It’s hard to go in to a film like Gareth Edward’s Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, a film that has had so much hype, so much to live up to, and such a monolithic and mutli-dimensional legacy to uphold, and not feel anxiety-ridden before hand, then leave the theater joyous and relieved afterward at the fact that it doesn’t suck, and let that extreme dichotomy color your impression of the film. Fans were skeptical (even non-fans were skeptical) at the thought of a Star Wars FILM that didn’t revolve around the Force and the Skywalker family, despite the success of the many offshoots of cartoons and video games that didn’t. But as it turns out, the galaxy far, far away is a big place, big enough for great cinema about more than one family, more than one struggle, and more than one cast. And when compared to Episode VII – The Force Awakens, I had a much more difficult time picking out things I did not like about the film, and an easier time finding and enjoying the things I did. Spoilers to follow!
For a full and detailed plot synopsis, I’ll refer the reader to the excellent work done on it at Wookiepedia ( http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Rogue_One:_A_Star_Wars_Story ) , but suffice it to say, Jyn Erso is separated from her parents by the Empire as a child, as her father, Galen, is the lead designer of the Death Star, and is coerced under threat to the family, by Imperial Director Krennic (wannabe Tarkin) to complete his work. Jyn grows up, with the help of extreme revolutionary Saw “Che Guevara” Gerrera (Of Star Wars The Clone Wars fame). However she is abandoned by him at 16, and after some assumed misadventures, ends up in an Imperial prison, where she is later freed by the rebels in the hopes that she can help them respond to a message smuggled out by and defecting Imperial pilot named Bohdi. Heading up the Rebel crew (under the auspices of franchise icons Mon Mothma and Bail Organa) is Captain Cassian Andor, a long-fighting Rebel with a sordid past, and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO. The Rebellion (I have to get out of the habit of using Resistance when I talk about new Star Wars films now) sends them out to contact Galen, and Andor is secretly charged with killing him so he cannot complete the Death Star. The crew winds up on Jehda, where the Empire is mining Khyber crystals (yay they are film canon now!) for the Death Star laser from an old Jedi temple, as the Empire prepares to test fire the weapon in order to put down the uprising on the planet. They annihilate the city, killing Saw and forcing the crew to flee and locate Galen at another Imperial facility. But! They picked up amazing Force sensitive Chirrut, a protector of the temple, and mercenary Malbus of the awesome blaster chain gun. While Krennic and CGI Tarkin (pretty good CGI but still cartoony) smugly and smartly vie for power over control of the Death Star on Star Destroyer bridges, the whole group then tries to save Galen at the Imperial research facility. Andor then decides not to kill Jyn’s father though when things go awry, the Rebel X-Wing cavalry does it for him. As Galen dies, Jyn learns her father built a fatal flaw into the Death Star (thus explaining one of the biggest MacGuffins in cinema history). But they need those plans! Too bad there are no Bothans around to do it for them. So back into their U-Wing, and off to sunny, beachy Scarif, where they sneak past a Spaceballs-like planetary shield, team up to Metal Gear Solid their way into the archives in a climactic, multi-faceted battle, and steal the Death Star plans. Turns out they can’t get them off planet, so they have to beam them to the newly arrived Rebel fleet and do it just in the nick of time, but not before the Death Star arrives and destroys everything! The Rogues are thus sacrificed, but good old Leia manages to sneak out with the plans on the Corellian Corvette Tantive IV and cut to: Episode IV – A New Hope!
Oh yeah, and Vader is in it. In the best way.
Firstly, some technical shout-outs!
The cinematography is great in this film. Visual cues from the original trilogy are there, with similar shots, scrolling and framing, but are not beholden to it, as Edwards expertly mixes these callbacks with epic new exciting action shots (especially fighting scenes that recall Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, and the expert fighting skills of Donnie Yen). The landscapes and locales are varied and new as well, a nice departure from the same old desert- space-ice planet-swamp/forest progression, or the sterile innards of Imperial facilities. Scarif, filmed in the Maldives, is a lush beach. Eadu (Iceland in the house!), the research facility, is a mountainous, dark, rainy world, and Jedha is an interesting semi-arid world filmed in Jordan. The range of terrain and worlds here gives us a great picture of just how far-reaching the Empire’s grip is at this point of the Star Wars epic.
The score, while not John Williams is done with respect to the original themes and in a service-able, albeit uppity, manner by Michael Giacchino, who did the scores for the new Star Trek films as well. But as I said, it is no Williams.
The special effects, keep with the new Abrams tradition of a mix of awesome ILM CGI and practical effects, though Edwards leans a bit more on CGI for characters than Abrams did, something I did not appreciate, especially when it came to a complete reconstruction of Tarkin. I think a tasteful hologram of him looking down on Krennic and scolding him would have serviced the scenes with Tarkin involved much more truly to their relationship and the tone Tarkin exudes. The ships all looked great, especially the new U-Wing and the Tie-Striker. Great designs that fit right into the universe. Fantastic props and costumes too! Disney really spent that money!
The cameos and winks are all there too! Tarkin and Vader, C3p0 and R2. Even the two cantina brawlers from Episode IV get a nod! The blue milk Luke drinks shows up, and even Hera and the Ghost from Rebels are referenced.
Ok now to my favorite part! The characters and actors.
Jyn Erso is played by Felicity Jones, who is a fine actress, and does a great job playing the character who was written for her (Jyn is more interesting than Padme, but not as charismatic as Leia or and dimensioned as Rey). The problem is the character that was written for her. Though Jyn’s character arc is there, from jaded abandoned child and teen, called to action by the promise of reuniting with her father and having to join a cause to do so. Though she ultimately sees the promise and hope of that cause (and gives her life for it), it feels as though she is more of a plot device than purpose, a way to further much more interesting things and characters around her. Though as an ensemble cast the crew mixes well, I think she gets lost the most in the mix because she is more functional, as opposed to the arc of Cassian Andor (expertly executed by Diego Luna) who has a much more interesting and engrossing character and story.
Andor is a Rebel from age 6, fighting underhandedly against the Empire his whole life. We see this viscerally when he kills a loyal informant when under threat from the empire to prevent himself from being captured; not to mention his partner is a stolen and reprogrammed Imperial droid, and he outright lies to Jyn about the true nature of the mission to contact her father! All means justify the ends for him, yet Jyn’s awakening to the Rebel cause, her hope, allows him to make a much more interesting change: defy this lifelong personal philosophy and resist killing her father (though the X-wings do it minutes later). It is in this moment he finds redemption for all he has done, and that is way more interesting that anything Jyn has in this film. He’s also got swagger and charm not unlike a certain smuggler we know.
K-2SO is hilariously played by Alan Tyduk, who is witty, sardonic, and noble in his own way. His deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery and wry humor reminds me of Marvin the depressed robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is welcome comic relief to the weight of this film, as well as a technical and combat badass.
Donnie Yen as Chirrut is great! Aside from his martial art skills and excellent fighting scenes, his faith the the Force, dry humor and wisdom, and banter with Malbus, played by Jiang Wen,are a constant boon to the film. His character serves to strengthen others and his sacrifice in the end while completely trusting in the Force finally softens Malbus hard heart and he comes to fully appreciate his friend. Chirrut’s effect on the film is more subtle but still very strong, as he is the one most closely tied to the Force, and recaptures the mysticism and religious aspects of the Force, the mystery of it, which the Episodes I-III served to dissolve.
Bohdi is kind of left behind in this film, he is mostly a plot and humor device, and doesn’t stand out as much as the others, though he is a decent character. I feel he and Forrest Whitaker as Saw did not get their due screen time, lines, or have the effect of the film that their characters could have had. They deserved a lot more out of this film, but alas, will see no more screen time after this.
Mads Mikkelsen as Galen…well…Mads Mikkelson plays the distant, pained victim or villain in almost every film he does, and here is no exception. Who did stand out was Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Though not too different from Tarkin in terms of motivation (though very different in dress, as his cape is quite badass), his vicious dedication to the Empire made him quite the villain, that is until the villain we all REALLY wanted appeared!
Vader, with James Earl Jones reprising the voice, stole the scenes he was in. And we got a nice progression of his appearances too. The first scene: just a tease of Vader at his weakest: naked in the Bacta tank being healed. Then he has his showdown with Krennic, a true battle for political power as Krennic vies to supplant Tarkin as head of the Death Star, but Vader shuts him down with the classic choke!
Then we get the climax: Vader reminding everyone why they need to fear him. Vader chases down the Death Star plans by boarding the Rebel fleet, and lightsabers and Force throws and chokes his way down the darkened corridors of the Rebel Capital Ship to find them, only to see Leia speed away in the Corvette, taking us right into A New Hope. This was truly a fans moment. Chilling, thrilling and downright satisfying!
No film is perfect, but this Star Wars entry is definitely special. Better than the prequels and The Force Awakens, on par with the originals, it tells a tight, moving story with new characters that though we have not grown up with them, find something to connect with them over: our hope for the Rebellion and the light side’s victory over the dark side (no matter how much we enjoy the dark side). Worth seeing multiple times, everyone who echoed Han’s Episode IV sentiment of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” movie should be proven wrong. May the Force be with you NerdFunnelers!