‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ takes some cues from a galaxy not so far away

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

By the time you read this, the hype will have already begun. Dec. 16 marks the day “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” starts showing in cinemas around the world. Promotional campaigns began in Japan weeks ago.

This new chapter of the successful “Star Wars” franchise tells the tale of a group of rebels on a mission to steal plans for a giant weaponized satellite called the Death Star. Sound familiar? It should if you’re a “Star Wars” fan — those plans were what the good guys used in the first movie in the sci-fi series, “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977). If “Rogue One” does well then expect it to be the first of many standalone films that build upon the “Star Wars” universe (a film depicting the backstory of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo character is currently in the works).

“The ‘Star Wars’ world that George Lucas opened up is far from finite,” “Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards tells The Japan Times. “It contains its own galaxy of stories, characters and conflicts. The triad (of films) becomes a sextet, but it’s not enough. There’s more to be told. Equally important, the fans want more.”

And so it goes. This new $200 million story was scripted by four people and credits Lucas for its characters. But audiences will likely recognize only one: Darth Vader. Eagle-eyed fans will remember senators Mon Mothma and Bail Organa from previous films, but apart from them it’s a whole new cast led by British actress Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso.

Jones, 33, saw her big-screen debut in 2008 with director Baillie Walsh’s “Flashbacks of a Fool,” but had a banner year in 2014 with roles in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything,” in which she played Jane Hawking and was nominated for an Oscar.

“I like Jyn simply because I don’t have to super-stretch my imagination to get inside her,” Jones says. “She’s a wonderful character who is not remarkable. She’s not a natural-born heroine, but that classic human being — somebody ordinary to whom something extraordinary happens. When she’s tested, she finds within herself a deep reserve of courage and resilience.”

Finding oneself in an extraordinary situation could extend to much of the cast and crew of “Rogue One.” The series holds a major place in popular culture and the 41-year-old Edwards’ effort follows the franchise’s immensely successful reboot, the J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” from last year.

“A key to these films’ success is their universality, not just the special effects or the characters with outlandish names,” Edwards says. “People sometimes relate without knowing how ‘foreign’ (the thing is that) they’re relating to. Consider that ‘Star Wars’ was based on various old Japanese stories. If an audience from, say, Warwickshire was forced to sit down and watch those stories, they’d find it odd how well they could relate to them.”

The Japanese influence on “Star Wars” isn’t the only link Edwards’ resume has to this country. In 2014, he helmed the second Hollywood remake of “Godzilla.”

“Several sophisticates, shall we say, asked why I would take on such a cheesy project,” he says. “But you need to remember the context. ‘Godzilla’ and several cheesy American movies about giant ants and other mutants came out of the 1950s — the Atomic Age — and its fears of atomic radiation and the horrors of what man-made weapons can do to human beings and the environment. ‘Godzilla’ was one of the first ecologically conscious movies.”

As a digital artist, Edwards worked on the 2005 BBC-TV documentary “Hiroshima.”

“With (the city of) Hiroshima most people briefly think: a nuclear bomb was dropped on it and, unless they’re shown visuals, that’s that. But I used to wonder, specifically, what did the bomb do and in what stages — when it and its fallout touched the roofs of buildings, the people inside them, the ground, animals, vegetation, water sources?

“For me, the Hiroshima theme resonates in ‘Rogue One.’ Where that was a horrible way to erase one city, or two (including Nagasaki), the Death Star is meant to destroy a world. (Our own) destructive power has far multiplied since the 1940s and ’50s, and it’s something we all should be concerned with — even an ordinary person like Jyn Erso.”

Diego Luna plays a Rebel Alliance intelligence officer named Cassian Andor in “Rogue One.” Like Edwards, the 37-year-old Mexican actor draws parallels between the fictitious Empire and elements in real life.

“They want a monopoly on the Death Star, a weapon of mass destruction which the Empire, the aggressors, claim they need to bring ‘peace’ to the galaxy,” Luna says. “That isn’t so different from when (U.S. President Ronald) Reagan talked about ‘strength through peace,’ with a buildup of nuclear weapons.”

Luna is British on his mother’s side and says that influence has helped keep his point of view “international.” With his friend Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, Luna created Ambulante A.C., an organization and film festival that supports socially relevant films.

“I keep aware of social-justice issues that are even more pressing outside of the richest countries,” he says. “I love to work, and most of the work is in or through Hollywood. But I don’t necessarily want to live in the U.S.”

Ahead of its release, “Rogue One” brushed up against controversy when a writer said in a now-deleted tweet that the Empire was a “white supremacist organization.” That led to some online backlash and Disney CEO Bob Iger telling The Hollywood Reporter that the film isn’t political. Many critics, however, disagree with Iger’s assessment and cite the political elements as being one of the film’s strong points.

“It’s funny how some people see the Empire as representing just the U.S. or just (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. It can easily represent both. Or any belligerent force,” Luna says. “It’s not usually nations that are bad, it’s specific governments. Governments change, and some are more belligerent than others. Because science fiction usually reflects our fears, there have been several movies about the abuse of technology to create super-weapons of vast destructive potential. And to add to that, the attempts of evil leaders and groups — which we have in our world today — to amass and control these killing devices and perhaps start World War III.”

The man representing the Dark Side in “Rogue One” is Orson Krennic, who is played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn.

“People insist on asking who’s the bigger villain, who can beat who: me (Orson) or Darth Vader?” he says with a laugh. “I always say Darth Vader. Why do they even ask?”

Mendelsohn, 47, is known to international audiences for his critically lauded roles in the Australian film “Animal Kingdom” and the TV series “Bloodline.” Both times he played morally gray characters that were acted so well that “Star Wars” fans were ecstatic to see him land a major role in “Rogue One.”

“The trick (in playing a bad guy) is not to be overawed — or even awed at all — by who you enact,” Mendelsohn says. “Say you play a king. Or a monster. Or a dictator — sometimes that’s all one character. He doesn’t think of himself as unusual or monstrous. To himself he’s normal. What’s unusual to him is other people’s views.”

Edwards adds that with versions of Death Stars and Empire-esque villains in our own world, the actual danger we face is complacency.

“In real life we’re content to see action on a screen. I imagine sometimes it inspires real people to action, or at least to vigilance, so these stories are always relevant and universal,” he says. “On a subliminal level they serve as a bit of a warning … something like, don’t get too comfortably complacent in your seats, and don’t take the comfortable way things are right now for granted. The future has to be considered, attention must be paid.”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is now playing in cinemas across the country. For more information, visit starwars.disney.co.jp/home.html.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Gareth Edwards is the second person apart from George Lucas to direct a “Star Wars” film. He is the fourth, following Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand and J.J. Abrams.