I wasn’t planning to write anything about Rogue One, and, in truth, this isn’t a review. There are plenty of those about. And I’m very much with those who loved it. For this is a terrific film. A powerful one. A blockbuster movie that isn’t about glory and heroes, but about the gritty underbelly of war. The loss, the suffering and what it takes to create hope when there is none.
This is a film about soldiers.
Set in the run-up to Episode IV, this film focuses on a fractured nascent rebellion that has heard rumours of a powerful new weapon, what will become the Death Star, and their scramble through a world of spies and internal enemies to obtain not just plans for this weapon, but specific details on rumoured deliberately-designed flaws. Flaws that could destroy it.
A gripping plot, yet more than this, Rogue One has to be the first blockbuster I’ve seen in an age where I had no clue, where it was impossible to guess, how the film would end – who would survive and who would perish.
And when was the last time we could say that? Blockbusters are so predictable – the heroes clearly defined and those whose role it is to die rather obvious from the start.
And yet to find all of this in, of all films, a Star Wars one. A universe that is almost part of our cultural DNA. Where good and bad is so clearly signposted… You’d think there was nothing here that could amaze and astound. But there is.
So how have the creative teams achieved that? By forging a new path with a new cast of characters that, cleverly, weaves its way into a film we could recite from memory.
For this isn’t a film about the Skywalker dynasty. Gone is the glory and triumph. No more the wisecracking pilots, grand victories and medal ceremonies. Or (whisper it quietly) the oxygen-sucking presence of the Force and the Jedi.
Gone are the Senate meetings and palaces and, in their place, comes prisons and labour camps, factionalism and suicide bombings. Acrimonious splits and enemies within, coercion and betrayal. Ambition and remorse.
War. Messy, cruel and unfair war.
Nothing in Rogue One is clear cut. It’s not as simple as Rebels versus the Empire – there are heroes and villains on both side of that divide. This is a film that acknowledges people make bad decisions, that the ‘good people’ on the ‘right side’ are often beset with division and infighting, unsure whether to stand and fight, or run and hide.
This is a film about those you’ll never hear about, about combatants that will never appear on plaques or survive long enough to have medals pinned to their chests. This is a film about ordinary people facing life-changing decisions in extraordinary times.
And the upshot of all this is that the Star Wars universe is on the verge of being fully realised, of finally becoming fully fleshed out and real.
And this is a truly great thing. For I love this franchise, I love it. But here, with this new cast of characters we will come to understand how deep you have to dig to stand and fight when it’s not so much that the odds aren’t great, there is not even a plan of attack.
You can sense the relish the creatives had in this freedom. in being freed from the shackles of expectations for the series, from the conformity that’s usually required. The John Williams score has gone, as has that erstwhile scroll of rather elementary explanatory text that rolls away into the distance at the start of each film. And there are no fluffy bears or lightsaber duels here.
But don’t panic. There’s enough familiar faces to keep us all happy, (including some deft use of CGI, it has to be said, to anchor this story firmly before Episode IV).
But more than this, I felt even those characters we know and love (and hate) seem to have a new lease of life. Yes, that iconic one is here and I ask, have his powers ever been so sinister, so truly scary? I don’t think so. For the first time since I was a child, there were moments in Rogue One where I was truly terrified of Vader. That he finally became the looming villain of a horror movie that he always threatened to be.
And the final third of this film… Christ, it was almost suffocating in its tension but so clear in the price that must be paid to fight terror. And that terror must always be resisted, whatever the odds.
It’s true: Rogue One does leave The Force Awakens in its dust. I feel this is Star Wars unleashed, finally freed from the weight of its history and reawakened for a new generation. Where it goes from here though, it’s hard to say as, of course, this does feed into a historical part of the franchise.
I’m not going to tell you this film is perfect. Close, but certain gripes remain. Kathleen Kennedy’s deep aversion to female directors still hasn’t been addressed. And this, in turn, may account for some of the decisions that have been made.
Felicity Jones is awesome but follows in an already seemed pre-determined pattern that Star Wars heroines are British brunettes with just the right amount of tousselled hair pulled out from their up-do to frame the face.
And it’s a given rule that no other women can share camera time with them – the British brunettes are front and centre in a world of men. Beacons of hope. The saviour-woman. (And if another woman is allowed to speak to them or share screen, they’re sure as hell not allowed to be as young or as aesthetically pleasing to the male eye).
These concerns remain.
But this film is such an achievement. And as moving and brutal as it is beautiful. The acting is all out the top draw (hello Mads Mikkelsen and Riz Ahmed). But the film’s impact is as powerful as its visuals. This isn’t the story about those who are there at the glorious end, but those who fight to make the glorious end possible.