Phase 2 of Star Wars fandom began sometime in the 1980s and went into overdrive in the early 1990s and seemed to involve George Lucas marketing every conceivable aspect of the universe in some way before the eventual release of the prequel trilogy Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). These alas met with underwhelming response from fans of the original trilogy. After that, Lucas sold out interest to Disney, who decided there was even more that could be milked from the films, resulting in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), the start of a new trilogy, which has certainly brought fans flocking back after the bad experience of the prequels.
Rogue One emerges as part of a new series of spinoffs that are being released every second year in between the episodes of the new trilogy. Rogue One is the first of these and is to be followed by an as yet untitled Han Solo origin movie in 2018. This feels exactly like it was back in the 1980s when Lucasfilm was engaged in its marketing every facet of the original trilogy he could think to spin something off from. Thus we had the infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978); two Ewok movies, The Ewok Adventure/Caravan of Courage (1984) and Ewoks and the Marauders of Endor (1986); an number of animated series Droids (1985-6), Ewoks (1985-7), Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003-5), Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-14) and Star Wars: Rebels (2014 ), as well as one animated theatrical film Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008). And then there were the endless spinoff books devoted to even minor background characters entire series such as Bounty Hunters Wars, Coruscant Nights, Jedi Apprentice, The Old Republic, Tales of the Jedi and others, as well as series devoted to the adventures of characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, Darth Maul and Han Solo, even short story collections such as Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina (1995) and Tales from Jabbas Palace (1996). Rogue One and the Han Solo origin film feel exactly like Disney are conducting the filmed equivalent of the various Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett spinoff novels.
On one level, you can commend Lucasflm for their ability to endlessly spin off separate adventures from every imaginable facet of the original. On the other hand, this degree of proliferation leaves me questioning how much substance there is to the universe. How many stories can you keep doing about rebels against an evil Empire when the politics of the situation come in no greater shadings than either black or white? How many different ways can there be to do duels with lightsabres weve had different coloured ones, multi-bladed ones, two-handed duels, people fighting more than one opponent but what else is left? (To commend Rogue One, at least there is no lightsabre in sight until the very end). How many times does the Death Star have to keep getting wheeled out as a McGuffin it was a central element of Star Wars; they were building new ones in Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens; the prequel trilogy featured the building of the original; while here we have a separate adventure about how the rebels came to have the plans.
I would like to see an entry that does something new with the Star Wars universe rather than slavishly adheres to all the elements we have had before. Rogue One was hailed as a more gritty take on Star Wars. It has a downbeat ending but I remain unconvinced. The characters are a ragtag bunch that come with rough edges but to me gritty means something like far more morally ambiguous or the look of the film going all The Dark Knight Returns (1986) on us. I didnt dislike Rogue One; on the other hand, I didnt come out raving its praises like some critics who voted it onto their Top 10 of 2016 lists.
I suppose I expect more of Rogue One. I had the disadvantage of being in hospital when the film opened and wasnt able to get to see it theatrically for a couple of weeks. Unable to avoid reading comments about it without going offline, I guess my expectations were pumped up higher than they should have been. I was expecting a Star Wars equivalent on The Dirty Dozen (1967) maybe something like a less humour-driven version of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or even a space opera equivalent of Suicide Squad (2016). Perhaps what comes the closest to this would be the Gun on Ice Planet Zero (1978) double-episode of the original Battlestar Galactica.
This seems a solid enough premise for a film. On the other hand, Rogue One seems to take nearly half the running time to assemble its Dirty Dozen and set them off on their rogue mission. The first half left me wanting considerably. It is low in action and the effects sequences that you expect of a Star Wars film crucially, there is nothing about it that gets the pulse moving or makes you go wow. Moreover, having been shot digitally, all the bright colours and vibrant locations that the other Star Wars films have used seem visually dour in contrast. Neither do the characters seem that interesting. Felicity Joness Jen is all backstory but there seems no fire and determination to her performance in the same way there is to say Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens or the callow earnestness that Mark Hamill had in the original. The supporting cast of characters seem set up to go somewhere but beyond the odd line, they never get to do much or have anything terribly interesting about them.
Where the film does gain its life is when it comes to the climatic raid on the imperial base on Scarif. This delivers a rousing action sequence in the way a Star Wars film should. On the other hand, the old timer in one keeps thinking Weve had rebel attacks on imperial bases combined with shootouts in the planetary skies as the climaxes of Star Wars, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens now what is there about this that is treading new territory?
The other part about Rogue One is the stitching together of continuity elements. It is interesting seeing the lead up to the events of Star Wars how the rebels became aware of the flaw in the Death Star (a question that always hung over the original) and the film concluding with Princess Leias escape in the rebel cruiser pursued by the Imperial Destroyer and Darth Vader. The most contentious aspects of the film is the creation of a digital replica of Peter Cushings Grand Moff Tarkin and in the final scene of a young Princess Leia (an unexpectedly poignant touch given that Carrie Fisher died eleven days after Rogue One premiered). I can admire the cleverness and almost certainly it is something that is pointing the way ahead for Hollywood with digital replicas of actors not unakin to the scenario in the early sections of The Congress (2013). I think I would have appreciated it more though if the Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher lookalikes didnt look exactly like they were obvious digital creations reacting with live-action elements. The simulations suffer from so much Uncanny Valley and just doesnt move right.
British director Gareth Edwards emerged out of nowhere with the word of mouth hit Monsters (2010), for which he conducted the visual effects himself, about people trapped in an alien-infested zone, and went on to the English-language remake of Godzilla (2014).