This latest exhilarating, good-natured and enjoyable adventure from the Star Wars imaginary universe is written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, and directed by Britain’s Gareth Edwards; it comes from a time which now doesn’t seem so very long ago.
The film’s action occurs some time between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV, A New Hope. So it’s a mid-quel or a deja vu-quel. Character archetypes, mythic confrontations, desperate hologram messages, dads real and quasi-, uniforms and hairstyles are always rising recognisably to the surface. Like superhero films or westerns or romcoms, Star Wars invented its own recurring generic components, and to complain or even notice now seems almost as beside the point as recognising familiar chord progressions in the blues. It is noticeable that the newish motif of the defector or renegade, which featured in The Force Awakens, pops up again here.
Rogue One has a kind of associate membership status with the projected nine-film club; it doesn’t count as a fully fledged episode, but an auxiliary story, an offshoot of the canon, a sleek fighter cruising alongside the main fleet – though of comparable size, shape and manoeuvrability.
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a courageous, fugitive rebel who happens to be the daughter of Galen Erso, the brilliant scientist, designer and Oppenheimer figure behind plans for the Empire’s terrifying new weapon, called a “Death Star”: he is played by Mads Mikkelsen with his familiar air of martyred machismo. Daughter and father endured a terrible trauma; Jyn is close to the extremist rebel-dissident Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), and Galen finds himself working for the Empire’s chillingly fanatical administrator, Krennic – a pleasingly unpleasant performance, facially tense and clipped, from Ben Mendelsohn. But whose side is Galen actually on? And when Jyn finds herself destined to steal the Death Star plans and command a rebel ship code-named Rogue One, she must team up with another insurgent, Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, whose own hidden agenda she realises when it’s almost too late.
Felicity Jones is in the tousled-yet-game tradition of Star Wars female leads, like Carrie Fisher or Daisy Ridley: well-born but determined, with a sense of purpose befitting an heiress, if not a princess. The comedy robot this time around is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Empire droid, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who is less obviously dapper than C-3PO. K-2SO is hulking and dark, more like Ted Hughes’s Iron Man in miniature, but with a droll way of objecting to orders; his style in backtalk involves a nicely timed deferred punchline. The arms are long, resulting in an almost knuckle-dragging, simian way of walking. In his taciturn way, K-2SO could almost be a quasi-Chewie presence. Elsewhere in the cast, there are signs that, whatever xenophobes like Donald Trump think, China is making a valuable contribution. Other fellow travellers in the rebel world include Baze Malbus, played by Jiang Wen, and Chirrut Imwe, played by Donnie Yen, who brings a martial artist’s poise to this blind figure who uses his hyper-acute hearing and sense of the Force to negotiate his way around.
Rogue One doesn’t really go rogue at any stage, and it isn’t a pop culture event like The Force Awakens, in whose slipstream this appears; part of its charm resides in the eerie, almost dreamlike effect of continually producing familiar elements, reshuffled and reconfigured, a reaching back to the past and hinting at a preordained future. There are some truly spectacular cameos from much-loved personae, involving next-level digital effects — almost creepily exact, so that watching feels at various stages like going into a time machine, back to the 80s and 70s.
If there is anything new in Rogue One, it is that there is much more of an emphasis on the Death Star’s nuclear effect. In other films, we’ve seen this weapon blow up planets, and the calamity was almost abstract; now a prototype is blowing up cities. The implied comparison arguably makes light of a serious subject, but there is a beady-eyed fervency with which Rogue One deploys this catastrophe, and portrays the sacrifice needed to prevent it. Its variations on a theme are muscular and adroit. This is another really entertaining fantasy with fan-fiction energy and attack.
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