After re-watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently, I decided to go back and read my article exclaiming it to be one of my favourite films of 2015. After reading it numerous times and disagreeing with around sixty percent of what I had written, I feel I was too hasty in giving such glowing praise to what was essentially a soft reboot with little originality. 2016 saw the release of the franchise’s first “stand alone” film, Rogue One. And as per usual, the hype and marketing was omnipresent. The trailers looked great, the cast was amazing and director Gareth Edwards was an interesting pick. However I was still sceptical about the Disney’s attempts to revisit old ground, especially with the direct connections to my beloved original trilogy.
The story, which stems from a sentence in the opening crawl of A New Hope, isn’t one of complex narrative twists and turns: There’s a group of ragtag, good guys. Meanwhile the bad guys have made a destructive weapon that threatens the galaxy. So the good guys have to get the weapon’s secret plans. It’s a safe film that uses the chronological setting to tell an engaging story while introducing characters both old and new. The film fortunately refrains from leaving an abundance of open questions and chooses it’s lasting “franchise significance” in a sensible and intelligent manner. The film finishes, and so too does the tale being told.
What particularly stands out are the visuals and cinematography. The costly CGI “resurrection” of Peter Cushing’s character Grand Moff Tarkin is astonishing and I personally felt that it was justified in the narrative. But I hope that this doesn’t become a future trend of the film industry. The concept of seeing lost stars such as Robin Williams and Alan Rickman in new projects isn’t one that feels humble or progressive. Elsewhere, one thing that really stuck me was the sense of scale. Gareth Edwards has been notable for his prowess at showcasing scope and perspective. His directorial debut Monsters and reboot of Godzilla managed to successfully convey the magnitude of the events depicted on screen. In Rogue One, the new variation of AT-AT Walkers, Imperial Star Destroyers and especially the Death Star are presented in a way that gives a visual resonance which matches their intimidating presence throughout the film. The Death Star isn’t simply a matte painting, but a looming and ever-present force of terror. From the guerrilla warfare on Jedha to the rebels storming the beaches of Scarif, its hard to deny that Rogue One feels forceful and visceral in its presentation, which is helped by some excellent sound design.
While I wouldn’t join the masses and exclaim that its a “dark, violent and grim film”, I will emphasis it’s overly-serious approach. Though I quite enjoyed the change of tone, the lighthearted banter and the occasionally quips aren’t enough to give a sense of humanity to the story’s characters, which is a major problem with Rogue One. I’m in complete agreement with the many criticisms surrounding the lack of character development. I’ve mentioned countless times that building engaging and deep characters is an important part of any film, especially one reliant on their motivations to the narrative cause. In a film where the majority of the audience already knows the fate of most of these individuals, it didn’t really do much to encourage any lasting sympathy towards their predictable demise.
In the end, Rogue One was thoroughly enjoyable. However I’d be lying if my delight didn’t stem from my nostalgia for the franchise, especially seeing the Death Star and Imperial Walkers from the original trilogy. But even with a straightforward story and merely serviceable characters, I think it was definitely one of the best cinema experiences of 2016.