No sooner had the Star Wars franchise gotten back on track with The Force Awakens, a film even whose detractors grudgingly accepted as a safe but necessary course correction for a franchise stigmatized by the word “prequel,” the new Lucasfilm handlers at Disney announced the release date for Rogue One…which, by the way, happens to be a prequel.
It felt a little soon for this. Since Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm, the focus had been on moving the franchise forward while keeping one foot firmly planted in the Star Wars of 1977 – 1983. As such, it’s natural that if the idea was to do a “flashback episode,” it would be one taking place during the Original Trilogy. Thus, with Rogue One, we’re getting the story of the heroic rebels who stole the plans for the first Death Star and transmitted them to Princess Leia moments before the start of Star Wars. There’s a lot of familiar iconography on display: classic Stormtrooper design, Imperial Walkers, Star Destroyers, and the Death Star itself. The trailers and previews also promised Alliance honcho Mon Mothma (who smiles in this one, since No Dead Bothans yet), as well as tantalizing glimpses of a Darth Vader who doesn’t whine about sand anymore.
But like the fall of Anakin Skywalker and rise of the Empire, is this a story we really need? It’s one thing to flesh out the rough sketches, but how Leia received the data tapes never felt like something demanding expansion. Part of what makes the beginning of each Star Wars movie so fun is that we begin in media res — in the thick of the action — with the text scroll telling us what just happened prior to the opening scene. The impression of depth and implied history is always more effective than the details themselves.
After all, who cares how the Rebels obtained the schematics? The plans themselves aren’t even that important, story-wise; they’re a McGuffin, Hitchcock’s term for a plot device that spurs action. They don’t really contribute much to the narrative of Star Wars — by the time they’re safely delivered to Yavin IV, it’s barely a minute before the useful data is obtained, after which they’re never mentioned again. The true purpose of the stolen data tapes is to give Luke Skywalker a reason to leave home and become a Jedi knight; for Han Solo to abandon his selfish tendencies and to become part of a greater cause; and for Princess Leia to become a key and open leader in the Rebellion against the Empire. The real narrative significance of the Death Star plans is to initiate the greater plot. Our heroes join forces, battle oppression, and transcend their former selves.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a worthwhile story to be found in Rogue One. There’s definitely material to be mined. By that same token, between the redundant nature of the proposed storyline and the fact that, like all prequels, it becomes difficult to create tension when the fate of the characters is already known (SPOILER ALERT: Princess Leia gets the plans at the end), Rogue One felt like unnecessary backtracking at best, and crass corporate sausage-making at worst. Adding further fuel to the fire was the news that director Gareth Edwards, whose 2014 reimagining of the Godzilla series had succeeded as spectacle entertainment and spectacle entertainment only, had been ordered by Lucasfilm to oversee massive reshoots (forty percent of the film according to reports).
But Joe Moviegoer doesn’t care about any of this, does he? Joe Moviegoer just wants a fun Star Wars movie. He’s not interested in the mechanics of storytelling or inter-industry soap operas. Yet for average audiences, there was an entirely separate issue: what was Rogue One, anyway? Was it a sequel to The Force Awakens? Did they recast the British girl in the lead role, because she kind of looks and sounds the same, but also kind of different? And wait, there’s another Death Star? Where’s Luke? Does Darth Vader come back to life, because I think I saw him in the commercial? What is this movie…? It wasn’t hard to understand why the film was scrutinized to the most microscopic detail, and why anything less than a Sure Thing wasn’t good enough for a franchise that had seemingly lost its way once before and couldn’t be allowed to a second time.
Fortunately, in spite of studio meddling (or perhaps because of it), Rogue One works. It succeeds as an outgrowth of the Star Wars franchise, and manages to tell a story with twists and surprises despite an ending that’s been previously established. It’s also decidedly darker than any film in the series to date, being both a war film and a heist movie in one, with lightsabers and the Force taking a backseat to violent death and mass destruction. The film sometimes teeters close to an uncomfortable edge, where we’re asked to cheer for Rebels performing acts of terrorism on what they consider a corrupt political machine. A more cynical viewer might perhaps squirm ever so slightly when the musical score directs us to applaud. Make no mistake: this is less Flash Gordon than Saving Private Ryan injected with occasional 9-11 imagery, and the first Star Wars where the kids might ask some hard questions on the drive home.
ROGUE ONE forgoes the traditional expository text crawl for a hard open. We meet a young Jyn Erso, whose scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken hostage by Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to oversee completion of their new planet-killing Death Star. Jyn, being now the latest orphan in a series of films ripe with absentee parental figures, is raised under the tutelage of Rebel guerilla fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a Darth Vader-like cyborg kept alive by a breathing machine. Flash forward to present time and we meet an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones, so very earnest), who has ditched the Alliance and run afoul of the Empire through a series of undefined (though seemingly selfish) exploits. No hero is she…at least not until she’s recruited to find her father, who has intentionally designed the Death Star to have a hidden chink in its armor: a three-meter-wide exhaust port through which an explosive projectile might knock out the main reactor, and thus destroy the space station. Now it’s up to Jyn and her new allies, composed of an ethnically diverse cast of international actors, to locate Galen and capture the plans for Rebel analysis.
The previously mentioned ensemble cast is solid, and gives Rogue One both its heart and backbone. There’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) as the strike team’s leader; his scene-stealing droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, Frankenstein-ing C-3P0 and Stewie Griffith to great effect); Imperial pilot-cum-defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); and Force-worshipper Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen, giving a standout physical and emotional performance), and his loyal companion/bodyguard, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). With a group of this size and only one film to showcase it, there’s the concern early on that several of the players may be relegated to wallpaper, but Edwards gives each character his or her own arc and resolution.
The heavies get their due, as well. Those looking for Darth Vader to dominate the runtime will be disappointed, as Krennic is the chief villain of this piece. Mendelsohn chews the scenery with relish, literally gnashing and rending his villainous dialogue like a bloody, rare steak. Vader himself is little more than a cameo. The Dark Lord of the Sith is (thankfully) used sparingly, and to great effect – in fact, Rogue One features what is indisputably one of the character’s defining scenes, and one that will doubtless earn legendary status.
Also returning to the series is Grand Moff Tarkin via the Lazarus-raising magic of Industrial Light & Magic’s digital artists, who’ve (controversially) resurrected Peter Cushing to startling effect. Tarkin sometimes walks the lip of the uncanny valley, particularly when sharing scenes with human actors; and while the technology may not yet be capable of creating one hundred-percent photorealistic characters — and may in fact date Rogue One as surely as the similarly-animated Jar Jar Binks dates The Phantom Menace — the ongoing development of such techniques should be encouraged as it is further refined with each subsequent experimentation (though it raises as many ethical questions as it opens doors for storytellers). Far more successful is the third act integration of familiar Rebel pilots from the iconic Death Star trench run, helping to build a strong and fairly seamless narrative bridge to the original 1977 film.
The appearance of Vader, Tarkin, and various members of Red Squadron aren’t the only callbacks (or, if one views the saga chronologically, “call-forwards”): Rogue One is littered with sight gags and familiar droids and creatures for the sharp-eyed to see. There’s a wonderful moment featuring two Stormtroopers discussing a new equipment upgrade as they saunter by, reminding us of the similar fly-on-the-wall moment in the original Star Wars, back when it was clear that Imperial soldiers were just everyday Joes rather than genetic replicates. Likewise, unused elements of the Original Trilogy are mined for new plot points, such as Vader’s volcanic castle home, and the now-canon appearance of kyber crystals – gems used to generate lightsaber blades, and now harnessed by the Empire to create the Death Star’s planet-killing laser. If you consider the implication, then according to Rogue One, the Emperor is technically using the weapon of Jedi (Light and Dark Side both) to destroy its victims, which is…kind of cool.
Also cool: limited prequel references. The appearance of Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) seems to canonize those first three episodes that so many fans are still trying to forget. However, apart from a brief view of the Coruscant skyline during a flashback, this grudging acknowledgment of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith is fleeting.
The third act is the film’s high point, and it’s both emotionally and viscerally effective. We see familiar Star Wars iconography, from the ships to the Imperial Walkers to the Spaceballs-like planetary shield door that Jyn and her companions must somehow deactivate in order to transmit the stolen data. Nevertheless, it’s a dirtier, grimier vision of these familiar tropes, and Edwards shoots the hell out of it in a very un-Star Wars-y handheld style that visually distinguishes Rogue One from the more classically composed look of the series. It’s a postmodern approach to a traditionally retro-minded franchise. There’s not so much Gee Whiz! as there’s angst and rain and mud. In many ways, Rogue One feels like Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, particularly in its last hour, with blasters instead of swords and X-Wings instead of horses. Consider this Star Wars for those who felt that The Force Awakens played it too safe.
Most notable is the film’s momentum. If there’s one thing in particular that crippled the Prequel Trilogy, it’s the stunning lack of inertia typically associated with Star Wars. In fact, the element that makes a Star Wars “feel like Star Wars” is so obvious and in your face that when Prequel critics try to pinpoint exactly why these films feel wrong to them, they overlook the missing component in the story: situational Evasion and Infiltration. In other words, “running from the Bad Guys and trying to sneak into places.” It’s a common adventure formula. It’s fun and exciting. We enjoy the adrenaline rush of the constant gags and execution of the setups as our Good Guys outwit the pursuant Bad Guys, and we root for them when they finally stop running and take an aggressive final stand. This, more than anything else, is the Star Wars formula. It’s not the ships, or the Force, or lightsabers: it’s watching characters we like in daring, death-defying situations, and ultimately winning or saving the day. Rogue One delivers this in spades.
This isn’t to say the film is perfect. The middle sags a bit in places, and the objectives aren’t always clear. Exposition is rapid-fire to a fault, particularly in the first act, which feels overcut and disjointed. Most notable are the sequences and dialogue that are missing, given their prominence in marketing but absent in the finished film. Key among these are the Normandy-evoking clips of advancing, amphibious Stormtroopers that were key promotional images all throughout the project’s development, as well as a money shot of Jyn facing off against a TIE Fighter. One can only assume that much of the third act was reconceived during the reshoots. Thankfully, Jyn’s “I rebel” exchange from the early trailers is also gone, a bit of dialogue so bad that even the characters in the movie looked as though they were cringing. Even so, Jyn is still the unfortunate victim of the film’s least-convincing dialogue, particularly in an excessively over-earnest war council scene in which the decades-old Rebel Alliance is ready to throw in the towel until Jyn’s impassioned speech-making rekindles hope in their hearts. It hurt just to type that.
It’s a difficult film to rank alongside the others in the series, given that it breaks the mold and attempts new things. Even Michael Giacchino’s score – written in a mere four weeks – evokes John Williams while bringing something fresh to the table (though it must be said that Chirrut’s musical motif was distracting, as it seemed poised to launch into the beautiful “Across the Stars” love theme from the otherwise dire Attack of the Clones). So much in Rogue One is familiar while so much is new. It experiments with tone and seeks an identity apart from the “saga” films in this series. However, this also makes it in some ways incongruous with the others, and thus difficult to objectively call “better” or “worse.” If nothing else, it’s the only prequel worth watching, though maybe not with the kids…or at least not until they’re ready to watch Stormtroopers taking laser blasts to the head at point-blank range.
For better or for worse, Star Wars is here to stay, with a new film promised every year, indefinitely. Maybe it’s the six year-old in me, but half the magic of Star Wars was being made to wait three years between each new installment, and then a decade or more, dreaming of the day when the slumbering series would return. As good as Rogue One may be, I’d trade it for a year off, just to make the forthcoming Episode VIII that much more special.
What can I say? I rebel.