The Good: Performances, Plot development, Most of the special effects, Moments of character
The Bad: Pacing is a little off, CG Tarkin is a little off, Thinly created characters
The Basics: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story illustrates well the adult potential of stories set within the Star Wars universe!
At the end of all of the hype surrounding a film, there must be an actual work produced; a product that has to stand or fall on its own outside the massive publicity machine designed to make the opening weekend of a (potential) blockbuster film a success. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is finally here and separated from all of the hype, the film is astonishingly good. Perhaps the highest kudos I could write about the film is this: I collect AT-ATs (toys, models, artwork, etc) and the trailer for Rogue One that included the variant AT-ATs on the Scarif beach got me jazzed for weeks. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story develops so well and is so engaging that by the time the AT-ACTs appear on screen, I had forgotten that they were even going to be in the film!
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had amazing potential and a mountain of potential problems to overcome in order to be a storytelling success. Based on the second trailer for the film, I went into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with a reasonable expectation that the film would finally create a credible story surrounding the massive technical fault in the Death Star - that was explored in my article The Burden Of Being Rogue One: A Star Wars Story here! But the potential of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was much more massive that just creating a story to fix a prior storytelling gimmick and director Gareth Edwards clearly leapt upon that. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story transforms the Star Wars Universe from a mostly-white, mostly-male dominated setting into a truly diverse, collaborative Rebellion against the homogeneous and oppressive Empire.
But the conceptual genius of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is simple: almost anything can happen. The basic plot of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is simple; this is the story of how the Rebellion came into possession of the Death Star plans that Princess Leia was the custodian of at the outset of A New Hope (reviewed here!). But outside the very minor limitation that the viewer knows from the outset that the heroic team will accomplish their mission, there is very little that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is bound by. None of the primary heroes are required to survive the mission (in fact, from a storytelling perspective, it is better that they don't, otherwise the key question the film would create is "Why were Bothans used to steal the plans for the second Death Star when there was a perfectly effective team available to do the espionage mission?!") and most of the villains can be created to be at least as menacing as Darth Vader as they would naturally be vying for the Emperor's good favor (and villains outside Darth Vader are not limited by either their religious belief in the Force or their desire to keep any family members alive) and could have quite the history of violence, cruelty or just plain military success that existed in a different corner of the Star Wars Universe.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story lives up to those potentials.
Opening rather abruptly with Imperial officer Orson Krennic visiting the Erso homestead where he recovers Galen Erso, a former weapons designer who has been in hiding since leaving his Imperial post. Krennic dragoons Galen back into service and kills Lyra, but their daughter, Jyn manages to escape. Jyn is rescued by Saw Gerrera. Fifteen years later, on the Imperial-occupied moon of Jedha, a pilot (Bodhi Rook) defects from the Empire and claims to have a message for Gerrera from Galen Erso and his defection brings word to the Rebellion of the existence of the massive planet-destroying weapon being built by the Empire, the Death Star.
The rumors of the weapon and Galen Erso's message inspire the Rebellion to send Cassian Andor to Wobani (a planet with an Imperial labor camp) to break Jyn Erso out of Imperial custody. Jyn is taken to Yavin IV where she is generally uncooperative, bristling when Saw Gerrera is mentioned. For her freedom, Erso is given a mission by the Rebellion: to authenticate the existence of the Death Star and bring Galen Erso to the Imperial Senate to testify. To get to Galen, the Rebellion needs Jyn Erso to make contact with the more-extreme and militant Gerrera, while Andor is given the side mission of killing Galen Erso before the Death Star can be completed.
Jyn, Cassian, and their reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO head to Jedha, where the Stormtroopers are out in full force searching for Rook. On the crowded streets of Jedha, Erso is summoned by the blind devotee of the Force, Chirrut Imwe, who reveals that Jedha is being stripped of Kyber crystals to power the weapons of the Death Star. After meeting up with Gerrera, seeing the hologram of her father explaining why he helped work on the Death Star and witnessing the first test of the Death Star that destroys the capital of Jedha, the Rebellion is recoiling in terror. But to prove that her father truly made a plan to save the galaxy from his own weapon, Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze Malbus, Rook, and K-2SO must go rogue to one of the most heavily fortified military archives in the Empire to recover the Death Star plans and get them to the fracturing Alliance!
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story might well be second only to The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) for quality Star Wars films and I write that with two caveats. The first is that the older I get, the less perfect The Empire Strikes Back seems - so much of the dialogue is hokey and the relationships are often forced, etc. Second, as I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, knowing where it absolutely must go, I became more and more aware that I was waiting. My initial feeling was that there was a pacing issued within Rogue One, but the truth is, even as I watched the film the first time, I had a sense that Rogue One might well age better upon multiple viewings. The themes in the film are far less religious than those of The Empire Strikes Back and there were no lines that actually made me cringe (though the cameo of Dr. Evizan and Ponda Baba felt a little forced after the initial delight of it). So, as little as die-hard fans might want to hear it, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could actually be the best of the Star Wars films, but the initial viewing of it does not blow one away so much that they forget the delight of the earlier works.
I suspect that Rogue One will be to Star Wars what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!) is to fans of the Star Trek franchise. In other words, it is a slow burn that takes most people time to warm up to it and some never do. But as Rebel troops landed on Scarif and one shouted "For Jedha!" it was hard for me not to smile and think "For Cardassia!"
Outside the pacing, there are only two noticeable problems with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first is the CGI Grand Moff Tarkin. I was thrilled by how much of a part Grand Moff Tarkin has in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but the computer generated face on the character does not move quite right when the character speaks. While this might not be a big issue on smaller screens, on theatrical screens it was troublingly noticeable. The other issue is that because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is populated by so many characters, very few of them are actually developed well. Within the narrative, on screen, Director Krennic seems to be solely motivated by his desire to actually get a face to face meeting with The Emperor. Undoubtedly, hundreds of articles will follow the release of Rogue One trying to make the argument that Chirrut and Baze were a romantic couple and the ability to make that argument will come from the fact that the two supporting characters are so thinly defined that there is a lot of room for interpretation for their relationship.
Okay, there's a third issue and that is "why the hell does director Gareth Edwards believe a stick is an effective weapon against Stormtrooper armor?!" Were there seriously no accidents on set where Donnie Yen accidentally smacked a stuntperson in Stormtrooper armor with his staff and the stunt persons just said, "It's fine. The armor protected me. I'm not hurt." That's nitpicky, I know, but seriously even in the first viewing, I found myself asking how that was supposed to be working on a practical level!
That said, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is dominated by Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso and Diego Luna's Cassian Andor and they both rise to the occasion and expertly characterize their characters through lines and implicitly through their actions. Andor is a Rebel who is the ultimate pragmatist in a very adult way. When he first appears on screen, he kills another Rebel who will either slow him down or easily crack under an Imperial interrogation. When the Rebels on Jedha attack an Imperial tank, Andor kills one of the Rebels to set off a grenade that will thus save Erso's life. Long before Andor combats Erso's assumptions on his part in the Rebellion, actor Diego Luna has made it abundantly clear that Andor is a man who has done uncomfortable things in the name of freedom and protecting the Rebellion. Luna does a masterful job of delivering his "you're not the only one who lost everything" speech to Jones's Erso, which could have been some of the film's cheesiest lines if he had stepped on them.
Felicity Jones is predictably incredible as Jyn Erso. Jones is the perfect actor to deliver an emotional performance opposite thin air and her reactions as Jyn to watching Galen's hologram is one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire film. Hopefully, there will be a director's cut of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to illustrate just how Erso inspired so many people to follow her on her rebellious mission for the Alliance, but against the wishes of the Alliance Council (the much-teased line about rebels rebelling did not make the theatrical cut of the film). One suspects that more of Jones's Erso in Rogue One could only make it better.
Finally, Alan Tudyk's K-2SO is the best droid in the Star Wars franchise. Walking around like a cranky film critic, K-2SO manages to find the right addition of snarky humor to keep the slower portions of Rogue One moving delightfully well.
Gareth Edwards does not throw out the whole Star Wars playbook by creating a film with diverse characters - though he is not at all subtle about making all of the Imperial engineers old white men - but he does redefine effectively the potential of stories that can be told within the Star Wars Universe. In the original Star Wars Trilogy, the heroes were terrorists and religious zealots whose actions and philosophies were glossed over because their goals were clearly a greater good (i.e. destroying a planet-destroying weapon and rebelling against an oppressive government). In Rogue One, the heroes are flat-out terrorists and they fight for a higher set of principles even when some of their operatives have to do horrible things and participate willingly in acts of sacrifice to save the galaxy. Understanding the complexity of terrorists and patriots is both universal and timely and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story executes it in a way that is likely to weather well as time goes by.
For other works in the Star Wars franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars - Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
The Clone Wars
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 1
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 2
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Star Wars - Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
Caravan Of Courage - An Ewok Adventure
Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakesn
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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