In which the reliably kiddie- friendly Star Wars universe reaches the logical conclusion of all that “heroism in battle” narratives, resulting in arguably the most downbeat chapter in its’ film history. That doesn’t mean that Rogue One is better than Empire… (let’s not kid ourselves here), but- even at its’ darkest- the original trilogy was always a juvenile pulp adventure at heart. Rogue One is military science fiction, taking a snipped from the title crawl of A New Hope (“During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star”) and proceeding to tell the tale of these spies.
This kind of obsession with nerdish minutiae could have been disastrous fan fiction, but Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), his rumoured script doctors Tony Gilroy, Chris Weitz and Disney somehow elected to forego the epic mythmaking of, say, The Force Awakens and just focus on the small team of warriors and their (Dirty Dozen– style) mission. Unbelievably, it mostly works.
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the reluctant architect of the Death Star. Through a bunch of plot contrivances that we won’t be spoiling here, Jyn falls in with a group of rebels that include spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), sardonic droid K- 2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind Force warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his comrade Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and defecting imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). This being a Star Wars movie, none of the gazillion script merchants bothered with any solid characterisation for their action figures, meaning that it’s up to the actors to come up with something iconic. Jones is the focus here and her traumatized blankness is not exactly a great performance (Jones has given better performances in a couple of Oscar- bait movies that do not interest me in the slightest), but it fits the grim tone of the film perfectly and that is just as good. The fact that she is a woman protagonist in a major blockbuster has upset the alt- right once again (and by “alt- right” I mean white supremacists), fractions of which apparently tried to boycott the movie because they through the Empire was an allegory for them. The fact that these people identify with space Nazis and are dumb enough to try and pick a fight with Disney tells you everything you need to know.
Anyway. Diego Luna gives a performance through gritted teeth and is completely forgetable despite his considerable screen time. I found Tudyk’s snarky reprogrammed droid to be a joy and it was about time someone gave Riz Ahmed a major role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are individual triumphs. On the page, they are orientalist cyphers: Yen is cheerful, blind and a badass and Wen is grumpy and a badass. On the screen, they are a perfect double act, complementing each other and radiating camaraderie and love for adventure. Along with K – 2SO, they are the best characters here and I would watch a Star Wars movie with them kicking stormtrooper ass anytime.
Elsewhere, the godlike genius of Peter Cushing returns from the grave with a little ILM digital manipulation, plenty of Easter eggs show up for the faithful and the whole plot ends up hinging on sending an email attachment (I guess they wanted something relatable). Mads Mikkelsen and Forrest Whitaker play the obligatory mentors (Mikkelsen is stately, Whitaker is crazed) and Ben Mendelsohn is great as an Empire functionary. Also, James Earl Jones’ voice is back as Darth Vader (fake- looking mask though)! Edwards (or whoever ended up directing most of this thing) has a shaky hand with early setup and exposition scenes, but the film snaps into place near the end with a glorious, exquizitely directed battle scene, of an intensity that is not often seen in Disney Christmas blockbusters. I think I had something in my eye near the end, when the full stakes for the characters became evident. Or maybe I am just going soft.