A story that stands on its own but also connects perfectly with the existing films in the franchise, Rogue One is everything you could want in a Star Wars prequel. Whilst familiarity with the previous films and the broader world(s) in which they are set will give you an added insight and appreciation of what transpires, a franchise first-timer should also find this plenty enjoyable. This is a completely new story that sheds light on what transpired prior to the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, which is the first of the films to be released but the fourth (now fifth) chronologically in the series. Other than the absence of the opening text crawl that is synonymous with the series (an omission that will no doubt leave many diehards apoplectic), Rogue One has almost everything – both good and bad – that we have come to expect from a Star Wars property. Although populated by a collection of new characters, everything else is instantly recognisable; from the music to the costumes to the iconic figures whose likenesses have filled toy boxes and adorned bedroom walls for more than 35 years. Whilst it would be giving too much away to say exactly who pops up as the events unfold, there is no spoiler alert needed in declaring that Darth Vader’s significant presence is as welcome as always for anybody who has grown up on a diet of Galactic Empire versus Rebel Alliance.
As was the case with The Force Awakens, there is a female character front and centre of the narrative here and Felicity Jones is surprisingly effective in action hero mode as Jyn Erso, a young woman recruited by the Rebel Alliance to retrieve the design specifications for the Death Star, a weapon developed by the evil Empire with the capability of destroying entire planets. Other than a brief opening scene featuring Jyn as a child who escapes when her scientist father Galen Orso (Mads Mikkelson) is taken against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to lead the team developing the Death Star, the story follows Jyn’s attempts to retrieve the plans, a mission she has accepted only because of the opportunity it presents to rescue her father from Krennic’s clutches. As is Star Wars tradition, our hero is accompanied by a motley band of rogues who bring particular attributes to the party. In a homage to legendary Japanese samurai film Zatoichi, one of her companions-in-arms is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who wields a staff and bowcaster to remarkable effect, although it has to be said that the stormtroopers of the Empire are perhaps the most inept fighting force ever committed to celluloid. With elements of western and war films in the mix as well, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) successfully melds the conventions of multiple genres to create a hugely entertaining summer blockbuster that is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.
Mendelsohn, harnessing all of the menace he brought to TV in Bloodline and then some, is one of many Australians to have featured in the franchise films, with the international cast also including Diego Luna as intelligence officer Cassian Andor, Wen Jiang as freelance fighter Baze Malbus and Riz Ahmed as fighter pilot Bodhi Rook, whose defection from the Empire sets the whole series of events into motion. Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa, with Forrest Whittaker also featuring as resistance fighter Saw Gerrera. The digital resurrection of Peter Cushing (using actor Guy Henry and motion capture technology) as Grand Moff Tarkin will divide audiences and, whilst it is far from convincing in its execution, the filmmakers obviously felt the character needed to be included given his connection to the Death Star.
Whilst the Disney acquisition of the Star Wars properties was (understandably) a cause for some initial concern about the future direction of this venerated pop culture phenomenon, thus far at least they have proven respectful to the history and hysteria that surrounds it. Perhaps most surprising of all is the fact that the company who single-handedly developed a genre of films in which damsels in distress are rescued by white male princes has taken the lead in developing a film with a strong female lead and a multi-cultural cast that flies in the face of industry practice. Here’s hoping that the box office success of Rogue One brings an end to the antiquated idea that only white males put bums on cinema seats.