I expect have my opinion of it change each time I go in to the cinema thanks to ‘x’ thinkpiece or ‘y’ headline, but that’s far from the case. I’ve seen it six times in the cinema so far, and it remains a fresh, rejuvenating experience. My love for it only strengthens, which is quite a rare thing. It’s a breathtaking experience that makes me glad that I enjoy blockbusters so much, and haven’t given up on them. It shows a kind of maturity in such films that hasn’t really been tapped into, least of all by the most commercially successful outings in the past year. But so much is possible within these so-called ‘simpler’ narratives if studios just valued inclusivity. I love that I don’t need to compromise too much with this movie for it to be genuinely heartwarming while keeping its political spirit.

★★★★★

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