Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): Clumsy, but fun
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD…
Rogue One is the latest in the Disney-helmed Star Wars franchise, following last year’s wildly successful but critically divisive The Force Awakens, which served as a sequel to the original saga and the first in its own trilogy. Rogue One takes a different approach, and is both a prequel and an interquel, taking place between Episodes III and IV (immediately before Episode IV, as it eventually turns out) and details how the Rebellion managed to get hold of the Death Star plans that served as the MacGuffin of the original film.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young girl living in hiding with her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who was a scientist working for the Empire who fled when he realized that his work was being used to construct the Death Star. She witnesses his capture by the sinister Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star’s construction and an old friend/enemy of the family, whose troops gun down Jyn’s mother in front of them after she tries to kill Krennic. Jyn flees, evades capture, and is eventually found and raised by another friend of the family, the Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
15 years later, Jyn is a prisoner of the Empire being hauled off to slave labor only to be rescued by the ruthless Rebel Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0, who take her to the leader of Rebellion, Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) on the moon Yavin IV, where Jyn is informed that Saw Gerrera, now a desperate extremist with his own faction, has captured an Imperial defector, a pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), whom they learn is carrying a message from her father Galen about the Empire’s new ultimate weapon. They want her to help them make contact with Gerrera in the hopes that he’ll at least talk to her if not them, and she reluctantly agrees, while in secret, Cassian is given orders by another Rebel general to assassinate Galen Erso since he’s an asset to the Empire and too dangerous to be allowed to live. On the mission, Jyn and Cassian meet and team up with the blind Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), who belongs to an Order that used to serve the Jedi, and his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
As this plan unfolds, Director Krennic learns from Grand Moff Tarkin (a digitally resurrected Peter Cushing, voiced by Stephen Stanton, who plays the character in the shows Star Wars: Clone Wars and Rebels) that the Emperor is dismayed at the slow progress of the project, and holds him responsible for both that and the defection of the pilot, who’s revealed to have crucial secret information about the existence of the Death Star. If Krennic wants to stay in the good graces of the Empire, he’ll need to clean up his mess, as well as prove that the Death Star is operational by providing them with a demonstration of it in action.
Overall, this movie is clumsy in some areas, but it maintains a fairly good balance of tension and fun. Rogue One is a film with some minor pacing problems; while its running time is about the same as The Force Awakens, the film juggles an ensemble cast of almost entirely new characters and underwent extensive reshoots after filming, which unfortunately shows, as some scenes can seem too quick and too brief and it’s not always entirely clear what’s going on or why certain characters do what they do, and it’s not helped by the fact that the script doesn’t seem interested in exploring these characters very much. Both Jones and Luna do fine as the two main protagonists, but we rarely get much insight into their characters except in a handful of short-lived scenes, which is made worse by how neither of them are very emotive and both are private, secretive people who keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves except when the plot requires it.
Beyond that, the rest of the cast is a mixed bag: Donnie Yen and the droid K-2SO are both great characters who are both competent and intelligent, while at the same time provide a lot of the film’s funnier moments, but the rest of the gang aren’t really explored and often aren’t given all that much to do. Or when they are, it’s either something any character could have done or something that relies on the plot throwing logic out the window (for example, it becomes a very important plot point in one instance that Rook and the others get a message to the Rebel fleet about what they need to target in order to bring down an Imperial shield, but the target in question is so friggin’ obvious that the Rebel fleet would have to be both blind and dumb to not know this already). Both Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikklesen do fine in their respective roles, but both are also essentially glorified cameos, and neither ends up joining the team to bring the Empire down (both meet fates that the script would have been better served to avoid, as well), and both the main cast and the villain Krennic do an unnecessary amount of planet-hopping that a tighter script might have avoided just to keep the plot going.
Further, while it’s nice of the film to expand on this new Star Wars mythos and show us some more of the galaxy and its culture (such as introducing general audiences to the Kyhber crystals, which power the lightsabers of the Jedi, and which the Empire are now looting to power the Death Star), most of the new planets we see seem to be on the outskirts of the galaxy, and almost all of them are Imperial military bases, one of which on a planet that seems to be lifted straight out of the climax of the video game Knights of the Old Republic, and others which aren’t explored very well. Another is a burning molten planet (which may just be Mustafar, from Episode III) which only has a single imposing black tower on it, that turns out to be the digs of Darth Vader, who evidently stole it after he kicked out Sauron. The rebel base on Yavin IV seems to be in part the same set used for the base of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, just with poorer lighting (or if it’s not, they’re annoyingly similar), and the planet where Galen Erso is being held is just a rainy mountain range with the exterior of a military base. While the film is well shot and beautiful, the sets themselves have a sparseness to them that makes it feel disappointingly small at times, given the scope of the events that are playing out here. It’s not a good sign that the planets visited in the original trilogy, which had a vastly smaller budget, somehow felt bigger and more like actual worlds than the ones in this film.
That all being said, overall, Rogue One stands as a solid film. The special effects range from good to excellent, with the CGI Tarkin (and one other character) coming off as surprisingly well-done (I think you can only tell that it’s CG if you’re familiar with the films and know that Peter Cushing is long dead). The villains are much more sinister and effective compared to The Force Awakens, with both Tarkin and especially the terrifying Vader near the end proving themselves to be both extremely ruthless and extremely efficient antagonists, while Krennic is more slimy and smug and somewhat out of his depth, but nonetheless enough of a stone cold sociopath to remain dangerous and menacing in his own right, as well.
The action is spare for much of the film, but is well executed and effective when it comes, and the climactic battle at the end is a glorious sight to behold, silly plot issues notwithstanding (aside from what I’ve mentioned, the Rebels ultimately attempt to steal the Death Star plans with almost zero planning or preparation, and get them through a mixture of Imperial incompetence and a massive amount of luck). The fight scenes are more dirty and hard-hitting than Star Wars fans may be used to, but they’re well choreographed and well executed and appropriate for a film focusing on some of the more shady and morally gray characters in the Star Wars universe.
The film is also a treat if you like Easter Eggs. Often, movies such as this fail to pull them off properly, as nods to previous movies are too obvious or unnecessary—Episode I itself being especially gratuitous when it was “revealed” that 8 year old Anakin built C-3PO and flew around with R2-D2, raising a lot of pointless questions about the original trilogy. Here, however, Rogue One manages to stand entirely on its own two feet while still managing to include numerous small nods to the rest of the franchise that (mostly) don’t distract and instead validate and reward long-time fans of the wider franchise. Saw Gerrera himself is a nice (if underused) addition, as the character originally debuted in the Clone Wars CGI series; there’s mention of a “General Sendulla”, which is a reference to a character in the Rebels show; Jimmy Smits reprises his role from the prequels as Senator Bail “father of Leia” Organa, a leader of the Rebel Alliance; and for the final battle, they even spliced in characters and footage of X-Wing pilots from the Battle of Yavin IV that was the climax of the original movie. The film even offers a fairly clever explanation about a long standing fan complaint: Why was the Death Star so (relatively) easy to blow up? Well, there’s a reason for that as well.
Basically, while this film is largely unnecessary and isn’t the most perfect of Star Wars movies, it’s still an enjoyable and unusually dark(-ish) entry into the franchise, one that adds to the story and the characters without taking anything away from what made the original films so great. It can be improved in numerous areas, but its strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, and in the end, it’s a welcome addition to the story.