With the release of the second Star Wars movie under the Disney banner, and the first of their planned spin-off movies, the House of the Mouse delivered what is, to date, the first really good Star Wars movie since the release of Revenge of the Sith. Yes, as I previously stated on my Revenge of the Sith review, I really did like that movie. What of it?. We can go into the discussion that The Force Awakens hearkens back to the spirit of the Original Trilogy, that it really feels like the Star Wars of old, stealing, sorry; borrowing some elements from the first Star Wars movie in the process to achieve this. But I won’t. I have made it abundantly clear what my thoughts are regarding that movie. This one, on the other hand, really hits the nail on the head. Does it draw from the nostalgia factor to get there?. It sure does. But it does it in a very pleasing way, and telling us a story that, we fans, didn’t even know we wanted to see. And boy, does it deliver.
It all started when John Knoll, Visual Effects Supervisor for ILM, and who oversaw the Visual Effects for both the Special Edition and the Prequel Trilogy, pitched the idea to Kathleen Kennedy about telling the story of how those rebel spies, mentioned on the opening crawl of A New Hope, steal the plans for the Death Star. Knoll had written a one-page outline, that apparently was powerful enough to convince Kathleen Kennedy to green light the proyect. Even before they had a script, or a director had been hired, Doug Chiang, and a small team of Conceptual Artists and Illustrators, started working on some Concept Art for the movie. Chris Weitz started writing the script based on the story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, with an additional writing credit for Tony Gilroy, who would later on be brought on to do some re-shoots for the final act of the movie. More on that later.
After watching the film Monsters (2011), by British director Gareth Edwards, it was decided that Edwards would be the right choice to helm the picture.
For the main cast we have Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen as Galen Erso, chief architect of the Death Star, Irish actress Valene Kane as her mother Lyra, Forrest Whitaker as revolutionary leader Saw Guerrera, Diego Luna as Rebel spy Cassian Andor, Alan Tudyk as his faithful companion, bodyguard and co-pilot, the Imperial droid turned Rebel fighter, K2-SO, Riz Ahmed as former Imperial Cargo pilot and defector, Bodhi Rook, Chinese superstars Donnie Yen and Jian Weng as Guardians of the Whills, Chirrut Înwe and Baze Malbus, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn as the Imperial Officer in charge of the construction of the Death Star and, last but not least, we have the special appearances of English stage actor Guy Henry, and actress Ingvid Deila ,whose faces would be replaced via Digital Facial replacement for younger versions of actors Carrie Fisher and the great late British actor Peter Cushing, reprising their roles as Princess Leia Organa and Governor Moff Tarkin. Darth Vader makes an appearance for the third act of the movie and was voiced, once again, by James Earl Jones.
The movie was shot with digital cameras, and in a variety of locations like; Iceland, Maldives, various locations in the UK, and on Pinewood Studios. Despite being filmed entirely on digital, due to the amount of sets built both on Pinewood, and on the different locations, as well as the use of mostly practical effects when it came to Creature Design and action set pieces, with CGI utilized only to enhance the visuals, the overall image has a very filmic and gritty look to it. It also has a rather subdued colour palette, more than usual for a Star Wars movie, befitting the movie’s overall tone. This is mostly a war movie. The planning and execution of the action sequences have the feel of a WWII movie. There are no fancy lightsabre duels, the Jedi are mentioned briefly during Cassian and Jyn’s stay on Jedha, our heroes’ moral compasses are somewhat skewed, especially Cassian’s, and the battle sequences are violent and impactful. This is not your run-of-the-mill Star Wars movie. Which is funny, given the franchise’s main title.
Blood, sweat and tears
This movie is to Star Wars, what Casino Royale was to the Bond Saga. There’s real heartbreaking loss, and dreadful consequences to our heroes’ actions. As Cassian says to Jyn, halfway through the movie: ‘I’ve been on this fight since I was six years old. We all have lost someone along the way. It’s just that some of us decided to do something about it’. Cassian, of all our main protagonists, is the one who has the most complete dramatic arc of them all. At the beginning of the movie, we see how he, without hesitation, shoots a fellow spy on the back to facilitate his escape from the Stormtroopers, after he’s been given the information about the Death Star. There’s pain and regret written all over his face, and we can glean from his reaction, that this is not the first time he’s had to do this. Later on, right before flying off with Jyn to locate her father, he’s given instructions to kill Galen Erso on sight, before he can do further damage to the Rebellion, even after Galen volunteers information that can save them. Being close to Jyn, and observing first hand, how she truly cares about people, putting herself in harm’s way to save some children from the crossfire during a firefight in the City of Jedha, he begins to change his mind towards the Cause, and ultimately, when given the chance to shoot Galen down, he decides not to, and calls off the Air Raid on the Science Station on the planet Eadu, where Galen is stationed. Little by little, we can see how, not only Cassian, but also Jyn start to change throughout the movie. The change is more noticeable on Cassian, but nonetheless, we can see the way Jyn, who has basically grown up on a world of violence, lies and loss, and is very disillusioned with everything around her, has decided to keep her head down, and be complacent about the way things are, in order to survive. When she’s offered the chance to redeem herself by helping the Alliance contact her father, and help them bring him in, she only agrees to do it in the off-chance that she might see him one last time, even though she mistakenly thinks that her father abandoned her. Upon watching Galen’s Holographic message, in which he explains why he did what he did, and that, even though he completed the Death Star at the behest of the Empire, he built in a fault in the design that the Alliance can take advantage of, she decides to honour her father’s wishes, and do everything she can to help the Alliance destroy this threat. If I had to describe what this movie is about, I’d say is about Loss, and how there’s Hope to be gained from that Loss. All our main characters have lost along the way. Bodhi Rook defects from the Empire, and goes back to his home planet of Jedha to deliver Galen’s message to Saw Guerrera, only to see his planet destroyed by the Death Star, shortly afterwards; the same loss suffered by both Chirrut and Baze, who are both local residents of Jedha, and protectors of The Jedi Temple within its walls. Cassian is too late when calling the Alliance’s air strike against the Science station on Eadu, resulting in Galen’s death. It is with what happens afterwards when Jyn’s idea to steal the Death Star plans is unanimously rejected by the Council, that she takes the initiative, along with Cassian, Bodhi, K2-SO, Chirrut, Baze and a small squadron of rebel soldiers to go to the planet Scarif, and do the job themselves, even knowing that there’s a very distinct chance that they might not survive.
Even though the movie was heavily re-edited before its release, because, according to Edwards, the third act had to be condensed, these re-shoots were not conducted by Edwards. Instead, writer and cinematographer Tony Gilroy was brought in to do these, and that’s the reason why he ended up getting a writing credit on the movie. That aside, the movie doesn’t suffer in the least for it. According to Edwards, in the first draft, our main protagonists, Cassian and Jyn, were to survive after delivering the Death Star plans to the Alliance. This ending didn’t play very well in Edwards’ mind, as it would seem weird that the responsibles for such a massive blow to the Empire’s might, would never be heard from again. They took this idea to Kathleen Kennedy, who after reading the draft was expecting all of the protagonists to die. They changed the ending, took it to the board of Executives, who approved it. I think it was the right call. The movie plays smoothly, and comes down to an inevitable conclusion. There are some small hiccups along the way, though. Some characters, like Saw Guerrera, are not given enough breathing room to develop. This terrorist/ guerrilla fighter, who acts as a surrogate father to Jyn, doesn’t have nearly as much screen time, as a character so important in Jyn’s development as a person should have. There’s a whole backstory concerning his relationship with Jyn, from which we’re only given the basics. At one time, we’re told, Jyn was trained and used to fight alongside Saw. She became his best warrior, only to be sent away, because, according to Saw, she was becoming too notorious, and that was dangerous, given who her father was. Bodhi is equally underdeveloped. We only know that he used to pilot cargo ships for the Empire, and somehow was convinced by Galen, while delivering cargo on Eadu, that he could change his ways, and make sure that his message got delivered to the Alliance. The all important fact that Jedha is his home planet, and that he still has family living there, we learned from the novelization. A passing mention to this, I think, could’ve been included in the movie. These are the two most glaring problems that the movie has regarding character development. As for Chirrut and Baze, we know pretty much from the start, everything we need to know. They’re protectors of the Jedi Temple on Jedha, have been friends for a very long time, and look after each other. I couldn’t go over all the characters without speaking about the star of the show. Very much like on The Force Awakens with BB-8, K2-SO is one of the main draws in the story. This wise-cracking, former Imperial droid converted by the Alliance, who pretty much has a mind of its own, is a joy to watch everytime it’s on-screen, thanks in no small measure by a brilliant Motion Capture performance by Alan Tudyk.
This movie is a ”must watch”. It ticks all the right boxes. It’s got generally well drawn characters we can invest in, a powerful, and very well written story, and one of the most exciting third acts you are likely to see in any Star Wars movie. The final Battle, both in Space and on the Ground, is very well shot, the special and visual effects by ILM are amazing, ( not so sure about their facial replacement technology, though), the music by Michael Giachinno is the perfect acompanying piece to the movie ( I can see him as the natural successor to John Williams, if he ever decides to stop working on the Star Wars soundtracks), the appearance of iconic characters from the Old Trilogy like Leia, Tarkin and Vader, barring some, on occasion, iffy facial replacement ( there’s room for improvement), are great to watch, and that last sequence right before the credits start to roll, is amazing. Seeing Darth Vader, at his meanest, cutting down Rebel soldiers, as he works his way to the Blockade runner to retrieve the Death Star plans, gave me goosebumps. That very last shot fits in perfectly with the beginning of A New Hope, and makes it the perfect acompanying piece for a double feature. Star Wars, at least this time, was back.
Thanks for reading.