Home > Reviews > ROGUE ONE – Michael Giacchino

ROGUE ONE – Michael Giacchino

December 20, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

rogueoneOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton


When the Walt Disney company bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, the company’s new CEO Kathleen Kennedy announced that not only would they continue the Star Wars story by releasing episode seven, The Force Awakens, in 2015, but that they had also commissioned a handful of spin-off stories that flesh out the Star Wars cinematic universe and focus on side-stories not directly connected to the main saga. The first of these is Rogue One, written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta, and directed by Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards. Although strictly not a part of the linear Star Wars saga, the film can be considered an immediate prequel to the original 1977 film, as it tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance took possession of the plans to destroy the original Death Star.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, the daughter of research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who fifteen years previously was forced by the Galactic Empire to help them design and build the Death Star, a super-weapon capable of destroying planets; Jyn subsequently grew up under the protection of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an extremist with violently anti-Empire views. With the Death Star nearing completion, Jyn is sprung from Imperial custody by the Rebel Alliance, who believe she can help them find her father; meanwhile, an Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has defected, and brought a message from Galen to Gerrera, explaining that he has secretly sabotaged the Death Star with a hidden weakness, and giving Gerrera information on how to exploit it. Eventually, the two factions join forces and a plan is set in motion whereby Jyn, Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), will lead a team to both find Galen and steal the plans to the Death Star, before its commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) can unleash its devastating power on the universe.

There are so many things to love about Rogue One. First of all, it *feels* like a Star Wars film, albeit a darker, grittier, and more adult one. The performances – especially by Jones, Luna, and Tudyk in motion capture – are excellent, while Mendelsohn and Mikkelsen add gravitas and steal every scene they’re in. The way it dovetails into the beginning of Episode IV is very clever, so much so that it feels that it is a story we have known all along, without being privy to the details until now. It adds to Star Wars lore – exploring the origins of the Jedi religion, talking about things like Kyber crystals and ‘the Whills’ – without feeling forced (pardon the pun), and answers questions that have long bothered Star Wars fans, most notably the one burning issue about how the Empire could build a gigantic super-weapon with such an apparently obvious design flaw. The cameos and references, apparently added specifically for Star Wars geeks, are a ton of fun: if you don’t know who Dr Evazan, Jan Dodonna, Garven Dreis, or Dutch Vander are, then their appearances probably won’t make much of a difference to you, but the newly-rendered CGI version of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin is astonishing, and will likely impress even the most jaded Star Wars viewer with it’s cutting edge photorealism.

The score for Rogue One is by Michael Giacchino, but as most people know this was not always the case . The original announced composer for the film was Alexandre Desplat, who worked with director Edwards on Godzilla. However, wholesale re-shoots of the film over the summer of 2016 resulted in the film’s post-production period being pushed back, and considering the fact that Desplat had added a total of nine (!) other projects to his docket throughout the year, his schedule suddenly closed and he was no longer able to find the time to do Rogue One. Giacchino was brought in very late in the game, and only had four and a half weeks to compose the music for the film; however, as often tends to be the case in these circumstances, the pressure of having no time inspires the composer to do some of their best work.

As only the second person ever to write music for a live action Star Wars movie (I’m not counting Kevin Kiner’s score for the animated Clone Wars movie, or Joel McNeely’s concept score to accompany the book Shadows of the Empire), Giacchino was of course faced with the looming shadow of John Williams at every turn. He had to be respectful of Williams’s legacy in terms of the overall approach and sound of the score, and had to make use of the relevant leitmotifs when the movie called for them, but he also still had to make sure the score sounded like him. Writing a full-blown Williams pastiche while suppressing his own musical personality would have rendered Giacchino’s score a pointless dud; with a couple of notable exceptions, Rogue One features entirely new characters and locations, and so simply aping everything Williams had done before would do a disservice to the new film.

What Giacchino did instead was adopt some of Williams’s compositional techniques, and wrap them in his own thematic ideas. As such, there is a familiarity in the way Giacchino phrases certain instruments, the way he develops certain chord progressions, the way he uses certain rhythmic ideas. There is also clear homage in the orchestrations; with the help and advice of William Ross, Giacchino actually combines instruments in the way Williams does, resulting in a sound and timbre that is familiar as being “Star Wars-y”. It’s perhaps telling that the late great orchestrator Herb Spencer, who worked with Williams for decades and died in 1992, is credited in this film 24 years after his death, such is the influence of the original Williams style.

The new score features three new major themes and one new minor theme. The first major theme is Jyn’s theme, clearly representing the central protagonist of the story. Despite its subtle similarities to Giacchino’s Yorktown theme from Star Trek Beyond, it is nevertheless a lovely new addition to the Star Wars canon; it is built around a central 6-note motif which expands and elaborates as the score demands. It’s a hopeful, idealistic piece, as befits the nature of the character, and often reaches genuinely powerful emotional heights. The second theme is the Hope theme, which represents the aspirations of the Rebel Alliance in their righteous fight against the Empire. Cleverly, Giacchino makes the first three notes of the Hope theme the same as the Star Wars main title (Luke Skywalker’s theme), insinuating that ‘hope’ in general and the ‘new hope’ that Luke specifically represents in Episode IV are two sides of the same coin.

The theme for Orson Krennic, the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research, is a thinly-veiled variation on the Imperial March, a flashy brass and snare drum extravaganza that earmarks him as a formidable adversary for the protagonists of the film. Finally there is the theme for Chirrut Îmwe, the blind swordfighter who is one of the Jedi-like Guardians of the Whills, who protect the original Jedi temple on the planet Jedha, as well as its powerful cache of Force-focusing kyber crystals. Chirrut’s theme has vague allusions to Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones, and shares chord progressions with the Force theme (natch), while incorporating a lush, spiritual choral section that is truly beautiful.

In addition, Giacchino makes use of several of Williams’s original Star Wars themes, sprinkling them throughout his score as the story demands. The famous Force theme is heard in “Trust Goes Both Ways,” “Rogue One,” “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet,” and “Hope.” The legendary Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back is heard in “Krennic’s Aspirations” and “Hope”. Luke Skywalker’s theme is heard briefly on flutes at 1:09 in “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet,” to accentuate a cameo from a famous double-act, while the familiar Rebel Fanfare that ran through all three original films plays an important role in “AT-ACT Assault”. But there are also several statements of lesser-known thematic ideas from the Williams scores that only Star Wars music aficionados will notice, and which really spotlight Giacchino’s appreciation for, and knowledge of, Williams’s music. For example, the four-note Death Star motif from Star Wars is briefly heard in “Confrontation on Eadu,” while the original muted brass Imperial Motif from Star Wars is heard at 1:37 in “Krennic’s Aspirations”. There are allusions to the Imperial Walkers/Battle of Hoth music from The Empire Strikes Back throughout “AT-ACT Assault,” from the use of xylophones and grand pianos in the percussion section, to the clear statement of the ‘Hoth Evacuation’ motif from that sequence at 0:33, while the rhythm from the Rebel Blockade Runner sequence at the very beginning of Star Wars is heard at 1:01 in “Hope”.

The bulk of the score, however, is original music, and the score has more than its fair share of highlights. The first cue, “He’s Here For Us,” underscores the opening scene of Imperial commander Krennic landing on the planet Lahmu to confront Galen Erso and blackmail him into working on the Death Star. The whole thing is nervous and edgy, filled with Williams-style woodwind writing, tension filled brass, timpani hits, and tapped metallic percussion which gives it a restlessness. The score’s first performance of Krennic’s theme appears at 0:37, while the first statement of Jyn’s theme appears at 1:56; her theme then works its way through most of the cue’s second half, as she watches her mother die and her father be press-ganged from afar. Further statements of Jyn’s theme in subsequent cues allow her musical identity to assert itself. The sentimental statement of Jyn’s theme for woodwinds and tremolo strings in “A Long Ride Ahead” segues into the explosive first statement of the Hope theme at 3:37, which accompanies the appearance of the main title card on-screen, although the transition is a little awkward. The longing statement for cellos and brass underpinned by tremolo strings in “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp” illustrates the drudgery of her incarceration in an imperial prison.

“When Has Become Now” features an enormous statement of Krennic’s theme, but once the action reaches the planet Jedha – the birthplace of the Jedi religion – the music often adopts a harsh, almost tribal sound, full of twanging metal percussion, electronic textures, and rumbling string and woodwind ideas, which are very stark and nervous. “Trust Goes Both Ways” and parts of “Jedha Arrival” adopt this sound, alluding to both the harshness of the Jedhan landscape, as well as to the dangerous presence of Saw Gerrera and his band of separatists who have established a base on the planet. “Jedha Arrival” also features a vaguely romantic, sweeping statement of Jyn’s theme, while “Jedha City Ambush” presents the first of the score’s throbbing action sequences. Some of Giacchino’s writing is a throwback to the rhythmic parts of his video game scores for Medal of Honor and Secret Weapons Over Normandy, albeit with purposefully Williams-esque orchestrations. The subsequent “Star-Dust” features fragments of Jyn’s theme accompanied by magical tremolos, woodwind accents, and more poignant string-and-piano chords, which build to an emotional finale as Jyn finally understands what happened to her father 15 years previously.

“Confrontation on Eadu” is the score’s longest set piece, and accompanies Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi’s assault on the planet Eadu, where the Imperial Death Star research center is located, and where Krennic and Galen have their final altercation. Moments of quiet tension intersperse with more striking moments of heightened drama, and explosions of action featuring string ostinatos, a three-note rhythmic idea in the woodwinds, timpani hits, xylophones, and cascading brass phrases. Jyn’s theme weaves in around and through it all, culminating in a gigantic emotional statement of her theme during the cue’s finale as Galen dies in her arms, mere moments after their moving reconciliation, the unwitting victim of Rebel Alliance intervention. The subsequent “Krennic’s Aspirations” is a dark, menacing sequence for the scene where Krennic visits Darth Vader’s castle on Mustafar and has an audience with the Dark Lord of the Sith, accompanied by imposing brass heralds and cymbal clashes. It’s very amusing to me that Vader should have had his castle built on the same planet where he, as Anakin Skywalker, effectively died during Revenge of the Sith; I suppose he’s got to live somewhere, but this just feels like a touch of obsessive overkill on Vader’s part. Maybe he just really likes lava.

The film’s conclusive third act, where Jyn and her comrades attempt to infiltrate the Imperial records and archives facility on the beach planet of Scarif and retrieve the Death Star plans, begins with “Rebellions Are Built on Hope” and continues on through the end of the score proper. Giacchino’s action music is the cornerstone of this entire section, and is mostly filled with busily dancing strings, militaristic brass fanfares, and urgent percussive rhythms. “Rebellions Are Built on Hope” also contains the score’s first significant statement of the Hope theme since the opening title fanfare; the way it plays contrapuntally with Jyn’s theme is impressive, and the conflicting emotions it conveys attests to Giacchino’s skill in this regard. Somehow the music is determined, steely, and defiantly optimistic, but underpinned by a sense of resignation that this may be a one-way trip.

“Rogue One” and “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608” are mostly anticipatory cues, tension-building for the excitement to come, although there is at least one lovely statement of the Force theme, and what appears to be the merest allusion to the first few notes of Princess Leia’s theme at 1:53 in the first of those cues. “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet” is exciting, breathless, and slightly chaotic, with Jyn’s theme in full-on hero mode accompanied by a battery of Williams-like brass runs. “AT-ACT Assault” is equally exciting, an action cue full of flamboyant orchestral mayhem and flashy orchestrations, adding a level of tremendous energy to the scenes of the Rebel Commandos engaging with Imperial forces on the beaches of Scarif. “The Master Switch” has a similar sense of relentless tension, like a countdown, with string figures underpinned by snares, a pulsating two-note motif for brass, statements of the Hope theme counterpointed by the first four notes of Jyn’s theme, and a rare appearance of Chirrut Îmwe’s theme to accompany his moment of heroic self-sacrifice.

“Your Father Would Be Proud” is the score’s emotional climax, a beautiful elegy that recalls Giacchino’s writing for the TV series Lost. Searching cello lines, string tremolos, and stirring choral accents gradually give way to a huge orchestral-and-choral statement of Jyn’s theme, as Jyn and Cassian embrace and bravely await their demise, as a blast wave from the Death Star looms ever closer. The final cue, “Hope,” features epic choral writing and a bombastic statement of the Imperial March that accompanies Darth Vader’s ultimate bad-ass moment, proving once and for all why he was the most feared Sith in the galaxy. The big swell of the Force theme that concludes the cue allows the listener a brief glimmer of triumph, and the scene is set for the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which begins literally minutes after Rogue One ends.

The three pieces at the end of the score are the concert arrangements of the main themes that feature in the end credits. In the film they are bookended by John Williams’s usual familiar main and end title music, but Williams’s music is not included on the album. The “Jyn Erso and Hope Suite” is a gorgeous fantasy that blends the two central themes together and features some truly stunning solo violin and cello writing. “The Imperial Suite” is a powerful concert arrangement of Krennic’s theme that will please fans of bold, martial marches. Finally, the “Guardians of the Whills Suite” is a lovely extrapolation on the sparingly-used theme for Chirrut Îmwe that reaches some superb religioso heights.

While all this is very positive in general, this is not to say that everything about Rogue One works. The action music, in general, suffers from a little bit of ‘genericness’ that none of the Williams scores ever had. Williams imbued almost every action set piece with a memorable idea in the orchestration or the rhythmic center (think about the pianos for Hoth in Empire), or a unique melodic hook (think “Here They Come” or “The Asteroid Field”), but in my opinion none of Giacchino’s action set-pieces will have such longevity. Furthermore, some of the references to the Williams thematic material occasionally feels a little shoe-horned in; they make sense, conceptually, but some of the transitions between Giacchino’s music and the Williams music sometimes come across as clunky. Similarly, some commentators have described two of the main themes – Krennic’s theme and the fanfare version of the Hope theme – as sounding like musical equivalents of fan fiction, thinly disguised knock offs of the Imperial March and Luke Skywalker’s theme that unfortunately only succeed in making you think about how much better their inspirations were.

But, on the whole, these are comparative nitpicks. When you consider the pressures Giacchino faced in writing this score, not only in terms of time, but in terms of the weight of expectation in writing a score that has to live up to some of the finest film music ever written, the fact that it turned out as good as it has is almost a miracle. His careful adoption of some of Williams’s compositional inflections and orchestrations into his own is appropriate and respectful, his main theme (Jyn’s theme) is genuinely excellent, and some of the emotional heights he reaches while using it, especially during Galen’s death sequence, and the finale on the beach on Scarif, are outstanding. If you approach it on its own terms, and don’t subject it to unfair comparisons with what Williams wrote and what Desplat might have written, then there is much to admire in Rogue One; it also bodes well for the planned future spinoff movies involving Han Solo and Boba Fett. It appears that the force is well and truly with Disney, and that the future of the franchise is in capable hands.

Buy the Rogue One soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • He’s Here For Us (3:20)
  • A Long Ride Ahead (3:56)
  • Wobani Imperial Labor Camp (0:54)
  • Trust Goes Both Ways (2:45)
  • When Has Become Now (1:59)
  • Jedha Arrival (2:48)
  • Jedha City Ambush (2:19)
  • Star-Dust (3:47)
  • Confrontation on Eadu (8:05)
  • Krennic’s Aspirations (4:16)
  • Rebellions Are Built on Hope (2:56)
  • Rogue One (2:04)
  • Cargo Shuttle SW-0608 (3:59)
  • Scrambling the Rebel Fleet (1:33)
  • AT-ACT Assault (2:55)
  • The Master Switch (4:02)
  • Your Father Would Be Proud (4:51)
  • Hope (1:37)
  • Jyn Erso and Hope Suite (5:51)
  • The Imperial Suite (2:29)
  • Guardians of the Whills Suite (2:52)

Running Time: 69 minutes 29 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2016)

Music composed Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by William Ross, Brad Dechter, Tim Simonec, Jeff Kryka, Chris Tilton and Herbert W. Spencer. Original Star Wars themes by John Williams. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Joel Iwataki. Edited by Stephen M. Davis and Warren Brown. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

  1. Aidabaida
    December 20, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Absolutely great criticism! Rogue One is my favorite movie of 2016, and one of my favorite scores! 🙂

  2. December 22, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    I agree. Great score; could’ve been better had MG been given more time, but still a great score. The only gripe I have is that each and every time the ‘Hope’ theme plays in the film, you get excited that you’re hearing JW’s main theme from SW only to have the rug pulled out from under you when you realize it’s just a knock-off. Otherwise, I like the score. I hope MG gets to do more SW stories and has more time to score them than he did for Rogue One. 🙂

  3. December 27, 2016 at 1:17 am

    The first time we hear the Hope motif, it’s like the opening to some cheesy Sci-Fi from the 70s (hmm that sort of describes ANH,) but then we hear the french horn version and all is forgiven. The strings version ain’t bad either. 😉

  4. K.S.
    February 23, 2017 at 2:55 pm
  1. January 5, 2017 at 1:41 am
  2. February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am
  3. June 4, 2018 at 8:37 am

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