(This review contains very slight story spoilers for Rogue One, so if you are in any way spoiler phobic, I suggest trying to see it first and then coming back to read this. If you don’t care about spoilers one bit, then read on and enjoy. Well…hopefully you enjoy it.)
Rogue One has been an interesting movie to follow over the past two years. Meant as a prequel to A New Hope and the first in Disney’s plan to release a Star Wars movie every year, with The Force Awakens coming out last year and Episode 8 expected to drop next year, expectations were high after a promising first trailer. But as the release date approached and more trailers dropped, news started to come out that placed doubt on the film’s quality. Reshoots were ordered (though recent reports suggest that they were less about saving an awful movie and more about making it better) and, to make matters worse, Alexander Desplat was replaced as composer and his replacement, Michael Giacchino, only had a month to write the score.
All of this was enough to make even me wary about where the film was headed, though not wary enough to avoid going to the opening midnight screening when it was released in Australia yesterday (though for me it feels like two days ago cause I saw it Wednesday night/midnight Thursday morning, time is weird). And I’m really glad I did, because despite everything, director Gareth Edwards has made a fantastic Star Wars movie that feels fresh, while still adhering to the franchise’s key tenets, and also eerily relevant to a lot of the conversations people on the left side of politics are having right now. And I know saying the words “politics” and “Star Wars” in the same sentence has already given people flashbacks to the prequel trilogy and how George Lucas ruined their childhoods etc., but I digress.
A couple of days ago, Vox ran a piece called “Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war”, which the Internet of course jumped on. Now I haven’t yet read that piece, as I’ve been trying work through my own thoughts about the movie and write this review, so it might be completely batshit but, going off the title…I can kinda understand where they’re coming from. Hear me out for a second. Yes, the Star Wars franchise has always being about war, but in the movies there’s always being a level of detachment from the people who aren’t the main characters. Rebels get killed by the dozens during the original trilogy, and yet there’s never any weight to it. It just happens because it’s a space opera that is set during a war and war always has casualties. Every dead Rebel is just another body on the ground, another extra paid for a day of work. We’re never privy to what their hopes and dreams may have been, if they had anyone they wanted to go home to, so we don’t really feel anything when they die. And while this isn’t something that extends to things like The Clone Wars, which has many arcs that focus on The Clones and does a fantastic job at making them feel like real characters, it’s something that was in every movie until The Force Awakens, and even then that only went as far as Finn’s time as a Stormtrooper at the start of the movie.
Rogue One is different. It is a weary war movie in more ways than one. Blaster fire creates craters in the ground and plumes of smoke surround many of the action scenes. An air of desperation hangs over the film and only gets thicker as the movie goes on and the situation for the heroes becomes more and more precarious. Every life lost matters as it adds to the hopelessness of the situation and, in the end, motivates those remaining to continue the fight because the cause is worth it. Even if death stares them in the face and victory seems impossible, they dig deep and do what they can to make sure that the deaths of their comrades matter for something. Not everyone gets a line or meaningful characterisation, but the way Edwards films every battle and places the viewer right in the thick of the action allows us to care about these nameless Rebels in a way that the original trilogy never did.
And this weariness extends to the Rebels themselves. They’ve been fighting The Empire for almost twenty years by the time the film starts , with not much success to show for it, and cracks are starting show. Some still want to bring about change through the Imperial Senate, hoping that if they bring about enough evidence of Imperial opression they can shock people into taking action. Others want to continue fighting, but without unity their ability to act as an opposing force to The Empire’s tyranny is hindered. We see these same disagreements about how to fight against oppression happen in the real world all the time, especially recently, so in a way it’s weird to see it represented in a Star Wars movie, particularly given the very black and white way the original trilogy presented its civil war. But in another way it’s refreshing as it makes The Rebellion feel like a real faction that is made up of real people, some of whom have done some real horrible things in the name of the cause. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to remind people of what they’re fighting for, and its only though the actions of Jyn Erso and the rest of Rogue One that The Rebellion is able to become the people we root for in the original trilogy.
Because despite the downtrodden atmosphere and more gritty and lived-in presentation, Rogue One is still a Star Wars movie. The franchise has always being about not giving up hope, not giving into fear and not letting the bad guys win, and Rogue One embodies all of those messages in spades. Not just that, it does the thing that many prequels fail at and makes you forget what happens in the other movies. It engrosses you so much within its story and struggle that you forget that A New Hope hinges on the events of this movie being a success. Nothing ever feels predictable and at times the odds that the heroes face seem insurmountable, to the point where even at the end, you still don’t know whether they’re going to succeed or whether the rug is going to be pulled out from under them. If the movie has any real message, it’s that hope is an eternal flame that is impossible to put out once it is truly lit, and that even the strongest enemy is powerless against its might.
In spite of every obstacle that was seemingly thrown up against him, Gareth Edwards has succeeded in creating a great movie in the form of Rogue One. While not perfect, it proves that it is possible to tell a new story within the confines of a Star Wars movie and that there are reasons to be hopeful for the franchise’s future. Only time will tell whether that hope is misplaced, but even if every other Star Wars movie Disney puts out ends up being garbage, I’ll still always have Rogue One to go back to.