It goes without saying that now that Disney owns Star Wars, they’re going to be putting out a new one every year. Understandably, even considering the freakishly powerful and unstoppable success that the Marvel films have brought them, not even the House of Mouse can crank out a new Episode for this sci-fi saga every year, which means that side stories have to exist so as to keep things fresh. Rogue One is the first of these side stories, offering us a more grounded and darker take on what we’re used to from this franchise. Gone are the Jedi Knights and in their stead are the type of people who pave the way for them: assassins, bombers, and thieves who you’d think the Jedi would go up fighting against if there were plenty of them still around in a post-Order 66 galaxy.
Our hero (or at least the closest thing to it) is Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, imprisoned by the Empire before being whisked away to freedom by the Rebellion. All they ask from her is help finding her father Galen, who was forced back into working with the Empire to create the battle station that will eventually be the Death Star. Her father says that not only is it fully operational, but that he’s built a weakness into it as an act of defiance. Jyn, along with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor and a motley crew of other Imperial defectors and assassins, make it their mission to find her father and retrieve the Death Star plans for the Rebellion, hoping that it’ll turn the tide of the war.
When the term “darker” is used, that’s not to say that it’s all doom and gloom here. There’s certainly some well timed quips and humorous moments, but they’re all shrouded in the fact that our cast of misfits are completely and utterly doomed by the time the credits are going to roll. In no way is this a surprise to anyone who’s seen the original three Star Wars movies, and Rogue One doesn’t shy away from this, to its greatest benefit.
The style of filming is more akin to a war documentary than the ultimately clean and sterile majesty of the Episodic films, and even something as simple as the typical opening text crawl is eschewed for a cold open that completely messes with the familiar feeling we’ve come to expect from these films. The overall aesthetic and visual style of this universe is still the same, but it breaks down Force Awakens’ nostalgic love to instead just look at the parts they’ve got and assemble them in a way that you wouldn’t think could really be done before. What we’ve got here is essentially a sci-fi heist film that just so happens to be set in a world where there are cyborgs in all black who waved glowing swords around like it’s nobody’s business, and it’s a smart move that helps set itself apart distinctly from the previous seven films.
Fortunately, Rogue One isn’t too different from what we’ve come to know and expect from this universe. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the cast, who are all playing their parts well and make you want to know more about them the moment that they show up on screen. Felicity Jones does good work as Jyn, and while she’s certainly the star of the movie, the rest of the cast is game to meet her. Diego Luna does strong work as Cassian, who’s clearly grappling with what’s right for the galaxy and what’s right for his conscience, and the dynamics between the two of them make for a good emotional core of the film. Riz Ahmed is plenty of fun as Imperial pilot turned defector Bodhi, and Forest Whitaker’s stint as Saw Gererra from the Clone Wars cartoon offers a fitting conclusion for fans of the series. But special attention has to go to Jiang Wen as the assassin Baze Malbus and Alan Tudyk as the droid K-2SO, who feels like C-3PO and Chopper from Rebels had a baby, and that baby learned how to kick ass and throw shade.
And then there’s Donnie Yen as the blind, Force-believing Chirrut Imwe. Anyone who’s watched his other work knows how capable he is at kicking ass, and that same rule applies here. He’s on hand in a sense to be the “Jedi” of the film in that he has complete faith in the Force and that it’ll get him through anything, but the film makes sure to also just make him great through some scene stealing moments, such as his debut action scene and a quick moment with his blaster. Yen is so good in this role, that it makes you wonder why it took so long for him to be in these movies, given how he pretty much throws himself into the role.
If there’s a weak spot among the characters, it’s in our lead villain, Orson Krennec. Ben Mendelsohn plays him well with the right amount of arrogance to make you want his demise to come swiftly, but he also serves as the first villain in the Star Wars movies to not really be a physical threat for the others. He’s basically just a businessman in a suit, one who doesn’t really get down and dirty, but has others do it for him instead. There’s a reason why Palpatine left the physical work to his apprentices and other, more combat orientated associates, and that should’ve been the same idea here.
Star Wars fans are going to notice plenty of callbacks and Easter eggs within Rogue One, some that are more hidden than others. None of these are distracting in any way, save for two characters from earlier films that have been replaced with digital actors because the originals have either passed away or aged out of their roles. The intent behind including these characters is certainly well meaning, but the motion capture used for their faces is jarring in a way that almost takes you out of the scenes they’re in. One of them is more prevailing throughout than the other, which means that when they’re on screen, it gets more noticeable over time. It isn’t enough to bring the movie down, but for quite a few people, and anyone who’s seen the original movies fairly recently in particular, it’s certainly going to warrant a double take. There’s also another character brought back whose presence is unavoidable, given the timeline of the series, but also goes on just a bit too long for its own good.
As a Star Wars movie, Rogue One definitely succeeds; it plays the cards it’s dealt with quite well, offers a fun new perspective on war that we don’t get from these movies, and has some great characters to enchant us with. It’s not the best of these movies, partially because of its villain and also because it seems like part of its main plot is resolved a bit too quickly, but definitely high up there. Combined with the great third act and mature and ultimately earned ending, it certainly makes for a great first step into the foray of what’s clearly going to be a new Cinematic Universe. If we get more of these side story films that offer new perspectives or tones with the established universe, I’ll gladly take more of them.
Score: 4/5 – Great