Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (12A.)
Directed by Gareth Edwards.
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk and Forest Whitaker. 134 mins.
This second film in the Disney Star Wars appropriation is the first not to focus on the Skywalker saga, but little has really changed: they are still trying to shake loose the stick Lucas stuck up its backside and give fans just exactly what they want. No Skywalkers, no Solos, no surprises. The Star Wars Universe is large, but there is very little new in it.
Rogue One offers a standalone back story about a group of rebels trying to get hold of the design plans for the original Death Star, making it that most dreaded of words in the Star Wars universe, a prequel. For much of its length it is busy doing nothing. It starts with the words A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away but then boldly dispenses with the scroll. (Good – I never liked the scrawls.) From there though there is much toing and froing from that planet to this planet as the story does the round picking up it cast of characters. It all seems a bit second rate, and unnecesary. The big pain of these extended universe arrangements is that every little bloody thing has to be elucidated, and blown up into a big deal.
What makes the film is an epic action packed finale, a thrown kitchen sink of elements from just about every action sequence in the series. It's a bit desperate, but it is effective. By the end even I had been persuaded to give the grumpy face a rest. The film's other big virtue is a really strong cast, the pick of which is Australian Mendelsohn as the Brit bad guy. He's always been good at villainy, but he's usually much more sleazy. He isn't sweaty in this one and it is the first time his character doesn't look like he would have a hip flask tucked away somewhere on his person. He has opened up a whole new strand to his career here, as the go-to-guy for parts that require a younger Ian Mckellen type.
One of the most pleasing parts of The Force Awakens was the way it recreated the look and feel of the original films in a new setting with up to date computer effects. Rogue One's task is to recreate the look and feel of the original film in many of the same settings. Seeing the Death Star rendered in 2016 special effects reminded me of seeing the big screen Enterprise for the first time in the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was something very familiar that had been given this whole new dimension. Rogue One looks fantastic as long as it stays in daylight and sunshine. These shots have the kind of photo realism of the Marvel films, they look like they've been shot on location in that galaxy far, far away. When the setting is dark or rainy it is lot less convincing.
This may also be the first Star Wars film that feels like an actual War film. It's a little disconcerting when you see some palm tree and a little nod to Full Metal Jacket in one of these fantasy tales. The Rebel Alliance here seems to be a cross between Battle of Britain era RAF and Al Queda.
Which may be why Rogue One apparently had quite a fraught production period with reports of extensive reshoots and executive concern about the tone of the piece. That's never a good sign but it is symptomatic of how important this film is to Disney. 2016 has been a year of total Disney dominance with the studio having the five biggest films of the last twelve months. Every arm came through for them: Star Wars gave them Episode VII, Marvel gave them Captain America: Civil War (and Dr Strange), Pixar gave them Finding Dory, animation gave them Zootropolis and live action supplied the Jungle Book remake. Bonuses all round then, but though Force Awakens is the third biggest film of all time it showed that the appeal of Star Wars isn't as global as they might have hoped and more crucially, nowhere near as big as James Cameron's two biggest hits, Titanic and Avatar.
So, it will probably take Episodes VIII and IX to earn back the $4billion they paid George Lucas for the rights to his creation. If they are really going to make any money on the deal the reaction to these spin off films (a Han Solo solo film is up in 2018) is crucial. Which is probably why Rogue One revisits so many old places and old scenes. I'm not sure about The Force, but original core brand values are strong in this one.