The word prequel has long been regarded as a dirty word in the Star Wars cinematic universe. Anybody with a conscious memory before 1999 will know all too well the disappointment that was The Phantom Menace, the monstrosity that was Attack Of The Clones and the slightly better, but still exceedingly middling Revenge Of The Sith. However, fittingly, a ‘new hope’ was restored last year when The Force Awakens brought back everything that is great about Star Wars. Could the first ‘anthology’ film in the new Disney/Lucasfilm era work the same magic and change our association with the dreaded P-word?
The answer, quite simply, is yes. HELL YES. Rogue One, and I’m not saying this lightly, is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. Lead by the determined rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the film tells the story of the group of heroic Rebels who made it their mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, the plans that spur Episode 4 in to action when Princes Leia sounds the call via R2-D2 for the help that eventually brings all of our favourite iconic characters together. Unlike The Force Awakens, which although highly enjoyable, felt very much like a rehash of A New Hope, Rogue One forges new paths in the Star Wars universe, exploring different themes and taking us down different paths that we have never journeyed down before. There was a lot of talk in the year running up to release from director Gareth Edwards that he was essentially making a war film, and that statement, especially pertaining to the incredible final third of the film, is absolutely spot on. Though audiences are treated to much of the trademark light humour of Star Wars, namely through the instant fan favourite K-2 droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk), what we also see is a much more visceral, direct, representation of the Empire vs. Rebel Alliance conflict than ever before. Lines between good and evil are blurred much more deliberately here, with perceivably ‘good guys’ doing bad things for the greater cause, and it makes everything feel a lot more human and authentic than a simple good vs. evil archetype.
Rogue One fits perfectly in to the extended Star Wars story, in fact, one could argue that it makes A New Hope even better. The central plot of the film surrounding Jyn Erso and her father, an Empire engineer (played by Mads Mikkelsen) , answers one of the biggest fan gripes held against the original Star Wars picture, and when measuring the success of a prequel, there is no higher praise than saying that it actually enhances an already beloved institution. The film pays homage and slips references to the original trilogy in a pleasing way, less heavy handed than in A Force Awakens, and without wanting to spoil anything, there are a few cameo appearances that even five years ago would not have been possible. Of course, the trailer shows us loud and clear that Darth Vader is featured in the film, and incased within the epic final third is possibly one of the greatest moments not only in this particular picture, but in the entirety of the franchise to date.
As Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones gives a charismatic and commanding performance, leading an instantly loveable rogue squad featuring great performances all round from Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. Any keen Star Wars fan will understand that there is only one possible outcome to this story going in, so for any suspense and intrigue to be present, we had to care about our Rebels, and every single one of them succeeded in that department. Forest Whittaker gives a heightened, almost over the top performance as Saw Gerrera, a Rebel leader character also known from The Clone Wars who has deep connections to Jyn’s past. If I were to criticise anything in the film, it would be that much of Whitaker’s arc feels like it has been left on the cutting room floor, but for a film with so many characters, many of whom are more important to the story at hand, I can forgive and forget. Though Darth Vader, no matter how briefly present, is inevitably the villain that audiences are going to remember most passionately, Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Director Orson Krennic is as stoically menacing and single mindedly contemptible as you would hope a Star Wars antagonist to be.
Overall, Rogue One stands alone as a pretty much perfect glimpse in to the extended Star Wars universe that, for obvious reasons, has no obligations to pave the way for a sequel and therefore can give everything it has in these two hours alone. It feels like something completely new and innovative whilst at the same time feeling exactly like the Star Wars that I know and love. Some idiots have actually complained about the fact that the first two releases of the new Star Wars age have featured female protagonists. To those idiots, I say get a grip. It cannot and should not be underestimated how important it is that my young male cousins are asking for action figures of Rey and Jyn Erso for Christmas. If even half of the future ‘main’ Episodes and anthology instalments can be a good as Rogue One is, then we are in for one hell of an era. Honestly, I didn’t think Star Wars could ever be this good again.