Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first standalone film in the Star Wars Saga. As such, there are a lot of questions surrounding it from the general public and Star Wars’ rabid fan base. I’ve sat here for a good hour and tried to figure out a way to do a spoiler-free review of the film, and I don’t think it’s possible given the level of detail that Star Wars fans care about. So I’m going to tell you in a quick bullet what I think of the film, then if you don’t want more detail, bail and head to your theater because this is absolutely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. Rogue One is definitely its own animal, but at the same time manages to be a Star Wars film so integral to the Saga that by the time it’s done it feels like the first half of A New Hope that you never realized was missing. It’s not perfect; it’s not the best film of the year; it’s not the best Star Wars film; and, at times, it struggles with the balance of standing alone and blending with the Episode Films. Its issues, though, are fair outweighed by what it gets right. Rogue One an action-packed return to the days of the Original Trilogy that takes one sentence from A New Hope’s opening crawl and expands it into a story that makes A New Hope a better film and the Saga better as a whole. It’s a very different Star Wars experience, but one very much worth having, so go now if you haven’t already! (Thus endeth my spoiler-free portion).
Rogue One is the eighth Star Wars film, and even with the “rebooting” of the extended universe of books, comics, TV shows, and video games, there is such a massive amount of detail to the Star Wars Universe that every new film that comes into it isn’t just a standalone film (even if it’s trying to be a standalone film). The Saga films blaze new story territory; the standalone films expand on characters or key moments in time in the Star Wars Universe. Rogue One is the first one of these, so in a way, it invites more intense scrutiny from hardcore fans than even new episodes do. Director Gareth Edwards and his team make a very concerted effort to differentiate this film from the episodes. The forms and conventions that every Star Wars episode have followed are broken from the very beginning with no STAR WARS logo or opening story crawl. Episodes usually stick to three planets; Rogue One has at least eight. This necessitates them using on-screen text to identify locations for the first time in a Star Wars film, and while I understand the need to make a statement that the standalones will be different, losing the crawl was a mistake. If anything, the standalones need the crawl more to identify exactly where in the timeline they’re taking place and to catch up more casual fans.
I’m going to try to get my criticisms of the film out of the way first, because they are largely nitpicky compared to what the film gets right and does extremely well. If anyone was worried that there wasn’t enough story here to justify a movie, the opposite was the problem. This film jams so much into 2 hours and 13 minutes that some of the storylines and places we visit get shortchanged. I would be interested to know exactly how much was cut from this film, because I have a feeling it was a lot. The screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy has some pacing issues, but turns in very strong dialogue with lots of clever nods to the original Star Wars for fans.
However, there are scenes and whole characters who appeared in marketing that don’t make the film. In fact, there’s so many moments in the trailers, lines, scenes, etc. that I almost wonder if there’s going to be an extended cut. We got more trailers for this this than any previous Star Wars film, and I wonder if some things were shot as red herrings for trailers alone, or if there really is as much cut footage as I think there is. One character who does make the film is Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing and entirely created out of CGI. I thought that it didn’t quite look convincing enough, and while it’s been coming for a long time, I think this is the first time that a deceased actor has had a significant supporting role in a film, created entirely via computer. I saw the film with my brother, as always my Star Wars wingman, and he completely thought it did work, so that might be a personal opinion. They did it with another Saga character whose appearance I won’t ruin, and that we both agreed didn’t look right. Those instances stand out like sore thumbs in a film that’s otherwise an F/X masterpiece. You could make a strong argument that this is the best cinematography in any Star Wars film. There are some shots that just blow your mind, and the space battle in the third act is the best of any Star Wars film by far.
My other main criticism, and I hate this because I love Michael Giacchino so much, but I didn’t feel this was a film with a strong score. Because this was the first film that John Williams wasn’t going to score, the music was always going to be scrutinized, and music is more important to Star Wars films than probably any other series of films in cinema. Giacchino only had four weeks to score the entire film after original compose Alexandre Desplat dropped out, and what he turned in is not a bad score, but there were moments that could have been so much more powerful if they’d had a better musical accompaniment. Again, here’s an area where the film went too far in trying to separate itself as 95% of the music in the film is original. Giacchino should have taken advantage of Williams’ pre-existing themes more often. He took over the scoring of the Star Trek series and largely composed his own music while giving existing themes their due, but Star Wars is much more dependent on its scores, and Giacchino obviously had more time to write stronger, newer ones for Trek. To be fair, I was a little let down by Episode VII’s score the first time I heard it and it grew tremendously on me, so this is a first reaction.
From now on, though, I have nothing but praise for the film. It is, at its heart, a war movie, and Gareth Edwards maintains a steady tone throughout of a bleak insurgency struggling with its own moral compass. We don’t dwell on it much, but Luke killed a couple hundred thousand people when he blew up the Death Star. Something that began in Episode VII is that shades of grey are being introduced into the Star Wars Universe, which has traditionally been very clear cut. Good guys and bad guys; Dark Side and Light Side; Jedi and Sith. The Rebels in Rogue One are insurgents, arguable terrorists. There’s undeniable comparisons between real world events and the more militant branch of the Rebellion that’s lead by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). They’re assassins, saboteurs, thieves, and not in the charmingly Han Solo way. The Rebellion isn’t united; it’s a series of squabbling factions that are more against the Empire than they are for anything in particular. It’s in this film where the Rebellion as we were first introduced to it is really born, and it’s only born because the Death Star forced them to unite. In trying to crush the Rebellion through the creation of a superweapon, the Empire really ended up sowing the seeds of their own demise.
I’ve said that Rogue One makes A New Hope a better film, and it does in a lot of ways, but here are the two biggest: it instills a horror in you of the Death Star that A New Hope never really does, and it fixes a whopping plot hole in the film that’s been mocked for decades: that the Empire would build this planet-sized weapon and overlook a design flaw that would allow a farm boy to reduce it to space ash with one shot from an X-Wing. Rogue One takes that and fixes it so elegantly that you just want to pump your fist. I won’t go through the how, because you need to see the film, but it’s brilliant. The Death Star has caused such horror and dread by the end of Rogue One, that the need for its destruction is going to feel so much more visceral when you watch A New Hope next. In a hundred ways, this film cleverly sets up everything that’s going to happen in Episode IV to the point where when this movie ends, you could pop in A New Hope and just keep going.
I’ve gotten all this way and barely mentioned the new characters or the cast, but they are all as stellar as the new additions that we got in Episode VII. In the first two films of this new era of Star Wars, we’ve gotten the best two female characters (and leads) in the Saga. Felicity Jones does an amazing job with Jyn Erso. Deigo Luna surprised me with how good he was with Cassian Andor, who is a much more complicated character than we were lead to believe. Alan Tudyk nearly steals the film with my new favorite droid in Star Wars: K-2SO.
Ben Mendelsohn provides a very different villain with Director Orson Krennic. He’s the scheming, power-grasping face of Imperial infighting that we’ve gotten a little of in the extended universe but no as much on screen. His relationship with the whole Erso family is complex and fascinating. Normally, I think prequel novels to movies are throwaways, but if you read Catalyst by James Luceno (the best of the Star Wars authors), it details the decades-long relationship between Orson Krennic, Galen Erso, Jyn, and her mother. It adds so much more weight to the film that’s just a bonus if you want it.
Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have such a touching friendship (if anyone gets a standalone from this standalone, I want it to be them). Imwe continues that greying I talked about earlier, this time in regard to the Force. In the first six movies, if you used the Force you were a Jedi or a Sith. In Episode VII, we meet Maz Kanata, who clearly has a connection to the Force, but is neither. Imwe is a blind monk who seems guided by the Force without having a Jedi or Sith label slapped on him. That’s a trend I think we’re going to see continue in Episode VIII. THAT, by the way, is the only way this film connects to the sequel trilogy. This film is here to service A New Hope, not to connect to Rey and Finn’s adventures. There are so many minor characters (Star Wars always does a wonderful job at creating characters who intrigue you with a few minutes or even seconds of screentime). My particular favorite was the Mon Calamari Rebel Admiral who led the fleet in the Battle of Scarif (my favorite planet of all the new ones introduced, though there’s so many questions left dangling about Jedah’s history).
I’m going to talk about Vader now, and if you’re going just to see him, you’re going to be a little disappointed, as the Dark Lord of the Sith has only two scenes in the whole film. But OH MY STARS those two scenes. The first raises all kinds of questions about Vader and makes you want a whole film about him in the period between Episodes III and IV. Vader has apparently constructed a castle for himself on Mustafar where the lava transformed him in body and soul from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader. He has an order of servants who tend to him, his own detachment of Royal Guardsmen, and a giant bacta tank in which his wrecked body recuperates when not in his suit. My brother had an interesting theory that this tank is what’s kept him so powerful and as the Rebellion grows stronger in the OT, he had fewer chances to regenerate in it leading to a decline in his physical prowess. That prowess is put on full display the second time we see Vader, when he shows at the film’s end to try to retrieve the Death Star plans from the Rebels and we’re given a scene of pure horror as the greatest villain in screen history unleashes his full power on a group of Rebels in such a brutal and effortless use of his might, that it is already one of the defining moments in Anakin’s character arc in the Saga. You have to see it to even comprehend what I’m failing to put into words.
Despite my nitpicks, and a script that has pacing issues in its first act, Rogue One is ultimately a great movie that adds new characters, fleshes out established ones, brings so much to A New Hope that it almost feels like the film’s lost first half, and will make you laugh, wonder, cheer, and move you to tears. Future standalones may find a better balance than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but there’s no denying that this is a hugely successful first effort. The Force continues to be strong with Disney in 2016, and we have another gem to add to our embarrassment of riches as film lovers this year.