Rogue One review: This is Star Wars but not as we know it

This sophisticated new addition to the franchise fuses fantasy with grimy realism, and gives the actors space to actually act.

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Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is only a spin-off, an adjunct, a doodle in the margins of a mighty franchise. (It takes place chronologically just before the action of the original Star Wars.) But a short way into watching it, you may find yourself wondering why Star Wars movies couldn’t simply have been this good all along. Did it really need to be so hard? You take real actors, screenwriting that is both solid and sparky, production and costume design which fuses imagination with realism and a director who thinks in moving images and this is the result. To say that Rogue One is the most thrilling and cinematically sophisticated film in the series may be to damn it with faint praise. After all, from the 1977 original to The Force Awakens last year, this is not a collection of movies known for its artistic daring; it’s been safe hands all the way. Not any more.

It is the shot of the crying child that seals the deal. Halfway into a battle scene between Imperial stormtroopers and the Rebel alliance, the camera notices a young girl standing in the dirt, eyes scrunched up, wailing profusely. The shot lasts slightly longer than is comfortable before a Rebel fighter dives into view and snatches the child away. She is carried off by her mother and plays no further part in the action. Someone, though, decided to put her there: the director, Gareth Edwards, or the writers, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, and whoever it was knew that this tiny detail would alter radically the tenor of the scene. That flash of rawness does nothing to advance the story or heighten the sense of spectacle. But it was left in anyway. That’s when it becomes clear that Rogue One is special. That it has been made with real finesse and thoughtfulness.

The fighter who saves the child is Jyn Erso, which sounds more like a cocktail than an action hero, just as those unfamiliar nouns that flash up on the screen at regular intervals (Wobani, Jedha, Scarif) could either be planets or tonight’s sashimi specials. Jyn (Felicity Jones) didn’t want to fight for her galaxy but she has been pressed into service by the Rebels to find her father (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant engineer forced by the Empire’s director of operations, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to work on its space station, the Death Star.

Rogue One hasn’t improved on the plots of previous Star Wars episodes. The heroes still need to get their hands on something (in this case a map detailing the vulnerabilities in the Death Star) from somewhere (the Empire’s coastal stronghold) and… well, plot wise, it’s hardly The Usual Suspects. At the level of characterisation, atmosphere, design and detail, however, Rogue One is richly satisfying. The story clicks nicely into place with the events of Star Wars but that narrative is really just a blank sky in which the film’s other elements can sparkle like stars.

That includes the ensemble accompanying Jyn on her mission and contributing to a sense of camaraderie reminiscent of the crew in Aliens: the smouldering spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with his matinee idol moustache; the twitchy pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); the monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), whose blindness is no impediment to his fighting skills; his gruff bodyguard, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). And if you can remember any of those names after the end of this paragraph, the Jyn Ersos are on me.

The show-stealer is a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-S2O (Alan Tudyk), who is clearly a close cousin of the lumbering robot from the 1986 animated Japanese adventure film Laputa: Castle in the Sky. He first meets Jyn when he plucks her forcefully from captivity and tells her bluntly: “You are being rescued. Please do not resist.” With those words, a star is born, or rather activated. His every line has a chippy edge or a sarcastic flourish and he is as adept with a blaster as he is with a put-down. Even lines that sound ordinary on the page are transformed by Tudyk’s unimpressed but easily hurt line readings. Asked why he didn’t wait in the spacecraft like he was told, he says, “I did but it was boring”—and the petulance he places on that last word is delightful. Even when he’s being a proper Eeyore and commentating sourly on the heroes’ plummeting odds of survival, there is a comic sparkle that saves him from being a tedious Moaning Minnie like C-3PO. In fact, when that robot turns up fleetingly here, he seems suddenly surplus to requirements now that there’s some new tin-pot comic relief in town.

C-3PO isn’t the only old face that puts in an appearance. Indeed, there will be fond and incredulous gasps at some of the special guest stars. I would say more except that a Darth Vader chokehold is likely to befall critics who let slip any spoilers.

The British director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) has a lot to oversee — complex battle sequences, vast and magnificent sets, innumerable effects that really do merit the word “special”. So it’s all the more impressive that he keeps a close eye on detail. He gives his actors room to breathe amongst the action; in one genuinely moving scene in which Jyn receives a hologram message from her father, Edwards holds the close-up of Jones for an unnervingly long time. The novelty of an actor in a Star Wars movie actually being allowed to act is overwhelming.

All the way down the cast, there is the same level of attention. I particularly liked Mendelsohn as Krennic, trying desperately to grab the Emperor’s approval and a promotion into the bargain but doomed to fall into that classic middle-management sink-hole. He really should take it up with his union.

The details are alive in every inch of the sets (tactile, metallic, grubby) and the lovingly crafted mish-mash of costumes. Cassian, for instance, is wearing a 1970s-style fur-hooded parka with pens in the sleeve. Krennic also has pens in his upper pocket. (What are they writing? The film has so many idiosyncratic touches that it wouldn’t come as a surprise if they were part of a poetry group on the side.) Jyn is dressed like a Chinese peasant. There are intergalactic waterproofs and plum-coloured armour. A prominent rebel leader is wearing a toga. Possibly someone told her it was a toga party as a prank and she just decided to brave it out. Her co-workers aren’t saying anything. Best not to.

What elevates Rogue One into another class entirely is its fusion of fantasy and grimy realism. Edwards doesn’t stint on spectacle but he throws a lot of dirt and rain at the action sequences to undercut the slickness. The battle scenes are expertly framed to suggest depth: there are always little explosions of action happening in the foreground and background, or else a fighter plane will zoom above the melee with the litheness and precision of a paper dart. The sweeping, swooping camera moves are highly seductive but mixed up with them are touches of grittiness. The light in the first half of the movie is grainy and cold — it’s a rainy-day light. When it turns sunny later on, it’s a dirty, dusty sunlight. The world of the movie looks lived-in. The problem with a lot of fantasy cinema, and the Star Wars series in particular, is that the landscapes and the sets seem to have come straight out of the cellophane. Well, not here. The cinematographer is the Australian Greig Fraser, who shot Zero Dark Thirty, and at times his images suggest war reportage from the trenches of a distant galaxy.

Whereas The Force Awakens was movie karaoke, Rogue One has its own voice, its own musicality. There are hints here and there of John Williams’s militaristic themes from the earlier Star Wars instalments in Michael Giacchino’s score but they’re used strategically and teasingly. The title music revives the opening notes of the main Star Wars theme before veering off in another direction, which serves notice of the general approach here: it will be Star Wars but not as we know it. It’s an especially witty, parochial touch that the success of the Rebels during the film’s climax hinges on their ability to get a signal in an area of inadequate coverage. At last, a struggle with which we can all identify.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is on release from 15 December.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.