Right from the very beginning, Rogue One sets out to differentiate itself from the films of the main Star Wars franchise; there is no opening crawl or even Star Wars title card to lead into proceedings, and the music- while still sharing that trumpeted enthusiasm of a John Williams score- is also different enough to let the audience know that this experience will be wholly different from anything you’ve experienced before. A major criticism against The Force Awakens was that, while fun and featuring some great character moments, it was also highly derivative of its forbearers and didn’t really do anything to establish its own identity. Rather its sole purpose was to re-birth the idea of Star Wars after the prequels, something to return the series to its more low-tech and adventurous tone after the heavy political themes and machinations of the prequel films. Rogue One, however, is free of these shackles, and as the first anthology film it is free to establish its own identity. Director Gareth Edwards here has woven together numerous memorable characters amidst the backdrop of the most brutal Star Wars film to date, creating an imperfectly beautiful tragedy that leads magnificently into the beginning of A New Hope.
The film stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, whose father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, desperately needing more to do in this film) is an Imperial scientist and the designer of the weapon for the new Death Star. For her part, Jyn is equal parts unwilling protagonist and fearless heroine, spurred on by the events in the film and the acquisition by the Empire of this ultimate power to do something, lest the entire galaxy pay the price. Jones is fantastic in the role, and forced into this position by the events of the film she reacts with the subtlest nuance of emotion at times, and with a passionate, burning fire at others. If anything detracts from the film overall it is its clunky exposition and foot-dragging, plodding pace in the first two acts of the story that really leave one less-than-invested leading into the colossal final battle. Jyn’s character development is really too fast and too convenient, to be honest, as she is essentially shoved through the plot as it stumbles forward and tries to find its footing. There are parts of the opening acts that just feel disjointed and a little meandering, saved only by the scene-stealing hilarity of Alan Tudyk as the droid K-2SO. Diego Luna is effective as Cassian, a rebel whose entire life has been “the cause,” and the pairing of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen is absolutely fantastic- their characters are instantly Star Wars mainstays.
The same cannot be said for Bodhi played by Riz Ahmed, whose talents are useless in a role he can essentially sleepwalk through. The incredible talents of Forest Whitaker are absolutely wasted as Saw Gerrera, a character whose entire backstory is part of the Clone Wars cartoon series to this film’s detriment. His appearance and performance suggest a literal encyclopedia of amazing adventures that this film never alludes to, almost making one wish that his story was the first act of Rogue One instead. The beginning of this film is by far its weakest aspect, and it isn’t until the crew reaches Jadah that it really starts to pick up the pace, but we don’t get nearly enough time with the Erso family to really care when they are torn apart at its onset. The plot continues to slow-burn through act two, but by then we’re involved in the story and the pacing works. Act one could have been restructured entirely as the entire subplot of Saw Gererra/The Pilot/Galen Erso really isn’t important to the film at all since it is glossed over so quickly that it does nothing to invest us in Jyn’s character or her journey. Nor is it in any way the most memorable part of the film despite some great performances by Jones and Mikkelsen among others in the cast and a really good thematic exploration of collateral damage in war.
On the Imperial side of things, aside from new “deathtroopers” (who can actually aim), the sole standout is actor Ben Mendelsohn as Director Krennic, who steals every single scene he is in with an immeasurable amount of bravado and menace. While other Imperial threats loom throughout the film, Mendelsohn’s is by far the best performance and really holds his own on-screen with two legendary galactic villains in Vader and Tarkin. Mendelsohn’s fealty to the Empire is almost admirable, but the detestable nonchalance of his character at the death and destruction he causes and the way he almost seems to revel in crushing those he feels are inferior is as fascinating as it is sickening. In a year of extremely mediocre blockbusters especially, Krennic stands out as a truly devious, menacing and evil villain whose motivations are beyond us and that makes him dangerous, since we don’t know what to expect him to do next.
An aspect of this film that is sure to be off-putting to some is the digital resurrection of characters from A New Hope, most specifically that of the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, who immediately brings the film to a screeching halt the second he arrives on-screen. It is understandable that Governor Tarkin’s character would have to have some role in the events directly preceding A New Hope, and Star Wars as a whole is rife with digital characters brought to life through the wonder of CGI, but the revival of Tarkin’s character as a motion-capture creation (performed by Guy Henry) is utterly and completely terrible in every sense of the word, even though the voice-acting is relatively spot-on. Staring into his dead and soulless digital eyes only serves as a reminder of the fantastic work Cushing did in A New Hope and reveals this farce of a representation for what it is: a poignant emptiness. Those who deride the prequels and the “special editions” of the original trilogy for their pointless over-saturations of CGI effects should similarly hate this character, and in fact even moreso, as the extensive use of practical effects and sets in this film only serves to make not-Tarkin stand out even more. The film ends with a shot of a digital Carrie Fisher (motion-captured by Ingvild Delia) accepting the Death Star plans and looks even more ghastly; couldn’t they have had Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, returning from the prequels) hand it to Leia while her back remains to the audience? Other characters from A New Hope show up in CGI cameos or bit-parts, some of which won’t be spoiled here, but some are more satisfying than others. The return of “red leader” Garven Dreis (the late Drewe Henley) is probably the absolute worst of these- not because they brought the character back, but because the facial expressions and dialogue are lifted wholesale from A New Hope. It’s almost as if they copy/pasted his character into this film from that.
Despite a fair amount of elements that can be derided, however, there are far more elements of the film that cement its place in Star Wars history and overall, the attempt to wrap a story around the theft of the plans for the Death Star is far more successful than could be imagined, even when one knows how this story is going to end and that its ending is the beginning of the Star Wars original trilogy. The third act of this film is so good that it completely elevates the entire affair to another level. Edwards’ ability to continue to ratchet up the tension in scenes in which most of his audience already knows the outcome is a serious testament to his ability as a director and the talents of the actors involved. As Jyn and the Rogue One crew work to get the plans while battles are occurring on the ground and in space above them, the proceedings are jaw-dropping. Every trailer has teased the ground war perspective in the final battle and not a single moment of it disappoints. The way Edwards shoots everything, it feels like each laser blast has more impact; each bomb has more boom, if you will. As an audience member one feels these impacts maybe moreso than in any Star Wars film, because of the shift in tone from the main series. Make no mistake this film is much more hands-on with the entire visceral experience, from spaceships exploding to characters dying; everything is designed to be felt that much more.
In terms of its visual experience and tying directly into A New Hope, Edwards and his team don’t miss a single beat here. One could play the films back-to-back and notice absolutely no difference in their set design or costuming; it literally feels as if the films were made simultaneously. The entire crew should be lauded for their adherence to the original designs of Lucas’ film while also giving themselves a little freedom, with new designs for TIE fighters, Stormtroopers, AT-ATs, and rebel ships popping up in the film to give it just that much of its own flavor. Without these the film would almost feel too alien, too detached from what it is trying to accomplish in the first place.
The real question here is, however, whether it succeeds as a companion piece to A New Hope, and the answer is a resounding and thunderous yes. The elements it brings back from A New Hope that are used to great effect include the presence of Darth Vader, whose voice may not be exactly as polished as one might remember (this is some 40 years after James Earl Jones first voiced the character, so this is to be expected), but his presence is spectacular. But nothing is more omnipresent in the entire film as the sense of hope that these characters exude, which is tied directly into the level of tension layered into the final act. While the ultimate fate of each character won’t be spoiled here, it is safe to say going in that some of these characters may not survive the final attempt to steal the plans. The ultimate tragedy and message of Rogue One is that these characters are not destined to be the Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias of the original trilogy, but what it set out to do was to make their fight and their sacrifices feel like they were worth it, and it does this beyond one’s wildest expectations. The thematic weight that this film thus lends to A New Hope’s climax and Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the Death Star will forever be that much more jubilant, much more poignant, much more emotional. It makes Luke’s fateful shot to destroy the Death Star really resonate on a much larger scale, as now the “rebel spies” that procured the plans that led to its destruction have faces and names, and we’ve seen them love and lose and struggle and suffer. It is a perfectly-constructed companion and really, the two films almost belong together now. In this regard alone, Rogue One is a resounding and smashing success and will be warmly embraced by Star Wars fans of all generations. 8/10.
– Nicholas Haskins