In recent years, my relationship with the Star Wars franchise in its entirety has been in flux. Whether it be the disappointments of Episode VII: The Force Awakens or some of the recent novels like A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller or Honor Among Thieves by James S. A. Corey, I haven’t been enamoured of the franchise at all. There have been stand-outs such as Paul Kemp’s Lords of the Sith and James Luceno’s Tarkin, but there haven’t been many. And I won’t even get into the new comics from Marvel since most of them are retreading the area already covered extensively under Dark Horse and I don’t have much interest in them. However, when Rogue One was announced as a stand-alone movie in the franchise, and a prequel to the original Star Wars no less, I was excited because it was going to focus on almost entirely new characters and present us with something that we hadn’t really seen before on such a major platform.
Cue this past Thursday when the movie finally released. The trailers had built up a lot of hype for me, who was desperately looking for something to cheer for after the failings of The Force Awakens. Yes, the story would go over some material from Dark Horse and what some of the earlier video games had covered, but it was still mostly uncharted territory. Additionally, the period of the Galactic Empire’s dominance of the galaxy is one of the most fascinating periods in Star Wars lore, and I was totally ready for this movie. It looked to have a really awesome cast with some great promised cameos and I was all-in. And you know what, the movie didn’t disappoint. It was almost everything that I wanted from The Force Awakens but never got, and then some.
Note: This review contains some major spoilers from the movie, especially the ending, so read at your own risk.
One of the biggest criticisms of The Force Awakens that was almost universal among most people was that the movie slavishly adhered to the big story beats of the original Star Wars (or, as it has since become known, Episode IV: A New Hope). The characters were changed, some of the locations were changed, but it remained at its heart just a copy of the original, and little more. It didn’t actually do anything challenging on its own and that was a big failing in my opinion.
However, much of Rogue One is a big departure from the beats of the rest of the movies in the franchise. Yes, we still have the (outcast) troublemaker who gets up in galactic politics and events beyond their control and must work with others to right the wrongs of the galaxy. But, at the same time, it tells an engaging story about the brutal ramifications of rebellion and dissent. The original movies never really had focused on that aspect of a guerilla war on a galactic scale because they followed the stories of the Skywalker clan almost exclusively. Yes, we had the big battle towards the end of Attack of the Clones when countless Jedi were killed and much of that movie and its successor focused on the war between the Republic and the Separatists, but did we ever see how that war affected the more ordinary people? How the war forced them to make terrible decisions that haunted their conscience? How they struggled without the protective net of a family to love and guide them?
Some of this can indeed be seen in both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, but none of that was a focus. That’s where Rogue One comes in. Our leading character is a young troublemaker named Jyn Erso (the first out-and-out leading female character in a Star Wars movie) whose father Galen once worked for the Empire as a science officer. When she was still a child, her father abandoned the Empire out of fear of the work he was doing and the people he was working with and went to live an unremarkable life in a distant corner of the galaxy as a simple farmer. But the Empire followed, Jyn’s mother was murdered, her father was forced to come back to the Empire, and she was orphaned, all in a single day. Rogue One is her story.
To start the actual review off, I want to focus on some of the bigger negatives first. In comparison to last year’s installment in the franchise, Rogue One is a cleaner, more enjoyable movie with fewer plot-holes, and that will be reflected in the following criticisms.
MASSIVE SPOILERS. BEWARE.
First things first, there is NO OPENING INTRO CRAWL. One of the biggest standouts of the franchise is the opening intro crawl which gives us a little back-story of events leading into the respective film. Every other movie has had it. I believe some of the games have had it as well. But not Rogue One, and that really threw me off in the first few minutes. I hold the crawl as a sacred tradition of the movies, one that should never be broken, and here we have one of the best movies in the franchise doing exactly that. This is tantamount to heresy. I don’t know what Edwards and Co. were thinking here, because a cold open is really weird. Still, this is the most egregious mistake of the movie in my opinion, and I’m fine with that in the end.
The next thing is that the movie makes use of some really prominent cameos of characters from both the original movies and the prequel trilogy as well. Characters such as Bail Organa, Governor Tarkin, Mon Mothma and others. The negative here comes from the fact that while Jimmy Smits reprised his role as Bail Organa and where Mon Mothma’s character was recast with Genevieve O’Reilly, we got a CGI representation of Peter Cushing’s scene-chewing Governor Tarkin. That in and of itself is not a negative because Cushing’s performance was a stand-out in A New Hope and it is good to see that despite his tragic death some years ago, he’s still involved in the franchise. The criticism that I have is that the CGI was almost cringe-y. The facial expressions and the character’s movements failed to evoke any realism and this really took me out of the experience. I give mad props to Edwards and his team for including the character in the movie at all, as they did with Darth Vader (bringing back James Earl Jones for the voice-overs), but perhaps more effort could have been made to evoke a sense of realism so that the performance doesn’t scream “I AM A CGI CHARACTER”.
Another criticism that I have is that despite appearances to the contrary, the movie still runs a little roughshod on established lore of the Star Wars Expanded Universe that Disney in all their “great and boundless wisdom” has seen fit to declare non-canon. From those novels and comics, we know that after taking the reins of the Republic as Emperor Palpatine, he and Darth Vader set out to expunge all traces of the Jedi from the galaxy, no matter how tangential the relationship. This years-lasting purge is one of the many reasons why by the start of the events of A New Hope most people have forgotten who and what the Jedi were, relegating them to the status of some hoodwinking vagrants and the like. The knowledge of them and the Force is mostly just one of the many mysteries of the galaxy and little more. And yet, in Rogue One we have Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus who belong to a religious order that worships the Force and the headquarters of this order is on a mining planet controlled by the Empire. That just rings really false to me. It’s not really a big thing where the movie is concerned, but for a life-long fan of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, this really bothered me. Especially since Imwe mutters a Force-related refrain again and again in the movie.
There’s also the fact that the title of the movie is such a distraction. This probably should have been the first of my criticisms, but seeing as how it directly isn’t an actual criticism but more of a stylistic choice I suppose… well, yeah. Originally, the Rogue callsigns are used by the survivors of Red Squadron from A New Hope. Two of these are Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles. In the novels and comics, Luke goes on to take command of Red Squadron and eventually once he resigns from the New Republic military, the reigns of the squadron fall to Wedge, who is then given the task of rebuilding the squadron with new blood and taking the name Rogue Squadron. So for this movie to refer to itself as Rogue One is a nitpick that really bothers me. Especially since none of the characters actually turn out to be in any way associated with a starfighter squadron.
MASSIVE SPOILERS. BEWARE.
Finally, what really bothered me was that many of the characters don’t actually live too long. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe were characters that were really making the rounds as prominent new characters in the franchise. Which is all too true, but only insofar as Rogue One itself is concerned. There’s a lot of unsaid-but-hinted history there that I would love to read, but sadly none of these characters will ever get to see the light of day because their stories in the movie are cut all-too-short by the end. Like, every major new character dies by the end and that means that this fantastic cast of characters won’t get getting another movie. Incidentally, this also smashes the theory that Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor are the parents of Rey from The Force Awakens, which is something that I’m perfectly fine with, but I would also have loved to have seen more of these characters in a future movie (a sequel please, there are already too many damn prequels in the franchise).
Still, I do get that with that shocking ending the movie is a self-contained story that doesn’t really encroach on the territory of the original movies. That’s definitely a notable goal and effort. I would clearly have preferred a different approach but in the shared-world storytelling of Star Wars, perhaps this is exactly what was needed.
And now, moving on to the positives.
The acting. Rogue One is a very emotionally-demanding movie. The story of the Ersos and their place in the Rebellion is at the heart of the story and both Felicity Jones and Mads Mikkelson do a fantastic job. Felicity carries a lot of the burden of making the movie work since she’s the leading actor, and she is more than well up to the job. This is the first of her movies that I’ve seen, and I’m very impressed with how well she portrays her character. The emotional vulnerability of Jyn, thanks to her lost childhood and finding a calling that is greater than her, is apparent all throughout. Her chemistry with her co-stars, especially with Diego’s Cassian and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, is great. There are hints of the multi-faceted relationship between Leia and Han, and the strong friendship between Luke and R2D2 here, and I’m all for that. And Mads Mikkelson, well, after Doctor Strange I was really disappointed because when an actor such as him is given such droll material to perform, there isn’t much to write about. Even in Rogue One he doesn’t get many scenes, but he shines in them nonetheless because there is a deep personal story at work here that is acted out not just with dialogue delivery but also body language and facial expressions that call for a wide range.
One of the “issues” with the franchise has always been that all the characters usually have similar accents. Which can make sense when you consider that there is a galactic universal language and most of these characters come and go from numerous port-of-calls in their lives. But at the same time it also jars since there is still so much provinciality present between the different worlds, even when they are of the same species. That’s one of the many reasons why I liked Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. He’s a good actor, and his accent helps to set him apart from the “norm” of a homogenized way of speaking for the characters in the franchise. His best scene in the movie is probably the first one, on the mining planet of Jedha where he goes to meet an informant and has to do something terrible in the name of the Rebellion and his beliefs. One of the most poignant moments of the movie that helps hammer home that this isn’t some simple good vs evil battle or story but something much more than that simple description can imply.
Donnie Yen as Chirrut bringing some graceful and flashy martial arts combat to the franchise in a style that doesn’t depend on lightsabers? Hell yes. Well lightsabers and blasters have been the primary choice of weapons in the cinematic side of the franchise since the beginning, there are a wide variety of weapons that are used in the lore, and Chirrut’s fighting style emphasizes that. Plus he believes in the Force as a guiding philosophy and that brings the best of two worlds. It certainly helps that Donnie Yen is such an accomplished actor and though Chirrut might come as little more than a mystic, the story still avoids the pitfall of making him seem like a stereotypical Asian wisdom-dispenser in favour of something more. Plus his friendship with Baze Malbus is pretty great. It resembles the relationship between R2D2 and C-3PO but is more endearing in many ways because they are not a goofy couple commentating on the entire franchise, but are private individuals caught up in larger events.
Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera got all-too-brief an outing, but he knocks it out of the park too. He’s done some good movies over the years and I’m hope that Rogue One for him is another fond memory for him. Not much of his supposedly extremist rebel leader character got through on the screen since we were mostly just told that instead of shown, but still it was a good step in showing that the Rebellion isn’t itself a cohesive and homogeneous group of freedom fighters. That is very important and paints a much more interesting picture of the internal shifts within the Rebellion. There are always extremists and it was a bold step for the story team to make sure that this came through in the movie.
Shout-out also to Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic, the man in-charge of making sure that the (first) Death Star is built on-time and that it works fully as intended. When we first meet him, he comes across as your average villainous bureaucrat, but as the movie goes on he becomes more. He’s not an obvious villain such as the likes of Vader and Maul and Kylo Ren, because he hews closer to the likes of Tarkin himself. And so it is very fitting that there is indeed some tension between these individuals. After all, while Krennic might be in command of the Death Star in Rogue One, we know that it was Grand Moff Tarkin who was the commander during A New Hope, and given that Tarkin is such a major character, it doesn’t make sense for him to have been in command of the project throughout its development. Ben as Director Krennic brings a lot of gravitas to the movie and at times you can almost feel his frustrations and his anger towards those around him because they are always letting him down in one way or another, whether it be Galen Erso or Tarkin or anyone else. But, when you are in command of a planet-destroying superweapon, perhaps you shouldn’t be surprised. You need a pretty big ego to be in that position and sustain it.
The overall story is also very fascinating. I’ve mentioned before how the movie focuses on the cost of the Rebellion and how deeply and shockingly it can affect the lives of those involved. The original movies focused more on the Rebellion itself in a sort of glorifying and do-goody kind of way, so Rogue One is perhaps a much more honest war movie in that regard. Cassian’s spy missions, the covert strikes on Imperial facilities to retrieve information, the loss of new friends, the futility of resistance in a fight against a near-fascist oppressive regime, and then making it all worth it in the end, Rogue One hammers home these lessons again and again. There’s so much to go over here, from start to finish, that no review can possibly cover it.
Then we have all the action sequences, whether we talk about the up-close-and-personal shoot-outs early on the planet of Jedha or the later space battle around the planet of Scarif where the original plans for the Death Star are kept and where our heroes must go to complete their mission that will then kick-off the events of A New Hope. With the original Star Wars we got our first-ever look at X-wings in action and it was a superb moment for cinema in general. Ever since, space dogfights have been a staple of the franchise, and all Star Wars movies need to deliver on that every time, whether it be the big battle above the planet of Naboo in The Phantom Menace, the Separatist assault of Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith or the defining trench-run of A New Hope. Rogue One continues that tradition by giving us two separate battle scenes in the climax, one involving a starfighter assault on the surface of Scarif where X-wings duke it out against Imperial TIEs and the other involving a massive space battle between the Imperial defense fleet around Scarif and the Rebel assault force. Both battles are spectacular and they really hammer home the large-scale nature of the battles that take place in the franchise and is also a nod to complex military assaults in general, involving many different elements and strategies.
Did I get a kick out of watching Rebel soldiers take on Stormtroopers and Shoretroopers while also under attach by AT-ATs? Hell yes. Did I get a kick out of the atmospheric dogfights between Rebel and Imperial starfighters? Hell yes. Did I get a kick out of watching a rag-tag Rebel fleet take on the disciplined Imperial defense forces in space? Hell yes! The final act of the movie is a glorious visual feast and I couldn’t be happier. I’m a huge fan of starfighters in general, thanks to all the X-wing novels written by Michael Stackpole and (the deceased) Aaron Allston over the years, and I just love watching Star Wars dogfights. They are exhilarating. And it isn’t even that everything is a straight-up fight as two enemy forces go at each other, there are some neat tactics being used and they definitely make for a very immersive and thrilling experience. Which is what you really want. Director Gareth Edwards has worked on some big action before, such as in Godzilla and he certainly seems to have grasped the sense of scale of the action in Star Wars really well. I wouldn’t mind seeing him get another chance at leaving his mark on the franchise, given how good this one is.
And ultimately that’s what the movie is really about isn’t it? Or rather, the franchise itself? George Lucas created something really visionary much as others have done before him, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune-verse, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and so on and on. Rogue One is as multi-faceted a movie as any other Star Wars movie before it (yes, even The Force Awakens with all its needless complexities).
Many people have asked me how I would rank Rogue One among the eight movies released to date, and I have to say that it is a very complex thing because the movies are all so far apart, especially this one and The Force Awakens. Different eras of filmmaking, different teams, different visions. But all the same, if I really had to, I’d say that Rogue is definitely in the top three. Not the best, because that’s reserved for The Empire Strikes Back. And certainly not second because I love the original Star Wars too much for that. So I suppose it clocks in at number three, just ahead of Return of the Jedi. And I hold to that ranking because Rogue One offers a lot that the movies below it in the rankings do not, and just misses out on the greatness of the ones above it. The entire team has done a marvelous job with this, and I congratulate them for it, for creating such a memorable experience for the viewers. Hats-off.
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