After the heavy lifting that The Force Awakens did to re-establish the cinematic Star Wars universe in 2015, much of the pressure was off of Rogue One. It seemingly had a lower bar to clear, though there was still much hand-wringing after some clunky trailer dialogue combined with numerous reshoots throughout the year led many to lower their expectations for what was to be the first stand-alone Star Wars film. Director Gareth Edwards, an inspired choice who does well with spectacle often at the expense of characterization (his 2014 Godzilla reboot being a clear example), could reliably be counted on for at least a sense of scale and awe often missing from modern blockbusters.
Rogue One succeeds in the ways it most needed to – by providing a thrilling men-on-a-mission war tale that’s relatively self-contained but still peppered with enough references and cameos (Blue milk! The return of Grand Moff Tarkin!) to make hardcore fans happy. It’s not without faults as it has to build up characters quickly in advance of its lengthy climax, and often feels choppy and discombobulated in its slower first half. Yet once it gets going it leads to a 3rd act that has enough action and (just enough) heart to give hope for the two upcoming Star Wars anthology entries (a confirmed Han Solo movie and rumoured Boba Fett film).
Though Rogue One takes place outside the main Skywalker saga it still retains the most critical element of any Star Wars film – daddy issues. As a child, Jyn Erso sees her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) kidnapped and forced into servitude with the evil Galactic Empire. Now grown, the rebellious Jyn (Felicity Jones, the second female Star Wars lead in a row) has a chance at redemption as the noble Rebel Alliance recruits her to steal plans for the Empire’s newly constructed weapon capable of destroying worlds – the Death Star.
The movie jumps around a lot initially, quickly establishing a number of new worlds and characters. Jedha is a war-torn planet that the Empire has established a foothold in, and it’s where Jyn’s team and mission begin to come together. As the evil Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, the go-to actor for villainous roles) tries to plug up intelligence leaks, Jyn finds herself teaming up with Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna in the Han Solo-type role) and snarky droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk doing a good C-3PO riff).
Their motley crew is filled out by more weirdly-named characters like defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), heavy weapons expert Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and force-sensitive warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Though K-2 acts as the movie’s comedic relief (and isn’t too overbearing), Yen’s blind monk is the true breakout character of Rogue One. He’s given little backstory but his speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick fighting style is dynamic and well-choreographed, and his mantra of “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me” is soulful and catchy, hinting at the religious element that lurks in the background of Star Wars‘ bombastic space opera.
While the Death Star plans are the movie’s Macguffin to drive the plot and its raison d’être, Rogue One also takes pains to show the effects of the original trilogy’s war on the galaxy’s residents (it takes place directly before 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope). Cassian Andor has done terrible things in the name of the Rebellion, and though we don’t get to feel the full weight of it at least an effort was made. And the guerilla battle on Jedhi is an example of a rebel force fighting against foreign occupiers, as Edwards mixes in some real-world wartime politics with the usual fantasy elements. Even the inter-group politics of both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire are more nuanced than anything in George Lucas’ much-maligned prequel trilogy.
As the pieces fall into place all the planet-hopping leads to a tropical world called Scarif where Jyn and her comrades must make a last-ditch effort to ensure the rebel’s victory. It results in a stunning set piece that has some of the best Star Wars action seen yet. There’s a beach assault that has the beauty of the lush planet juxtaposed with the Nazi-like imagery of the Imperial stormtroopers and their war machine, and an X-Wing battle rages above in space in a multi-layered finale that feels very Spielberg-esque in the way it continually raises the stakes.
Edwards ensures that the action looks great and is properly epic, even as some characters are given more to do than others (the film’s lead heroes in particular don’t have as much agency as earlier trailers full of unused footage suggested). Regardless, Rogue One ensures it ends with a bang and brings home its story of wartime heroes and villains. A series of epilogues even results in one of the best single action scenes (more of a sustained beatdown really), as well as some suspect CGI that ends the movie on a weird note. Though it’s been in development for years, Rogue One manages to perfectly capture the zeitgeist with its story of hope against all odds. How fitting for an exceedingly long and dark 2016.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Runtime: 133 minutes