‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’
Expectations for Star Wars: The Force Awakens were perhaps the highest for any movie in history. It had been more than a decade since we traveled to a galaxy far, far away and more than 30 since we cared too.
For the most part, director JJ Abrams succeeded with Force Awakens. It’s a crowd-pleasing spectacle with fun new characters, great action sequences and nice callbacks to the original trilogy that never feel distracting. It’s the embodiment of nostalgia. It’s also very safe and feels like a greatest hits album.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on the other hand has the feel of a great debut album from an emerging band. You could make an argument that director Gareth Edwards had even more pressure than Abrams because he was making a standalone prequel to the film that started it all. Plus, putting the word “prequel” and Star Wars in the same sentence is always a cause for concern.
Fortunately, Edwards has crafted a movie worthy of being in the Star Wars canon and one that is perhaps the best blockbuster of 2016. Although that’s not saying much.
Rogue One exists because of 12 words featured in the opening crawl to A New Hope.
“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.”
When the film was announced, I was thinking heist film. But Edwards decided to go bigger by making Rogue One a legitimate war film (I mean it’s right there in the title).
The story follows Jyn Erso, a lost soul thanks to a forced separation from her parents at a very young age (We’ve certainly seen that storyline before). But when she is recruited to serve as a gateway between the Rebellion and non-allied forces to track down her father, the architect behind the Death Star, suddenly she has purpose.
But the Rebellion has different plans for her father. What starts as an assassination mission turns into something far more important when it is revealed that while designing the Death Star, Galen Erso implemented a flaw in the planet killer that would allow it to be destroyed. Now Erso must team with the Rebellion to obtain the plans to the Death Star which are located in the heart of enemy territory.
It takes a little while for Rogue One to get going. The first act is basically all setup with many expository scenes. But you have to lay the groundwork at some point so why not do it in the beginning.
Once Jyn teams up with a group of fighters including Rebellion loyalist Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), soldiers looking to fight in Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and a reluctant pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Rogue One becomes far more engaging. It also helps that they have a robot named K-2SO (Voiced by Alan Tudyk) who is the comic relief of the film.
Much like The Force Awakens, Rogue One was made with an emphasis on practical effects. The spaceships are rusted, the stormtroopers actually have dirt on them and it looks like they actually built At-At walkers (They didn’t). This feels like a lived-in world and that makes the battle sequences feel that much more real.
And realism is what you need in a war film. While there are plenty of tremendous aerial battles involving the Rogue Squadron and Imperial Star Destroyers, much of the fight happens on the ground with the soldiers in a beach setting that is both visually unique and relevant in our history of war.
The third act is essentially one long action sequence and while that is the norm in just about every blockbuster these days, this one is particularly thrilling and kinetic because Edwards masterfully jumps from the ground to the air to Jyn and Andor searching for the plans. Save for the light-saber fight between Rey and Kylo Ren at the end of Force Awakens, the third act battle is much more coherent and exciting in Rogue One.
The characters however are less memorable than in Force Awakens. As familiar as that film felt; Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron were charming, funny and interesting new characters you wanted to get to know.
Aside from Jyn and Andor, everyone else in Rogue One is a cog in a fast-moving machine and while they all do an admirable and efficient job, a little more character development would have been nice. Especially since this film is a one-off.
As for the main characters, Felicity Jones is fine as Jyn. Daisy Ridley had the benefit of being a complete unknown in Force Awakens and that helped in her performance. You could actually see a movie star in the making.
Jones on the other hand is an Oscar nominee who plays Jyn kind of cold. But her character is an orphan forced to lead a dangerous life so you kind of see where she’s coming from. Luna as Andor might be my favorite character. He’s a leader in the Rebellion and yet such a title has come at a costly price. He certainly has his flaws and wants to find some redemption in his actions by the end.
Ben Mendelsohn once again plays a villain and his performance is pretty standard. He’s a great actor, but the way the character is written makes him feel like an insecure minion who was never given his moment to shine.
Speaking of villains, Darth Vader makes an appearance and unfortunately, he’s not in the film nearly enough. That being said, he does get a spectacular scene at the very end that might be worth the price of admission alone.
Aside from a shaky first act and thinly-drawn characters, Rogue One demands to be seen on the big screen. I am by no means a die hard Star Wars fan so the level of time and passion put into this franchise by fans is foreign to me. But I can respect the film for delivering its promise of being both an entertaining ride and a through-line into the original trilogy.
The final shot could have come off as nothing more than fan service and instead felt like both a perfect setup to A New Hope and a tribute to that film.
Is Rogue One better than Force Awakens? It’s too early to say. But Lucasfilm and Disney are definitely 2 for 2 in this Star Wars revitalization.