Wait, didn’t we just have a Star Wars movie last year? I’m apparently now old enough to complain to youths about how long I had to wait for new Star Wars the way parents complain to me about not having had the Internet in the ‘40s. Disney, the current proprietors of the Star Wars franchise, are set to give us saga films (read: the ones with those pesky roman numerals) on odd years, and a nice side story film on evens. Market saturation think piece aside, myself and countless nerds across the land have struggled with the all of the sudden nature of a series that has gone through two hibernation periods, 16 years and 10 years respectively. But who cares about my emotional turmoil over what is essentially an embarrassment of riches, you guys just want to know if this movie is worth seeing, and the answer to that is a resounding yes. But I do have some quibbles.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of the tonally darker films in the Star Wars universe but it works well within the timeline. Nestling snugly within weeks of the beginning of Star Wars (A New Hope for those of you that think Jar Jar isn’t that bad), this film sets out to document the turning of the tide; the moment that the power balance shifts in the galactic civil war. Rogue One delves into the gray area of the subterfuge and spy craft that goes on during war, showing that while the Empire is still clearly an all encompassing evil, the Rebel’s hands aren’t entirely clean. While still painting the Rebellion as the righteous underdogs of the galaxy, the lengths that they’ll go to and the lines they are willing to cross are explored through a whole new cast of character, led by Felicty Jones’ Jyn Orso.
Clearly meant to be the Luke Skywalker surrogate for this film, but ending up as much a Han Solo, Jyn is a much more experienced and capable protagonist by the time we are introduced to her. In a plot device all too familiar to the Star Wars faithful, Jyn finds herself reluctantly thrust into a larger scheme with an ad hoc squad of brand new and interesting characters. Almost all of the Rogue One crew are rad, with Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO and Donnie Yens’ Chirrut Imwe set to be fan favorites for years to come. You can bet Chirrut is bound to be a lot of people’s last minute Halloween costume in 2017 even if they have trouble pronouncing his name. The most interesting character in the whole movie however, and one of the reasons the Rogue One works as well as it does, is Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, Death Star head honcho and all around not very nice guy.
Star Wars has always been as interesting as its villains have been and Rogue One is no different. Director Krennic is maniacal and calculated, seconds away from boiling rage at any given moment and constantly flanked by the stylistically fantastic but sadly underutilized, ebon clad Deathroopers. He’s also the audience’s’ surrogate for imperial dealings and his interactions with a whole host of returning favorites does a lot to deepen our understanding of just how the Empire works. One of the greatest things about Rogue One is its lack of reliance on Skywalker family squabbles and Jedi misadventures to tell a truly compelling story about a the people who actively seek to shape the fate of this galaxy.
I would be remiss if I went this entire review without saying anything about the plasticine computer generated nightmares Lucasfilm rolled out for Rogue One. One of the aforementioned imperial dealings Director Krennic has is with none other than Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing, who passed away in 1994. As I alluded to in a heralded podcast recently, Industrial Light and Magic, the Lucasfilm special effects house, has been itching to replace all of our current actors with computer generated versions of long dead legends. Remember when everyone said hologram Tupac was still a better rapper than anyone alive? Like that. Their first attempt was placing a silent CG Tarkin in Revenge of the Sith and the prodigal son made his ghastly return in this movie. Not unlike Frankenstein’s monster or Mickey Rourke circa 1990, this thing walked like a human, talked like a human, but still wasn’t quite right. Had Tarkin been the only waxy faced ghoul pulled from the grave, it would’ve been one thing but the fact that he’s joined by a whole host of familiar yet frightening faces is a little too much. These digital puppets, the filmmakers hamfisted attempts at stroking our nostalgia centers and the last two minutes of the movie will definitely be the dividing line for fans on whether or not this movie holds serve.
The majority of my issues with this film can be diagnosed as overwrought fanboyism and overprotective hyper-criticism, much like the analysis that most people had of The Force Awakens. Rogue One however is hindered as much as helped by where it chose to set itself within an already established timeline and when major plot points are already assumed, it makes the minutiae all the more important. Having hat tips to lifetime fans that aren’t entirely necessary for widespread audience enjoyment is one thing but when half the audience is chuckling to themselves about easter eggs flying over the other half’s head, it seems lazy. But the main through line for Rogue One’s narrative, the theft of the Death Star plans that served as the immediate catalyst to the Star Wars saga, is undeniably engaging. It’s something that is so easy for even the most casual of Star Wars fan to get excited about but has also makes real the headcanon Star Wars nerds have had for decades!
While not quite an Ocean’s Eleven style heist, Jyn and her ragtag crew manage to stumble their way to success in a final act which very nearly pays off every plot line and gives way to some of the more awesome battle sequences in any Star Wars film. The beach battle, while garnering bonus points for its locale, really does its best to hearken back to the battle of Hoth, giving a much more personal and visceral look into the human toll this war takes. If CG dogfighting is more your thing, there’s a simultaneous space battle taking place above the planet, and the cuts back and forth between the two war zones only enhances the tension. Even ultimately knowing that this movie is a immediate prequel to Star Wars didn’t take away from the excitement and giddy feeling I had watching this battle. And I’ll never get tired of seeing X-Wings flying around.
I felt a genuine sense of wonder watching this film but not in the same way I did on my first viewing of any of the other movies. My wonder was less about the what this film was going to do and more about the how it was going to do it. Knowing the Star Wars story as well as I did, it was difficult not to make assumptions, but Rogue One still surprised me and cemented itself quite nicely within the larger story line. I think the role of these side stories will be to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the saga films, and Rogue One does just that. No groundbreaking, earth shattering revelations, but things that will make you think: ah, neat! With a sandbox as big to play in as the Star Wars galaxy, it going to be really interesting to see if Disney will take bigger risks and branch out stylistically, testing the limits of the fandom. Rogue One, as Skywalker and Jedi free as it is, is still safe and doesn’t stray too far from the formulas that have made Star Wars the phenomena it’s been for four decades. It did, however, take the franchise’s first step into a larger world.