Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars spin-offs since Disney acquired Lucasfilm, is supposedly a stand-alone project. However, just how stand-alone it can possibly be is something I found myself pondering as the end credits rolled. How would someone react to this film having never seen any other Star Wars films in their lives? Would it still genuinely work on its own terms? Rogue One is so stuffed with fan-pleasing cameos and Easter Eggs, both obvious and more subtle, that at times I felt I was playing Star Wars bingo. That said whether it truly stands alone or not, from the perspective of this Star Wars fan, Rogue One is very good indeed, and outstanding in many parts. It proves the franchise has cinematic life outside of the Skywalker saga, something that many believed unlikely – unless you happen to believe the Clone Wars pilot and those two Ewok features from the 1980s (Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor) are neglected masterpieces.
Wisely eschewing the opening crawl of the main episodes (after all it could hardly have been called Episode 3.9) the film introduces us to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist responsible for the construction of the original Death Star. Jyn is asked by the Rebel Alliance to help make contact with extremist rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, playing a character from TV animated series Rebels), with whom they have had a feud for being too much of an extremist. Gerrera supposedly has vital information from turncoat Imperial shuttle pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) regarding the Death Star, and the whereabouts of Galen. Accompanying Jyn is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) a hardened rebel veteran who has a secret mission of his own, and the wonderfully sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Along the way via various misadventures they are joined by the blind, Force-sensitive (though crucially not a Jedi) Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and his protective friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Eventually and inevitably, this leads to the impossible mission to steal the Death Star plans that the Empire were trying to get back all throughout the original film.
Villain duties here are primarily undertaken by the agreeably odious Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose controversial oversight of the Death Star project causes him to clash with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, back from the dead via alarming CGI). In one early exchange with Galen, Krennic insists he only wants to create the Death Star to bring peace. Galen replies “You are confusing peace with terror”, to which Krennic snidely responds “Well, you have to start somewhere”. However, despite the ongoing theme of good versus evil, this is a Star Wars film that starts to delve into shades of grey, and has more the tone of a war film than a heroic fantasy. The first half in particular seems interested in examining what the rebel characters are prepared to do, and how much they are prepared to compromise moral ideals, to meet their goals. Their conflict with Gerrera is a key part of this, although I must say I wish the film had explored those themes a little further.
Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) and his screenwriting gang (which includes Tony Gilroy, Chris Weitz and Lucasfilm effects guru John Knoll, who came up with the original premise), pull out all the stops for an absolutely barnstorming final act which echoes The Dirty Dozen much more effectively than Suicide Squad did earlier this year. Incidentally, amid all the various cameos and eerie CGI face-lifts/resurrections, Edwards wisely keeps Darth Vader on the periphery (Krennic is the main villain here, after all), but rest assured the scenes with everyone’s favourite Sith Lord are absolutely unforgettable. The cast are all good – particularly Felicity Jones – and Michael Giachinno’s music score (which occasionally borrows from the classic themes of John Williams) compliments the Star Wars universe very well.
Despite flaws – the afore-mentioned inadequate exploration of the rebel extremist theme, and some slightly confusing cutting between planets early in the film – Rogue One is ultimately a very satisfying piece of work. I am also pleased to report that it shows no sign of being a compromised vision, despite rumours of extensive reshoots earlier this year. Whether it would satisfy a first-time buyer is still a question that puzzles me but for now consider it highly recommended.