The new regime behind the Star Wars franchise came with a promise to the die-hard fans of the world. We would be offered one, new entry into the series every year until the brand became old and tired or until the stars overhead burned out, whichever came first. That meant every other film would take a side step away from the main saga and branch out into the ever-expanding universe surrounding it. This meant something as trivial as the first paragraph of A New Hope’s opening crawl could be fleshed out into a feature film, which is what they’ve done with Rogue One, the first of many Star Wars stories to come. What looks like fodder to fill out the Star Wars release slate on paper, though, ends up delivering the freshness this beloved franchise desperately needed and all the excitement those die-hard fans have come to expect.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does wonders with the brief explanation George Lucas initially offered at the beginning of his first Star Wars film. The story of a small band of rebels who obtained the blueprints to the original Death Star was fine as a throwaway introduction into this universe, but the film that has grown out of that snippet of information is something that handily transcends its original intent. Rogue One puts the “war” back into Star Wars. That’s something of a ridiculous statement to make about a series of films steeped in the idea of war, but the franchise has often been bogged down with the love stories and family dramas that Lucas always seemed so interested in.
A mission movie on the surface, Rogue One does a stellar job delivering the memorable characters and interesting situations that are a prerequisite for this universe. Deeper still, though, it packs an emotional core the Star Wars universe has been unable to achieve with more recent entries, and, despite falling victim to typical, fan-boy trappings, Rogue One becomes the all-inclusive story for which fans have been waiting.
Chief among those memorable characters is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a loner in the Star Wars universe who becomes enveloped by the ongoing war through her family ties. You see, Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is the engineer responsible for the Empire’s latest weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. Forced to construct the weapon against his will, Galen has built in a semblance of hope deep within the massive space station, a way for the Rebel Alliance to bring the weapon down. Naturally, Galen’s love for his estranged daughter puts the key to discovering the Death Star’s weakness squarely into her hands. It isn’t long before the Rebels recruit Jyn to find that weakness and the means for bringing the Empire’s superweapon down. We all know how that turns out, don’t we.
This is the first aspect to Rogue One that should be commended. Under the direction of Gareth Edwards (Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla), the film does a fine job in holding onto the suspense despite foreknowledge of how the events will transpire. We know the Rebels eventually do obtain the schematics for the Death Star. We know the Rebel Alliance brings the massive battle station down. We ultimately know the Empire falls amidst an obnoxious, Ewok celebration. None of that matters as the events transpire throughout Rogue One. Quite the contrary. Edwards and the team of screenwriters involved do wonderful work expanding the Star Wars universe while simultaneously delivering a gangbuster epic of a war film and all that goes with it.
With a few, minor tweaks the story that unfolds within Rogue One could easily be converted into a fine World War II story, or any run-of-the-mill war, for that matter. The sight of Imperial troops and vehicles laying waste to a city and its population purposefully calls to mind the image of Nazi troops rolling through burnt-out communities. The concepts and themes Rogue One injects into the characters and situations are universal putting the film’s story well within the grasp of general understanding. This instills an importance to the events playing out that isn’t found in open-ended entries the franchise has given us thus far. At the same time it delivers fully on what is expected in the realm of Star Wars, feature films.
Jyn Erso is a very capable hero at the forefront of the film’s story, but even her character is allowed room for growth, something the screenwriters utilize with each, passing moment. The team of Rebels aiding in her quest are as eclectic and interesting as any group of otherworldly beings the franchise has delivered despite their makeup being primarily of the human variety. The ragtag Rebel group is led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an undercover agent and recruiter for the Alliance. Andor’s role among the Rebels is itself an interesting one, the tasks the Alliance sets for him speaking volumes on the gray area these new Star Wars films seem to be infusing within the group.
Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen play Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, respectively, their roles as badasses in the Galaxy without an initial allegiance letting us in on the hardships and travesties the Empire is laying on the citizens of this world. Riz Ahmed’s role of Bodhi Rook is that of a former Imperial pilot who has defected to the Rebel Alliance, an element that places an idea of precedence after the fact on The Force Awakens’ Finn and his decisions about which side he fights. Alan Tudyk voices the crew’s lone, non-human member: K-2SO, a former Imperial droid who has been reprogrammed and who offers Rogue One that bit of droid-based humor that has become a necessity for all Star Wars films.
The group maintains many different facets about the Star Wars universe, some of which we’re already aware. Yen’s Chirrut has faith in the Force, though he’s not a Jedi. Cassian’s own faith in the Alliance raises questions about blindly following orders regardless of the results. The character motivations – Rebels and Empire – are clearly presented, the battle lines being drawn all the more palpable and impactful to the surrounding world. Rogue One’s ability in crafting such an engaging, war story is only hindered by the film’s desire for fan service.
It isn’t that the film is jam-packed with awkward pokes at your fandom. Sparingly as they are, though, the placement could be a bit smoother. These moments for the fans come in the guise of familiar characters from previous films popping up in random and not-so-random spots and little bits of dialogue whose only presence is familiarity.
One of Rogue One‘s important characters is one who we’ve seen before, the actor who made the character famous having passes away in recent years. That isn’t stopping the wonders of modern, digital technology from bringing the actor back to life for a number of key scenes. Despite the uncanny valley associated with such a thing, it’s an impressive endeavor that the filmmakers and technicians here very nearly pull off. The obviousness of the fan service does make it somewhat difficult to ingest, though.
In most instances, though, Rogue One utilizes well the familiarity of this universe fans will be bringing to the table. The high marks regarding this come from the planets and locations we’ve seen before and the way Edwards and crew handle Darth Vader here. The couple of scenes in which the iconic Sith lord makes an appearance are suspenseful from the character we know him to be, but they’re all the more intense when Rogue One shows us something we’ve never seen before. Vader is a presence here, one that could almost be identified as death incarnate, and it will only whet the appetites of fans who are always craving more from the more popular characters.
Rogue One stands and delivers on all that it promises: a fun adventure with a dark wartime edge that builds story and characters wonderfully in its finite runtime. For that matter, it may actually be the perfect movie for non-Star Wars viewers to dive into this world, something on which the filmmakers behind it are likely counting. The acting is solid across the board, Forrest Whitaker and Ben Mendelssohn playing extremely well with their respective, opposing roles of resistance leader and Imperial middle management.
The window dressing Edwards and his crew lay down gives the overall experience that necessary spark of creativity that has you coming back for more. Chief among these is the glorious score composer Michael Giacchino has conceived, his individual tracks harkening back to the familiar music of John Williams but with their own, memorable themes. It’s just a cherry on top of the already exquisite sundae at work in this story from the Star Wars universe.
War has always been an obvious staple in this universe, but Rogue One is the first Star Wars experience in a long time – maybe ever – that could be qualified as an out-and-out war movie. On top of the surface-level excitement the film delivers on strong characters and the gradual expanding of this world, both those who inhabit it as well as the fabric that makes it up. With the internal development driving the emotions and a whopping, sci-fi adventure taking place on the outside, it isn’t difficult to recognize Rogue One as the very best war movie the Star Wars universe has to offer (so far).