Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (Revised Review)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Having bought Star Wars, Disney was not content to just release a sequel trilogy. They wanted to milk the franchise with a cinematic universe akin to Marvel’s superhero brand. In the years between the main trilogy releases they would have standalone Star Wars films. The first such film was hardly “standalone.” Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance gained the Death Star plans. A team of Rebel agents and misfits, one of them the daughter of the Death Star’s main designer, dodge Imperial agents and, under the cover of a pretty awesome battle, manage to download the Death Star plans to a small drive. The movie is entertaining and is great on the visual and action sides, thanks to the efforts of director Gareth Edwards. The main problem is that one has to watch the original trilogy to actually get any emotional connection with it. It’s loaded with fan service, much of it awkwardly shoe-horned in. Also, most of the characters are pretty forgettable. It’s a bad sign when it takes me years to memorize the names of Star Wars characters. Perhaps it was easier to retain the names of such minor characters as Dexter Jettster and Momaw Nadon when I would get the DK visual guides and action figures.

One intriguing element of the spin-off films was the fact that John Williams would not score them, giving other established composers a chance to play with the Star Wars universe. Edwards originally had Alexander Desplat, who had provided a solid score for his Godzilla, on board. However, the film went through massive last-minute re-shoots, as evidenced by the abundance of trailer footage that was absent from the finished product. Desplat’s schedule did not allow him to re-score the film. As sad as it was to see one of Hollywood’s most respected composers drop out, his replacement was a logical choice. Michael Giacchino is an avowed fan of heavily thematic film scores and has created many of his own. His work on the Medal of Honor and Lost World: Jurassic Park video games brought to mind Williams’ own material and he had long been hailed as a possible successor to his legacy. For Rogue One Giacchino had the rough, yet opportune task of creating a Star Wars score within a few weeks. The final effort shows that he succeeded, but with some reservations.

Giacchino provides a whole new set of themes while still referencing Williams’. Given the success of his themes amidst time constraints, one wonders if he had fantasized doing Star Wars and thus already had a few melodic ideas in his head or on paper to refer to. The primary themes are presented in concert form at the end of the album. These are taken almost right out of the end credits suite. The “Jyn Erso & Hope Suite” focuses on the two primary heroic identities. Jyn Erso is the female lead, an embittered daughter of a scientist who has been forced to work on the Death Star. Her theme is heavily melodic and, like Rey’s in The Force Awakens, is the primary theme of the film with liberal iterations. Unlike Rey’s it conveys sadness rather than hopefulness, fitting since the film is supposedly a darker take on Star Wars. It’s briefly referenced in the first track (1:56) and gets its first full appearance in “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp.” A separate motif that is linked to Jyn Erso represents her relationship to her father. It’s a bittersweet theme that appears on piano in “Star-Dust” (about 1:25) and on strings in “Confrontation on Eadu” (6:00) and “Your Father Would be Proud” (for the first couple minutes). The second theme on the suite, the Hope theme, represents the rising hope of the Rebellion. The first half of the theme debuts at the end of “A Long Ride Ahead” to accompany the film title. It thus serves as a replacement for Luke’s theme, but is still linked to it. It matches the first two notes and deceived many moviegoers into thinking the customary title crawl and its accompanying march were starting. The theme finally appears in full in “Rebellion are Built on Hope” (1:10) when the heroes finally find their inspiration to defeat the Empire. Incidentally it does not appear in “Hope.”

The original heroic themes are not entirely displaced. The Force theme as usual makes a few appearances, although Giacchino gives it an alteration for a couple moments in “Trust Goes Both Ways” (0:41) and the conclusion of “Hope.” Outside of the opening of the end credits, Luke’s theme makes one cameo appearance for a shoehorned nostalgia moment in “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet.” (1:09) The Rebel fanfare continues its resurgence under the Disney banner, serving as the identifiable motif to link Giacchino’s work to Williams. Naturally, as the film focuses on the Rebel Alliance sans the inner circle of legendary characters, its constant inclusion in the film’s third act is necessary for the musical continuity of the franchise.

The material for the villains is also welcome, if a little muddled. “The Imperial Suite” focuses on two interlinked motifs, one a new general Imperial motif (0:06) and the other more specifically for Orson Krennic, Director of the Galactic Empire’s Advanced Weapons Research (1:06). Like the Hope theme, it mimics an original trilogy theme, this time the Imperial March, while still serving as an original piece. Giacchino doesn’t seem to implement these two motifs as much as he could, with the album not featuring many direct references outside the suite. These direct references occur near the start of “He’s Here For Us” and in “When Has Become Now.” Their direct statements in the final battle are not present on album and the other iterations are brief and/or partial enough to be mistaken as part of the action or suspense noise. When I say that the villains’ musical identity is muddled, I refer to the use of no less than five Imperial themes in the film. Giacchino brings back the original Imperial theme from A New Hope in “Krennic’s Aspirations,” (1:37 and 3:28) but it only appears here as a nostalgic easter egg. He uses this theme to represent Vader’s introduction to the film, which is odd because he then references Vader’s theme thrice in the same track (2:08, 3:36, and 4:00). Vader’s theme also makes a sinister statement in “Hope” as he wraps up a killing spree. The Death Star fanfare appropriately appears in “When is Now” when the space station is finally completed. Actually it might have been more consistent for Giacchino to simply use the Imperial March as a consistent identity for the villains while still using a new motif for Krennic. That being said his new Imperial material is neat. When I refer to the Imperial theme in the track-by-track overview I am referring to Giacchino’s unless specifically stated otherwise.

The “Guardians of the Whills Suite” introduces an alternate Force theme that specifically refers to Donnie Yen’s blind Force-worshipping monk character and the spiritual side he brings to the Rebellion. Since Yen’s monk is a secondary character, the theme does not crop up much, but is very welcome when it does. On album it doesn’t appear until “Confrontations on Eadu” (4:57) in heroic fashion as the character improbably knocks out two Tie Fighters. The theme makes a key return in a crucial moment in “The Master Switch.” Outside of these suites there are a couple minor recurring motifs. I already covered the Jyn’s Father motif. There are also two repetitive motifs, one for suspense and the other action. The suspense motif, a short repeating percussive piece, is designed to build up expectation as the heroes prepare to make their move in “Jedha Arrival” (1:04) and “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608.” The action motif, a swirling scherzo, makes up much of “Jedha City Ambush.” These motifs, though effective, are simplistic and likely a result of Giacchino’s time constraints. There is also a last act motif derived from Dies Irae. It debuts in “Rebellions Are built on Hope” (0:40) and reappears in “The Master Switch” as a suspenseful driving force.

The main strength of Giacchino’s score is his inclusion of original trilogy material alongside strong new themes. He could have easily borrowed wholesale from Williams’ body of work or ditched it outside of a few references. Beyond referring to recognizable Williams themes, he displays stylistic choices and easter eggs that are sure to reward careful listeners. At the same time it is distinctly in Giacchino’s musical voice, especially with the tender slow-moving statements of character themes and the rhythmically-driven action cues. There is one major weakness with his music, likely a result of his rushed schedule. Much of the bridging filler between the thematic statements there is quite uninteresting. Williams was magically able to make the connective tissue in his scores engaging enough to maintain the listeners’ attention. A stronger album for Rogue One would have seen the cues edited down for stronger performances and the inclusion of some of the unreleased music, but I suspect the album production went through similar time constraints. These strengths and weaknesses will be addressed as I go through the album.

The first two tracks accompany the pre-title sequence. “He’s Here For Us” starts with a startling blast. The rest of the track is driven by the rhythm from the Imperial theme and features several statements of Krennic’s motif, as well as part of Jyn Erso’s theme. “A Long Ride” starts with a subdued variation of the Imperial theme. After some fillerish suspense, tragic strings at 1:56 lead to the first action cue. Over the 3:00 mark an iteration of Jyn’s theme leads to the Hope theme. After Jyn Erso’s theme gets a proper play-through in “Wobani Prison Camp,” it gets another dramatic statement in “Trust Goes Both Ways” that ends with the Force theme. About a minute in the scene shifts with some sinister strings. The following dark material scores the first scene featuring the (I think unintentionally) goofy Forrest Whittaker character. “When Is Now” conjoins the new Imperial theme with the Death Star motif. While the thematic statements are great, they are bridged by dull underscore.

“Jedha Arrival” has a great start, building into another dramatic statement of Jyn Erso’s theme (0:36). This is followed by about two minutes of suspense material which climaxes in “Jedha Ambush.” “Jedha Ambush,” the first major action cue, is built around the action motif with some percussion strikes. The first few seconds have a brief bit that is repeated several times later in the film that might be a truncated version of the original Imperial theme. “Star-Dust” has a neat easter egg. The music at the beginning accompanies a hologram of Jyn’s father. It’s the same bit that plays when Luke sees Leia’s hologram in the first film! The first iteration of the Father theme, with the spaced out piano notes, sounds like something Giacchino would have composed in his tenure on Lost. This lovely track is taken over by some suspense. “Confrontation on Eadu” is a lengthy cue which is divided into suspense, action, and emotional parts. A fragment of the Imperial theme plays in the lower registers of the cue (0:41) before the orchestra starts to pound. The music quickly subsides again for more suspense and then hints of the Father theme near 1:50. Around 2:20 the action finally picks up with dashes of Jyn’s theme. The action concludes with a slow variation of the Imperial theme (5:36). The rest of the track is a tragic piece in which the Father theme leads into an epic statement of Jyn Erso’s theme.

“Krennic’s Aspirations” starts off with some emotional strings, only to erupt into a malevolent flourish of the Imperial theme (0:39). From here on the track focuses on villainous material. Of all the album cues this one is in most need of an edited down version. It has statements of classic villain themes, but they are connected by dreadfully dull underscore. It could be cut down to a neat two minute track. “Rebellions Are Built on Hope” also starts off a little too slow, but picks up with the last act motif and Hope theme, as well as the Jyn Erso theme. “Rogue One” is an optimistic heroic piece with military percussion and the last act motif. The heroes’ higher purpose is represented by two statements of the Force theme. “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608” is a fairly long suspense cue which is all build-up to the final battle with anticipatory drums and a track-ending statement of the suspense motif.

Unfortunately several highlights from the last battle, particularly memorable statements of the new Imperial motifs, are not available on the album (since the final battle was reportedly the most re-shot portion of the film, perhaps Giacchino wasn’t able to finish scoring the entire thing before the album was assembled). “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet” also doesn’t get into the action until over third-way through. Jyn Erso’s theme appears in action mode at 0:50 as the Rebel Fleet departs Yavin 4, building to a statement of Luke’s theme. A better cue is “AT-ACT Assault.” As giant walkers batter the Rebels at 1:08, Giacchino uses the same percussion from the AT-AT assault in Empires Strikes Back, sans the battle motif from that scene. This is broken up by the Rebel fanfare as X-Wings swoop in for the rescue. An altered variation of the Imperial theme appears at 2:00, signaling a return to a dire situation. “The Master Switch” accompanies the last moments of the land battle. Giacchino uses a six-note rhythm to show the ticking clock urgency of the moment. The last act motif joins in at 1:22. The Hope theme makes a desperate appearance at 1:32. The urgency is broken up by a peaceful interlude with the Whills theme (2:20). The Whills theme builds in power and then its background elements close out the track with a great sense of sadness.

“Your Father Would Be Proud” is the highlight of the entire album. The heroes have won, but at a great cost in lives. Giacchino displays this with the Father theme, which goes through various emotional modes until choir joins in at 2:13. At 2:52 Jyn Erso’s theme takes over and is joined by rousing choir at 3:24. About four minutes in the music subsides, but comes back with a final dramatic statement of Jyn’s theme. This leads into “Hope,” a dark and furious choral piece that climaxes in Vader’s theme (0:52). There’s still more to the track to go as the film links up with A New Hope. The urgent iteration of the Rebel Fanfare is culled right from ANH’s “Imperial Attack.” The Force theme closes out the track, but ends abruptly as the full end credits suite is not included. Most of its is repackaged as theme concert suites which close out the album.

Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One is a frustrating success. His thematic work and his action are top-notch, but the suspense and other quieter moments in the underscore have a tendency towards uninteresting filler. If he had more time this would have likely stood as one of his greatest works. Giacchino is a natural choice to taking over any property previously scored by Williams and has had similar success with the rebooted Jurassic Park franchise. He might be the only composer left that can match the maestro in the development and execution of easily identifiable and meaty themes. As for the unreleased music, fans have found it and posted it all over the internet so if there’s a cue you’re looking for you’ll find it. Also, look at the album booklet. It will contain Giacchino’s alternate track titles. As with his other soundtracks they consist of punny names. I’ve included an alternate track listing just to display them. Overall Rogue One is a good listen that can be made great if one knows how to seamlessly edit the tracks. Though I listen it to it often, I can’t give it a super rating.

Rating: 8/10

Tracklisting

  1. He’s Here For Us (3:22)
  2. A Long Ride Ahead (3:57)
  3. Wobani Imperial Labor Camp (0:57)
  4. Trust Goes Both Ways (2:46)
  5. When Has Become Now (2:01)
  6. Jedha Arrival (2:50)
  7. Jedha City Ambush (2:20)
  8. Star-Dust (3:48)
  9. Confrontation on Eadu (8:07)
  10. Krennic’s Aspirations (4:17)
  11. Rebellions Are Built on Hope (2:57)
  12. Rogue One (2:06)
  13. Cargo Shuttle SW-0608 (4:01)
  14. Scrambling the Rebel Fleet (1:34)
  15. AT-ACT Assault (2:56)
  16. The Master Switch (4:04)
  17. Your Father Would Be Proud (4:53)
  18. Hope (1:40)
  19. Jyn Erso & Hope Suite (5:53)
  20. The Imperial Suite (2:31)
  21. Guardians of the Whills Suite (2:52)

Alternate Tracklisting

  1. A Krennic Condition
  2. Jyn and Scare It
  3. Jyncarcerated
  4. Going to See Saw
  5. That New Death Star Smell
  6. Jedha Call Saw
  7. When Ambush Comes to Shove
  8. Erso Fact
  9. Go Do, That Eadu, That You Do, So Well
  10. Have a Choke and a Smile
  11. Erso in Vain
  12. Takes One to Rogue One
  13. World’s Worst Vacation Destination
  14. Scarif Tactics
  15. Bazed and Confused
  16. Switch Hunt
  17. Transmission Impossible
  18. Live and Let Jedi

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