REVIEW – “Rogue One”
Rebellions are built on hope. Franchises are built on well-made, entertaining and enjoyable films – and the hope that you liked what you saw enough to return again and again. Star Wars in 1977 ignited a saga that would persist and flourish well into today, becoming a franchise that is now more popular than ever before. Revitalized by Disney after their $4 billion dollar acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, Star Wars triumphantly returned to theaters with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episodic chapter of the George Lucas-birthed franchise that proved itself a Death Star-sized hit – and which now stands as the third highest-grossing film of all time, with a worldwide haul of more than $2 billion dollars.
The question, then, became: was it a fluke? Could Disney and Lucasfilm’s sophomore effort – the first of several planned standalone films set in the Star Wars universe, a spinoff taking place away from the episodes’ Skywalker plot thread – exceed the high expectations set by the mega-blockbuster performance of The Force Awakens? The answer is a resounding yes. In Rogue One – billed as “A Star Wars Story,” but only in marketing – a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.
Facing the tyrannical and unyielding grip of the Galactic Empire, a band of unlikely heroes – including scrappy and rebellious prison-brat Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), battle-tested Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), sharp-tongued ex-Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind Force-faithful Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and gruff companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – come together in this period of galactic civil war, united by a simple theme: hope. Once a parental figure to Jyn and now a weathered, paranoid shell of a man whose body is more machine than flesh, Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) helps inspire Jyn to join a cause greater than herself, even if she’s first pushed into action concerning the efforts of her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who helped forge the Empire’s greatest and most threatening tool of destruction: the Death Star.
Jyn Erso is a worthwhile heroine, even if she doesn’t shine as much as The Force Awakens‘ charming and eager Rey (Daisy Ridley) – the pair are most similar in how they’ve drawn, and will continue to draw, criticisms of being “Mary Sues” – and while she’s initially largely selfish and indifferent towards the Rebels and their cause, her involuntary involvement in “the cause” quickly turns from aversion to an earnest desire to fight back against the oppressive Empire. It’s the relation with her father – who has unwillingly spent most of Jyn’s life removed from her – that gives Rogue One an emotional core, and even as Jyn rarely struggles in her efforts against Stormtroopers and other Imperial forces, she’s a brave, sympathetic and capable hero, with a fiery desire to take a stand even if it means going without the support of the Rebellion.
The crew that becomes known as “Rogue One” is co-lead by the Han Solo-esque Cassian, whose interesting moral dilemma – amazingly withheld from marketing materials, and which is too good of a surprise to reveal here – is straight out of an old, Hollywood western, and it’s characterization rarely seen in blockbuster leading men. A standout is Imwe, a blind warrior whose mantra “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” serves him almost as well as his staff-wielding skills and his martial arts. He and Malbus – a freelance assassin who’s too old for this shit – are roped into the cause, while former Imperial pilot Bodhi proves himself to be an invaluable asset against his former brotherhood. If there’s one flaw with Rogue One, it’s that its main characters, as a whole, don’t get much time to interact. The same flaw plagued both Suicide Squad and The Magnificent Seven, but it’s a testament to Rogue One‘s script and its actors that you actively want to see more of these characters talking and bonding with one another. Largely, these characters find something to believe in as they take arms side-by-side, but they’re never sat around getting hammy and referring to each other as “family” – the outnumbered-but-hopeful Rebels are bound by their shared hope, and its their commitment to the cause that comes as the big bonding moment.
What character interaction there is – Jyn and K-2SO’s thinly veiled tolerance of one another, Jyn and Cassian’s initial, mutual distrust, Malbus’ eagerness to blast the once Imperial pilot – makes for on-your-toes viewing, and it’s that much more meaningful when the team puts aside their individual motivations to come together in service of the dream. Reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO is a faithful, if reluctant, companion, whose biting tongue makes for the kind of character-based humor found in the original Star Wars trilogy. As serious and as emotionally heavy as the movie gets, it’s healthy sense of humor is never at odds with the seriousness or the drama – and unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad, Rogue One is weighty and gritty without being drab and dour. Rogue One is fun, and it’s climactic land, sky and space battle is a joyous wonder to behold – particularly with Dolby Atmos shaking your chair with each pew, pow and blam.
Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) is used sparingly, but effectively, serving as a standout in a movie filled with drop-your-jaw moments. He’s threatening, powerful, and scary, with his big scene – you’ll know it when you see it – standing as not only one of the best parts of Rogue One, but one of the best parts of any Star Wars movie. Longtime Star Wars obsessors will be rewarded with a conservative amount of references, cameos and fan-service, and as one myself, trust me when I say the final few moments of Rogue One will have you cheering at the screen. The film segues into A New Hope perfectly and seamlessly, making a two-hour prologue that never fails to feel like Star Wars. Emulating that style and tone isn’t easy, but director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) accomplishes it with incredible flair, while cinematographer Greig Fraser photographs the best looking Star Wars film yet.
It’s tipping too far into spoiler territory to tell you just how ballsy and daring Rogue One is, but just a year after The Force Awakens drew criticism for its similarity to A New Hope, this gritty, grimy war-drama is identifiably Star Wars while avoiding the trap that is too familiar. “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” reads the opening scrawl of A New Hope. “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet…” This is that story. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey – and Rogue One is a journey you’ll want to experience again and again. Best experienced on the biggest screen possible with the biggest speakers possible, Rogue One is the rare blockbuster that delivers on story, character, action, humor, and special effects, making for the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, scripted by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy with a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Rogue One stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendolsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Rogue One opens with nighttime showings on Thursday, December 15th.
Rogue One: 5/5
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★ ★