One of the great creations of cinema has been Star Wars, at their best they’ve been works that have advanced the art of storytelling in cinema, and the technique of filmmaking. And even at their worst, they’ve still been highly entertaining examples of the wonder of cinema. Few things in pop culture have impacted our regular lives as much as Star Wars has. Star Wars is practically synonymous with filmmaking at this point, yet still has more to show us about what film can do. As “cool” as it’s become to hate on these films and seemingly just anything successful in general when it comes to the culture of film criticism, when they get filmmakers like Gareth Edwards, I’m still just in awe of it all. I’m a kid again. In Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, he tackles the unenviable task of making the first stand-alone film in the franchise and has created a work that gets to have the best of both Star Warsworlds – it’s massively entertaining and fun, and also a skillfully constructed film that provokes new levels of depth and possibility within the franchise. Edwards is proof that they’re doing the right thing by opening up these films to directors who are creative independents and are also not named George Lucas.
When you assemble a cast as talented as this, you reap the benefits of their skill. Felicity Jones handles the lead of Jyn Erso more than capably, making her arc of an outsider that doesn’t necessarily agree with either side of the war that becomes an unlikely hero felt without ever really overselling it. She injects subtle emotion into melodrama that really grounds the emotions of the scenes. Diego Luna is out here shining in a huge blockbuster as Cassian Andor and is able to convey the inner conflict of a Rebellion hero who has done horrible things for them. He gets some “epic speech” scenes and takes ownership of those moments.
Donnie Yen, one of the great martial artists of the screen, is in a Star Wars film and we are blessed. He’s the secret MVP of the cast, creating an instantly iconic character in Chirrut Imwe, a blind swordsman who practices the ways of the Jedi. And best of all, he is out here throwing down with nothing but a wooden stick. He brings a wooden stick to a lasergun fight and kicks ass, and can hit any target with a large crossbow thing despite being blind. Only Yen could sell me on this, because I’ve always believed Yen could kick my ass without vision. The chemistry between himself and his reluctant partner in combat Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is superb. Where Chirrut is endlessly hopeful, Baze is endlessly disgruntled. Jiang and Yen play off each other so well, they make their characters’ history feel lived in with how they interact. Alan Tudyk is second in the secret MVP power rankings of this film’s cast as droid K2SO, a super sassy, deadpan droid that always says what he’s thinking no matter how it may offend somebody. He’s largely there as comic relief, but there’s some real heart in how they handle this character. I don’t know what it says when the droids are better characters than most of the humans in these films, but I don’t have a problem with that.
Ben Mendelsohn is one of the greatest working character actors, able to play sleazebags so diverse and layered, each of his sleazebags is different from the other. He plays power hungry Orson Krennic, director of the construction of the Death Star and makes meaty work out of dialogue that could easily be lazy and stereotypical. Mendelsohn is also the best clothes model that never was, because that dude can wear anything and made it look cool. In Slow West he walked around with a gigantic fur coat, and in Rogue One he always has a cape for every occasion and he owns each and every look. Riz Ahmed pumps some authentic human emotion into his newly-defected-from-the-Empire cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (shoutout whatever writer really insisted on paying tribute to Patrick Swayze there), putting in convincing work to sell you on his arc that’s not too dissimilar from that of Jones’ Jyn Erso. Mads Mikkelsen delivers quality work in only a few brief scenes. Forest Whitaker is highly entertaining in a hammy role channeling Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
Edwards skillfully balances this ever expanding cast, each of the characters get their moments, and without spoiling anything, there is a lot of death in this film, but each life lost is dramatically felt. It’s perhaps the first Star Wars film to really acknowledge the fact that lots of people die in war. There’s just a certain gravitas that’s felt throughout Rogue One that is different from what we’ve gotten before. The losses are damning to the soul, the terror of war is felt. The whole feel of the film that Edwards delivers is distinct, wondrous and grounded. The return to shooting in physical locations for these films is really apparent here, and does wonders in drawing in the audience to these worlds. There’s a lived-in dirtiness to the characters and settings that we haven’t gotten from these films in a while. It just helps make everything feel more physical and actual. This is the first film in the franchise to blur the lines between the dichotomy of the Rebellion and the Empire. There are extremists on both sides, and an extended battle sequence displays, without having to hammer it in, that civilians are the ones who suffer the most in this war.
Edwards also handles the difficult, meddling studio task of working in fan service without overstretching it and without holding back Rogue One from being its own story. Characters from films past are interwoven into the narrative without being too gimmicky, they actually have a reason for being a part of this story. Shoutout Jimmy Smits cashing that Star Wars check again! A famous character from A New Hope is resurrected via CGI, and it’s a bit rocky for the first scene, but after that they make it work by learning to use lighting to their advantage to make the CGI appear more natural. MVP composer Michael Giacchino is the best option to take on the iconography of John Williams’ work in this franchise, making a score that is iconic on its own while paying tribute to Williams.
Gareth Edwards is proof of what can happen when you give an independent filmmaker the budget to match their ambition and creativity. Godzilla proved he understood how to film big moments, huge things and how to frame iconic imagery. He carries those lessons over to Rogue One and with supreme cinematographer Greig Fraser creates images among the best of the franchise that will stick with me for a while. One of the best things in his Godzilla film is how he introduces the King of Monsters. It’s a long, extended tilt up to show the sheer magnitude of the creature. He gives you the impression that the camera cannot fully comprehend the monster, Godzilla is simply too massive for the frame. He pulls a similar awe-inducing trick to introduce the Death Star. It begins with a Tie Fighter approaching a Star Destroyer to dock, with the Star Destroyer appearing massive in the frame. Edwards then cuts out farther, with a shadow unveiling of the Death Star behind the destroyer that quickly shows how much the Death Star dwarfs the Destroyer, and we’re only seeing a quarter of the Death Star in this shot. Once again, the thing is simply too massive for the camera. Later on, he gives Darth Vader the proper introduction. A door opens up with Vader on one side, so Edwards cuts to a wide of the opposite side, with Vader’s shadow appearing massive against the wall. Also, quick side-note, I love that Darth Vader is just spitting out hammy one-liners in his screen time. Another great shot is when an gigantic AT-AT emerges from the smoke like a monster, and the terror of that image is terrific. The whole film is ripe with iconic moments and imagery that Edwards has conjured up. Edwards continues to prove what an innovative and exciting filmmaker he is, and has made arguably one of the best films in an untouchably iconic franchise. The force is with Gareth Edwards.