THEATRICAL REVIEW – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Sheamur, Simon Emanuel
Screenplay by: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Story by: John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Edited by: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen
Cinematography by: Greig Fraser
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, James Earl Jones, Valene Kane
Based on characters and concepts by George Lucas
Disappointment. No, that’s not my reaction to Rogue One. Heck no! But it was the general consensus I gathered from people after they were told that the 2016 Star Wars film was not a follow-up to last year’s The Force Awakens but rather an ominously pre-A New Hope film that was mostly independent from the Skywalker family and friends’ saga. Most of that was just because they were eager to see that story continue, but, for some, there was also an added level of scorn for a film they seemed to consider… illegitimate. Which is unfortunate, as Rogue One, in both style and focus, is a much more important and bolder move forward for Disney and their still nascent new property, signaling a promising future for the franchise that isn’t beholden to repeating itself for the sake of nostalgia and familiarity.
Now, granted, the plot is not entirely divorced from the main saga. The plot of the film is centered on the original Death Star. The generic plot summary is that it’s the story about how the Death Star plans were stolen, thereby enabling Luke Skywalker to torpedo it to pieces in the original film. That being said, apart from a few necessary inclusions and references to the other films (and even a few select shout-outs to the two recent animated series), Rogue One is still a mostly original story with all-new characters who just so happened to have played a big but independent part in the overall struggle against the Empire. As a result, unlike with the prequel trilogy, which was so much more about watching the pieces fall in place and waiting for Anakin’s inevitable turn to the Dark Side, for both first time viewers and die hard Star Wars fans alike, Rogue One uses its prequel framework to not just tell the “How?” of this mission, but also the “Who?” and “Why?”
As it turns out, there’s a reason beyond the Force for why the Rebels were able to succeed in their mission, with the film introducing us to Jyn Erso, whose father, Galen, was the lead architect behind the Death Star’s creation. Separated from her father since childhood, Jyn grows up with passive contempt for both the oppressive Empire and the Rebellion, which we find out was not exactly as ideal as we may have believed. Leaders can’t always agree on when and how to take action, and some are even showing signs of giving up hope. Others have splintered off and become radicalized, employing questionable tactics in their desperation. When rumors begin to swirl about the Empire’s new planet-killing superweapon, however, Jyn finds herself reluctantly drawn into the movement in order to hunt down her father and put a stop to the Empire’s plans.
In spite of its seemingly familiar premise, which – as many have pointed out – is basically the opening crawl to the original movie, Rogue One still manages to turn out a surprisingly poignant story regarding both Jyn’s evolving motivations and the overall purpose for the mission. The action and spectacle in the film is thrilling, yes, but more so than any Star Wars film before it, it also serves a thematic purpose. Borrowing imagery more from current events than from romanticized and iconic World War II films, several of the action sequences carry a great deal more visceral heft in this film. There aren’t any flashy, highly choreographed lightsaber duels in snowy forests, and death for random soldiers on both sides seems to come much more slowly and agonizingly than the bloodless, one-shot-then-cut-away scenes from films past. Some of the extras even get severely wounded and attempt to press on this time around. Even the way it’s filmed, courtesy of Zero Dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser, is often grittier and more chaotic than the more ornate shots we get in the main episodes. This film, to be a bit cliché, puts the “war” in “Star Wars.” It has its moments of necessary levity, but it is also dark – thankfully, not in a corny, theatrically excessive way like Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. More so than that, however, it is also one of the more hopeful and poignant films in the franchise, strictly because the depiction of the Empire’s oppression and the Rebels’ desperation is so stark. By seeing the events that transpired firsthand, independent of a grand “chosen one” narrative, it may even give you a greater appreciation for what was at stake in the original film beyond its main character’s own journey. That’s an achievement that very few prequels can claim, which is all thanks to the film’s focus pretty much exclusively on original and, more importantly, “regular” characters.
It is a shame, however, that we then get so little time to spend with these guys. They all get moments to shin, but despite all of them featuring pretty much throughout the majority of the film’s runtime, because Rogue One has such a large cast and yet runs two minutes shy of the more focused Force Awakens’ 135 minute runtime, it never feels like it’s enough. It will likely leave audiences wanting an extended cut – something we’re not likely to get, despite knowing that the well-publicized reshoots and extensive editing this film underwent suggesting a lot was likely left on the cutting room floor. Luckily, there’s not a single dud in the lot, either, and we see enough of them that their importance to the story is felt, nonetheless.
Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are ostensibly the leads of the film as Jyn Erso and Rebel agent Cassian Andor, respectively, and both are certainly up to the task of making us like these two within such a comparatively short amount of time. Jyn is neither a warm and compassionate presence like Rey, nor is she a spitfire, take-charge leader like Leia, which is nice, because it just helps to reinforce how much different this film is from the rest. She’s resentful and untrusting of pretty much everyone, but she’s never without reason to be, and her development into working with the Rebellion is ultimately satisfying, even if it’s a bit rushed. Cassian is the more underserved of the two, with the film just briefly hinting at his past – something I have a feeling is going to be addressed in some form or another outside of Rogue One but really should’ve been in the film proper, with maybe even just three to five minutes of extra runtime. Luna does, however, wear the necessary weight of this past on his sleeve, and it’s a good performance that makes Cassian someone to root for, even when his actions and motivations are questionable.
The rest of the extensive supporting cast also includes Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, and Forest Whitaker, all in fairly prominent roles. Of them, Tudyk and Yen are definitely the ones who stand out most. Tudyk provides some necessary comic relief as the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who possesses enough intelligence to have a dry sense of humor but lacks the programming necessary to have any inhibitions about speaking his mind. The humor is both welcome and well-done, and K-2 will undoubtedly hold his own in a contest of lovable droid characters in film. Yen, the other standout here, plays a blind monk-like character named Chirrut Îmwe, who is not a Jedi but nonetheless is devoted to the ways of the Force. Like Cassian, he has a very interesting history to tell that I’m sure will be explored more extensively in other forms of media but is only hinted at here. Yen’s performance is uniquely charismatic, though, and his friendship with Jiang Wen’s far more serious, gun-toting Baze Malbus is ultimately a welcome addition to the cast – sort of this film’s version of Han and Chewie, but very different, too. The rest of the supporting cast are also suitably great – Riz Ahmed is endearing as pilot Bodhi Rook, Mikkelsen gets a rare chance to play a warm character as Jyn’s father, and Forest Whitaker gets to ham it up as the radical leader Saw Gerrera (the first TV-to-film crossover character, by the way) – but special attention does need to be given to the villain, which I’m already certain people are having issues with.
Ben Mendelsohn holds the unenviable task of filling in that role as Director Orson Krennic. Krennic is the one who oversaw the construction of the Death Star, and is, ultimately, just a man – nowhere near as obviously terrifying, theatrical, refined, nor even as iconic in his design as the rest of Star Wars’ major villains. (He doesn’t even get a made up title like “Grand Moff!”) Some may think this is a flaw, but I think it’s perfect in terms of the scope of this film and its themes. One of the more disappointing aspects of the prequel trilogy was the way in which each film brought in their own new Vader surrogate – Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and General Grievous – then basically wasted each one of them in turn, despite their cool designs or the charisma of the actor portraying them. So it’s actually refreshing that Krennic is himself struggling to mark his territory within the Empire and is butting heads with the higher ups. You can imagine that he worked very hard to get where he is, and he’s resentful of the fact that he’s still not getting the respect he feels he deserves. He probably hasn’t even taken a vacation in so long thanks to his passive aggressive boss just daring him to prove himself expendable through his absence. That there are also regular people like him on the side that created something as evil as the Death Star only serves to further the poignancy of the film’s goal in portraying everyday people playing small but crucial roles in something that’s bigger than themselves. Not every villain can nor should be on the same level as Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, just as not every evil person is an Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. Sometimes they’re merely one among many ordinary people who were merely taking orders and helping to run the concentration camps. And sometimes it’s ordinary people, not the generals and politicians, who will stand up and say, “We will not stand for this.”
Rogue One is a flawed but still remarkable achievement in blockbuster filmmaking. It’s somehow both not as concise as it should be, nor is it as long as it deserves to be. While most of the visual effects are astounding and nearly flawless, a great number of people will take issue with some of the CGI characters in the film, which is fair, even if I felt they were so well done it almost wasn’t an issue. I was left wanting for further character exploration, and yet I loved the characters all the same and genuinely felt for their plight to the point where I frequently had to check if I was actually tearing up so as to not mess up my 3D glasses. (The 3D, by the way, is incredibly well done, and paying for the IMAX 3D experience was totally worth it.) While I had pre-bought tickets for two showings well before any reviews came out (I had to both see it in IMAX 3D and get that Alamo Drafthouse-exclusive glass so that I could drink beer from what I would affectionately call my “special Star Wars glass”), I came out of my first showing eager to see it again, just to see these characters again and catch all the nice references and Easter eggs I’d missed before (there are plenty, and yet they do not feel excessive or as in-your-face as you’d expect). And the film even held up on a second viewing, a mere 24 hours later, and I’m very likely to see it at least one more time within the next couple weeks, too.
I loved Rogue One, and not just because it’s Star Wars, but because it’s Star Wars that was done very well – and so boldly. This is an important step for the franchise, one whose success will ultimately and hopefully convince Disney to take more chances and give us even more original stories set further apart from the films and characters we already know. More so than that, though, it’s a film that understands that this is a galaxy far bigger than Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader. Luke may have started off a humble farmboy, but he was still the son of the Chosen One, and by extension of this was himself chosen, and, within the real world, those characters have since become such legends and icons that including them would have dampened the impact of these newly introduced characters, who ultimately have no direct connection to a Skywalker beyond the fact that Vader poses an even greater threat to them than those who associate with individuals whose family lineage involves an immaculate birth and an ancient prophecy. Appropriately, as the relative underdog film and first true spin-off in this grand franchise, Rogue One acknowledges that one doesn’t need to have been in the presence of greatness to have a profound impact on the world – or even the galaxy – and it’s all the more poignant and meaningful for it.
Hey, Disney – more of this, please!
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5