This is an interesting test for Disney and Lucasfilm: can you crank out yearly sequels to a franchise like Marvel and make them good? Some critics will bemoan this move as a cynical cash grab that will lead to the dumbing down of the quality of filmmaking, while fans will be ultra critical of which directions the franchise goes from here. Me? I just give a shit that I can see an entertaining movie. And while Marvel has been relatively consistent in expanding a universe in clever ways, other studios have stumbled clumsily and hysterically in trying to replicate their formula. How does Rogue One, the first side story as a full motion picture fare? Dust the lightsaber off, put on your Chewbaca mask and enjoy my spoilers free review…
Set before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a scrappy rebel who is also the daughter of the architect behind the Death Star, a powerful space station being built by the Galactic Empire that’s capable of destroying planets (that’s for those of you who have lived under a rock for 40 or so years). When the Rebel Alliance find someone who can lead them to the architect of the weapon (Mads Mikkelsen), they find this person in the hands of a militant terrorist (Forest Whitaker) who mentored Jyn after the Empire orphaned her. So the Rebels recruit Jyn, pal her with a Captain named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and set her off on a suicide mission to figure out the potential of this new super weapon, and possibly (read: definitely) a weakness.
What’s curious about this movie is that it was supposed to suffer the same fate as the Prequel Trilogy, in that you had a difficult time caring what was going on because you already knew what was going to happen. Rogue One is essentially a dramatization of the opening crawl from the very first Star Wars film, so therefore you already know that the Rebels get their hands on the Death Star plans and Princess Leia sends it off to a desert planet where the adventure that started it all truly begins. And yet, against all odds, Rogue One succeeds as its own movie thanks to giving you characters you can care about and allowing the story to enhance the experience of the original film, rather than be subservient to it.
Honestly, this movie is a big, swift kick in the balls to George Lucas, because the director of the latest Godzilla reboot managed to make a better prequel to a franchise than the creator of said franchise ever could. But, Gareth Edwards and his story writers, Gary Whitta and John Knoll, understood to make a prequel work, you need to explore a world with characters you didn’t know about. This helps keep the stakes interesting as you don’t know whether or not your heroes will make it to the end. You already know they did something that lead to a net positive for the good guys…but can they be in the same classification?
This is where we get another great angle to explore in Star Wars as our six main protagonists run the gamut of assassins, mercenaries, and even a monk. Jyn, as our defacto hero, is more of a thug than anything else. She moves through the galaxy simply surviving under the Imperial rule before the Rebellion gives her a chance at freedom in exchange for completing the mission they give her. Through her journey, she begins to develop faith in the rebellion and she even delivers a solid reunion with her estranged father. Felicity Jones is great in this role, portraying the character with confidence and giving us a Star Wars protagonist that’s very different than what we got last year with The Force Awakens. While her character doesn’t get any memorable lines, she feels like a lived-in character from her pose, her outfits to the way she speaks. Everything about her conveys subtle cues about her and the universe at large.
Her costars may not be as interesting as she is, but each of them provide great moments in the film. Particularly from Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, who talks a never ending amount of shit as he calculates everyone’s chances for survival. While his lines aren’t gut-bustingly funny, they do provide a brief respite of dry humor in a film that’s essentially trying to nurture a sense of foreboding doom what with the Death Star looming over everyone like a Sword of Damacles. Plus, his exit from the film was bad ass, heroic, and sad all at once that I felt a tiny heart skip for him and the wonderful moment he provided to me.
Adding other sets of great moments were the pair of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen playing a blind monk and a heavily armed mercenary respectively. Their banter is great throughout the film while shedding a bit of light on some overlooked Star Wars lore that I appreciated quite a bit (and I’m sure other die hard fans are overanalyzing that history right now and are publishing 10,000 word wiki articles on it…Jesus they did it already). But Yen has tons of standout fist-pumping moments that was weirdly inspirational for me.
I suppose this movie got me at the right time to make me dig it a whole lot more than I probably should. What with all this talk of fascism going around and seeing people mobilize to fight the movement at every opportunity in the world lately, it’s great to see a film that can perk my spirits a bit even if the tone of the climax is very downbeat. But as sad as some of the resolutions are, there was far more of a message about hope…and a balls to the wall climax that felt like the Battle of the Endor from Return of the Jedi on steroids.
The war scenes are filmed as if their primary sources of inspiration were Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan, ironically doing a better job telling a story about soldiers in an impossible situation than Michael Bay did early on in 2016. A lot of people have been claiming this is the first Star Wars movie to feel like an actual “war.” While some online have derided this observation, there’s a bit of truth to that statement. The Star Wars films don’t focus on the intergalactic war as much as they focus on adventurers completing some quests in the middle of said war. Rogue One, by contrast, focuses on guerilla tactics, diving for cover, methodically claiming objectives, etc. Things that wouldn’t appear so strange in any war film, but in a Star Wars flick (produced by Disney), it feels weird. But the gambit pays off in spades as the film delivers controlled chaos on the ground, in the skies and in deep space that I became swept up in the pandemonium on screen.
Some critics will bemoan that “nothing new” is being added to the Star Wars canon if scenes are making me reminisce of other moments in the series; but given the fact it’s been around for 40 odd years and films, television, video games, novels, pen & paper role playing games and comics have covered every kind of plot point that was conceivable, I’m not going to fault similarities too much. Especially when the adrenaline is kicking into my system, sucking me into the action, and making me tense with every grenade toss and blaster shot made, then I care little that I’ve seen certain elements before. It’s a stylistic difference that I appreciated from the director quite a bit, as he’s given me things I didn’t know I wanted.
There are certain elements that don’t work in this movie, but their comparatively minor to what I appreciated. Diego Luna really wasn’t able to bring much to his role as Cassian because the script didn’t give him much to do except to be provided with an ethical dilemma that ultimately doesn’t pay off very well. Hell, the whole matter could be excised from the film and barely anything would be lost in translation. And while I love watching Forest Whitaker and Ben Mendelsohn, neither of them had decent characters I wanted to learn more about. Also, two thespians (one of which is dead) appeared in this movie through the magic of digital masks…and it didn’t look great. The second character got off relatively scott free thanks to brevity, but another character that plays a vital role in A New Hope takes up a lot of screen time and the mask became increasingly distractingly. It was funny that these two characters were the only heavily computer-generated characters in the film compared to bukkake of such characters in the Prequel Trilogy.
That being said, there is a return of one character that I want to discuss, because he’s in the trailers and therefore safe from spoilers, and that’s Darth Vader. Not only is he once again voiced by James Earl Jones, Vader is for the first time in decades FUCKING scary. One scene starts out in complete darkness when you hear that familiar heavy breathing…and he unleashes all out hell. It’s a scene that really got to me both for its effectiveness and for making me thankful that Vader king asshole again (also demonstrating why Kylo Ren will never be as bad as he was).
Goddamn did that feel good, a quality Star Wars film that I can unabashedly dig without having to admit to certain criticisms like ewoks or that it’s a copy of the original films or that it relies on cliché. Fuck that shit, I can say that I dug the hell out of it for all of the reasons I mentioned. The flaws are still there, but I can’t deny how I felt after an especially strong third act that featured tons of great moments of sacrifice that added a surprising amount of depth to certain characters. It’s ending was the boldest choice I’ve seen for a franchise blockbuster, and yes I’m calling out Fantastic Beasts and DC Movies in particular for that. Those films existed to spin the wheels of their corporate masters and offer nothing of interest to me that was exciting, thrilling, or dramatic. Instead those films all went for cop out endings that served only to establish future sequels and nothing further. They cannot stand as their own movie, not like Rogue One can.
Even with my criticisms, this movie is a strong…