“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
So began the opening crawl of Star Wars in 1977, and flung us into the midst of a pre-existing conflict with barely the chance to draw breath for the next two hours. The singular vision of George Lucas, it was a tale of swashbuckling space opera that hinted at a much wider universe but never strayed from its thrillingly simple tale of a callow farmboy, driven from his backwater planet to rescue a princess from the clutches of a planet-killing space-station and become an intergalactic hero.
For thirty-nine years the story of the Rebel spies has lived only in our imagination, but soon after the $4billion acquisition of LucasFilm by Disney we learned that as well as continuing the saga of the Skywalkers, there would be a series of stand-alone stories from elsewhere in the Star Wars universe, beginning with this one.
The prospect of a ‘guys on a mission’ movie set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away had me very excited and I was almost more interested in this than in the continuation of the main story. We were promised no lightsabers, but plenty of blasters. This was almost exactly the kind of scenario I’d repeatedly dreamt up for my Star Wars figures as a kid.
From the team of one fairly inexperienced director, four credited writers and three editors (plus one ‘additional editor’, whatever the hell that is) comes the full story behind that opening crawl set-up. It’s fairly safe to say that I was disappointed. Instead of a rip-roaring adventure we got a grimdark dog’s dinner, that astonishingly managed to combine some of the worst elements of the prequels (far too many characters & locations), Lucas’ Special Editions (badly misjudged CGI & in-jokes) and Expanded Universe/Fanfic (forgettable characters with poorly sketched motivations).
In theory, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a good enough protagonist, but I wish we’d stuck with her story from the beginning. Seeing her time training with Forest Whitaker’s somewhat demented Saw Gerrera, experiencing his abandonment and perceived betrayal along with her, and then assembling the team around her as time went on. For all the movie’s attempts to tell me this was Jyn’s story of redemption and heroism, I never once felt it. By contrast, The Force Awakens allows us to spend time with Rey, showing us her strength and decency in the face of desperate circumstances. By the time she’s facing off against Kylo Ren, her struggles have become ours too and that showdown is as dramatically charged as they come.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The casting is excellent. Mads Mikkelsen & Ben Mendelsohn are two of the most exciting actors working today, bringing much needed conviction to their under-written roles. The aforementioned Whitaker adds some delightfully batshit craziness to his extended cameo, as if he’d stumbled in from a David Lynch movie – equal parts Blue Velvet’s Frank & Dune’s Baron Harkonnen. Donnie Yen is always good value too, his Chirrut Îmwe provides some real soul whose wholehearted devotion to the Force is infectious and provides some of the movie’s best moments. Along with his trusted, but disillusioned, companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) who proves once and for all that blasters need not be clumsy, nor random. Sci-fi stalwart (and personal favourite of mine) Alan Tudyk’s mo-capped performance as reprogrammed Imperial Droid, K-2SO has some genuinely funny moments, though for every zinger there was sadly at least three clunkers.
For all his faults, Edwards does have a talent for bringing both a sense of scale and reality to fantastical settings. Working with Director of Photography Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) there’s a return to the hard-worn, lived-in feel of this Universe that was so lacking in the Prequels. The Rebels taking on the Empire genuinely feels like a guerilla conflict taking place in a believable world.
Ultimately, perhaps there were just too many voices involved in the production, crying to be heard over each other and resulting in a chaotic garble when what was needed was a clear authorial maestro. Or perhaps the whole enterprise was doomed from the start – some stories really are better left to the imagination.
Next up for the Star Wars side-movies is Young Han Solo, a project that is fraught with potential traps and obstacles. Though fear not – Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, who served us well in the 21 Jump Street & Lego movies are at the helm, and with Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) writing the script, Bradford Young (Arrival, A Most Violent Year) as Director of Photography and the truly inspired casting of Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) as Han and Donald Glover (Community, Atlanta) as Lando, it has a far greater chance of success than many a movie.
All hope is not lost.