‘We’ve all done terrible things for a cause we believe in’ intones Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) at the mid-point of Rogue One. It’s an important line not just to reveal at least some of the reason Andor looks so haunted all the time, but also to separate Rogue One – the first of the ‘Star Wars Stories’ spin-offs – from the main saga. Black and white heroics and villainy, whilst still present, are shunted to the sides for bleakly violent shades of grey in the first Star Wars film to actually feel more like a war movie than a fairytale in space.
In the opening scroll of the very first Star Wars film, we’re told that the Rebel Alliance has recently received vital intel, the Death Star plans (including its now infamous weakness), from a group of bold spies. It’s these spies that we follow in Rogue One, a ragtag but highly skilled group, headed up by life-hardened and cynical warrior Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the reluctant architect of the Death Star, a planet-killing superweapon for the evil Galactic Empire, so the rebellion taps her as their best way of finding the designer and, with that, a glimmer of hope of victory.
We already know how this story eventually ends, and Rogue One is very much not a film for franchise newcomers, but that doesn’t mean that Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script can’t contain some surprises along the way. Retrieving the plans is basically a suicide mission, and the crew is frighteningly expendable. Threats are very real, and the supporting cast is great, making for some palpable dread in the final third of the film. Darkly sarcastic robot K2SO (Alan Tudyk) steals the show, but Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe comes a very close second, getting the coolest on-foot action sequences by quite a distance.
Gunner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) round out the diverse squad. Assembling this team takes some time, and the first act is really a jumbled mess as origins and backstories are flung at us at top speed, moving from planet to planet with barely a moment to catch a breath. It’s a pacing problem that carries into the second act too; suddenly devoid of urgency after the mad early scramble, there’s a bit of a dip until the major action starts kicking off.
Consistency is a bit too hard to come by in these first half of Rogue One, which is the main reason it falls short of approaching the wondrous brilliance of Force Awakens. Reports of huge reshoots were rife during the film’s production and that lack of clarity of vision is felt in the final product. Thankfully, we have Ben Mendelsohn’s villain to tide us over until the main battle gets underway. He’s fantastically swishy as the evil Director Krennic, furious at underlings, intimidating towards civilians, and utterly terrified of his boss. This is understandable, as he answers to the iconic Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), who has only a few scenes, but makes a huge impact.
Tearing apart a Rebel squad, his presence further deepens the terror of the final battle, where director Gareth Edwards finally gets a real chance to shine. Cameras track aerial dogfights (always the most exciting part of any Star Wars) before seamlessly transitioning to the ground conflict, making the war scenes feel legitimately huge. Triumphant successes and devastating failures are never too far apart, with such a boldly downbeat ending, full of moments of heart-stopping shock and beauty, more than making up for all the earlier flaws.
Had there been more surety in the first two acts of Rogue One it could have easily challenged for the titles of both best Star Wars entry and best blockbuster of the year. As it stands, it’s a fun but bumpy ride until an unforgettable conclusion lifts the entire film up. As our first look at the Star Wars spin-offs it’s also incredibly encouraging – it works despite the lack of traditional Jedi moments and establishes a tone that, whilst not consistently clear, is certainly different to the numbered saga films. Too dark for the younger fans of the series, Rogue One is a Star Wars prequel that should actually satisfy acolytes of the franchise as well as a damn strong standalone war story.