War is hell. That’s a fact that most of the films in the Star Wars franchise have glossed over, despite the fact that the series’ main conflict involves an armed rebellion fighting against a military autocracy. But instead of framing the battles through a relatively romantic and heroic space opera, Gareth Edward’s Star Wars: Rogue One chooses to go a different, more visceral and immediate route, and in the process, breathes a new kind of life into a decades-old story.
Our main character here is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a low-level criminal who just happens to be the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead scientist behind the Galactic Empire’s newest superweapon, a gigantic space station known as the Death Star. Hoping to exploit Jyn’s relationship for their own purposes, the Rebel Alliance springs her from Imperial prison and conscripts her into a mission to find her father and get the plans for the Death Star. Her handlers are the morally-flexible Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Along the way, they pick up a few motley companions and are opposed by Orson Krennic (an adequately sinister Ben Mendelsohn), the director of the Death Star program and the man who separated Jyn from her father 15 years prior.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
If some of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Jyn and her team are the rebels responsible for obtaining the Death Star plans that Princess Leia is smuggling in the opening scenes of the very first Star Wars film. In fact, Rogue One seemingly takes place only a few days before the events of Star Wars Episode IV. This gives director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy an unenviably difficult task. Rogue One has to not only match itself up with existing Star Wars canon; it has to look and feel like the opening of Star Wars is a logical next step after the events of this film.
And in most cases, Edwards hits the mark far more often than he misses. Unlike the Star Wars prequels — which collapsed under a mass of slick, hyperactive CGI sheen and a needlessly complicated internal structure — Rogue One is a narrative laser blast. It’s focused and sharp, far more concerned with telling its own story than with world-building. At the same time, however, Edwards has taken great care to respect the stories surrounding his film.
Rogue One looks and feels like the original Star Wars films in a very real, practical, physical way, unlike The Force Awakens, which connected with the original trilogy on a more emotional and intuitive level. Everything from the color palette to the sound effects is cribbed from the original trilogy. The CGI is nearly seamless, and Edwards stages galactic dogfights and brutal shoot-outs with a deadly kind of grace that’s as brutal as it is beautiful. Showing the Death Star slowly rising up from the horizon or out of the shadow of a planet is perfectly foreboding and awe-inspiring in equal measures. The only real visual effects failure comes from the return of Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars, here played by Guy Henry, whose face has been digitally modified to resemble Tarkin’s previous performer, the late, great Peter Cushing. The result dives so deeply into the uncanny valley that it’s impossible to see Tarkin as anything but a collection of 1s and 0s.
Where Rogue One makes a sharp departure from Episode IV, however, is that the characters all seem to exist in a distinctly gray morality. It’s a fact that further grounds the film even at its most fantastical moments. There is little mention of the Force outside the mantra of a blind, Force-sensitive warrior that joins Jyn on her quest (played by a charmingly dry Donnie Yen). There is no Light Side vs. Dark Side debate here. Nearly all of the main characters have done awful things, whether in the service of a greater good or just for survival, and this helps to add a new and very human dimension to the history of the Star Wars saga. The characters here have a worldview that is based more on circumstance and experience than it is on theory and philosophy.
It’s also refreshing not to have a Star Wars film focus exclusively on the intrigues of the Skywalker family for once. Edwards’ aim is to create a truly stand-alone story that adds to the Star Wars saga without absolutely requiring complete knowledge of the other films in that saga to enjoy it. There are certainly plenty of shout-outs to the other films, however, including extended cameos from several pre-existing characters. Edwards rarely uses those connections as a crutch, although the few scenes featuring Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) come dangerously close to blatant fanservice.
With the focus on new characters with no previous history in the Star Wars canon, Edwards injects the film with a heavy dose of dramatic tension. Simply put, we don’t know how many of these characters might survive until the end if only because almost none of them are ever mentioned in the other films. There’s a very Whedonesque “anyone can die” vibe established right from the first act that adds weight and drive to the events of the film. In fact, Jyn and Cassian’s assignment to find the Death Star plans is all but called a suicide mission, and Edwards treats that point very seriously.
Rogue One thrives more on its narrative arc than it does its narrative details, though. The script is above-average for a Star Wars film, rarely as simplistic as the prequels, but still occasionally staid and predictable. In a way similar to Mad Max: Fury Road (but not nearly as well-executed), Rogue One’s language is one of deeds, not words. Even among the main cast, the meaning of the dialogue is often conveyed more with body language and intonation than with the actual words spoken.
This is best exemplified by Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Jyn Erso. While Jones does an admirable job with the material, Jyn’s transition from low-life criminal to reluctant rebel to Joan of Arc in space happens too quickly and far too suddenly. Jones makes it work primarily through her expressively wide eyes and tightly-controlled delivery, and Jyn is a fine addition to the ranks of Star Wars heroes. In a similar fashion, Diego Luna’s Cassian works as an exercise in voice. Luna’s dialogue is heavy with emotion, but subtly colored, and he gives the character a relatable earthiness without sacrificing Cassian’s darker edges. Alan Tudyk steals the show, however, as K-2SO. Ostensibly the film’s comic relief, Kaytoo comes off as C-3PO with an attitude problem coupled with an unfortunate level of honesty, and Tudyk’s vocal performance is nothing short of winningly charming.
Rogue One may be less like Star Wars and more like The Dirty Dozen, but that works entirely to the film’s advantage. It’s loyal to the franchise without ever being slavish, and it bends the established story at just the right angle, giving the saga’s central conflict a new kind of life. It respects Star Wars by respecting itself, while also shaking up what we thought we knew about the series. It may not have the nostalgic adrenaline rush of The Force Awakens, but it more than makes up for it through its amplified reality and candid voice. This is a story worth telling, and its time is well overdue.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+