Star Wars goes rogue and leaves strong character development behind.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the fifth best Star Wars film! Now that I’ve gotten my controversial statement out of the way, let’s continue. We can have the ranking argument later. For now, let’s just concentrate on what’s good and what’s not so good about the first ‘standalone’ Star Wars film, aka the first one to focus a story outside of the Skywalker saga. Except, it’s not exactly a standalone film, nor is it completely focused outside the aforementioned Skywalker saga. In fact, its central storyline comes from the iconic opening crawl that begins the original 1977 Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope. Thus, the odds were always stacked against Rogue One. After all, its story is one in which we, more or less, know the fate of the central characters. So how can a film make us care for characters when we already know how their fates will be sealed? Well, in the hands of director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), Rogue One is full of impressive visuals and gripping action and just enough interesting characters to get by. There are easter eggs and callbacks aplenty in Rogue One to fully satisfy traditionalist and hardcore Star Wars fans, and enough stylistic changes to fulfill Disney’s initial attempt to launch a series of films meant to explore the expanded Star Wars universe in a way that is new but familiar. Rogue One is far from perfect, but it’s a fantastic movie-watching experience thanks to its exhilarating war movie feel and robust scope.
Let’s rehash the plot line in case you forgot it — the opening crawl in A New Hope reads:
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. 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.
There you have it, that’s the plot of Rogue One. Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Galen is a science engineer who is tracked down by Lieutenant Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a cruel hand of the Empire, to build the Death Star. Years later, when a defector pilot of the Empire carries a message from Galen detailing a built-in weakness that can take the Death Star down, Jyn is dragged into the ranks of the scrappy Rebel Alliance to steal the Death Star plans and exploit the aforementioned weakness. Along for the journey are a band of rebel fighters and a humorous Debbie Downer droid, K-2SO (motion capture veteran Alan Tudyk). The classic back-n-forth banter made famous by Han and Leia in the original trilogy and more recently by Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens, is nonexistent. The Rogue One characters still toss out a few non-sequiturs and K-2SO provides enough comic relief to balance the film’s dark tone, especially in the midst of suspenseful sequences. Perhaps it’s because the story moves at a brisk pace, and also because we jump between a multitude of converging plot lines, that we never get the chance to really know the lead characters. We’re fed just enough backstory to facilitate a surface-level emotional connection, but nothing deeper. By the end, we witness the fate of the characters, but don’t feel too much of it.
But there’s also the fantastic action element. As the above shot indicates, the beach fight in the final act is reminiscent of many cinematic depictions of the WWII invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Not since The Empire Strikes Back has the Star Wars franchise included such gritty battle sequences. Parallels to the world today — the fear of terrorist attacks, and conflicting views on societal stability — are scattered throughout, but unfortunately the film doesn’t dive deep into any one theme. The point is, Rogue One is not a family film like Return of the Jedi or the horrid Episode I-III prequels. This is a dark story with flawed protagonists…and no Ewoks or Gungans to fumble about. There are, however, some CG characters…
Rogue One employs CGI a little too much, none more unnerving than a couple predominantly computer-generated characters. [Quick spoiler alert] In an attempt to resurrect a character from the original trilogy, the filmmakers push for a mostly CGI representation that trespasses eerily far into the uncanny valley. It’d be a minor criticism if it weren’t for how much screen time the character ends up getting. It’s polarizing for sure, as evidenced by my guest at the screening, who barely noticed it, meanwhile I was irritated throughout. There’s also a reliance on elaborate CG environments that can sometimes distract the audience. Minimalist sets and tighter shots would’ve enhanced the emotional impact of a handful of key scenes, but the creative choice to prioritize visuals over effective character staging seems to have won out. Oh well, it still looks great. *Oh, right, except for one 100% CG character who serves no purpose, nor does that scene serve any purpose. I’m sure you’ll know which one after you leave the theater.*
And yet, it still looks and feels like a Star Wars film. Though it lacks the opening crawl on which its storyline is based, there’s no John Williams score (Michael Giacchino tries and fails to find a powerful and consistent theme), and the strong central characters we’re used to seeing from the original trilogy are practically nonexistent, Rogue One is still a welcome return to the Star Wars universe. There are Star Destroyers, X-Wings, Stormtroopers, a variety of neat-looking creatures and constant references to the power of the Force. Jyn is a worthy lead character (the second female lead in a row, which is awesome!), steadied by a strong performance from Felicity Jones. Rogue One also opens up the Star Wars universe (and our wallets) to the next two even-year films, 2018’s Star Wars Anthology: Han Solo and 2020’s Star Wars Anthology: Boba Fett. If you were solely a fan/viewer of the films up until this point, you can now accept that there are worlds, characters, and adventures that extend beyond the Skywalker storyline, and that they can be just as much fun to watch. Rogue One had a lot to prove and the stakes couldn’t have been higher (well, I guess The Force Awakens had higher stakes), but it managed to be rebellious and still perfectly in line with what most of us wanted. It still ranks 5th though, sorry.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened in San Francisco on Friday, 12/16.