When it was announced that Disney were embarking on a standalone Star Wars story, a prequel to 1977's A New Hope that would (largely) be devoid of familiar faces and unconnected to the wider saga narrative, more than a few eyebrows were raised. How would it be possible to become invested in the proposed Rogue One narrative, one focusing on the Rebels' do-or-die mission to steal the Death Star plans? Would it be possible to even make a Star Wars movie built around incidental characters? And how would the climax of this movie mesh with the opening of A New Hope? Well December 2016 proved the doubters and naysayers wrong when Rogue One received positive critical notices and stormed the box office. Monsters and Godzilla director Gareth Edwards actually makes a virtue of his restrictive story set-up, investing us dramatically in a group of characters whose fate was foretold way back at the start of the franchise when we first saw the Imperial Destroyer loom across the camera. Edwards' approach lends a refreshingly gritty, melancholy and (relatively) adult air to a franchise that has been accused of relying too heavily on nostalgic formula (an accusation levelled at 2015's The Force Awakens), although the production remains somewhat mired in controversy over its widely reported reshoots.
Said reshoots are ultimately what caused so much of a post-production headache towards the end of 2016, causing schedules to fall out of alignment and original composer Alexandre Desplat to step aside. It then fell to Michael Giacchino to step into the fray and tackle what was arguably the most formidable scoring project of the year: write the first non-John Williams Star Wars feature score in a month and establish his own musical signature on the franchise, whilst also honouring the extraordinary legacy of everything that had gone before.
That Giacchino pulled it off is a sign of his professionalism and ability to work under fierce studio pressures (an issue increasingly cited by many of today's film composers); that the score is itself a massively enjoyable work in its own right only solidifies Giacchino as the finest blockbuster composer of the modern age. Disappointing as it was to see Desplat leave the project (his enormously powerful score for Edwards' own Godzilla was the best of that year), there's no denying that Giacchino's inherently nostalgic tone and unerring ability to emulate Williams' mannerisms is exactly what the film needed. The likes of Jurassic World (in which he brilliantly interwove his own ideas with the Williams staples) have already proven his capabilities, and this marks something of a natural progression for the composer.
As one would expect from any Star Wars score worth its salt, the soundtrack is a leitmotivic masterclass, zipping between themes for the new characters and carefully judged blasts of Williams' heraldic original ideas. In the first sign that both movie and score are going to shake things up a bit, the first track 'He's Here for Us' skips Williams' famously brassy opening title music (there's no opening scroll in the movie) and launches straight into the imposing new villains theme. This being a prequel score, it absorbs the militaristic mannerisms of the classic Imperial March but given it's largely identified with the new character of Death Star director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), avoids full-blown imitation of Williams' theme. After this somewhat violent, tempestuous opening the choppy strings and brass (akin to Lost) of Krennic's theme continue in 'A Long Ride Ahead' before a tantalising, brassy blast of the new Hope theme anchors it to the musical universe we know and love. The new Imperial theme marches its way through the score, with notable appearances on dark, shadowy strings in 'When Has Become Now' (reflecting the power play between Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin, represented by a CGI rendering of the late Peter Cushing) and on powerful brasses in 'Confrontation on Eadu'.
In 'Krennic's Aspirations' the piece expertly interweaves around the Imperial March to signify Darth Vader's arrival on the scene (Williams' Imperial motif from A New Hope also gets a welcome and surprise airing here, an indication of how carefully Giacchino is establishing the chronology between the two movies). Best of all is the thunderous, magnificent 'Imperial Suite' at the end of the album, a powerful and overwhelming depiction of awe-inspiring militaristic might that highlights Giacchino's singular ability to mimic Williams whilst also standing on his own. This has been a skill of his going right the way back to his Lost World and Medal of Honour scores, and it's little surprise to learn that the mannerisms from those trendsetting efforts are very much present throughout.
However the score's principal new theme is for heroine Jyn Erso, played with pluck and tenacity by Felicity Jones. Woodwind strains of her theme come in the opening 'He's Here for Us' and 'A Long Ride Ahead', although they're subsumed by the brute force of Krennic's theme. Similar to the musical arc Williams sketched with Rey in The Force Awakens, Giacchino carefully traces Jyn' s journey through the music, taking it from initial hesitancy in the early stages to full-blown theatrics later on as she embraces her rebel destiny. 'Wobani Imperial Labour Camp' re-introduces it as a declarative, heroic statement for strings and brass whereas the tentative, wispy 'Star Dust' reduces it to a hesitant piano solo, again in the manner of Lost. Jyn's theme takes on a more purposeful air in 'Rebellions are Built on Hope', draping it around the aforementioned Hope theme to convey her vital role in the movie's deliriously exciting final battle scene: the confrontation to steal the Death Star plans from the tropical planet of Scarif. It's at this stage that both the film and score step up a gear, Jyn's musical treatment ultimately resulting in the breathtakingly haunting 'Your Father Would Be Proud' in which the string section and choir pick up the melody, not too dissimilar from the heartrending Arnhem material from Medal of Honour: Frontline.
The ironically titled 'Hope' (accompanying Darth Vader's final, sensational appearance in the movie) is one of the score's most explosively impressive moments, a massive choral interpretation of the Hope theme gradually being overtaken by the latent menace of the Imperial March. Gradually however the emergence of Williams' Force theme teases the bright future to come in the form of saviour Luke Skywalker's battles against Darth Vader. Jyn's piece gets its most sumptuously beautiful and heartfelt air in the climactic 'Jyn Erso and Hope Suite', the two ideas performing a balletic symphony as Giacchino celebrates this important (if understandably short-lived) new face in the Star Wars canon.
It's of course expected that the action music is top-notch. 'Jedha Arrival' features exotic percussion to represent the desert planet that plays a key role in the early stages of the movie, before the relentlessly aggressive xylophones, stabbing strings and raucous brasses of 'Ambush on Jedha' result in one of the score's most gripping tracks. The aforementioned cues also usher in one of the score's most attractive new themes, the mystical Guardian of the Whills theme for Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior at one with the Force, and Jiang Wen's weapon-wielding Baze Malbus.
With emphasis on flutes and undulating strings in the style of Attack of the Clones' love theme Across the Stars, the theme has an ethereal air that speaks of dignity and understated heroism; its spine-tingling, awe-inspiring choral reprisal in the later 'The Master Switch' and the final track 'The Guardians of the Whills Suite' sees the piece ascend to the ranks of all-time-great Giacchino works, although its infrequent use is somewhat frustrating, doubly so given we're unlikely to hear it within the context of a Star Wars movie again.
Giacchino's placement of Williams' original ideas is carefully well thought-out, although many listeners will inevitably find their placement spartan (the album release is missing a great deal of the film's musical statements, including the end credits). The Force theme's early appearance in 'Trust Goes Both Ways' invests a sense of heroic nobility in the rebels' dangerous mission. Meanwhile the lengthy and spectacular 'Confrontation on Eadu' works in A New Hope's original Death Star theme around statements of both Krennic and Jyn's material (the latter resulting in a genuinely moving climax). Meanwhile the Rebel theme from the original trilogy makes for timpani-laden, rousing statements in 'Rogue One', the suspenseful 'Cargo Shuttle SW-0608', 'Scrambling the Rebel Fleet', the massively exciting 'AT-ACT Assault' and 'The Master Switch'.
This five-track passage of music in facts marks some of Giacchino's most accomplished writing to date, not only assimilating the tone and timbre of Williams' brass, timpani and woodwind writing for maximum nostalgia, but also brilliantly stitching together all of the core ideas. The Jyn, Hope and Krennic themes are all kept in play whilst the triumphant hero themes from the original trilogy dart in and out in the quicksilver manner of an X-Wing fighter dodging an Imperial blockade. Of course the presence of Williams' ideas also serves a dramatic function too: as we build towards the events that lead into the start of A New Hope, the music subsequently invests us in that potent mixture of sacrifice and victory, lamenting the fate of Jyn's team whilst celebrating their achievement in the wider Star Wars universe.
The latter point indicates Giacchino's greatest triumph with the Rogue One score: this is a soundtrack that requires a difficult musical tightrope act between nostalgic pastiche and fresh new territory, a musical mixture of the wholesome and the gritty that matches the film's tonal contradictions. That he was obligated to put all of this together in less than a month for what was possibly 2016's most eagerly anticipated cinema release is nothing less than a triumph of professionalism and technical craft. There's a reason Giacchino is continually trusted with blockbusters for the likes of Pixar and Marvel, and the Rogue One score demonstrates why.
Nevertheless there's no denying that the time constraints have perhaps led to a slight absence of the personality present in Giacchino's best works (this might also account for the absence of his usually quippy track titles). The new themes for Rogue One are strong but not quite as strong as those heard in recent hits Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Jupiter Ascending or Inside Out, and the overwhelmingly iconic presence of the John Williams material only throws this into sharper relief. However there's no denying that Giacchino has done the best possible job under impossibly difficult circumstances, carving out new territory whilst staying true to the musical tonalities the fans demand. Although it's intriguing to speculate on what Alexandre Desplat would have composed, what we're left with is a terrifically robust and worthy addition to the Star Wars soundtrack canon, and one of the greatest achievements of Giacchino's career to date.