Now that we’re firmly entrenched in the perennial-Star Wars churn of the Disney machine, director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story bears testament to the only true artistic value of Disney’s exercise: a chance to gouge Disney’s money to spread out not vertically – along one path – but horizontally, foraging through deepest, darkest corporate storytelling for shards of tonal variance and new moods that need not commingle with the main through-line. Every film need not follow the line of best fit, which allows for a franchise to stagger and ping-pong between tones wildly rather than chart a forward path that would surely become a funeral procession, at least artistically speaking. As a first blow though, Edwards latches onto the asphyxiated, battered, worn-out world of the original film to germinate Rogue One into a supernova of bruised beauty wracked with undertows of ambivalence about its own obvious oncoming, fated conclusion. Ironically, it is by returning to the franchise’s roots – and pulling them up to expose the dirt-encrusted thorns – that Rogue One keeps the franchise from ossifying into arrested development.
With that, the elephant in the room for Rogue One – the predestination of its conclusion, which cannot but end up at A New Hope – ends up being the film’s saving grace. The gallows stench of the original film creeps up through the spellbinding CG in Rogue One and chokes the gee-whiz mid-century optimism out of it. That we all “know” the ending and that the film cannot ultimately do anything outside the purview of that ending ought to make the whole thing feel arbitrary, like a production backing into a foregone conclusion too cautiously and carefully to scrape any fenders or bend any rules. But, instead, the stench of foregone conclusion and the crippling inability to escape it actually creates the sensation of a film crawling hesitantly toward the inevitable and coming to terms with its fate. It contributes a tragic fatalism to the proceedings rather than, say, an atmosphere of obviousness. A New Hope shadows Rogue One, or Rogue One forewarns A New Hope. But either way, the conclusion around the corner is not a coffin for Rogue One to lay in, dead and buried before it even has the chance to enrapture us. I mean, Edwards isn’t doing the devil’s work, producing a willfully alienating creature; Disney didn’t hire the fox to guard the henhouse, after all. But he images a wonderfully estranged, broken-down world for a franchise that was itself estranged from its original, crumbled visage almost as soon as Lucas and his corporate masters started patching it up, beautifying it, for prime-time and audience-ready consumer status circa one Christmas special in 1978.
Edwards’ Rogue One is the first film in the entire series – or, as far as I know, the entire multi-media franchise – that recollects that the greatest strength of A New Hope was the palpable energy of a world all wobbly with frailty, ready to collapse at any moment, cheaply built and held together by hope. Because of course, the backstage production of the original film was all of those things, all congealing into a scrappy outer-space B-movie that has blossomed into an A-picture tent-pole franchise, nursing egotism, elephantiasis, and gigantism in the process, as soon as everyone involved realized they had a behemoth on their hands. Anyway, sins (or successes) of the father aside, Rogue One venerates the dredged-in dirtiness – both in the visuals and of the soul – that the series once built its name on. Sure, the 2016 variety is the pre-distressed designer brand rather than the genuinely seen-some-shit variety, but it doesn’t quite have the acrid poseur vibes of a broiled chicken sandwich with faux-grill lines panini-pressed onto it.
The “you already know the ending” thing also has the benefit of absolving me of an extensive plot summary. I’ll allow the franchise do my work for me on this front and quote the two sentences from the 1977 film’s credit crawl that Rogue One “expands” on: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star”. I should also mention that these two lines not only pull the narrative weight for me in this review, but they do the lion’s share of the work for Rogue One’s specious screenplay as well. Subject to rewrites – and obviously so – during its production, the flow of the film is malformed at best, abhorrently arbitrary at worst, especially in the early goings. The (main) characters are also little help, but it’s not that kind of film anyway. The swampy drudgery of the tone is the film’s true character, not smuggler Cassian (Diego Luna, asleep) and certainly not Jyn (Felicity Jones), the protagonist, whose father built the Death Star against his will and who Jyn assumes has been dead since her childhood. The first half of Rogue One is so callously drab as a piece of writing, though, that it seldom has the space to permit Jyn more complication than the mostly dry Jones is willing to give, and the same goes for Cassian.
But the consolation prizes! Probably inspired by Disney’s rampant success with Guardians of the Galaxy, Rogue One’s general attitude toward itself is as that film’s more beaten-up sibling nourishing an atmosphere of discarded beauty only saved from misery by the plucky banter of an ensemble cast. And thankfully, the other four misfits that back the two protagonists are all superior characters, from K-2SO (an acidic droid voiced by Alan Tudyk) to an ex-imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed, the only performer who sells any genuine concern for his life) to Chirrut (Donnie Yen, delightful), a force-sensitive warrior who happens to be blind, and Baze (Jiang Wen, acting – spiritedly – like Egg Shen) a Rebel with a large gun. Ben Mendelsohn is also inspired as an embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s the banality of evil, an Imperial functionary with little on his mind excepting how much he wants to impress his bosses.
And the writing isn’t a substantial concern when the film is firing on all cylinders; Rogue One is always at the medical bay with a defibrillator every time the narrative threatens to flat-line. Even a rather grotesquely overindulgent first appearance by the old huffing, helmeted one is counterbalanced (and then some) by his second appearance in the film, which is by a country mile the most cinematographically intoxicating rendering of Darth Vader ever: swallowed in darkness like a prowling, mythological hellhound fresh from the fires of Hades and ready to pounce. Like the film’s other great moments, this frantic fright of a conclusion proves that Rogue One boasts a much nastier sting in its tail than any Star Wars movie of the last 40 years. The screenplay pays a penance – the first act and much of the second is a narrative dead-zone, bumbling around and ping-ponging for purpose – but there’s pay-off galore.
I don’t want to overstate Rogue One’s achievements, nor its baleful atmosphere. The pulse is certainly still vivid, and the final act is a sterling tripartite battle, a coup de blockbuster cinema. But this isn’t a sci-fi tilt-a-whirl like the futurist circus of the prequel trilogy, nor does it ape the A-New-Hope-as-Halloween-costume Ep 7. If there’s anything retro about the sound and the look of Rogue One, it’s a vinyl-hiss haze that leaves no moment silent or untroubled. Shot-through with melancholia more than mid-century pulp flair, the anxious background hums suggest a readiness to lay you in the grave. It’s plenty exciting, but the energy is nonetheless harried and frayed, more like nervous eyes in search of predators than pupils wide and enraptured with wonder and awe. It’s still Star Wars, so it’s never going to err away from the grand aria swoop of a tent-pole film. But at least Edwards, not spineless even if he plays ball, adds the hard sear necessary to reclaim the record scratches on the poised, gilded pop vinyl plaything Disney probably would have been content to put out. After the solid but essentially square and credibility-seeking Ep 7, it’s refreshing to find a new Star Wars film that doesn’t imagine itself as a grandiloquent successor to the throne so much as an ornery descent into the depths of hell. Ironically, it’s the un-catering tone of unnecessary parenthetical-aside that keeps Rogue One from feeling like more than an also-ran in the franchise.