Epic Thrills in the Star Wars of Old
An all-powerful Empire maintains an iron grip on the galaxy. Hope runs low in a band of scrappy freedom fighters as a devastating weapon makes its presence known. A desperate mission is launched with little chance of survival or success. A franchise seeking greater box office domination than ever mines the past for future success. The first ever spinoff film in a series known for its episodic nature is given life. Lighthearted adventure thrills are traded in for grim, wartime action and death.
It’s tough to say who had a more difficult mission, the Disney team behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or the band of rebels at the center of the film. But with so much on the line given the unique nature of Rogue One (even knowing that simply being labeled a Star Wars film is sure to rake in the big bucks at the box office), there are so many ways that this first Star Wars anthology film could have gone wrong. Thankfully, Rogue One is a rousing and roundly satisfying success to a large degree, with only a few minor flaws tripping up its otherwise strong narrative.
Shot with a breathtaking scope, peppered with some of the best action ever seen in a Star Wars movie, and filled with genuinely great characters, Rogue One is proof positive that the Star Wars franchise is brimming with life, even if it doesn’t completely hold the wonder and magic that it once did.
Set (literally) just before the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of an unlikely band of heroes who are tasked with stealing the plans for the Death Star and striking a decisive blow against the evil Empire that rules the galaxy. While anyone who’s read the opening crawl of the original Star Wars can tell you how that mission turns out, the narrative suspense of Rogue One is in how its characters will handle their journey and what it will take to find success in the most desperate of times.
Perhaps knowing the generalities of where the plot may resolve itself cuts some of the narrative power out of Rogue One, but director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy work to make the journey as interesting as it can be with a foreknown destination. With a far more morally grey take on both its heroes and villains, which falls in line with Edwards’ desire to make Rogue One far more of a war film than an adventure, some of the general conventions of Star Wars are turned on their heads. While that may initially rub some the wrong way, new approaches are welcomed in a franchise that will be growing nonstop in the years to come. In addition, there’s plenty of fan service to be found in the film, including the cameo appearances of characters both major and minor (even when they sometimes get in the way of the film’s attempts to be a standalone story), and greater backstory to this vibrant fictional world and its many elements. Unlike The Force Awakens, Rogue One largely seeks to tell a new story in a familiar setting with the added boost of nostalgia, rather than The Force Awakens’ choice to tell a largely nostalgic story relying on the strengths of familiar storytelling beats.
It’s a minor gamble on the behalf of its filmmakers, and the success or failure of that gamble largely comes down to the actors involved.
First and foremost, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is the heart and soul of the film, with her character arc of disinterested survivor turning into hope-inspiring leader being the emotional core that the film’s plot hangs upon. Jones is great in the role, providing real emotional context to a story that largely sees its character bounce from planet to planet, mission to mission at a breakneck pace. And it’s that restless plot movement that weakens Rogue One in certain areas, most specifically within its first act. As more and more characters are introduced, the general mission is established, flashbacks are experienced, and numerous worlds are showcased, Edwards’ film can’t quite find its rhythm within the first 30 minutes. Perhaps this is where the much-discussed major reshoots of the film took the most effect, as the rest of Rogue One feels far more cohesive and balanced. And maybe composer Michael Giacchino’s score, which was written in four weeks, suffered too, as it’s solid yet unremarkable. But the film’s first major action sequence manages to shake out the nerves and put the film in the right groove. It helps that Jones is front and center for the most part here, with a quiet charisma that keeps the viewer attuned to her above all.
While Jones’ Erso is most certainly the lead of the film, Rogue One is also an ensemble piece, with the rest of its titular rebel group composed of six other characters. Though there isn’t a weak link in the bunch, Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, a spindly former Imperial droid reprogrammed to be part of the Rebel Alliance with no filter on what he says is most certainly a standout. His role as straight-faced comic relief adds to the film without releasing its tension or lessening its stakes. Other standouts are Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who is enabled by The Force, and Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, Chirrut’s far more jaded friend. Together, they form an emotionally resonant duo, with Yen throwing out some supremely impressive fight scenes while spouting the film’s most spiritual dialogue. They may be given short shrift when it comes to textured backstory, but they make their presence known in every scene. As far as Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, a longtime Rebel officer, his function is to largely serve as Jyn’s foil who makes her journey a more emotionally cathartic one. And while Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook, a defecting Imperial pilot who sets the plot in motion, is solid in all his scenes, he’s more of a plot tool than character as his hero’s journey has largely been completed by the time the film starts.
But what about the bad guys? Any good Star Wars film needs a great bad guy. Well, Rogue One may prove the exception to the rule, as its villains simply aren’t that great. As Orson Krennic, the Imperial Director who leads the fight against the Rogue One group, actor Ben Mendelsohn is plenty theatrical and full of bluster, but he’s largely a figurehead, rather than a truly active villain. He’s just not very interesting, even if his actions warrant an old-timey hiss or two from the audience.
And what about Darth Vader, the black-clad Sith Lord whose appearance alone could sell Rogue One? Well, he’s barely in the film. So the less you expect from him the better, as those clamoring for major scenes with the classic villain will only be disappointed to the degree of disliking the many villain-centered scenes that do not feature him. His moments certainly shine, especially one in particular, but they are minor to the degree of not even being necessary.
For the sake of staying away from spoilers, there is one more returning Star Wars character who features rather prominently. But the satisfaction of seeing the character once again is somewhat marred by the use of needed CGI, which, while well done, still suffers from falling into the uncanny valley, no matter how much the filmmakers tried to avoid it.
Going into Rogue One, it was clear that Edwards would bring his skills at large scale action and big screen-worthy scale to Star Wars. And Edwards does not disappoint. Gritty inner city shootouts and massive chases are all rendered in eye-popping detail by Edwards, giving Star Wars a sense of grandeur that has never quite been reached before, while still feeling true to the aesthetics of the original trilogy. Most of all, the climactic, extended final battle of Rogue One feels epic in every sense of the word. From its central heist to ground warfare to outer space battles, the spinoff film ends in what must be the biggest action spectacle ever seen in the franchise. But Edwards wisely keeps his established characters in focus, even as hordes of unnamed Rebels and Imperials pour in to wage war. Even with such huge set pieces, Rogue One avoids the dreaded bloat that so many modern blockbusters suffer.
Instead, Rogue One feels like it’s constantly moving forward, even when minor detours or stubborn characters threaten to derail the plot here and there, although that heavy plot focus prevents some potentially helpfully character development. As a standalone spinoff film, Rogue One accomplishes the much-needed goal of feeling self-contained and satisfying thanks to its focused plot, strong character arcs, and willingness to go grim. It’s darker, more morally grey themes help to add something a little different to the Star Wars formula, even when familiar settings, characters, and battles keep it firmly planted in the galaxy far, far away. There’s no knowing how well the non-stop expansion of the Star Wars universe will go in the years to come, but Rogue One has shown that powerful, thrilling, and poignant stories are still possible in the many unexplored corners of this iconic franchise.
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