WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for “Rogue One.” Read at your own risk.
4 out of 5 stars.
With “The Force Awakens,” the first new installment of the “Star Wars” series since 2005 and the first since the Walt Disney Company acquired the franchise, the goal was to draw audiences back into that galaxy far far away by crafting a story that relied heavily on familiar elements while at the same time introducing new characters and setting up a new, post-Episode VI era. With “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the goal is very different. “Rogue One” is the first of its kind: a spin-off film not directly related to the main trilogies (although it is set right before the original “Star Wars” begins). We already saw that Disney and Lucasfilm could make a “Star Wars” movie in the traditional sense with “The Force Awakens.” With “Rogue One,” anything the task is to prove that they can do something entirely different with the franchise. Anything goes, and director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy take full advantage of that freedom to give us a breath-taking, thrilling film that (mostly) works as both a standalone movie and a companion piece to “A New Hope.”
The film centers around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). In the opening sequence, we see Jyn as a child, living on a remote farm with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother. Galen is a former engineer for the Empire, now on the run because he doesn’t want to contribute to their cause. Galen is taken by Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), his wife killed, and his daughter forced to go on the run.
Flash forward fifteen years, and Jyn is now an adult, hardened by years of having to survive on her own. We get snippets of how she spent those fifteen years: soldiering, imprisoned by the Empire, and the like. She’s freed from her latest prison stint by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an officer in the Rebel Alliance. An Imperial pilot, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has defected and delivered a message from Galen Erso to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former Rebel who is now fighting the Empire on his own, causing issues for the Alliance in the process. Saw raised Jyn after her father was taken, so the Alliance sees her as a way in to Saw, and from there to Galen, who, as it turns out, is the mastermind behind what will become the Empire’s ultimate weapon: the Death Star.
Jyn goes on quite the hero’s journey in “Rogue One.” When we see her at the beginning appearing to be indifferent to both the Rebel and Imperial causes; in fact, at one point, when Saw asks her how she could stand to see Imperial flags flying across the galaxy, she responds that it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t look up. What she doesn’t pay attention to won’t hurt her, but at the same time, she still dreams about her father. And while she’s initially reluctant to work with the rebellion, the journey takes her to her father, where she learns that he designed a fatal flaw in the Death Star as his revenge, and that the plans will show the Rebels where it is so they can destroy it. Jyn’s love for her father and realization that he spent the majority of his life dedicated to taking down the Empire from within prompts her to form a rebellion of her own, leading Alliance forces to the Imperial archives on the planet Scarif so they can steal the Death Star Plans.
Of course, there is the question as to whether Jyn would have realized that the Rebellion’s cause was worth fighting for without making promises to her father on his deathbed. Probably not, so the character’s motivations maybe aren’t as admirable as they appear. But it’s still quite the journey, and Jyn is portrayed with an abundance of emotion and gusto by Jones, who looks and acts as if she always belonged in the “Star Wars” universe.
But on the subject of morality, “Rogue One” does something quite different and daring in its portrayal of the Rebellion– as in, they’re not the purely good guys we’ve come to know in the original trilogy. Instead, we see Cassian, a Rebel solider who is haunted by the assassinations and other dirty deeds Rebellion commanders have forced him to commit. His first act in the film, as a matter of fact, involves him murdering an informant, and initially it’s rather shocking and confusing. After all, he’s supposed to be the good guy, right? It’s still made very clear that the Empire are the real bad guys by making them appear even more evil, but it raises a question the question: just how far should you go for a cause, and is it worth it? Is there such a thing as going too far, even when combating an entity as supremely evil as the Empire? In a way, Jyn and her mission to recover the plans provides Cassian and the rest with a sort of redemption, giving them an actual cause to fight for and enemy to fight against that doesn’t involve informants and sneaky assassinations.
As mentioned before, Jones is great, but so is the rest of the cast, which is the most diverse of any “Star Wars” movie– and, let’s be real, of a lot of big budget Hollywood movies in general– to date. Asian actors Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen play Baze and Chirrut, who Jyn and Cassian pick up on their journey. They are sort of protectors of the Kyber crystals that the Empire is mining on the planet Jedha to fuel the Death Star, those same crystals being the ones that the Jedi used to craft their lightsabers once upon a time. Chirrut isn’t a Jedi, but he is strong in the Force, and his chant– “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”– is a constant and powerful reminder throughout the film of that entity that holds the “Star Wars” galaxy together.
Forest Whitaker also makes a brief but memorable appearance as Saw, while Ahmed is endearing as the semi-neurotic Bohdi. Mendelsohn is perfectly cast as a ruthless Imperial officer, and while he is technically the film’s main villain, he has some competition; more on that later. But it’s the always versatile Alan Tudyk playing a new droid in the film, a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO, who steals every scene he’s in. K-2SO serves as the film’s comic relief, but not in the way C-3PO does. K-2SO’s smart-alec sense of humor humanizes him in a way that we haven’t quite seen in a droid yet, and his sarcasm matches the darker tone of the movie perfectly. Not all of these supporting players are developed as fully as Jyn and Cassian, and while we do get just enough of their backstory to fulfill our needs, the story does feel like it’s lacking somewhat in this department. The issue likely lies in the fact that with all the previous “Star Wars” films, they’ve had the length of a trilogy to develop the characters; with this story, it’s just this one film, and that’s it.
In addition to those fun new characters, a lot of familiar faces show up as well, providing some nice links between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope.” Some fan favorites pop up, like the original Gold and Red Leaders from the assault on the Death Star at the end of the original “Star Wars,” and Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the thugs who confront Luke Skywalker in the cantina on Tatooine (seeing as how they aren’t even on Tatooine in this movie, their appearance is pure amusing fluff). On the prequel front, Jimmy Smits, who played Princess Leia’s adoptive father Senator Bail Organa in the those films, reprises his role here. But some major characters from the original trilogy show up as well. The one and only Darth Vader, voiced once again by the immortal James Earl Jones, appears in only two scenes, but they are two of the best scenes in the movie. His appearance in the finale, the only scene in the film where a lightsaber is used, shows Vader at his most terrifying, and it’s extremely effective in this movie, even if some issues with continuity and tone between the end of “Rogue One” and the beginning of “A New Hope” arise from it.
A couple of other major characters appear, though not in the way you’d expect. Through the magic of CGI, the late Peter Cushing appears in “Rogue One” as Grand Moff Tarkin, the high-ranking Imperial officer who was a major player in the original “Star Wars.” In that film, the Death Star was like his baby, so it makes perfect sense that, as closely set to the original “Star Wars” as “Rogue One” is, he would at least appear briefly in this movie– in fact, it would be a bit weird if he didn’t. But Tarkin doesn’t merely appear in this movie; he is a full-fledged supporting character, a major player in several scenes with a lot of dialogue. His voice is spot-on, but it’s obvious from the moment he appears that he’s a CG character in the midst of real humans. It doesn’t negatively effect the film though, and even though it is quite jarring to see at first, during his later appearances in the film (and even on my repeat viewings of the movie), it sort of slipped my mind that that wasn’t the real guy on screen. That prompts a whole other discussion, however, on how amazing and disconcerting that sort of technology is and the impact on the film industry it could have, especially a decade from now as that technology continues to evolve and even greater realism can be achieved. But more effective in her appearance than Tarkin (perhaps because she only has one line and appears for only a few seconds at the end of the movie) is a CG Princess Leia, rendered to appear at the age she was in the original Star Wars. Her turn is so remarkable it prompted gasps from the audience at each showing I attended.
Besides those CG characters, “Rogue One,” like “The Force Awakens,” largely utilizes practical effects whenever possible, on location filming as opposed to green screens, and real costumes and props as opposed to CG aliens and the like. The result is what is probably the most visually gorgeous “Star Wars” movie to date. “Rogue One” takes us to a variety of new and unique locations in the galaxy, from the tropical planet Scarif to the deserts of Jedha, from crowded markets to the spacious landscapes of the film’s opening. Edwards gives us lots of sweeping shots of these planets and of space, but balances that with a lot of intimate moments between the characters. It’s accented by a lovely if not especially memorable score by Michael Giacchino, the first score for a “Star Wars” movie not conducted by John Williams, although strains of his iconic themes are woven throughout.
Edwards also takes us right into the middle of the action with some ground combat scenes that are the most intense in the “Star Wars” franchise to date. There’s a sense of urgency to the Rebels’ mission that carries throughout the climax. Without any lightsaber duels, this success of this film really depended on some solid action scenes, and it delivers. And there’s a sense of fearlessness as well, not just on the part of the characters in the movie who know they are likely going on a suicide mission, but on the part of the filmmakers as well. All of the principal characters die on their mission– and even though the audience knows it’s probably coming, those final scenes are so poignant, you can’t help but get a chill watching Jyn and Cassian embrace on the beach, watching the explosion caused by the Death Star’s ray roll toward them, but appearing satisfied knowing that they succeeded in their mission. Few films, even ones that sequels aren’t being planned for, kill off all their protagonists like that, so kudos to them for doing that here; the film is all the better for it.
It’s hard to say what sort of film “Rogue One” was originally going to be. We know that extensive reshoots took place over the summer; we know that there are a lot of lines and scenes that are in the trailers that didn’t make it to the final film. But the final product is beyond satisfying, entertaining for casual fans but also with a ton of Easter eggs for fanatics. No one really knew what to expect from this movie, but, on a more personal note, as a longtime “Star Wars” fan I think this is the fresh and exciting new take on the series that many of us have been waiting for. And while “Rogue One” stands as its own, contained story, it also opens up many doors. Who knows what other characters are lingering in far reaches of the galaxy, just waiting for someone to come along and tell their stories? But we do know that with the team Disney and Lucasfilm has assembled, they can breathe life into these stories, and do it well.
Runtime: 133 minutes. Rated PG-13.