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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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In only his third ever theatrical release, Gareth Edwards directs the eighth ever Star Wars film, and first stand alone film in the anthology. The majority of the film is set days before A New Hope (1977), and tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance got hold of those all important plans of the Empire's Death Star, the weapon with the capability of destroying planets. Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a former criminal freed by the alliance and looking to unearth the truth behind her father's (Mads Mikkelson) role in the creation of the Death Star.

This time last year I don't think I had ever been so excited about a film. Following the disappointment of the Star Wars prequels, guilty pleasures or not, the pressure on JJ Abrams to breathe life back in to a second faltering sci-fi franchise and take his rightful place as King of the Geeks was massive. Thankfully for all fans of the Star Wars universe, he produced. The Force Awakens (2015) had the feel of a Star Wars film. It had real characters, humour, tension, and was done with a lot of affection for the original source material. My Dad took me to each cinema re-release of the original trilogy when they came out, and obviously I fell in love with it immediately. I would buy the games, the toys, and make a cardboard lightsaber. As with everyone else, Star Wars was a huge part of growing up, so the release of The Force Awakens was a huge deal for me. However, when I heard that a Rogue One spin-off would be released the December after, and Episode VIII the year after that I was a bit worried about burn out. There can be too much of a good thing. If each keep up the standard of Gareth Edward's Rogue One though, every 12 months won't be often enough.
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The start to Rogue One is relentless. It jumps from one character and planet to the next in quick succession and back round again. Apparently it's the first time a Star Wars film has ever had the planet name appear on screen as characters arrive at each one - I would have lost track if they hadn't. It feels like there is a lot to get through to set up the story's main events and the film wants to get through them as soon as it can. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but pretty intense for what is essentially just set-up. The film seems relieved to take a breath once it's backstory and characters have been introduced, and it can then find it's feet and tells it's story. It's a story that feels carefully constructed so as to simultaneously stand on its own two feet, while linking back straight back in to those originals we all care so much about. It's brilliantly balanced, and the knowing winks and nods are unobtrusive, while some interconnections with the originals adding genuine chills.

Gareth Edwards has made a conscious decision to go down the gritty, dirty, darker route with Rogue One and I thought it paid off really well. There were numerous issues with Lucas' Star Wars prequels, but one was how everything was so clean, gleamy, unlived in. Neither looked like a Star Wars film, so it was a big relief that JJ Abrams, and now Edwards had gone back to creating grimy worlds that seemed real. Aesthetics aside though, there is a looming darkness and fear that permeates Rogue One and helps set it further aside from the rest of the franchise. The battlescenes were breathtaking, and largely shot from the ground level perspective. When your running alongside rebels with an AT-AT walker in pursuit they have never before looked a more daunting prospect. When Edwards does take us in to the air with the dogfights though, it's an exhilarating ride. I'm not sure the 3D added anything to the film, but when does it ever? I am a sucker for IMAX though, and were there to be an option to catch it in just the latter then that is what I would recommend.

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There are many brilliant things about the Star Wars universe, but it all hinges on it's characters. I've been a fan of Felicity Jones since her and the late Anton Yelchin's heartbreakingly believable chemistry in Like Crazy (2011). She's come a long way from low budget indie romantic dramas to mega blockbuster sci-fi, but apparently she can carry either. She's excellent as the renegade Jyn Erso, another 3 dimensional female lead, and a mix of Han Solo and Rey - not a bad combination. She has a great, if tragic backstory that adds weight to her motivations later on, so it's a shame much of the rest of the characters seem so hollow in comparison. During a conversation, Diego Luna's Rebel Alliance intelligence officer, Cassian Andor, hints at a dark past that deserved more than just a passing mention. The rest of the members of the Rogue One team were good fun, but they're not allowed to be any more than that. Its not a huge problem, but when the dust settles Jyn is the only one of the Rebel Alliance troop that makes a lasting impression. That is, aside from the latest in a long run of comedic Star Wars droids: K-2SO. Alan Tudyk offers up a great voice and motion capture performance of this reprogrammed Empire droid with the sass of C-3PO, but less camp, and with a lot more dry wit. Everyone watching in the IMAX screen was laughing together with every line, and it's a great relief to what is a dark and serious Star Wars movie. Ben Mendelsohn does his detestable antagonist routine really well, while Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker add effortless gravitas whenever they're on screen. The real show stealer though is Darth Vader. His screen time is limited, but there was a ripple of excitement whenever he was on screen - not just because of past memories, but for those fresh moments of fear he offered up here. Other than that (and I'll avoid spoilers) I heard a bit of grief for the decision for one CGI character in particular. This didn't bother or distract me though, and was so realistic that Charlotte didn't even realise it wasn't a real actor until after. Praise indeed.
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With The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams jump started what will always be a beloved franchise for many of us, with a fresh story and great new characters. Rogue One has taken that a whole step further and wonderfully manages to turn what would have been a daunting challenge to create a stand alone film in to an opportunity to do something great. I strongly believe anyone that's never seen a Star Wars film could watch and really enjoy this. For those in love with the anthology already though (and I'm going to have to be unashamedly biased here), Rogue One links in brilliantly well with its predecessors. As well as the winking nudges and nods, there are linkages and fresh perspectives to lap up. It's those moments, all done with real care and passion for the mythology, that raise Rogue One to another level and leave me with real life goosebumps.

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