‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ Review: Adding Grit to the New Hope

'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'

Movie Rating:

4

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.

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41 comments

  1. Warner

    Not gonna lie Phil … been waiting for your review all day! Seeing the movie tomorrow night in 3D and extra excited after you 4 star review. Thanks man.

  2. Chris B

    Seeing it Friday and am really excited, I wasn’t a big fan of Edward’s Godzilla film but it sounds like he’s nailed this one. Should be a good time at the movies…

  3. Thulsadoom

    Phil, you mentioned the nostalgia factor a couple of time in the review. If you took that element out, would it change your rating? I ask, purely because I was so disappointed in The Force Awakens, and saw little in it besides the nostalgia elements. Rogue One looks like a (potentially) significant return to quality after that mess, but I’m curious as to how much the setting is still a crutch rather than the opening to creativity and imagination it should be?

  4. cardpetree

    Seeing this Friday night so I’m looking forward to reading your review after that. Pretty stoked to see this is getting solid reviews so far.

  5. I was sorely disappointed by Rogue One. The first two thirds are slow and boring. With flat characters, there’s no emotional connectivity to anything that happens. The whole package ultimately feels like an excuse for the Death Star being so easy to destroy in A New Hope. Luckily, the final act delivers in a big way (although it runs about 30 seconds too long).

    CG Tarkin took me right out of the picture every single time he showed up. He looked like an animatronic pirate from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The eyes were so dead that you’d think Robert Zemeckis made it. I was worried that a dozen Tom Hanks would show up offering hot chocolate to the Death Star crew. πŸ˜‰

    • Chris B

      Geez Luke, you seem to be having a Rocky time at the movies lately. Seems like every major release that’s well-reviewed you don’t like or are seriously underwhelmed by. I’m just curious, what’s been your favorite film released this year?

      • So true. Believe me – I don’t like being Johnny Raincloud. I really don’t go into movies expecting to hate them (for the most part). But I’ve been so disappointed by lots of movies this year. And I’m really surprised at the flaws the people either don’t see or disregard with the year’s biggest hits. I personally can’t see past them.

        I will say this about Rogue One: I chewed on it for about a day before deciding that I wasn’t a fan; however, I’m going to see it again tonight just to see if it’s better than I thought. I’m certain that expectations had a lot to do with it being disappointing, but don’t know to what extent. I’m hoping and crossing my fingers that a second viewing will make it better. One thing I don’t expect to be better tonight is the awful CG Tarkin.

        To be honest, 2016 has been a big disappointment for me. I’m down to the wire on the Utah Film Critics Association nomination deadline and I’m having a hard time deciding my Top 5 in each category. My #1 for the year will probably end up being Sing Street. Some of my favorite overall titles (although not all awards-worthy) include Hail, Ceasar!, Midnight Special, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Lion, Captain Fantastic, Swiss Army Man, Live By Night (which I admit is flawed, but I still enjoyed it and hope there’s a director’s cut out there), A Monster Calls, Paterson, Patriot’s Day, Allied, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, Snowden, The Light Between Oceans, Sully, Kubo and the Two Strings, Anthropoid and Hell or high Water.

        • Chris B

          Thanks for the detailed response and let us know what you think of the film after your second viewing. I know for me personally, I was underwhelmed the first time I saw The Force Awakens but the second time I saw it on blu-ray I enjoyed it a lot more…

          • Well, I hoped for it to be better. And … it totally was! I’ve never had a second viewing make a movie so much better. My advice is to pay super close attention to ALL dialog. There’s a lot embedded in it.

            It’s still not perfect. Most characters are flat. The CG actors still look terrible. And Darth Vader’s bad pun is unforgivable.

            For anyone wondering and the 3D and/or IMAX, tonight’s screening was in IMAX 3D and it looked brilliant. One of the best 3D movies I’ve seen in a while.

          • Chris B

            Great news man! Sometimes a second look is all it takes I guess. Seeing it tommorow night in AVX 3D with Dolby Atmos…can’t wait!

    • Clark

      Agreed. The movie is kinda meh. I guess I’m tired of blockbusters. And the digital “actors” are really terrible. I LOL’ed with your comment about the twelve Tom Hankses.

    • Luke, we are finally on the same page about a movie. I agree with you 100 percent.

      The CG Tarkin (and one other character) were HORRIBLE…it was like watching a videogame character in a live action movie. But that’s far from this film’s only problems.

  6. Scott

    Seeing it first show tomorrow night. And going 150 miles out of my way to see it in an AMC Dolby Cinema theater (that’s how far it is to the closest one). Super excited because this will be the first time seeing a movie in that setting. Unless I haven’t been looking well enough, here in the sticks of Greenville, SC there is not a single theater within 100 miles that has Dolby Atmos even. So besides the Dolby Cinema aspect, this will be the first time I’ve seen a movie in Dolby Atmos since Iron Man 3 (which was so bad I slept through half of it)!

  7. Bobbyziltch

    I just got back from watching it.

    I liked it for the most part but I completely agree that it has some weird pacing issues in the first half. Luckily most of those are resolved by the 2nd half.

    The CGI though is a monstrosity that instantly takes you out of the film every time you see it. Almost as much as the weird tentacle monster in the 1st half does.

  8. Chaz

    Really really enjoyed the film, I’m pretty easily able to forgive the CG characters as Tarkin was still more convincing than anything Lucas did in the prequels, sure it looked out of place but it always does. Kind of in the middle on that one, I didnt hate it but I didnt love it either, it was kind of unnecessary but at the same time it did need to be there….its weird, we didnt need the end exactly didnt have to show anything there and it still would have worked.

    The rest of the movie was pretty fantastic though, acting was good, FX were good, this felt like I jumped back in time to the first film and it ties perfectly into the original Star Wars movie with an amazing last 40 minutes or so and one of my favorite sequences of all time in the last 5.

    This is definitely one of the best films in the franchise, bitch slaps the prequels (which isnt hard to do though) and might be up there with the original Trilogy for me easy, the weight that is now behind the plans can make watching Episode IV a completely different experience now, knowing what really happened to get those plans into R2D2 and to the Alliance πŸ™‚

    Cant wait to see it again!

  9. Luke Hickman – I 100% agree with you, all the way down to the awful CGI of Tarkin. Very, disappointed. And I liked Force Awakens for the most part. Wish they would stop doing CGI actors, it never looks convincing imo.

  10. Curt Myers

    Tarkin didn’t bother me, but Leia did for some reason. The beginning was a mess and I didn’t need to know about the characters as much as they wanted. They should be scummy warriors and they all die anyways.

  11. Chris B

    Just got back from seeing it and am pretty blown away to be honest. I think a genuine arguemnt can be made for this being one of-if not the best- Star Wars movie of all time. I enjoyed it far more than I did The Dorce Awakens on my first viewing.

    I thought th CGI looked great all around, didnt take me out if the film at all. The production design, score, set-pieces…..it’s hard to think of anything I didn’t like.

    I guess Donnie Yen’s character seemed a tad out of place……yeah thats it really….awesome movie.

  12. I’m going to put it up there with ESB as the best of the bunch, especially due to one hell of a final act. Vader’s ‘bad pun’ is no worse than “Apology accepted, Captain Needa”, IMO. It was worth the price of admission just to erase the sting of “Noooooooooo!” πŸ™‚

  13. Just got back from seeing it, and I didn’t care for it very much. After a really strong opening, the movie gets REALLY clunky for a big chunk of running time. Things pick up again toward the end, but not enough to save the film. Star Wars needs to stop making prequels…none of them have worked very well – and I probably liked this even less than Revenge of the Sith. Shame, because the movie has some really good actors in it – just doesn’t do much with them.

    • Ah man, I just cant listen too much when a prequel movie gets more praise. Even though Revenge of the Sith is OKAY, it cant come close to what they did with Rogue One, even the CG Tarkin isnt worse than half of Sith’s acting or over acting or bad script or just about anything else really, Sith is the best of the prequels but after the first two, that wasnt hard to accomplish….the prequels just arent good Star Wars movies….period and somehow Lucas did that to his own franchise. The way Disney is going so far, I could never watch the prequels again and be super happy πŸ™‚

  14. Ryan

    In the end I loved the movie. I found just about everything with Jyn and Hannibal (forget his name) to be fantastic. It had the emotional weight that the director failed to deliver in Godzilla. However, everything else was kind of flat for me until the last third…and then I was 100% on board. The ending was just soooooooo good, especially for the hardcore fans. Our theater went nuts

  15. Jason Radcliff

    Weird. I didn’t think the CGI characters looked bad at all. I thought it was kinda neat. Now Yoda in the prequels, that’s another story.

    • I’m a little more forgiving of CGI when it’s a non-human. “Human” characters simply shouldn’t be given that big of a role when it comes to CGI – the technology’s just not there yet. The only time I’ve seen it done right was with Ant-Man and I’m guessing that’s because they actually USED Michael Douglas and CGI’d over his features to make him look younger.

      The problem with Tarkin in Rogue One isn’t just that he looks like a videogame character – it’s that it’s completely unnecessary to have him in that much of the movie. It’s not one of the reasons I didn’t care for the film, but those scenes were a huge distraction for me and managed to ‘take me out’ of the movie.

  16. cardpetree

    I freaking loved it!! I felt like a kid again while I was watching this! Rogue One was easily as good as any of the original three movies, maybe even better with the modern day special effects. I’ve got to see this again ASAP!!

  17. Nate

    I’d say it was mostly good with some very questionable desisions, number one being the cgi humans, simply aweful, they still have a long way to go with that. Also vadars pun was so cringe worthy bad. I don’t know what it was in that scene maybe the lighting but Vader just looked fake and cheesy, not intimating at all. I also thought the voice was some one doing a terrible impersonation of JEJ, it was pretty bad πŸ™ sat face that it was actually him, can’t blame the guy though, can’t fight age

  18. Charles M

    Hated the look of the film. It’s similar dark, murky look of the David Yates Harry Potter movies that looked real ugly. Don’t understand who thinks that looks appealing. Biggest thing actually that bothered me about the film.

    The characters were bland and forgettable. Characters seemed to be a huge weak spot with this director (just check out Monsters and Godzilla) so I expected that. Still disappointing though. I honestly just didn’t care about what happened to them.

    Good special effects though and some cool action scenes. Vader was under used but he had a cool scene at the end. Tarkin was great as well.

  19. Austxsun

    I have a feeling it was better before the reshoots. Jyn Erso was setup in the first trailer to be quite the badass & this movie really seemed to take her legs out from under her. Too many times, she’s passive, allowing others to decide her next step. I didn’t have a problem w Tarkin, though the 2nd CG character was bad enough to take me completely out of the moment; maybe they’ll Lucas-it & update it for the home releases.

  20. tony bennet

    I was hoping for a real review of whether to see it in imax 3d or imax 2d, not a book report on the movie. I have a 14 year old floor that..

  21. Csm101

    So I finally saw it this morning and I really liked it. Definitely better than The Force Awakens. As far as Tarkin looking weird, it wasn’t so bad. I think he was rendered really well but it was the movements and mannerisms that were a little off. He seemed to blink too much. My friend didn’t know the actor and she couldn’t tell he was artificial until we pointed it out. I’m glad they used Cushing’s likeness, a solid effort that still needs a few more years to perfect, if ever. The 3d was very subtle and only made a difference in a few key scenes. TFA had a much stronger 3d presentation. I’d rank this as one of the best Star Wars films of the eight that have been released.

  22. The3rdchild

    Rogue One is another massive miscalculation by Disney! Disney bought a recipie which required them to invest nothing into costumes and set pieces or for that matter an entire universe, and it shows in every scene.

    Characters in the Star Wars universe have had a smattering of unrecognizable ‘filler’ bodies to populate the backgrounds but part of what made Star Wars special was the groups of people/ aliens from established background stories whose motivations are dictated by the rules governing each group. Knowing Jedi’s don’t kill unarmed enemies and don’t act out of anger is what makes their trials and tribulations interesting! Anakins murders were more jaw dropping because they went against his training. Knowing Kenobi wouldn’t break the rules made sure the storyteller had to be creative when deciding how their final battle went down.

    In this movie made for the purpose of making money not for the love and loyalty of fans who expected a more consistent product; new characters are moving around on screen without a set of character guidelines so you never know what they’re doing is a extraordinary for them or not!

    Disney blew it when they decided to try to recreate Lucas’ magic. They may make money by stealing plot lines from Episode IV, V, and VI, but that will only hold up for people not intimately acquainted with Lucas’ earlier submissions.

    Rogue One is a waste of time just like its predecessor. A child can put on their daddy’s shoe and pretend but everyone around them sees it’s a bad fit. Disney should give Lucas back his shoes.

    Episodes I-VI were classics from the beginning……… Disney has proved it lacks the chops to step up wit any Star Wars title! In a word BORING!!

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