Over the last 40 years it’s fair to say that the galaxy of Star Wars has become something of a safe space for family friendly action adventure cinema – certainly there has been plenty of peril but in the end it’s always been a good old romp of heroes overcoming villains in the most ‘white hat’ wearing of ways.
So, as the famous line ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared on the screen at the start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there was a familiar sense of anticipation for more of the same.
As soon as that faded though it was clear this wasn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars – gone was the orchestral blast and iconic, scene setting ‘crawl’ as we were dropped to a new, fairly desolate, planet and a new set of characters, in this case the Erso family, hastily followed by new Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a squadron of Death Troopers, a kind of black clad, amped up version of the Stormtroopers of old.
Here we meet our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and, along with her, witness the death of her mother and apparent capture of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), followed by here being rescued by mysterious apparent-Rebellion member Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).
While this has overtones of the introduction of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope the whole thing has a much greater sense of danger, and this is something that continues throughout the movie as Jyn and her rag-tag band of rebels visit various planets new and old in their hunt for the plans to a rumoured Imperial super weapon.
While this story is all very exciting there are moments where it lapses into video game plotting but for the most part these are easy to overlook.
Despite the inter-planetary setting and background of the rebellion against the empire Rogue One has a much smaller feel than the main run of the series with a focus on Jyn’s story as she discovers the rebellion with the help of pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Krennic’s role in the creation of the Death Star.
This gives a lot of background to things we’ve heard mentioned in past films so, while not integral to the over arching plot (that chronological begins in The Phantom Menance and, at this stage, continues to The Force Awakens) it is interesting to see and with predominantly new characters doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of the Skywalker saga like some other prequels have done.
Added to this, also setting it apart from the previous Star Wars films, is a genuinely political edge. While the Empire remains undeniably ‘evil’ (how could anything led be Darth Vader and The Emperor be anything but), shades of grey are added to the Rebellion.
While this doesn’t cause any effect to the grand run, it gives Rogue One a slightly different angle on things that makes it feel more down to earth and, in a sense, more grown up, reflecting, as it goes, something of real world religious and ideological conflict (though it is more general in this than specific).
Even if some of the new characters are somewhat basically drawn, much like side characters in the other Star Wars films, their stereotypical nature make them easy to get behind so, when we reach the third act, there is a genuine sense of tension, even though we have a fair idea of the final outcome.
This third act also includes some of the bravest story moments since The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even tops that, something rare to see in a world of ‘happily ever after’ blockbusters from the likes of Marvel.
Where the film falters is in its overuse of call backs to the original trilogy. Hints and suggestions would have been nice but a few are just too on the nose and detract from the final product.
Most notable among these are a slightly too uncanny valley computer generated version of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (surely he could have been seen as a hologram thus losing any realism issues) and a Darth Vader who somehow just doesn’t feel quite right, though finally getting to see his much rumoured Sith Temple/castle was a nice if unnecessary touch.
What this all amounts to is a genuinely exciting ride with enough grit around the edges to make it something a bit different while maintaining enough of what we love about Star Wars to make a fine couple of hours in the cinema, though this one may not be for all the family in the way that the main series is.