While The Force Awakens was Disney’s “safe” foray into Star Wars, Rogue One tries to be wholly different in tone, scope and feel. As the first anthology film, Rogue One is not beholden to the limitations of the episodic films (Jedi, Skywalkers and happy endings). My wish from the moment the film was announced was for it to be a very different film in both feel and tone, and boy was I a happy fanboy.
A quick note, I was shocked at the amount of footage from the trailers and marketing materials that did not appear in the final film, like important dialog and shots that some of the videos were based around. This is clearly due to the extensive reshoots that took place earlier this year. The reshoots were a concern for many, but they appear to be a moot point. The film is not a plotted mess like other films that required massive reshoots in the past (Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad). While the pacing is inconsistent, there is a narrative through line that never waivers and everything comes together in the end.
Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) puts his stamp on Star Wars in a big way with Rogue One. He masterfully yanks the franchise out of its comfort zone and thrusts us into a visceral environment that is both familiar and very alien at the same time.
The film opens with Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kidnapping scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on a weapon that will give the Empire the power to destroy planets. Galen’s daughter Jyn escapes and is raised by the rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). As an adult, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is on the run, but the Rebel Alliance recruits her to set up a meeting with Saw, who is viewed as an extremist. Working with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn makes her way to the planet Jedha where they meet up with former Jedi temple protectors Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) as well as Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together, the group goes in search of Galen and the secret to defeating the Empire’s new weapon.
Everyone in the cast is given a moment to shine, but if there is a downside, it’s that with such a large and diverse cast, there isn’t a lot of time to fully flesh everyone out. The side effect is that you get eight or nine really good characters instead of four or five amazing ones. The standouts are Tudyk’s K-2SO and Yen’s Chirrut. K-2SO is an absolute scene stealer, at once totally loyal to Andor, but with no filter to his thoughts. Likewise Chirrut is everything you would want out a Donnie Yen Star Wars character. He perfectly brings humor and a caliber of combat not seen in Star Wars to date.
While the rebels get to shine with their heroics and humor, the Imperial presence is a bit of a mixed bag. Mendelsohn’s Krennic is somewhat underwhelming, and it might be because he has to share the Imperial spotlight with Grand Moff Tarkin, a digitally recreation of Peter Cushing who passed away in 1994. The digital Tarkin is almost convincing, and even though I love Cushing’s Tarkin I wish they had simply cast a new actor to play the role. Because of Tarkin’s presence, Krennic never gets to be the big bad that he could have been.
I guess now is a good time to discuss, the other big bad of the film, Darth Vader. There is a lot I want to say about Vader’s return to Star Wars, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. What I will say is that Edwards did what everyone wanted him to do, he made Vader terrifying again. Lucas spent three prequel films humanizing Vader, but even with limited screen time, the fear of Vader has returned in Rogue One. I predict that a lot of people will be talking about Vader this weekend.
Where Star Wars has traditionally been a large scale battle of good versus evil, Rogue One brings the battle to the ground level, and adds a shade of grey to it. The camera stays tight on combatants to gets to the ugliness of war, and some heroes are forced to make decisions that they might regret and know is morally questionable. The film is being touted as a war film and it definitely fits that bill. In addition to the intimate combat, the film also brings us an amazing space battle in the third act. It is reminiscent of Return of the Jedi in that it is broken into three parts; an epic space battle, a massive battle on land and a small group trying to defeat one another.
Rogue One is also full of surprise appearances and Easter eggs. Fans of the franchise will delight to see a number of characters from Episode IV pop up when you least expect them. This is a true companion piece to the first Star Wars film and it leads directly into the film.
My other small gripe is with the music. Michael Giacchino is an amazing composer, but you could tell he only had limited time to work on the score. For the most part it feels familiar, but different. However, there were a few moments when the music felt forced and not cohesive. There is very little John Williams score in the film, I’m sure it was done in an effort to make the film feel different, but I think Rogue One could have done a better job of melding the two styles.
Stifled character development and music aside, Rogue One is exactly what I wanted to see out of the Star Wars anthology films. Disney took a chance with an almost entirely new roster of characters and made a visceral Star Wars film. It has set up the future of the Star Wars franchise and proven to us that you can tell intimate stories in the Star Wars universe.
Pros – Great Cast, Unique Feel, K-2SO, Donnie Yen, and DARTH VADER
Cons – Music is underwhelming and periodically out of place, such a large cast means that some characters aren’t fully developed