Spoilers ahead. Evasive maneuvers.
Another December, another Disney Star Wars film; and so it will be from now until whenever the box office returns are outstripped by the marketing budget. At the end of a year that saw tent-pole franchises provide unexpected masterpieces (Zack Snyder’s phenomenal Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition) alongside carcasses picked dry by studio executives and fan service (Suicide Squad), Gareth Edwards, fresh off the aesthetically impressive if narratively inert Godzilla, tries his hand at besting a system stacked against him by stakeholder meddling and extensive reshoots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though Edwards’ original vision for a Star Wars war-film has been watered down to a mere shell of the grounded and brutal film that was originally promised, Rogue One still holds enough artistry and life to distance itself from the creatively stagnant The Force Awakens and finally bring us back to a galaxy far, far away.
Rogue One is a prequel of sorts, occupying the timeline space between George Lucas’s masterful Revenge of the Sith and the original A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a tough, jaded woman caught up in a rebel mission to (unbeknownst to her) assassinate her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who walked away from the Death Star project for moral reasons, but was forced back into working for the Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) at the same time Jyn’s mother was killed. Heading up the rebel mission (which takes a detour to visit some rebel extremists led by Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker) is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, whose hardened methods and steely resolve come into conflict both with Jyn’s familial loyalties and cynicism towards both sides in the Galactic Civil War. Also gathered along for the ride are the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and the mysterious Guardians of the Whills, the burly Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the blind Force-zealot Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen).
Of course, one has to address the extensive reshoots Edwards was forced to conduct by Disney executives, a pox upon Rogue One that the film is able to overcome, if not ever fully shake. There is no way at this point to know for certain the degree to which Edwards was forced to alter his film at the request of corporate executives (detective work can be done by analyzing trailer and behind the scenes footage); the main point is that it was extensive, and it does show. Compared to Edwards’ recent Godzilla, it’s recognizable pretty early on that Disney has its director on a tight leash. To his credit, Edwards frequently bumps up against the top-down dictated aesthetic sanitization, but the war-film target that the initial creative crew were aiming for is pretty watered down. Glimpses of this tension are particularly evident in the muddled handling of Saw Gerrera’s extremist group on Jedha. In an engaging action sequence, a group of Gerrera’s rebels ambush an Imperial cargo shipment in a crowded marketplace, and Edwards does something that Lucas did to great effect in his original six episodes: he taps into a real-world iconography to frame his space-fantasy narrative, in this case the visual language of Mujahdeen or Taliban fighters fighting Soviet or American occupation forces.
The usage of such imagery is fraught with charged implications (similar to Lucas’s complex visual fashioning of Republic planes in the Attack of the Clones as Vietnam-era gunships), but unfortunately Gerrera’s cell is later cast in a muddled fashion more akin to Maz Kanata’s castle than a serious terrorist organization. There’s an interrogation octopus more campy than creepy (between this and the rathtars in The Force Awakens it seems post-Lucas Star Wars can’t quite get creatures sorted out), a total lack of spatial awareness within the base itself (shot tightly, cramped, and blandly) and the charismatic extremist version of Gerrera glimpsed in the first teaser trailer (“what will you do if they break you!?”) is replaced with an eccentric, quirky, unstable and goofy figure lacking in menace and coherence, but abounding in vague exposition. While the destruction of Jedha at the hands of the Death Star is visually remarkable, Gerrera’s role leaves disappointingly little narrative impact, his driving impetus obscure and undefined. Characters in the film tell us that Gerrera and company are extremists, but the film never truly convinces that Gerrera does anything “extreme” beyond shooting stormtroopers, a tonal shift most likely handed down by executives fearful for the marketability of the film.
Choppy editing in this first half of the film generally muddies the proceedings as the crew takes a tour of the galaxy to assemble the members of the crew. Slower-pacing to establish both place and character is eschewed, and dialogue and character bits feel pasted together from multiple cuts of the film, shortchanging consistent and natural character development (this weakness may actually be the fault of Edwards himself, as the human element was the one area where Godzilla noticeably floundered). Other moments that should be darker are declawed (Cassian’s murder of an informant at the beginning of the film is played as ho-hum and without tension rather than as disturbing), a Darth Vader appearance at about the midpoint is textbook shoehorned fan-service (and another example of the Disney strategy of raiding Lucas’s discarded idea junk pile for visual concepts), and the film in general continues the baffling Disney tendency to sonically quiet Star Wars. Blasters, spaceships, and explosions continue to lack the sonic bite and distinctness that Lucas’s films had. This all combines to divert the film from the unsettling and visceral war-film we might have gotten had Edwards been left alone with his artistic vision.
On the aural note, there is one more (and perhaps the clearest) area in which executive meddling seems to have robbed the film of artistic power: the musical score. Alexandre Desplat, Edwards’ collaborator on the muscular score for Godzilla, was mysteriously dropped from the project in September because of reshoot “scheduling conflicts” (a highly suspect explanation that is most likely code for creative disagreements with the second directors and writers brought in to aid in the reworking of the film). Whatever the reason, John Williams imitator Michael Giachinno, a competent composer in his own right, was brought in to write a brand new score in only four and a half weeks. Any composer would find this a daunting challenge and, of no real fault of Giachinno’s, the rushed nature of the score is glaringly obvious. Though Giachinno’s music is featured much more prominently than Williams’ score in The Force Awakens (theoretically a good thing), it occasionally feels like a second rate imitation of the real deal, and, more significantly, is sometimes tonally out of sync with the action onscreen. Most glaring is its negative impact on the otherwise engaging sequence on Eadu, in which Krennic, Galen, Jyn, and Cassian all face off and are interrupted by a rebel airstrike. Jyn’s father is hit in the fray, but the score doesn’t start proclaiming the tragedy of the moment until far too late into the scene, and so an awkward minute or so of action unfolds in which the audience is witnessing the fear and anguish of Jyn for her father, but the brass is still twinkling away in faux-Williams exciting-action-mode. These, and other moments that should have been scored more ominously or tragically (or simply less anonymously), are likely victims of a director and composer not being given sufficient time and independence to formulate a focused artistic vision.
All this being said, if Edwards is on a leash, he is constantly straining at that leash, pushing as far as he can artistically within the constraints placed on him, and this persistence proves to be Rogue One‘s saving grace. Edwards and company, like Lucas before them, try some bold cinematic and technological moves, the digital recreation of Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin chief among them. Not only is Tarkin rendered remarkably well (for the most part) in a daring push of special effects technology to its limits (reminiscent of Lucas’s experimental flair throughout his six films), but he gets a fleshed out role and not a mere winking cameo. Tarkin highlights one of the film’s central motifs in his interactions with Krennic: that of the small, ordinary figures in the galaxy clawing to make an impact on the titans we recognize from Episodes I-VI. Krennic tries and fails to ascend the Imperial hierarchy as an individual, his project seized by Tarkin at completion, and credit slipping out of his reach. This failure of solitary ambition is juxtaposed with the collective efforts of anonymous rebel soldiers, whose minute acts of sacrifice compound to lay the groundwork for the eventual toppling of the Galactic Empire.
Edwards also works on this motif with his visual constructions, even if his knack for elaborate set-piece construction so evident in Godzilla has been somewhat lost. Edwards films the Death Star as a ghostly, looming specter (not unlike the form of the specter that the Death Star II takes in Return of the Jedi), eclipsing the sun and seemingly the universe itself, literally uprooting the natural order. Of particular note is the framing of the space station moments before its weapons test on Jedha, in which the weapon aligns with the planet in carefully positioned spherical arrangement that calls back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, framing the moment not only as a technological threshold, but the passing from one spiritual era of the Star Wars galaxy into another.
This all builds to a climactic final act that, even if it may have been restructured in reshoots, bursts on screen with color and vigor not seen since Lucas’s explosive conclusion to his Saga in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, nothing can quite compete with Lucas’s near flawless rendering of large scale combat at the end of Attack of the Clones or the beginning of Revenge, but Edwards and company nail the essentials: the bright greens and blues of tropical Scarif back a frantic rebel gambit to seize the Death Star plans and beam them off in a combined land/space effort in the vein of The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. Edwards infuses the rebel scramble with a frenzied fanaticism that pays dividends: X-wing pilots careen into Imperial shield-gates, rebel frigates ram Imperial Star Destroyers, ground troops scramble in an explosive diversion effort, while our main heroes find themselves in hair-raising predicament after predicament. Edwards even performs a bit of cinematic necromancy for continuity’s sake that would make Lucas and his Special Editions proud, cutting in footage of Red and Gold Leaders from A New Hope. Most emotionally satisfying of all is the tangible sense of the unlikelihood of the whole venture: every member of the Rogue One team gets a classic moment of warrior’s sacrifice. Particularly impactful are the ends of the wonderfully animated K-2SO and the religious Chirrut, whose moment of action convincingly conveys a sense of the Force’s all-encompassing will making such an unlikely chain of events possible.
The real payoff comes, however, in two brief moments at the end of Rogue One. After Jyn and Cassian successfully beam the plans off-planet, nameless rebel soldiers begin passing the plans one to another in their desperate bid to escape the just-arrived Darth Vader in his Star Destroyer. Vader boards the rebel flagship and hunts down these anonymous heroes one by one, as they defy the titan cutting them down by the dozens in a collective action (ordained by the Force) to get the plans to Princess Leia and the Tantive IV. It is here that Rogue One feels most like the war-film it was billed as: the story of small people matching up against an overwhelming conflict and making a galaxy-shifting difference.
Surpassing even this thrilling set-piece is the brief lyrical and visual moment that directly precedes it. Having successfully completed their mission, Jyn and Cassian sit exhausted on one of Scarif’s island beaches as the Death Star turns to vaporize the facility in a last-ditch Imperial effort to foil the raid. The sky before them is engulfed in flame in an inversion of A New Hope‘s binary sunset; if Luke’s horizon spoke of the infinite potential of the future, Jyn and Cassian’s tells only of the imminent and fiery end of the present. Giachinno’s serviceable score suddenly swells with strings and choir, pairing with the beautifully composed image of two friends embracing for comfort in the face of coming death. It is a moment of tragedy, beauty, and tenderness that overwhelms in both its visual and aural power. It is a moment that feels right in line with the loftiest of Lucas’s operatic ambitions, yet conveyed in a fashion that distinguishes itself from Lucas’s sensibilities, and it is in this moment of undiluted cinema that the purest spirit of Star Wars stirs suddenly and potently back to life.