The notoriously fastidious Emad El-Din Aysha hasn't waxed lyrical about anything in a while, but as he dissected every scene and plot twist of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, he found parallels, motifs, and immense humanity.
Watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) was a dream come true for a lifelong devotee of the original series – I watched A New Hope at school and have been hooked ever since. Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie made by far since Return of the Jedi, and a prequel that actually fits in with the series, which is a lot more than I can say for George Lukas' prequels, let alone J.J. Abrahms' indecisive sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Rogue One answers all the questions that have been vexing us over the agonized decades about the Death Star. It's powered by 'khyber' crystals, the very same that power the Jedi light sabers – just as the force has two sides, the crystals can bring forth good or evil.
Back and Kicking
Rogue One is going to be the Star Wars movie that both resurrects and updates the series, the way Skyfall (2012) repaired the damage the Yanks had wreaked on the quintessentially British Bond franchise. When you watch Sam Mendes' expert direction in Skyfall, you feel like you're watching a Roger Moore movie. Despite bringing back Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), an M (Ralph Fiennes) who actually gets into the field and talks back to his superiors, and Q (Ben Whishaw) who is a whiz kid instead of a klutzy old-timer, Mendes' masterwork is about as fresh and contemporaneous as it needs to be.
Desert Showdown: Dual-use technology is always a female dog!
In Rogue One, they bring back the underused Peter Cushing, in digital form. Along with the visual feel of the film (scratchy and rusty metallic contraptions), the costumes, technology, aliens (from the barroom scene in A New Hope), robots, and star ships are true to the original trilogy, but innovative nonetheless. The camera angles of the outer-space shots are positively gorgeous and the locations are exotic as hell.
Free of storytelling leaps and thematic with the Alliance (not your run-of-the-mill set of unequivocal good guys); the bigger contribution is the narrative.
The Alliance is more than capable of being ruthless and bumping inconvenient people off, and house many an 'extremist'. You can see an early hint of that when the main villain in the story, Orson Krennic (Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn), shows up to capture Galen.
Orson is dressed in white, while his special detachment of storm troopers are dressed in black; this is a dualism motif to indicate that no one is entirely good or bad. Even he has his own inner demons, trying to bring peace and security to the galaxy through the threat of overwhelming violence, while battling his own superiors who are waiting for him to slip up. His ambitions are a positive indicator, since he's no fanatic, making a joke about 'miracles' early on.
White Devil: Ben Mendelsohn, the bureaucratic face of evil from 'way' down under!
The rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) is very cruel in his methods – his body is almost as mechanical as Darth Vader's – but he deserts Galen's daughter Jyn Erso (the ultra-posh Felicity Jones), in an effort to keep her safe. So even he has tenderness hidden in him and sees the light at the end.
Making the Headlines
But that's not the half of it. The Alliance is a reference to the bickering nations of the so-called free world, nominally united in the war against terror (Al-Qaeda and ISIS). Is it a coincidence that a central location in the story is the occupied city of Jedha? It's a desert city, you see people wearing turbans and the Jedi devotees of the Temple being harvested because the crystals are looked at as religious fanatics.
Saw is very much like Bin Laden, hiding away in a cave-like rock fortress, with the Death Star quite explicitly described as a weapon of mass destruction – Khyber may be a reference to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan too. When the Alliance deliberates on the final showdown with the Empire, they describe the battle as a suicide mission. The fighters who do volunteer to go in and retrieve the data on the Death Star all die, samurai-style, in a place that looks like a beachhead with palm trees – not coconuts, but 'date' palms. And they don’t just volunteer but go 'rogue', disobeying Alliance orders.
Digital Resurrection: Peter Cushing. Here's looking at you kid!
One of the fighters, the blind Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), clearly stands in for oriental wisdom; someone who sees with his heart more than others do with their eyes, whereas his atheist friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is the unforgiving type. One of the characters, Bodhi Rook (a defector from the Empire), is played by a Muslim (Riz Ahmed from Jason Bourne), he's a stand-in for Muslims, to show that 'reform' is open to everyone and that nobody is born evil. The message is loud and clear. Occupation breeds extremism, not the other way round.
Jyn is the passive voting public that gives up its freedoms in the war against terror; like them, she chooses not to oppose the Empire despite its crimes against her and her family. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna from Elysium), the Alliance operative dispatched to eliminate Galen, is the soldier who usually follows orders blindly.
Now contrast Cassian to the reprogrammed imperial robot, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk from I, Robot), someone who questions orders throughout and shows bravery and sacrifice as well as a keen sense of humour. K-2SO is there for more than comic relief and the robots in the Lucas films have always been more human. Galen’s sabotage of his own invention and the fact that he had tried to escape the Empire before go to show that there's no excuse for not resisting.
Ying and Yang: Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen taking a break from saving the world. Anyone have a Kit Kat handy?
In my book, resisting Hollywood is the more daunting task, the problem that befuddled The Force Awakens where the only drama was Han Solo (Harrison Ford) being killed by his pipsqueak son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In Rogue One, you have the genuine fatherly love between Galen and his infant daughter and the budding love, of sorts, between Jyn and Cassian.
The original trilogy, and even the Lucas prequels, only worked because of the British actors in it, so it was a smart move getting British director Gareth Edwards to breathe a little 'hope' into a watered down, commercialized series.
If they stick to the old world formula things can only get better!
Intrigued? Find out where to watch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on our cinema guide.