Note: Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher. There is no princess or general who holds a greater place in our cinematic hearts. Memory eternal.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in theaters. Don’t panic if you’re a Star Wars fan and haven’t seen it yet, because this review will be spoiler-free. For those who haven’t salivated over press releases and YouTube film review channels since the Anthology series was announced, Rogue One is a prequel that takes place between the infamous Star Wars prequels and A New Hope, the original 1977 blockbuster. It tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of an engineer who is forced to work for the evil Galactic Empire that rules the galaxy. Jyn teams up with the anti-establishment Rebel Alliance and an intelligence officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), in order to recover the blueprints for the planet-destroying Death Star. Jyn and Cassian’s mission is essential to the events of A New Hope, as Luke Skywalker ultimately uses the blueprints to make his famous tunnel run attack on the Death Star.
With such an explosive idea for a film, and the precedent of John Williams brass-heavy melodies, I knew that the score for Rogue One would have no choice but to go big. That’s why I was surprised several months ago when I heard that Alexandre Desplat had signed on as composer. Desplat has always interested me because of his subtlety – I’ve discussed his score for The King’s Speech previously on this blog, which consists mostly of quiet piano. He seemed a strange choice to me because of his “less is more” approach to scoring, but as Desplat has struck Oscar gold, I decided I’d give him a chance. I didn’t think to check if the composer had changed before I went to see Rogue One, so as I sat there with my friend in the theater, sharing a bag of popcorn as we flicked between numerous captioned wide shots of planets (seriously, there are a lot of those in this film), I was surprised at how the score evoked the textures of old Hollywood so incredibly accurately. It didn’t sound like Desplat at all. If anything, it sounded like Williams himself, and though I knew that he was busy scoring for Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, I nearly asked myself whether or not Desplat had hired him as a ghostwriter.
Then Michael Giacchino’s name popped up during the credits, and everything made popped into place. He’d already done a great job scoring a Williams franchise – 2015’s Jurassic World. There’s a certain versatility to Giacchino that allows him to take on the persona of other musicians. I’ll go into this in more detail in my upcoming review of his score for Disney/Pixar’s Up, but for now, know that one of Giacchino’s greatest strengths is his ability to make something his own while still paying homage to older works.
When I got home from the movie, I immediately looked up the change in composers and discovered that Desplat had been forced to leave the project due to reshoot scheduling conflicts. That left Michael Giacchino with only four and a half weeks to cancel some vacation plans, accept the job offer, and score the entire two hour-and-thirteen-minute-long film. Despite the stress, he said he was thrilled to take the job, as he had grown up as a fan of both John Williams and Star Wars. In fact, he had previously landed a cameo as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens due to his long-time collaboration with director J.J. Abrams.
I believe his excitement is the key to why Rogue One had a solid score (it’s not perfect, but given the time he had to work on it, I think it’s very impressive). You can truly tell this was a passion project, especially when Giacchino gets to present his new take on classic leitmotifs. For example, the track “Krennic’s Aspirations” begins as an original piece, but hints Williams’s “Imperial March” several times before finally arriving on a particularly legato excerpt of it at the midway mark. A taste even closer to Williams’s original theme is heard at the end, but Giacchino wisely never permits the theme to develop fully. To do so would be to minimize its power in A New Hope – to only hint at the theme reminds us, as an audience, that while Darth Vader is present in this story, it is not truly his… even if he does steal the show at the end. The point is that Giacchino gives these themes respect while continuing to impress with his unique expertise.
Speaking of unique expertise, one way Giacchino breaks the traditional Williams mold is the way he uses violin. His theme for Jyn Erso develops throughout the film, but at times, it relies heavily upon the violin, which is unusual for the brass-, wind-, and percussion-heavy galaxy far, far away. True, trumpets soon follow the strings, but there is something so delicious about the tenderness in those first notes that her theme is my favorite. It’s an unexpected breath of fresh air that the series may not have needed, but is nonetheless welcome.
It was while listening to Jyn’s theme, however, that I discovered a problem I have with the score. It seems to consist mainly of grand emotional climaxes strung together by clumps of filler material. The music as a whole didn’t build up to the ending in the way that I would have liked, so that, during some character moments, the heavy emotion of the score was propped up without a foundation. This could be more the fault of Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One, than Michael Giacchino, as I had this opinion about the acting in the film as well. Though Felicity Jones is a terrific actress, she simply seemed wooden to me in between the most charged moments in the movie, when her sudden emotion seemed unearned. Perhaps one of my greatest issues with Giacchino’s score is that I did not feel it was able to lift her and co-star Diego Luna to a place of believability. It’s a nitpick, but it’s there. I could be alone in that opinion, as many people who saw Rogue One described it as “devastating.” Well, I wasn’t devastated, and I didn’t shed any tears, but I left satisfied, especially with Giacchino. Heaven forbid we get another Indiana Jones or Jaws, but if we do, he’s the man for the job.
Thanks for reading, and may the force be with you.
P.S. I really like the idea of making this “a first impression” thing a series. I started it with Captain America: Civil War and like the freedom to review a movie that I have only seen in theaters. What do you think? Please comment below and let me know.