Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first standalone film set in a galaxy far far away, is easily the most action-packed film in the series since The Empire Strikes Back.
Set right before the events that kick off A New Hope, it concerns a team of Rebel soldiers on a suicide mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, the Empire’ superweapon with the power to eradicate entire planets. The film has been regarded as a more dark and mature entry in the franchise, and even barring the controversy regarding reshoots to make the film more ‘Disneyfied’, it is a film marked with more violence and death than any previous Star Wars film, a genuine shock but proof that there is potential to make radically different stories in this universe with an assortment of protagonists.
The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of an Imperial engineer (Mads Mikkelsen) responsible for helping to design the Death Star (the above superweapon most famous for being in A New Hope and later Return of the Jedi). She is tasked by the Rebel Alliance to assist in locating a pilot who defected from the Empire (Riz Ahmed) on the planet Jedha, the original home of the Jedi, who knows about Jyn’s father and how they can stop the Empire from massive destruction. While this is a spoiler-free review and that barely covers the tip of the iceberg in terms of what happens, I have to give it to Disney for doing an amazing marketing job with Rogue One, as there are so many twists and turns that have not been revealed or even hinted at in their advertising campaign. It’s truly a film that gets you invested in the central characters, a scrappy bunch of freedom fighters willing to give it all for the greater good, and its great to see that the arc of each person is not so straightforward.
On top of that, the cast assembled is almost certainly the best one in a Star Wars film to date. While most of the screentime goes to Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Ben Mendelsohn, the show is stolen more than once by droid K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk) who is likely to become this year’s BB-8 in terms of audience adoration, Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, a resistance fighter who looks after Jyn as a young child, and the team of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as Chirrut and Baze, two friends from opposite vocations that Jyn meets on Jedha.
Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) takes the destructive CGI-intensive path here, especially with regards to the film’s many action sequences that are immensely entertaining. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of his previous two films, here Edwards goes all out and makes something truly impressive and elaborate. Coming from the Spielberg Echo generation of filmmakers alongside last year’s The Force Awakens helmer J.J. Abrams, Edwards does a phenomenal job in making this entry feel immediate and explosive in more ways than one – certainly putting the war in Star Wars. It certainly feels like Saving Private Ryan or The Dirty Dozen at times, and in shying away from a mystical and Jedi centric plotline, we’re left with a gritty film full of dire circumstance from start to finish.
What really adds to Rogue One is the cinematography from Greig Fraser, who also shot Zero Dark Thirty and Foxcatcher. His work really supplies the dark, foreboding tone needed for the story and the sense of unease that comes with undertaking such a deadly mission, as well as making some really standout moments (such as a confrontation between Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen at the beginning) feel like a different kind of Star Wars than we’re used to seeing. The musical score by Michael Giacchino is, in true Giacchino fashion, bombastic and full of immense charm, at once paying tribute to John Williams’ work while crafting his own set of themes. While it has been documented that Giacchino had only weeks to compose his score after Disney decided to replace original composer Alexandre Desplat, the music here really complements the visual work and will undoubtedly become iconic in its own right.
While set in-between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and there are notable references to the former (Disney has not ret-conned the existence of those films in their plans), the decision to implement various references and elements, above all else, characters from A New Hope may cause some heated fan debates, as it’s nothing but fan service that could have easily been removed and not effected the overall story.
There is a Darth Vader appearance (voiced again by James Earl Jones), though relatively minor, but his appearance adds to the story in rich detail, especially when merging together the events of each film. There’s also one moment involving Vader that is surely among the greatest in the franchise’s history, that really helps to consolidate this bridge between sagas.
As many people complained that The Force Awakens was essentially a structurally re-tooled version of the original film, this desire to return to already established iconography, especially when there is near-limitless potential for crafting new characters and ideas, that maybe the people behind Lucasfilm should not feel afraid to venture out and go beyond the stars in their later standalone films (not counting 2018’s Han Solo film from Phil Lord and Chris Miller which will certainly be ripe with references).
Thankfully, Rogue One is an indication that maybe a new Star Wars movie every year won’t be such a bad thing, as long as those involved continue to capture and depict stories in a fresh way. It certainly has its flaws, but it upholds the spirit of the franchise and contains some truly remarkable moments (above all-else a conclusion that flies in the face of its corporate identity’s aim to sell merchandise). Rogue One is a total blast of a film, surely one of 2016’s greatest blockbusters, and proof that it’s not impossible to make a good Star Wars prequel.