'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'
Living up to its promise, Disney has delivered another ‘Star Wars’ adventure to the world just in time for Christmas. This trip to that galaxy far, far away doesn’t continue the new saga that J.J. Abrams started with ‘The Force Awakens’, instead flashing back to just before this beloved movie franchise kicked off in 1977 and took over the world.
‘Rogue One’ is set immediately before ‘A New Hope’, and spins a yarn about the Rebel team that captured the Death Star plans and set the whole saga into motion. The Force comes up, but this is more a tale of rebellious sacrifice than the usual quasi-religious tropes of George Lucas’ iconic franchise. The film challenges the notions of what a ‘Star Wars’ movie can be in ways that are almost entirely good if occasionally off-putting. Oddly for a ‘Star Wars’ movie, the characters aren’t particularly memorable and it opens in somewhat of a slog rather than in the middle of a chase. However, when the whole big ‘Star Wars’ experiment finally comes together in the climax, this sucker delivers nostalgic crowd-pleasing chills and thrills as memorable as anything in ‘The Force Awakens’.
After a little prologue to set things up, we’re introduced to Felicity Jones’ noble nogoodnik, Jyn Erso, who gets broken out of an Imperial prison camp by a gang of Rebels. She’s told that she was snatched up to help rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who designed the Death Star. Predictably, the truth is more complicated than it seems, but never mind that now. Jyn is partnered up with a Rebel intelligence officer (Diego Luna) who brings the brooding, and a droid (Alan Tudyk) who brings some comic relief. They slowly gather a ragtag team of unlikely heroes, including an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed), a blind monk (Donnie Yen), and his sharpshooting buddy (Jing Wen). Together, the gang bond and go through some troubles leading up to the big mission. On the darker side of the equation, Ben Mendelsohn plays a brutal, career-oriented Imperial officer who helps get the Death Star into fighting shape under the terrifying watchful eye of a dude named Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, natch).
From the very first frames, ‘Rogue One’ attempts to give audiences something unexpected in a ‘Star Wars’ movie while still delivering the nostalgic chills that will bring everyone to the theater. For the first time, there’s no opening text crawl, because this is a side-branching tale from the main saga, but a giant ship does loom into frame from above. It’s still ‘Star Wars’, but director Gareth Edwards clearly wants to distort the typical tone of this series. To a lesser degree, the film replays both the strengths and weaknesses of the 2014 ‘Godzilla’ reboot that got him this gig. The story begins in a surprisingly small place for a ‘Star Wars’ picture, aiming for almost muted drama before ramping up into an action extravaganza that’s absolutely extraordinary. Unfortunately, much like ‘Godzilla’, the characters just don’t quite have the nuance that the filmmaker thinks they do and the opening half hour or so can feel more like a slog than a slow burn.
That’s not to say that the actors disappoint. They all commit with the full weight of their abilities. However, the characters all feel a little underwritten, coming off more like stock types than memorable pieces to hang a strong story onto. Still, it’s not all bad. Jones brings strength and force (not that kind) to her hero. Luna adds some tragic depth. Mendelsohn is spectacular as the sneeringly careerist baddie, and Tudyk’s goofy droid is just droll enough to avoid being a Jar-Jar. Others just kind of serve a slot in the script. None of them feel destined to become pop culture staples like the heroes of ‘The Force Awakens’, but they’ll do.
To fill in the screen icon slot, Darth Vader slithers through a few scenes in the picture and doesn’t disappoint, while CGI brings Peter Cushing’s Tarkin back to life and the results are shockingly impressive. (It’s likely not the last time we’ll see deceased actors rise from the grave in blockbuster cinema, for better or worse.)
Where the film succeeds well enough to overcome every flaw is in the overall narrative and spectacle. While the morality and politics of ‘Star Wars’ remain as binary as possible, ‘Rogue One’ teases out some complexity within the challenges of being a Rebel. It not only cleverly sets up ‘A New Hope’, but also explains some of the dated scale issues in that flick that spring from it being the cheapest production in the franchise.
More importantly, Edwards nails an intriguing tone that opens up a wider array of storytelling possibilities for future standalone ‘Star Wars’ pictures. There is grit and bite to this wartime tale unlike any previous film in this universe. It’s also easily the darkest ‘Star Wars’ story this side of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Colors are muted, cameras are occasionally handheld, and there’s rarely a sense that any sort of Force magic could save anyone. The film can be brutal and dark, despite being filled with sets, costumes and designs pulled straight from the original trilogy. The final emotional impact is devastating. Rhe nostalgia comes alongside some genuine tragedy that hurts. ‘Rogue One’ becomes a surprisingly human rollercoaster ride just in time for the credits.
Yet a big, popcorn-munching crowd-pleaser this film remains. After some pacing issues and irritating failed stabs at humor in the first half, ‘Rogue One’ delivers one hell of a rush at the finish line. The Death Star plan heist offers roughly 40 minutes of sustained action, suspense, heroism and tragedy that’s incredibly visceral. Edwards’ skill with communicating scale in action scenes turns familiar ‘Star Wars’ sights into all new forms of excitement. It’s a giddy rush littered with fan friendly easter eggs that never detract from the subject at hand. The movie pays off well enough to send audiences rushing out of the theater on such a high that all previous disappointments are easily forgotten and forgiven.
‘Rogue One’ is both a satisfying ‘Star Wars’ picture and something new for the series. It might not be a masterpiece, but it pushes this brand into excitingly fresh areas and suggests that the ‘Star Wars’ spinoff pictures need not be a worryingly commercial sideshow to the new trilogy. They could be a worthy way of expanding this universe into unexpected areas under the watchful eyes of creative new filmmakers with bold ideas. So far, this new era of ‘Star Wars’ history is a rousing 2/2. Let’s see how long the streak lasts. It won’t take many more successes before there are more good ‘Star Wars’ movies after the George Lucas era than there were during the decades in which he created this enthralling piece of 20th Century folklore.