It’s kind of sad that people other than George Lucas now seem to understand the appeal of Star Wars better than he does. But if that means an ongoing string of good Star Wars movies for the foreseeable future, so be it.
And Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, is a good Star Wars movie. It follows in the footsteps of last year’s J.J. Abrams-directed The Force Awakens, in that there’s an emphasis on the characters over the special effects, and a concerted effort to avoid the kind of cringe-inducing dialogue for which Lucas was so roundly criticized on the three prequels that he made between 1999 and 2005.
Rogue One, too, is a prequel. It takes place shortly before the events of the original film (now known officially as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, but it’ll always be just Star Wars to me), and sets up some of the characters and situations that we saw for the first time back in 1977. Some familiar faces show up—and longtime fans will undoubtedly be delighted by those moments—but the emphasis is squarely on new characters, both rebels and agents of the evil Galactic Empire.
The plot is fairly simple. Remember the opening crawl in Star Wars, which explained that a team of rebels had managed to steal the plans for the Death Star and transmitted them to Princess Leia? Well, that’s what this film is about—those particular rebels, and how they got the plans.
Among the most notable of the rebels is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. She’s a young woman with a tragic past (which we get to see in the film’s gripping prologue), who is handed a unique and profoundly personal opportunity, one that could help the Rebel Alliance and reconnect her with a long-lost piece of her life. Jones is effective in the role, bringing a nice combination of beauty, strength, determination, and vulnerability.
Diego Luna plays Captain Cassian Andor, a dashing rebel intelligence officer who establishes a bond with Jyn but also has a hidden agenda that could destroy the trust between them.
Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen, is a devout believer in the Force, although he is never established as having been a Jedi Knight. It’s not clearly established whether he actually possesses Force powers, but he is a highly skilled martial-arts master—and completely blind.
The film’s major droid character, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is a real standout. Like C-3PO before him, K-2SO provides much of the comic relief. And while 3PO can range from amusing to annoying, K-2SO is genuinely hilarious throughout the film. Without a doubt, he gets the best lines, and Tudyk gives him a personality that is fussy, earnest, sarcastic, and irreverent, sometimes all at the same time.
I also have to mention the main villain, Director Orson Krennic, played very effectively by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic is the head of Advanced Weapons Research for the Empire. He’s undoubtedly a cruel and cold-hearted bastard, and ambitious as hell, but you can’t help kind of feeling for the guy—we can see he’s under a lot of stress, with a major responsibility on his shoulders and several extremely fearsome overlords to answer to, along with at least one notable figure working to undermine him in a big way. Krennic is certainly one of the most nuanced, multi-dimensional, and—believe it or not—relatable bad guys we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie.
Even though we already know that Jyn and her companions will ultimately succeed in their mission, Rogue One works because it’s not really about the outcome. It’s more about who these people are, what brings them together, and what they’re willing to endure to accomplish a monumental task, against all odds. We get to know and understand them and their relationships with each other over the course of the film. We become invested in them.
The fact that this is a standalone movie, one that is not intended to have any follow-ups (other than the original Star Wars) is a real benefit. We don’t know going in what will happen to these characters—the original movie never establishes the fates of the rebels who stole the Death Star plans—so Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (working from a story developed by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) have plenty of freedom to take the characters wherever they feel they need to go. And since Rogue One is, at its heart, a war movie, it’s not always going to end happily for the heroes. (By the way, a big kudos to Lucasfilm and Disney for not shying away from showing the real consequences of war. This movie has balls, that’s for sure.)
I should also add that this is a beautiful looking film. There is some truly stunning imagery on display, and the special effects are absolutely top notch. No surprise there—one would expect nothing less than superb work from the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic. And the attention to detail, especially when recreating elements from the original Star Wars, is simply amazing.
Quibbles? I have a few. The rebels, at this stage of the galactic civil war, seem a little too effective when taking on Imperial forces in a major space battle, armed with technology we’ve never seen them use before. (Where was this stuff at the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, when it would have really come in handy?)
And I must say that as I watched this battle, there were moments when I couldn’t help but feel that I’d seen it all before. And the reason, of course, is that I had. Make no mistake, it looks fantastic and is very well paced. But I’m afraid there just wasn’t much here that was different or innovative enough to set it apart from similar sequences in the other Star Wars movies.
Also, I’m not sure the ending flows quite as seamlessly into the beginning of Star Wars as it’s meant to—there are some continuity details that don’t seem to line up perfectly. But maybe a second viewing will convince me otherwise.
But overall, Rogue One is a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon that should please both longtime fans and newcomers to the series.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2016.