Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promised to be what the seven other Star Wars films had not: a movie about ordinary people in the Star Wars universe. Promise delivered. But if you’re worried that ordinary people means an ordinary movie and that ordinary people don’t make Star Wars Star Wars, worry not. Director Gareth Edwards, and the teams at Lucasfilm and Disney are handling the franchise with more reverence than, say, Indiana Jones might handle an artifact he’s about to plunder. Maybe even more so as they don’t hastily shove it in a sack while running from a horde of angry ‘natives.’ Rogue One plays out more as a human story than a Jedi story, and as such, perhaps it’s more emotionally resonant. Star Wars fans will know something of the story going into the theater and have a sense of what’s to come, ultimately, but the movie, a described standalone, will deliver for the uninitiated too, with full gusto and all the infinite details that have made fans of viewers for nearly four decades. It’s not perfect, and it’s probably not what die-hard fans have clamored for ever since it was announced that Disney was acquiring Lucasfilm in October of 2012, but you will be gripping your seat for the duration, and leave the theater satisfied, yet hungry for Episode VIII.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Director: Gareth Edwards Release Date: December 16, 2016 Rating: PG-13
For the sake of geeks everywhere and the entire kingdom of Nerd, I’m going to avoid spoilers whenever possible. Rogue One’s surprises will remain yours when you do see the film, as you should. However, it’s impossible to speak with candor without going into the plot and some details may be divulged. Fair warning. However, if you’ve seen any of the other movies, none of this will come as a surprise, so read on!
My personal concern heading into the second post-Disney acquisition Star Wars film was that I was not seeing anything particularly new. I loved The Force Awakens, but even someone who appreciates it can admit that the film is a retelling of an earlier story (the essential Death Star story of Episodes IV and VI). It turns out that’s OK—a retelling that introduces new characters we can love and hate, but still brings enough back of the old to rouse our nostalgia to full boil, all the while integrating the elements of George Lucas’s Star Wars universe (from music to Storm Troopers, to Star Destroyers, to yes, Death Stars) works. When the first trailer for Rogue One was released, it was quite obvious that this was another retelling. True, it’s a story that hasn’t actually played out before our eyes on the silver screen, but we are still mired in the same Death-Star-must-be-stopped plotline that has defined much of our Star Wars experience. Rogue One is the story of how the rebels came to steal the plans that would fall into the hands of Princess Leia, a couple of wayward droids, and eventually Luke Skywalker. The same plans that allow the original trilogy to take place.
In telling this story, in the firm proclamation that Rogue One is a standalone film outside the latest trilogy, and in the hints dropped as to what happens to those brave rebels who steal the plans, an informed viewer has a sense of where this film is heading, and while one character describes this as “hope,” most of you will know that you shouldn’t get too attached to anyone you’re meeting for the first time in Rogue One (further solidified by certain deaths from TFA).
Director Gareth Edwards, best known for 2014’s Gozilla reboot delivered big here on a story by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (all four original Bourne flicks). Despite this not being directed or written by JJ Abrams, the film flows gloriously, only briefly getting caught up in jump cuts with superimposed alien world names in its early stages (as it progresses, this practice fades out)—the problem is, we have no idea what these world names mean, and there are a lot of them early on (they continue later, but only through narration, not as prominently displayed onscreen text that implies you should know this name). It's unclear how much influence George Lucas is exerting on these films--it seems he may still be offering advice, if not directly contributing the original outlines for final trilogy, but it is clear that everyone working on the project is attempting to uphold them to an expected standard that all will approve.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything), the daughter of a reluctant Imperial scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, TV’s Hannibal), who grows up under the militant tutelage of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) after her mother is killed and her father kidnapped when she is young girl. Sadly, Whitaker seems present only to serve as a plot device to have reason to pull Jones into the action. His talents are underutilized in terms of scripting and duration of role, despite his heavy presence in all marketing materials for the film. Fifteen years later, Jyn is recruited by the rebellion to draw the factious Saw into contact for as luck would have it, he’s in possession of a message detailing the existence of a new imperial weapon. Jyn, reluctant early, becomes the face and seeming voice of the rebellion by mid-film, singlehandedly driving a team of men to their seeming doom, why, because she’s the only attractive humanoid, or alien for that matter, in the entire film. I joke. It’s obviously her personal passion for the cause. Or something. Regardless, drive them she does, picking up intriguing strays along the way like Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, a cold-hearted spy/assassin turned romantic moralist), Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, archetypal blind swordsman—but not Jedi!), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and K-2SO the imperial turned rebel android (voiced to hilarity by Alan Tudyk). Oh, and we’ll throw in Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, familiar to some as the amazing star of HBO’s The Night Of).
In an interesting twist, the most emotionally vested character of all seems to be the new droid of choice, K-2SO, whose humor is fused with beautiful synchronization and composition throughout the film, just when it might be getting darker than it's PG-13 rating suggests. Voiced by the incomparable Alan Tudyk, there are many opportunities to laugh, and not in the way that audiences laughed at Jar Jar Binks, but with true appreciation. In a film where rebel leaders cast pleas for final assaults that decide universal fates with bland ubiquity and the same formality that ruined similar scenes of council-like debates in The Matrix sequels, the robot, apparently reprogrammed as the ultimate smartass, comes across as most human. There are moments when Jones and Luna (especially) attempt to emote, or eventually connect, that resonate empathy and attempt to tap into the human spectrum for emotion, but mostly, we get X-Wing fighters screaming blithely as they speed towards inevitable explosion via impact or Tie Fighter lock-on—none ever tell anybody listening on their intercoms to tell whomever they love them, or even, hey, ‘remember the Alamo!’ I guess it’s just cool to go out screaming at the top of your lungs.
Rogue One serves to put this chapter of Star Wars to rest. It’s true, we’ve now had four films dealing directly with this plot, as well as it being the overarching (outside of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, Jedi vs. Sith) device of the original trilogy, but it also tells us the untold story of how exactly the Death Star plans were stolen and events were set in motion for the original trilogy. Definitively. That said, we can hope that Disney, having stretched its Star Wars wings (and recouped easily half of what they invested in Lucasfilm--$4 Billon) with these new Death Star films is now free to pursue more ambitious stories or plotlines outside the original. They couldn’t gamble too big early; they needed to establish that they knew what they were doing; that they were staying true to the world Lucas had created for fans; they needed to recoup financial investments; and they needed to vest new (and old again) audiences in their baby, little Star Wars Jr.
Rogue One is pure entertainment, packed with action, humor—as I already mentioned, and visual effects that largely are phenomenal (including digital resurrections that are just amazing: hello again Grand Moff Tarkin!). It integrates many details from all three Star Wars trilogies, while introducing many more of its own. Audience members were constantly delighting as recognition and surprise hit them moment to moment. And while this is a Jedi-less film, it manages to cram enough of the Force into itself to satiate even the most rabid bantha fans. As I heard from my wife, returning home from the film well after 1:00am, “I heard it was great. I heard the ending was amazing.” All true, all true. From the moment the familiar Lucasfilm logo appeared onscreen, to the nostalgic opening A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY, to the climatic, if not foregone conclusion, the film envelopes you in a familiar and cozy world, spirits you away form your own for two hours, and promises hope of more to come. And much like the absence of the treasured opening crawl promised no need for background or a continued story ahead, this film asserting itself as something outside the traditional, promises much more to come from Disney, including, hopefully, much more that will be new to even the oldest of audiences (there were definitely some senior citizens in attendance): can we get a Darth Bane movie, please? Prime story waiting to be told.