As quickly as they were gone, Christmas commercial tentpoles Harry Potter and Rings/Hobbit were replaced, first by young adult pretenders – the Twilight and Hunger Games series – and now, properly and comprehensively, by the return of Star Wars. Now here is a franchise that knows how to sell toys. And so a year almost to the day after The Force Awakens, here we are with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This one is about the fabled ‘good people who died’ obtaining the plans for the Death Star, which set in motion the Rebel Alliance’s offensive in Episode IV: A New Hope.
Gareth Edwards, of Godzilla reboot fame, takes the director’s chair for this one; the rebels are your archetypal motley crew. Felicity Jones leads as Jyn Erso, daughter of reluctant Death Star designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen); Diego Luna joins as her as whatever-it-takes rebel captain Cassian Andor, with Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), blind force-ninja Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his muscle Baze (Jiang Wen) and sardonic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Chief villain duties lie with Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, fighting for favour and power with the original trilogy’s Tarkin (played by a combination of Guy Henry, and Peter Cushing’s digitally reproduced likeness). Forest Whitaker limps around as crazed clone war veteran Saw Guerrera, too extreme for the brotherly love of the Rebel Alliance.
Is it good? Yes. No. It’s fine. A plucky young hero is found in an unlikely place, brought into the fold with a group of lovable rogues and they conspire to beat the odds and defeat the evil empire. In that regard it’s pretty much the same as The Force Awakens, and indeed the original trilogy. Villains are dastardly (and entirely posh British, with the exception of Ben Mendelsohn who decides to stick with Aussie), heroes dash around desert planets trying to outrun giant lasers. The slight difference is that this one put the Wars into Star Wars to a greater extent, with plenty of action and hundreds upon hundreds of on-screen deaths.
I couldn’t really point to anyone giving a particularly bad performance – Donnie Yen was great and deserved more screen time; the rebooted series is now two for two with strong female leads; some of the action is superb; Michael Giacchino riffs pleasantly on John Williams’ original musical themes. The problem for me is the point at which slavishly tipping your hat to the series transitions into simply retreading it.
The entire Star Wars series in cinema – 8 films – has now been about either the Death Star or the Skywalker family drama, or both. There’s a big planet killer weapon, and a bunch of unlikely swashbucklers have to stop it. A $200m film shouldn’t be high-end fan fiction: would Vader really pun about someone ‘choking on their aspirations’ while he force-gripped him? Would he live in a fishtank in Mordor? Is the Death Star really all there is? Why is no character half as interesting as Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren? Hail Caesar’s Alden Ehrenreich is slated to star as a young Han Solo in the next Star Wars anthology film in 2018, which I’m praying at least attempts to depart from the Skywalker/Death Star template. Would that it were so simple.
This has been a bit downbeat and I should emphasise that it’s by no means terrible. You will have fun. You will feel nostalgic. You’ll absolutely love the final Vader scene in the film, which makes full use of how far action direction and visual effects have come since 1983. And as we know that a lot of good people died stealing these plans, the film is free to deliver the emotional punches that have to be pulled elsewhere in the franchise. But although this is a brand new story, I don’t know that you’ll find much originality here.
Rogue One is currently showing at cinemas across the UK.