When Star Wars came out in May 1977 here in the UK we had to wait a long, long time. The space epic didn't hit cinemas until on our sceptred isle until March 1978 and even then it only open in a couple of huge screens in London. If you were in the suburban provinces of Purley it didn't arrive until July. We are talking a full fourteen months after opening in the United States. Not so the latest Star Wars story, Rogue One. The film was released on the 15th of December, and I sat down to watch it at one minute past midnight the same day.
Other things have changed too. Back when the first film came out the only merchandise you could buy for it for about a year was the foyer brochure of the movie, as if it was a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now you can choose between four different commemorative tin popcorn buckets (at £12.95 a pop) featuring different scenes from the film.
What hasn't changed in the 38 years since the first Star Wars came out though is this series’s ability to capture your imagination and whisk you away with the magic of pure cinema. And Rogue One does this beautifully.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is part of the post Disney buy out attempt to broaden the Star Wars franchise to beyond the core story of various members of the Skywalker family, and it certainly feels different right from the start. Gone is the opening crawl about the story so far. Gone too is most of John Williams iconic music. It still looks like the same dirty, lived in universe of the old films but there's something very different about this story. It takes a little while to figure out what it is, especially as it fools us with an opening scene that mirrors Luke Skywalker’s early moments with his uncle and aunt. But it soon becomes apparent: Luke was all wide eyed optimism and purity of heart, you knew you were with the hero here. In Rogue One things are much murkier. For quite a while you're not sure who is good and who is not. Okay everyone in an imperial uniform is basically a bastard but beyond that there are a multitude of characters who seem to be acting decidedly less that heroically. The main male lead’s introductory scene has him shoot an ally in the back. The comedy droid is straight talking and selfish.
Even the main heroine is a character muddied by the dark times she lives in. In and out of imperial prisons and brought up by someone too extremist to be considered a terrorist, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso is not an upbeat, happy hero. Instead she is dour and worn out from her harsh life under a dictatorship. I don't think she ever smiles. It takes the longest while for her to even say anything positive let alone heroic.
In fact that's one of the most interesting aspects of Rogue One in general. The film, just like the characters, seems to not have a very strong sense of what is good and bad and what needs to be fought for: the central plot of trying to steal the plans of the death star takes a long time to come into focus. There are so many new characters and so many new things to see that what it all means isn't completely apparent straightaway. It's not like Star Wars from 1977 where the heroes knew who they were and what they had to do. And this comes across to the audience too. It's not incoherent or anything, it's just a shock to think you're going to get something as simple and straightforward as Star Wars usually is, but instead find yourself in the grey fog of something approaching a real war.
However, just as the rebellion eventually realises that they have a real threat of the death star to fight against, and so focus their attention, so too does the story gradually become more focused. It almost crept on me by surprise but by the time we get to the final act we have gone from not being sure what is going on and who to root for to knowing exactly what the stakes are and high they are.
Really, that final act is one of the most exciting things I've seen in the cinema in ages. I wasn't sure if it was the action on screen or too much caffeine but I could feel my heart beating in my ears it was so tense.
This is of course ridiculous. We all know how the film will end. 1977 Star Wars begins with the death star plans in the hands of the Princess Leia so it's a testament to director Gareth Edwards that he manages to make the fight to get said plans so mind bogglingly nail biting. He juggles a multitude of characters and set pieces, epic action and intimate moments all to serve the purpose of bringing hope to the Star Wars universe both figuratively and literally - events lead directly up to A New Hope as some people call the 1977 film. But it's the way Edwards does it which is so brilliant. You may well know how it ends but there are so many surprises and brave choices along the way that when you finally get there, as I and the rest of the Odeon audience did at three o’clock in the morning, all you can do is cheer.
By Jim Parsons for Daimon Barber Journal