REVIEW: 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' offers a scrappy, fresh perspective
Just as the third act gets underway in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a lead character makes a fiery speech. In many movies, in this type of scene the hero’s inspiring rationale would win over the group, and the moment would be set to a rousing musical cue. But Rogue One takes that expectation and twists it, one of many decisions in its screenplay intended to show that not everything goes in the hero’s favour in this universe. In fact, sometimes things just go plain wrong, and there’s no traditional happy ending to be had.
The theme carries throughout the film, and culminates in events that don’t fit, at first blush, with how we expect a Star Wars movie to wrap up. But that’s the point: this movie is a very different kind of experience within the franchise. People die, missions go sideways, and there’s no laser-sword-wielding space wizards to wave their hands and make things magically happen. In short, it illuminates a background realm of Star Wars that’s been hinted at over the course of seven films and never been fully explored until now.
At least for me, Rogue One’s sliver of the Star Wars universe is something any die-hard fan (including myself) has wanted for a long time. Not only does it offer some delicious context to the opening scene of one of the most well-known movies of all time, but it does so in a way that believably fills in some of the many things we don’t know about the galaxy we’ve spent so much time watching and talking about. Races, cultures, political disputes (...erm, at least ones we can care about) and moral quandaries are all layered into the film – catnip for anyone hooked on learning as much as they can about the canon mythology of the films.
What of the characters and plot? In terms of timeline, Rogue One situates us as little as several days from the beginning of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. It follows a young woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who is broken out of an Imperial prison by the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels need Jyn so they can make contact with an Imperial defector held by the man who raised Jyn from childhood, a militant named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
The defector (Riz Ahmed) held by Gerrera holds key information from Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial weapons expert working on the construction of the first Death Star. In short, Jyn is the only one who can unlock how the Rebels can hope to oppose the Empire’s dreaded “technological terror”. The only question is whether she can find something in the Rebellion’s efforts worth supporting; Jyn believes the only way she’s stayed alive all these years is by keeping her head down and avoiding any allegiances that might get her killed.
Jyn’s story may be the through line of Rogue One, but the movie also draws in plenty of other elements, including Jyn's combative dynamic with her Rebel handler, Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his brilliantly sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Then there’s the other people she recruits along the way, like Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) – like Jyn, they have no stake in the Rebellion, but they can’t let themselves sit idly by.
With all these new people driving the action, Rogue One had to pass a single test: to prove that the Star Wars series can thrive when it’s not telling the stories of its core characters. Without the Skywalkers, Princess Leia, Han Solo or Chewbacca around, is this a world we still want to visit? I believe it does, even though we admittedly don’t go deep enough into Jyn or Cassian to really know what makes them tick. For all the progressiveness of positioning a woman as the main character or a Hispanic man as her co-lead, their characters are still heavily archetypal: an abandoned child of important parents and an ethically conflicted operative with a good heart.
Character development aside, there are other aspects of Rogue One that may put off some viewers. One I’m sure we’ll see a lot about online is how many familiar ideas are reused. Does the movie borrow components from other Star Wars films? Of course it does. When The Force Awakens opened last year, that was the key criticism as well – it too closely resembled A New Hope and was somehow inherently deficient because of it.
I don’t buy that argument. For me, Star Wars has been around long enough that common elements (like spaceships trying to blow up a crucial target or Rebels disguising themselves to get into a secret base) are part of the language of the series. It’s no different from James Bond getting a fantastic suit, a beautiful car and a gorgeous woman in each of his movies. There are certain things that define a franchise, and filmmakers remove them at their peril.
And it’s hard to forget the film’s use of special effects - both the positive and negative sides. The majority of the film excels in this area, especially in how it shows off more of the expressive space dogfights that first appeared in The Force Awakens. But the only potential stumble is the reliance on digital depictions of characters who can no longer be played by the actors who originated the roles.
Grand Moff Tarkin is the most obvious example – played by Peter Cushing originally, here he is reanimated with a soundalike voice actor and motion-capture CGI. It works, but barely, and he appears a little too often to sustain the illusion. Same goes (albeit to a lesser extent) with a quick shot of a newly young, digital version of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. If you can get over the potential creepiness of the approach, it won’t be an issue, but it does signal a new phase in a Hollywood strategy that’s been in development for a long time.
With any huge blockbuster from a billion-dollar franchise, one of my most reliable measures for its success is whether or not I feel an instant rush as the credits begin to roll. Before my critic brain kicks in, is there a wave of satisfaction, like I’m coming back from a rejuvenating vacation in a far-away place? It happened with Rogue One in the same way it did with The Force Awakens, and it’s because (despite its flaws) Rogue One’s new and arguably more detailed perspective on a familiar conflict is as close as we can get to the experience of seeing A New Hope for the first time. It fills our minds with new sights, proving that the Star Wars universe is as unlimited as its creators allow it to be.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of the first Star Wars “anthology” film? Does it make you hungry for more one-off untold stories? Or is the Skywalker saga the only way to enjoy the franchise? Join the discussion in the comments section and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers.