The new release of the first standalone Star Wars film by Disney has ushered in a new era for a much-beloved franchise that many of us have grew up with over the years. It is a tactical risk from Disney, given that an independent episode has never been attempted before in a series that has been exclusively been part of a running narrative. Disney well knows such risks are trivial, as millions of devoted fans will continue to flock the screen for more lightsabers and laser fights. However, that is not to say that having Star Wars in its title is an automatic pit of profits (the maligned prequels had a reduced box office intake compared to the original trilogy and The Force Awakens, probably due to its poor critical reception). Under these circumstances, it could have been easy for Disney to take the well-traveled path again and rehash all the elements from the previous films and create a serviceable film lacking any imaginative thrust. Thankfully that has not happened in Rogue One.
With Gareth Edwards on the helm as director, who has been a hit or miss auteur depending on how you viewed his previous remake of Godzilla in 2014, Star Wars is refreshed and rejuvenated again for a very promising annual feature. The end result is that Force Awakens is a masterful episode of space opera that enhances the lore of Star Wars, and cements the idea that Disney is ready to take risks in the galaxy far, far away.
Rogue One is not a perfect film by any means. It has numerous weaknesses in terms of its weak character development of the main protagonists and a slowly paced plot that had early scenes feel disjointed. The film also doesn’t upstage the particular craft of the original trilogy, with some filmgoers preferring The Force Awakens over Rogue One. However why Rogue One is a far superior ‘Star Wars’ film compared to The Force Awakens, is that the film accomplishes in expanding the universe in a meaningful way and gives the audience a new perspective to the original trilogy. Looking retrospectively at TFA as a film, it lacks any real memorable moments and seems to be more concerned with ticking boxes instead of advancing the lore of Star Wars further. With Rogue One, the difference is that it gives the universe we know, a sense of scale that had been absent in TFA, without over-reliance on familiar conventions to further the plot.The underlying subtext in Rogue One, is a film about the overlooked sacrifices many soldiers or non-partisan actors went through in times of war to give any cause a sense of hope. On face value, the plot of having a bunch of rebels steal the Death Star plan would seem arduous and redundant, given that most of the audience know the outcome of the journey. However, the recontextualization of the Empire and the sacrifices the lead characters experiences, gives A New Hope greater depth that serves to emphasize the magnitude of the Empire’s reach in the original trilogy.
There are several elements in Rogue One that stands out compared to the rest of the series. The gorgeous world building is perfectly created to give a sense of grit and reality that makes the characters feel alive in their world without the dreaded green screen that made the prequels lifeless flops. Often the lighting and sound design will give the various scenes its own characteristics, from the moody raining planet of Eadu, to the brightly coloured tropical planet of Scarif that represents the key story points that are going to occur. One of the common criticism has been that the film has poor plot development with some describing it as ‘boring’. However, people tend to forget that the original trilogy themselves had many scenes that were expository in nature which most action did not take place, whereas in Rogue One most of the scenes here actually did advance the plot. When our heroes aren’t blasting storm troopers or quipping well-timed one-liners, they are engaged in meaningful exchanges summarizing their point of views in an ad hoc group fighting the empire. Just like soldiers in a real war, the characters in Rogue One are subtly restrained, allowing the audience a greater sense of the tension of the task on hand. In one scene where they are escaping an exploding planet, the camera shifts across each of the character’s face showing their fear. Previous films would have never attempted such a minute detail, but this goes to show the craft of Rogue One where little details matter throughout the film.
The technical elements in Rogue One are also outstanding compared with the rest of the Star Wars franchise. Like with the Force Awakens, practical props and effects are used aplenty in the film which harks back to the magic of the original trilogy. As a result, most of the action scenes including the third-act space battle scene would perhaps stand the time as one of the best sequences in Star Wars, given all the CGI effects were all done perfectly well. One of the most eye-catching effect was the front shot of the Star Destroyer which gave it the effect of clay animation and reminiscing childhood memories of wanting to smash them at something (or someone). Edward’s greatest asset is his ability to show a sense of scale, from the Rebel Alliance fleet appearing from hyperspace to the destruction of Jedha, all shot perfectly through his use of camerawork. Perhaps the most controversial use of the CGI was the reanimation of a key character used in the film. It is true that digital technology has not quite reached its potential which made this character an example of the uncanny valley effect. It nevertheless showed how close cinema was reaching that pinnacle point where we could soon be seeing fully realised CGI actors from the dead. Star Wars as a franchise, has been long known for constantly pushing the boundaries of digital advancement in cinema. The risk (not to mention the costs) in having that character be recreated by computer effects should be commended at its fullest, even though the optimal result is still lacking.
Although a lot of the backlash against the film has been directed at the poor character development for much of the main protagonists, there can be a case made that this does not detract the overall quality of Rogue One. First, there is a prevailing assumption from the detractors that all characters need to be ‘interesting’ or ‘relatable’ for a film to work. The argument being that if the audience can’t relate to the characters, then most of the films other quality and ideas would be diminished, or that the film’s premise suddenly becomes redundant. This idea is used repeatedly by those who dislike the film to highlight why the original trilogy has always been superior and as if that was the sole reason in what made the originals what they are today. I would tend to agree that weak characters are generally not beneficial to the film overall quality, but that is not to say that is the sole reason to judge a film on its premise. People tend to overlook that the original characters of Luke, Leia and Han had over three films to develop their arcs and personalities, whereas Rogue One had to fit a lot in within the space of over two hours. If A New Hope is constantly used as the gold standard to judge character development, it is arguable that the characters in ANH never really develop much at all. Apart from small arcs that the protagonists goes through, we never really learn much about Leia or Han after the Battle of Yavin, nor does the audience really understand for example, why Han comes back to save Luke during the trench run. Even Luke remains more or less the same person by the end of the film, but understandably goes through a heroic adventure in saving the princess and destroying the forces of evil which I guess what everyone could ‘relate’ to. On this point, the characters of A New Hope were undoubtedly more interesting due to the intention of the film as being a sci-fi fantasy adventure in space which typifies the genre. However, this does not necessarily mean A New Hope had character development to any substantial extent thus it becomes a double standard to accuse Rogue One of having lackluster characterizations, despite the film’s intention of grounding out the protagonists here. In fact, Rogue One probably has better character development out of all the series due to its focus of the plot in having disillusioned characters who find hope in achieving a cause despite the overall odds stacked against them. We find out in the beginning that every member of Rogue One have lost something and the underlying cause that bandies the crew together is through the hope of stopping the Empire. More personally for Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) was the fact that she initially perceived her father to be a traitor (albeit capture and forced against his will), but she later finds out his bravery had kept a small chance of hope for the Rebel Alliance to defeat the Empire’s Death Star. Her journey from a Rebel skeptic to a believer of the cause (and to the Force) through the course of the film, is arguably the strongest character development seen throughout the last 7 films. Yes, the execution of the process was not delivered perfectly in Rogue One, but any keen observer would know that characters do not always need to be heroic or the audiences’ focus for a film to get it’s plot or ideas across. Simply put, Rogue One’s characters serve more as function rather than form – meaning the existence of the characters is to serve the plot, which numerous classics like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Shining has done, and neither of the aforementioned has been attacked solely on its weak characters.
In summary of the achievement that is Rogue One, watch it for the world-building and scale. The action sequences are meticulous and much of the humor is on point. Understandably as a fan that has always been skeptical of Disney purchasing Star Wars and generally finding much of Disney films to be sterile and safe, they should be at least applauded for taking the franchise a different direction yet keeping much of the spirit of Star Wars alive. Again Rogue One is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, and I would agree that most of the criticisms is warranted, however, what the film gets right is certainly some of the best moments in the franchise’s history. To that point, may the Force continue with Disney.