Could there be a better time for a Star Wars fan to be alive? Don’t write in. That was entirely rhetorical. Ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas – for just over US$4 billion (around QR14.6 billion), no less – in 2012, the galaxy far, far away, that had been dormant on the big screen since 2005, has been regalvanised. And by some of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents, too.
First out of the trap was last year’s The Force Awakens. An astonishing achievement from a director (J.J. Abrams) who was simply the perfect fit for the material having grown up on the movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s, this Episode VII had the nerve to be seriously daring (RIP, Mr Solo), but simultaneously re-awoke everyone’s love for the universe Lucas built (with the original trilogy) and then pretty much demolished (with the prequel trilogy).
Next December, Rian Johnson, who directed some of Breaking Bad as well as feature films Brick (2005) and Looper (2012), will continue the story of Luke and Leia – and now Rey, Finn, Kylo and co, too – with Episode VIII, which will not only go on to explore the truth behind Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parentage – is she a Skywalker, or a Kenobi? – but see Luke step into the fray as the most powerful Jedi we have ever seen. While December 2019 will see the director of last year’s Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow, wrap up the always-planned but never-actually-gotten-around-to-be-written by Lucas nine-movie arc to the saga, with the climactic Episode IX.
Interestingly, though, what is actually even more curious to the legion of Star Wars fans across the globe is not so much these crucial developments of a story they have now followed for the past 40 years, but what is being sandwiched in between these instalments of the overarching narrative.
Something not attempted since 1984’s Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure – and if you haven’t seen that, really don’t bother – this month’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that rare thing: a Star Wars movie that doesn’t feature the vast majority of ingredients that have always made movies Star Wars movies. No Luke, no Leia, no Han. No Chewie. No R2-D2 or C-3P0. No lightsabers (at least not in what we’ve seen so far).
Instead, we have a whole host of characters we’ve not yet met. Not least Felicity Jones’ Rebel leader, Jyn Erso. “She’s a brilliant character,” says Jones. “Jyn is just a woman who’s finding her way in life and working out what it is that makes someone a leader, ultimately. It’s a story about believing in something and doing whatever it takes for those beliefs. And the movie was made with immense passion from everyone involved. It’s a fantastic story. It’s rooted in brilliant characters and they’re a real motley crew. They’ve all had difficult experiences and life hasn’t been that kind to them. So they come together and find solace in each other...”
Hence we have her fellow warriors, including (amazing names alert!) Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook, Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus, alongside Mads Mikkelsen, playing Jyn’s dad, Alan Tudyk, a “far more physical than C-3P0” robot, and a furry little fella called Bistan, who looks like the kind of baby Chewbacca and Wicket the Ewok might produce.
Meanwhile, on the Dark Side of The Force we have the terrifying Ben Mendelsohn as the evil Empire’s director of advanced weapons research, Orson Krennic, and, yes, as we all suspected and hoped, Darth flippin’ Vader.
The title of this movie is apt on a number of levels. Obviously there are echoes back to the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, in which X-wing pilots went under the same kind of military call signs when in battle. But it also pretty much sums up Jones’ lead character, a fighty loner who ends up not just becoming a part of the Rebel Alliance but leading its most important mission: to steal the plans for the Empire’s terrifying, planet-destroying weapon, the Death Star. And, of course, on a thematic level it sums up Rogue One’s standing in the overarching Star Wars canon. This is not an Episode in its own right. Instead, it slots in between two crucial ones.
Essentially Episode 3.5, Rogue One will end at the very moment George Lucas’ 1977 masterpiece Episode IV – A New Hope begins, linking up two Star Wars movies for the first time ever. (The plot this time has been built around the key line in A New Hope’s famous opening text crawl – “…During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”). It will also follow directly on from the events of 2005’s Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith, which climaxed with the birth of Vader. Standing apart from the central storyline, which directors Johnson and Trevorrow will continue respectively with Episodes VIII and IX, this standalone entry has the freedom to do something entirely new with a galaxy the world already knows so well.
“It’s a war movie, basically,” says Rogue One director Gareth Edwards. “I want this to be the thematic meeting point between Star Wars and Apocalypse Now.”
The 41-year-old Brit who debuted with Monsters in 2010 and then rebirthed Godzilla in 2014, is an inspired choice by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who brought him into the fold “because I’d seen what he had done with those movies and I thought his verité, in-amongst-the-action style of filmmaking could give Star Wars a unique new look.”
That new look will almost certainly be different again when the next standalone Star Wars movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s so far snappily-titled Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film, rolls around in 2018. That movie is – obviously, given the events of The Force Awakens – an origin story that has cast the brilliant Alden Ehrenreich from this year’s Hail, Caesar! as a young version of the intergalactic scoundrel. Alongside him as Solo’s old pal, the smooth smuggler Lando Calrissian, is Donald Glover, who is best known for creating and starring in the critically acclaimed series Atlanta, as well as for starring in four seasons of Community, and for his stunning, Grammy-nominated album Because the Internet, performed under the name Childish Gambino.
And they will be in a movie that will, according to its cinematographer, Bradford Young, break some rules. “It’s gonna feel like a Star Wars film, but we’re definitely gonna break some rules, and we’re encouraged to do that,” he says. “Visually, narratively, that’s a good mandate. They [Disney and Lucasfilm] really are about, from what I’ve seen so far, supporting up-and-coming artists, artists who have a strong vision and voice and perspective, and they really wanna permeate the films with those kinds of voices. So it’s interesting, you know? Very interesting.”
As for Rogue One, from what we have seen of it so far, Edwards has used his considerable budget to conjure up some genuinely startling images that simultaneously feel familiar but never-before-seen.
For one, there’s the introduction of the deadly, black-painted new death troopers, a taller, tactical bunch, who Edwards shot on location in Iceland, in a sequence that seems to be a flashback massacre. And then, of course, are the classic stormtroopers, that he – in an inspired piece of juxtaposition – flew out to the Maldives, which doubled as new planet Scarif. There, the production shot a massive battle in the turquoise surf involving Rebel infantry fighting ruddy great AT-ATs. Just as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) gave us those fearsome beasts on the snowcapped vistas of Hoth and Return of the Jedi (1983) took them deep inside the Endor jungle, so too has Edwards found a way to put a new spin on classic Star Wars tropes.
“That’s the challenge,” says Edwards, who claims to have watched Star Wars at least 300 times as a kid, and who therefore knows its nuances and beats inside and out. “To bring your own style to this amazing world, but for that style to still feel part of this world. To not bring anything new would be pointless. But to bring too much would be sacrilege.”
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is on screens in Qatar from Friday December 16.