Many Bothans may have died recovering the plans to the second Death Star but nabbing the blueprints to the original moon-sized, planet-destroying weapon was no cake walk either. Just ask Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones ably commanding), the unlikely leader of a ragtag group of anti-heroes tasked with the improbable task of securing said plans in Gareth Edwards’ reverent and darkly-tinted Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Positioned in the interim between ol’ sand-hatin’ Anakin becoming Darth Vader and whiny “Power Converter” Luke taking up daddy’s lightsaber for the first time, Rogue One, for the first time in franchise history, shifts the focus away from the Skywalker clan. Instead, it turns the unsung backstory that propels the events of A New Hope into a focal point all its own.
At the center is Jyn, whose scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is (unwillingly) instrumental in the creation of the world-culling WMD. The film’s cold open leaves the prepubescent Jyn in hiding and Galen a prison of the ambitious but single-minded Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). A survivor by nature, an older Jyn finds herself playing the role of unwitting hero as she becomes a cog in the Rebellion machine, who, levering her father’s captive position in the Empire, uses her to achieve their own political ends.
What Rogue One does differently than its predecessors is turn the black-and-white dichotomy of the Empire and the Rebellion on its axis. Here, the Rebellion is painted with dubious brushstrokes. A Rebel soldier, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor (a Star Wars name if we’ve even seen one) makes Han “Shot First” Solo look like a pacifist in his cavalier approach to human life. Our first meeting with Cassian sees the agent of change meet and then nonchalantly execute an informant. Needless to say, his cuddly levels are not Ewokian.
Touring through the various outposts that define Star Wars’ intergalactic landscape, Edwards offer a balance of old and new. The creature design is classic Star Wars, with an emphasis on practical effects over the reviled CG technology George Lucas pioneered, though the most visually impressive accomplishment is the revitalization of Peter Cushing’s character Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing has been deceased since 1994 and yet, he’s a full-blooded character in the film. The FX magic employed to reanimate the departed performer is illustrious; surely the work of some dark Sith magic. His inclusion of the film is like Paul Walker’s CG-created Furious 7 moment on super-crack.
Admirably inclusive, Rogue One’s multicultural cast gives way to one of the most diverse troops ever to grace a blockbuster. But with a beefy call list of characters, not everyone is given much to do. There’s Forest Whitaker’s jaded Saw Gerrera, a character who doesn’t offer much beyond the occasional narrative propulsion whose motives prove more confusing than anything. Seriously, he’s a mess. Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus doesn’t do much at all beyond tout a big machine gun while Riz Ahmen’s Bodhi Rook seems like most of his arc was left on the cutting room floor. It’s Donnie Yen’s Force-devout Chirrut Îmwe, a blind wanna-be Jedi who wields a staff like a lightsaber and repeats a mantra about being one with the force who has the most promise. If given more screen time, he could have been a true standout, but alas, there’s just not a ton for him to chew on.
While Rogue One succeeds in bringing some moral gray area to the Star Wars franchise and propelling the racial envelope light years forward, it is ultimately in service of a script that only succeeds part of the time. Screenwriting duties from Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Ultimatum) yield a script that’s loaded with expositional, plot-driving dialogue and weak personal confessions. “I am ______”, “We need to _____”, “They are going to _____.” Characters spend the majority of their time detailing plans or telling us how they’re feeling or who they are instead of allowing their actions to show us. Screenwriting Problems 101, this is.
This changes to a degree in the third act as Edwards plops us in the midst of an all-out assault that is simply too dazzling in its scope and tenor to stop and pick apart the problems. Exchanged glances speak more than words. The camaraderie that Gilroy and Weitz paved is paid off, to varying degree. From a purely popcorn standpoint, this is easily some of the most eye-popping visual spectacle of the year.
Like with the prequel trilogy, we go into Rogue One with a cursory understanding of the trajectory of these characters but its near ruthless treatment of them may leave the younger kids in the audience shaken. Unlike say the Marvel Universe, Rogue One doesn’t shy away from the sacrificial heroism of its occasionally bleak narrative and it’s all the better for it. On a content level, this is certainly the most adult Star Wars film to date and that feels like a reward earned by fans who had to suffer through Jar Jar Binks and Watoo.
With Edwards at the forefront, Rogue One boldy goes to some pretty dark places. Like dark as the belly of a Exogorth dark. That’s not to say it doesn’t try (and sometimes fail) to lighten things up but Rogue One also isn’t exactly innovative with its comic relief, using reconfigured Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to mixed effect. The wise-cracking droid is thrown into the mix of jaw-droppingly apocalyptic vignettes and the dichotomy of the light heartedness and the dark, lethal nature of its narrative doesn’t always coalesce. Without spoiling it, the film’s final scene is perhaps the greatest onscreen representation of the true terrifying power of the Force and those that wield it and only works because Edwards is able to go to such bleak places.
By positioning the bulk of the action in a tropical paradise, we’re given a new kind of Star Wars location in Scarif that’s as distinctive as Hoth, Tattooine or even the temple-peppered Yavin 4. Edwards conducts the whirling blitzkrieg with the same gusto he showed in Godzilla, sandwiching TIE-Fighter dogfights between a Stormtrooper/AT-AT land war and a small fleet of lingering Star Destroyers to absolutely dizzying effect. The scale is simply marvelous and Edwards tactfully keeps a dozen or so balls in the air as if by commanding the force himself. Along the way, the third-time director manages a good number of fan-friendly nods and homages, including a number of old school cameos sure to have long-time Star Wars fans in an absolute tizzy, even if some of the most iconic character’s screen time isn’t exactly put to the best use (you’ll know when you see it). But then comes that final, familiar scene and, oh sweet motherloving fanboy, talk about leaving on a high note.
CONCLUSION: There’s no getting around it, ‘Rogue One’’s clunky script leaves something to be desired but wowing visual glamor, classic Star Wars feel, a darker nature and that killer third act (and final scene) more than make up for screenwriting shortcomings.