According to the credits, Rogue One has a screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Armageddon) from a story by John Knoll (VFX guy) and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, After Earth) – but anything slotting into a franchise made at this level presumably requires a whole bunch of other scribblers to fix and patch it all together. Rather surprisingly, there are quite a few callbacks to director Gareth Edwards’ micro-budget debut Monsters – again, a mismatched couple are stuck with each other as they make their way through a warzone, scraping some sort of romance between the terrors … and there’s a feel for the incidentals of the chaos that stresses the ‘wars’ element of the Star Wars saga, as a screaming child has to be hauled out of a street which has suddenly erupted in a firefight and we see that the rebel alliance has the same sort of internal friction between organised opposition and fanatic terrorists found in the anti-Assad forces in Syria. This makes narrative sense, and Edwards handles the mostly understated parallels with contemporary conflicts better than JJ Abrams in The Force Awakens – which features an abducted child soldier who somehow grows up to be a happy-go-lucky fun guy rather than a traumatised wreck. Given where this comes in the saga, there’s a sense that many of the folks we meet here won’t be growing up to be anything at all – not even the retconned Force ghosts that occasionally nip back into the heroes’ journeys to dole out sage advice.
This is a fill-in rather than a standalone – when it was announced, I said that it sounded like the story of the heroic, doomed covert ops team who died to get George Lucas the intel he needed to write the opening crawl of Star Wars. It’s not quite that, and there’s almost the feel of epic fan fiction as a whole big budget movie is required to fill in a plot hole Lucas didn’t give a moment’s thought to – that flaw in the Death Star design which means that a lone hero (albeit one with supernatural powers) can blow the whole thing up. Here, imperial boffin Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) – whose name sounds like a scrambling of the protagonists of the Planet of the Apes TV series Galen and Urso – is forced by wicked cloak-twirling politico Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) into working for the unseen Emperor’s weapons program but deliberately puts that hole in the security system, and the film consists of his abandoned daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) searching first for the man himself so he can just tell her where the gap is and then (when that doesn’t work out) raiding a bureaucratic planet where the plans for all imperial facilities are stored so she can transmit them to the rebels (which is where we came in).
Along the way, Jyn – who is at first as pissed off with the Rebellion as the Empire – hooks up with embittered rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) – who shoots a wounded comrade in the back in his introductory scene, announcing that he isn’t an action figure/breakfast cereal giveaway-friendly character at all. They gather a gang of similar outcasts – a reprogrammed imperial droid (voiced, inevitably, by Alan Tudyk), a blind Zatoichi-type warrior monk (Donnie Yen), his chubbier and temporarily faithless pal (Wen Jiang) and a defecting imperial pilot who never does say why he’s selling out (Riz Ahmed). After Suicide Squad, this is the second film of the year not to get the Dirty Dozen/Seven Samurai vibe quite right – Jones, who is simultaneously way overqualified for this and being elevated to blockbuster-fronting stardom, is so much the lead of the film that everyone else has to struggle to make an impression. Yen has a couple of good fight scenes, the robot does snarky comedy and some of the guys try to compete with the heroine by trotting out agonised backstories which feel a bit rushed, as if leaving white space for later fan fiction to explain away.
It makes an effort to pick up a couple of threads from the prequel trilogy – with Jimmy Smits and Genevieve O’Reilly returning as rebel leaders – even as it gets its biggest frissons from deploying characters from the film I still can’t bring myself to call A New Hope (the word ‘hope’ gets bandied about a lot here). The virtual Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing, voiced and mo-capped by Guy Henry, gets more to do here than the real Cushing did in Star Wars (which, frankly, wastes his presence and doesn’t even give him a death scene) – one other returnee gets the CGI clone treatment. The process is still not perfected, but I was happy to see Cushing again in any shape. If I were overseeing one of these films, I’d have one of the minor human characters CGId in just to test whether all the people who go on about how fake Cushing looks are really picking up on system glitches or just confirming their observer bias. There’s a lot about imperial politics, with Tarkin and Krannic having a power struggle over who gets credit or blame for the Death Star … which builds up to the appearance of Darth Vader, who has great light-sabre moves (and James Earl Jones’ voice) but sports what looks to me like a plastic replica mask. Oh, there’s a cameo for the droids from Star Wars – who I thought were rubbish comedy relief in 1977 and have never warmed to in sequels, prequels and spin-offs.
Edwards sharp career curve from Monsters to Godzilla continues here – it’s a film that starts out rather awkwardly with a lot of characters and locales introduced (with onscreen captions) in something of a muddle and a plot that takes a while to cohere but grows in confidence as it progresses. The several missions of Rogue One (a call-sign for the team/ship) on varied planets against different foes are high-level action filmmaking, not so much in the Dirty Dozen as Mission: Impossible vein with a succession of challenges for everyone on the team and the leads overcoming set-backs, obstacles and surprises in a climax which may currently stand as the best in any Star Wars film. It still boils down to a whole film about sending an email attachment, though – which may be a nod to the era of wikileaks and Hillary’s private server. Nice to see the tradition of giving established British character actors bit roles continue with nods from Daniel Mays, Geraldine James (seriously – whoever decided to make her a fighter pilot deserves a gong), Geoff Bell, Andy de La Tour and Richard Franklin (from Pertwee-era Doctor Who). Incidentally, I worked with Guy Henry when he was the BBC’s horror host Dr Terror and can attest that he pretty much idolises Peter Cushing – like Cushing, he was a TV Sherlock Holmes, and one of Dr Terror’s campaigns (sadly ignored) was to get Cushing a knighthood.