ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
**** (out of 5)
December 16, 2016
Felicity Jones as JYN ERSO
Diego Luna as CASSIAN ANDOR
Alan Tudyk as K-2SO
Donnie Yen as CHIRRUT ÎMWE
Wen Jiang as BAZE MALBUS
Ben Mendelsohn as ORSON KRENNIC
Forest Whitaker as SAW GERRERA
Riz Ahmed as BODHI ROOK
Mads Mikkelsen as GALEN ERSO
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I have to admit that I was mighty nervous about the fate of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” throughout its development and pre-release hype. Much of my concern was with the choice of director.
Sure, Gareth Edwards is a good director in his own right, but he really screwed the pooch with “Godzilla,” his first foray into a mega-franchise blockbuster. With that movie, he channeled some of his strength in his debut feature “Monsters,” which was so low budget he couldn’t afford to show the title characters. However, he was out of control in this respect, spending much of the story showing people avoiding the monsters, delivering a strong character study of people under such stress.
With “Godzilla,” Edwards had a massive budget and the weight of a major studio behind him. However, he still wanted to make the film less about Godzilla and more about the humanity of the characters on the ground. What resulted was a Godzilla movie in which the title character had less screen time than James Bond pre-credit sequence. To make things worse, Edwards was so giddy about how clever this approach was on the supplementals of the Blu-ray that I wanted to give him a swift kick in the pants.
However, I had faith in Disney and the masterful way that studio now builds franchises. Whether Edwards curbed his possible desire for a low-budget version of “Star Wars” or if the Mouse House kept tabs on him throughout the process and demanded all the elements needed for a “Star Wars” movie, it paid off.
Still, “Rogue One” was a gamble, especially with it being the second movie in the Disney-owned wave that will surely build to a tsunami in coming years. It’s not one of the standard “Episodes.” It’s not really a prequel either, even though it does fold right into “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” almost seamlessly.
Instead, “Rogue One” is exactly what the name says it is: a separate story in the “Star Wars” universe featuring new characters that takes place in the background of the ongoing saga we have grown to know and love for decades.
For those who have partaken in the extended universe materials (e.g., spin-off novels, comic books, role-playing games), this isn’t hard to conceptualize. However, for someone who has just watched the movies and nothing more, it seems to be hard to frame the story. So, here’s how things all work out…
“Rogue One” tells the story of the team that steals the Death Star plans that are the McGuffin for the original film. You know the plans we see Princess Leia slip into R2-D2 before she is captured by Darth Vader? The ones that the Rebel Alliance studies to discover the exhaust port that Luke Skywalker uses to destroy the dreaded planet-killer? Those plans.
In this sense, “Rogue One” deals with mostly brand new characters, though it does have a few fun cameos from previous films, not the least of which is a few cool appearances of Darth Vader himself. However, the story itself hinges upon Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the wayward child of the Death Star’s chief engineer and mastermind behind its construction. Jyn is tapped by Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) from the Rebel Alliance to connect with her father about this new weapon. Along the way, she joins with several misfit warriors who soon discover the Death Star’s true nature and take it upon themselves to steal the plans so the Alliance can destroy it.
Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, it was clear that Edwards wasn’t going to be able to get away with making a “Star Wars” movie without the key elements of “Star Wars.” Everything was there, from aliens and droids to spaceships and blaster battles.
The action in the many skirmishes and full-on battle sequences is quite good. It doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, sometimes showing things from the boots-on-the-ground level and sometimes from the wide, sweeping perspective of the spaceships and beyond. In fact, what J.J. Abrams gave us with the battle on Takodana right after our heroes meet with Maz Kanata, Edwards manages to enrich. We don’t just see X-wings and TIE fighters shooting at each other in space. We see them at ground level, with other familiar and devastating technology like AT-AT Imperial Walkers and AT-ST Scout Walkers.
Even so, we see a roughness to some of this technology. The Imperial Walkers are not as shielded and not as powerful as they were in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Sure, there are some new ships in the mix, but everything looks appropriately worn, a key element to George Lucas’s original movie showing a worn and damaged technology. Even the detail for the interior of the ships and the ornamental nature of costumes and sci-fi flare on various gadgets looks like they were assembled in the 1970s rather than with modern equipment and technology of today. This helped the movie feel like it felt like it took place in the same era as “Star Wars” rather than outside of it. (I’ll forgive the presence of new ships we never see again and Stormtrooper uniforms that don’t seem to exist after the chronology of this film.)
For a “Star Wars” fan like myself, “Rogue One” is a real treat, featuring plenty of Easter eggs from aforementioned cameos to more obscure call-backs to previous films like some of the pilots we see at the Battle of Yavin getting their own spotlight. Some of these seem like trendy digital tricks, sure, but most feel very legitimate and don’t fall in the realm of the movie doing something just because it can. In fact, some incredible face-replacement technology is used to not just provide a novelty but to allow us to interact with a classic character that was not possible even five years ago.
Of course, “Rogue One” is not exactly like the “Star Wars” story that you’d expect. It has a very different tone than the two trilogies or even last year’s “The Force Awakens.” It’s much more serious and a grim tale in many ways. There are some points of levity – mostly at the hand of the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced expertly by Alan Tudyk. (And some of these moments certainly feel like they were dropped into the movie during the reshoot process to liven things up.) However, this isn’t a whimsical romp through the galaxy. Again, for those who have enjoyed the extended universe material in other forms of media, this is nothing new.
But that is not to say that “Rogue One” isn’t a movie that can be enjoyed by “Star Wars” fans of many ages. It still has the action, the aliens and the adventure. In fact, had this come out in 1978 as a follow-up to “Star Wars,” my six-year-old self would have lost my mind with excitement and would have been wholly satisfied.
Still, there are some character problems and script work that could have been a little better (particularly an eye-roller of a pun delivered by Darth Vader). Ben Mendelsohn shines as new bad guy Orson Krennic, the Imperial in charge of overseeing the final touches on the Death Star. Mads Mikkelsen is also great as Galen Erso, the Death Star engineer and Jyn’s father.
The biggest character flaws come with the Rogue One team, though they are more sins of omission than an issue of poor development. Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is a bit two dimensional, as is Jyn herself. The real scene stealer (outside of Tudyk’s K-S20 droid) is Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe and his sidekick (possible lover / first gay character in the franchise) Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Rather than being the positive stereotype of a samurai warrior (which seemed to come across in the marketing), Chirrut is a deeply flawed but still strong Jedi wannabe. He and Baze are the core of the misfits that take on the dangerous mission, even more so than Jyn and the Rogue One leadership.
Still, we have to remind ourselves that these characters are meant for one movie and not meant to be woven into the greater tapestry of the multi-film saga. Finn and Rey got more depth in “The Force Awakens” because they were setting the stage for a new slate of films. Jyn and her crew are in this film to tell a specific story and follow a specific arc. They are part of “A Star Wars Story” rather than being the new Luke, Leia and Han.
In the end, “Rogue One” is like its heroes. It is flawed in some ways, but it’s still well worth the wait. For a “Star Wars” geek like myself, it’s a great way to fill in the holes that led up to the original film (and it even makes a point to plug a few plot holes that have been dogging the movie since its release in 1977). Like “Ant-Man” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a tangential story that may not be critical to the greater franchise arc, but it’s still an enjoyable ride and a great second annual “Star Wars” Christmas gift from Disney and Lucasfilm.