“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
… that’s not a spoiler, it’s just history as we know it – at least within the Star Wars universe – and thus was the legend of Rogue One… and also the plot to the very first of what is to be a long line of live-action entries into the new Star Wars Anthology, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
If you’re familiar enough with A New Hope, then you’ll also know how this story ends. That being the case, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, 2013) had quite the task ahead of him when taking on this film; not only having to live up to the high expectations set by The Force Awakens‘ great success just last year, but also appealing to and satisfying audiences and impossible fanboys everywhere, whilst keeping a familiar premise fresh and original. In my humble opinion, he’s accomplished all of the above. There is little here that can disappoint, as what Edwards has in fact created is an exhilarating and, indeed, bold action movie, one that fits nicely into the Star Wars criterion, but dares to push boundaries, and one that features a brilliant and endearing ensemble worthy of the original cast. As for those reshoots, I’ll just say we should all be so lucky that Disney actually cares about the product they’re trying to create here (take note Suicde Squad/ Warner Bros.).
Rogue One, as mentioned in the opening crawl above, follows a rag-tag team of Rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Jyn’s story is one we’re familiar within Star Wars; she’s an orphan in many ways – her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken away from her as a child at the hands of the Empire, so that he may build for them what will eventually be the aforementioned battle station, the Death Star (this opening sequence takes place in lieu of an opening crawl). Years later, as a fugitive from the Empire, the rebellious Jyn is brought to the Rebel base and offered freedom in return for her services in retrieving a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) – who claims to have information from Jyn’s father regarding the new weapon – from Jyn’s old guardian, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a soldier of the Alliance, and his reprogrammed and now cynical Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), they set out “across the galaxy” to find the pilot, gaining new friends along the way (in the form of Donnie Yen and Wen Yiang, but more on these two later), and ultimately attempt to steal the plans to the Death Star so that they can destroy it before it’s wrath can be unleashed upon the galaxy (ahem, and I think we all know what happens there).
Having the sole luxury of steering away from the main Saga (which will continue December of next year with Episode VIII), and starting, essentially, on a fresh canvas, Edwards takes full advantage of the opportunities within George Lucas’ ever expansive universe. For starters, true to his word, Edwards has very much created a “Star Wars War movie” – having just rewatched TFA fairly recently myself, it’s notably darker than the former, matching The Empire Strikes Back in terms of tone. There isn’t nearly as much cheesy dialogue – though there is actually still a good deal of humor to find – and there’s constantly a sense of dread for our main protagonists. As I say, this is a bold movie and, having some predetermined notions as to how the story was to end going into it, I’m somewhat relieved that Disney was brave enough to follow through with it as it feels like they just went all in for this film, whereas with TFA they were merely pandering for audience affection. This sounds harsh on the latter, but if we’re cutting down to brass tax here, I’m growing more and more convinced that I liked this movie considerably more.
From a technical stand-point, Rogue One is simply marvelous. Taking the same visual effects techniques used for the older movies and enhancing them to levels that I’m sure Lucas had only dreamed of so long ago, but that the technology simply didn’t allow. From each of the exceedingly impressive action set pieces, to the fleet of star destroyers drifting in and out of the foreboding shadow of the Death Star, to the devastating impact of the weapon itself – Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly) have given Star Wars a totally new and exciting visual appeal, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. For example, we’ve never experienced, first hand, the devastation wreaked by the Death Star, but here we get front row seats to just how terrifyingly powerful it is – it’s like a nuke going off, times a thousand, and they’ve placed us right in the middle of the destruction.
As much as Star Wars is visual adventure, it wouldn’t be anything without a solid cast. As with the original trilogy, as with TFA, the cast gathered here is not only great, but appropriately diverse. Jones takes the lead with great ease, making Jyn a worthy and memorable hero on par with Daisy Ridley’s Ray. She’s fierce, tough, “rebellious” and her story is an endearing one from the get-go. However, Rogue One, is very much an ensemble piece, similar to the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Dirty Dozen. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor has almost as much screen time and makes almost for this story’s Han Solo, just without the boyish charm and more a battle-hardened soldier, his story is equally as compelling and he and Jones work well together. As for the supporters, stand aside BB-8, R2 and C-3PO, there’s a new droid in town, in the form of K-2. Ever a device for comic relief in Star Wars, the droid brings a good deal of laughs, and Tudyk proves once again that he is one of the severely overlooked talents in the industry as he steals just about every scene that he’s in. As for the duo I touched upon earlier, Donnie Yen and Wen Yiang are both inspired choices to bring into this world. Not a jedi per se, but definitely strong with the force, Yen plays a blind Chirrut Imwe who, guided by the force (and watched over by Yiang’s Baze Malbus), is every bit as capable of kicking some Imperial ass as any and has a fair amount of scene-stealers himself. I must say, it’s a nice touch on Edwards’ part to include the force more as a practiced, though dying religion, rather than just planting a lightsaber here and there.
And where would we be with out our villains? Ben Mendelsohn takes the cloak this time, as Imperial director Orson Krennic, who’s as wicked as he is arrogant, and fits like a glove amongst Star Wars‘ better villains. Speaking of which, if you’ve seen any sort of publicity for this film, then you already know that we witness the return of Darth Vadar, in all his glory, and I must say, it was a welcome cameo and one that is done quite effectively without saturating the opportunity. There are some other cameos, however, that also bring up some of my few complaints about the movie… though to do so will likely spoil them, so I’ll just say that I appreciate the idea and possibly agree that it was necessary for this particular story, but it does walk a fine line of getting too carried away at times and being a cameo too far, with one in particular that bothered me each time he/she made an appearance and that I’d argue we still don’t have the technology for.
So, being in danger of prattling on and on, I’ll restrain myself and leave with this… Rogue One in both story and production was a bold risk, and one that pays off magnificently. It is a far darker, moodier, and grittier film than most Star Wars stories that we’re used to – I do urge caution to the younger crowds who aren’t used to seeing their heroes in great peril. But with that I do relish the action that comes with it – these are the front lines of the Rebellion that we’ve not seen before, and Edwards takes full advantage of the fact – the final 40 minutes, a go-for-broke battle on the planet Scarif, is a monumental finale, an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. I think each stand-alone movie is going to be met with skepticism, such is the nature of franchises today, as we all know that not every movie will be able to meet expectations. As for Rogue One, I take a similar sigh of relief as I did last year with TFA, reassured by the fact that Disney continues to put everything they have into these movies to make them what they need to be, that being a fun and endearing adventure in a galaxy far far away. Such as it is, here’s my rating and where I currently rank Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in the ever-growing list of Star Wars movies (subject to change with a second viewing)…
- The Empire Strikes Back
- Return of the Jedi
- Rogue One
- A New Hope (save your boos, it is what it is)
- The Force Awakens
- Revenge of the Sith
- The Phantom Menace
- Attack of the Clones