Film Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (M, USA, 2016) is action packed and ruthless

The Star Wars saga is set to continue, this time with the first stand alone film in its ‘Anthology’ series. Singular films that will showcase interconnected stories or characters that basically provide an extended universe to our main trilogies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is first out of the gates and has a lot to live up to as the film that is the lead up to 1977’s A New Hope.

When scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is captured by Empire troops led by the totalitarian ambition fuelled Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) he is forced to continue working on a weapon of immense power and abandon his young daughter. Many years later Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a criminal and fugitive is captured herself by the Rebel Alliance and co-erced into helping their cause. Their plan is to find her father and attempt to stop completion of the weapon dubbed the ‘Death Star’.

Jones takes up the mantle of leading female protagonist. Her character, unlike Rey from The Force Awakens, is battle-worn and hardened. The film is a surprisingly personal and intimate story for Jyn, coming to grips with being abandoned by her father Galen and later her father’s friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). She begins as an impetuous and rebellious (pun intended) woman who then uses that passion and frustration to drive her to do what is necessary.

Imperial Droid K-2SO reprogrammed to fight for the Rebel Alliance, voiced by Alan Tudyk, provides almost all of the much needed comic relief. For a mo-cap character that is a robot, he’s surprisingly full of expression. Landing somewhere between the blunt statistical delivery of C-3PO and the imposing size and strength of Chewbacca, he is a firm favourite with his sassy and occasionally sarcastic quips.

Whitaker as Gerrera, to steal a Vader turn of phrase, is more machine than man, with his robotic metal prosthetic legs and breathing apparatus. Dubbed a rebellious fanatic and was for a time Jyn’s guardian after Galen was taken by the Empire. Whitaker’s short moments onscreen induce chills as you are not sure if he is truly friend or foe.
Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, a former guardian of the Jedi temple, delivers a stellar performace as a fierce martial arts warrior who is completley blind. His faith and belief in The Force gives us a thin connection to that all encompassing energy. He may not be a Jedi, but he’s pretty damn close to it.

Aussie actor Mendelsohn is also wonderfully villainous as Krennic. His ambition and determination even puts him face to face with none other than Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). And props to the fashion department for giving him one of the finest looking evil capes in history, in white no less.

But whilst we follow Jyn’s story, it is immersed in the brutal reality of war. Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) and writers Chris Weitz (About A Boy) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne franchise) have made sure that the larger action set pieces are reminiscent of battles in Iraq (the rocky desert of planet Jedha) and Vietnam (the beach and palm forests of Empire base Scarif). We are treated to all manner of Storm Troopers, and X-Wing and Tie Fighter battles, and best of all, seeing the AT-ACT’s stomping around. But the thing that hits home the hardest, people die. With this film only playing the role of plot hole gap filler, none of our characters are guaranteed any longevity or continuity here.

Rogue One does lack a little in character development as it focuses more on the overall goal needing to be achieved. Because of that, besides a couple of key characters they aren’t as remarkable or memorable, and we feel a little short on empathy for their cause and what happens to them. The pacing also feels a little off. We linger a little too long on Jyn and the Rebel Alliance’s search for Galen. Then rush through the last act of finding the Death Star plans and the surprise attack on Scarif.

One of the strongest positives the film has is the fact that it purposefully steers away from the notion and incorporation of The Force and an overall good versus evil. This is purely a skirmish between a bunch of rag-tag rebels and a much larger more imposing Empire. So it feels more like a war movie and less like a fantastical sci-fi journey. For any of the die-hard fans, there are also plenty of easter eggs dropped in to appease you too.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story purposefully takes a leap away from the sci-fi opera of its predecessors to provide a story that fills a gap in the larger narrative. It’s action packed and ruthless, and for the purpose of being a singular standalone film succeeds.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 131 minutes

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is screening in Australian cinemas now