Space opera’s evil has earthly resonance
(M) he magnificent Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn dominates the pre-titles sequence of Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first instalment of a series of stand-alone films that are related to but separate from the galactic gangbuster created by George Lucas, and which he sold to Disney for $US4 billion in 2012.
Mendelsohn is an Imperial commander, Orson Krennic. Wrapped in a white cape, grey of hair, gaunt of face, he oozes authoritarian arrogance and personal vulnerability. He never quite loses his uncertain smile and he speaks like, well, an Australian, which is terrific to hear. Perhaps we will be the biggest bad guys in space one day.
Krennic has led a group of heavily armoured troops to a remote and barren planet to confront former Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, almost as intense as he was in TV’s serial killer series Hannibal). He tells Galen it’s time to come back, to help design and construct a planet-obliterating weapon. Of course, we viewers know this is the Death Star. He tells the scientist that such a weapon of mass destruction will lead to peace in space.
“You are confusing peace with terror,’’ Galen declares. “Well,’’ replies Krennic, flashing the Mendelsohn smile, “you have to start somewhere.’’
Galen is taken, but his young daughter Jyn flees and hides. Her mother Lyra (Irish actress Valene Kane) puts an amulet around her child’s neck and tells her, “Trust the force.” Then we see the title credit and the $US200 million ($270m) movie launches. We meet the adult Jyn Erso (Oscar-nominated English actress Felicity Jones). She’s beautiful and tough, and we soon learn she was saved — and trained — by extremist rebel fighter Saw Gerrera (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, looking as deranged as Dennis Hopper in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet).
The opening sequence goes to one of the strengths of this first so-called anthology film. The next two are said to focus on the stories of Han Solo and bounty hunter Boba Fett respectively. Krennic’s knowing comment about terror and peace taps into present global fracture lines, adding hard, terrestrial realism to what unfolds across the next two hours. As he makes that remark in fictional space, in the real world Aleppo is a human disaster zone.
In a similar sense, the brutal battle scenes look modern, not futuristic. An ambush of Stormtroopers by rebel fighters could be happening in Iraq. The long, exciting climactic air and ground war, while full of original Star Wars moments, has disturbing echoes of the Vietnam war. It’s not quite as devastating as Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge but it is about men (and women) putting their lives on the line in close combat, usually under orders or because of a loyalty to a divided cause. The body count is high and often futile.
In a chronological sense, as far as that applies to Star Wars, where the 1977 blockbuster is the fourth in the timeline, Rogue One is set soon before the events that brought Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and of course Darth Vader to the big screen. Jyn is co-opted into joining the rebel alliance. The mission is to find her long-lost father, and stop the completion of the planet-vanishing WMD.
Well, that’s what she is told. Another strength of this civil war drama is that it is a stark reminder of the volatile nature of rebellions. There is a cause, and a lot of rebels in it, not all of whom have the same motivations. The leader of the mission is Cassian Andor (Mexican actor Diego Luna), and the confrontational scene between him and Jyn at one telling point is a powerful reminder of how revolutions work and why they often fail.
Another depth to Rogue One (we learn the reason for the title late on, and it’s important yet incidental) is that because it’s a stand-alone offshoot from the main franchise, not a prequel or sequel, the main characters can live … and die.
I don’t want to reveal too much but it’s fair to say main characters cark it, which is almost innovative in modern cinema. Now, Star Wars fans may be able to work out who survives and who does not (and indeed what will happen to the Death Star), but that doesn’t mean they won’t care about them. The script and acting put us into their lives.
Some characters obviously will keep going because we’ve already seen them in the future. Darth Vader, voiced by (who else?) James Earl Jones, appears in just three scenes, each brilliant, especially the final one where he draws his lightsabre. The first one, where Krennic seeks his help, is also terrific, with Mendelsohn showing in one hard-to-breathe, quiet moment the borderline insanity of this commander. There are also nods to other famous characters, which I’ll leave unidentified as viewers will enjoy it more if these come as a surprise.
The rebel mission is to invade an imperial stronghold and steal the plans for the WMD. It’s carried out by a brave and uncertain motley crew: Cassian, Jyn, a blind warrior-priest and his protector, a large man who about knows guns. There’s a defector pilot (Riz Ahmed from the superb TV series The Night Of).
The one audiences will most love, though, is a reprogrammed imperial droid, K2SO. He is tall, strong, intelligent and aware of the advantage of his non-humanness. Voiced by American actor Alan Tudyk, he sounds upper-class British, smart, snobby and a bit peevish. When the rebels are warned that if something goes wrong they will all be vaporised in space, he corrects: “Not me. I can survive in space.” He’s good for the laughs, and for more than that too.
Edwards’s most successful film to date is the Godzilla reboot in 2014. He is a director who knows how to do new things with old stories. The special effects and cinematography are a high, as is expected from Star Wars. It’s also good, for the second film in a row (after JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens last year), to have a strong female as the lead character.
One disadvantage with this film is that as it’s set in the Star Wars past, it’s a set-up for the 1977 original, so viewers who know the canon will be able to work out what will happen. As such it doesn’t add much to the Star Wars story, though there is some neat spackling of gaps, including involving the Death Star. But where it succeeds is in adding depth, realism and a timely reverse sense of modernity to this almost 40year-old space saga. Watching it today, you may feel the galaxy is not quite so far away, that its troubles are all too familiar, and I suspect that was Lucas’s plan from the outset.
Ben Mendelsohn, above, and Felicity Jones with Diego Luna, left, in
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story