*** out of ****
(for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)
Released: December 16, 2016
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, voices of Alan Tudyk and James Earl Jones
The Rebellion Strikes.
In what amounts to being the most expensive fan film ever made, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the kind of narrative expansion to our most enduring mythos that we only would’ve gotten in paperback a generation ago. It doesn’t quite recapture the magic of our childhood in the way Star Wars: The Force Awakens did, nor does it need to (Episode VII took care of that, healing our prequel wounds), but this is a fun and satisfying Star Wars bonus through and through.
Rogue One is the first Star Wars anthology movie, which is to say it’s not a proper Episode like all previous installments have been, and its central characters have no relation to the Skywalkers or their familial saga. These are the peripheral players in this galactic epic, albeit crucial ones: the spies, referenced in the Episode IV opening crawl, who stole the plans to the original Death Star.
Putting the war in Star Wars like never before, Rogue One is the franchise’s first full war movie (although most of the large-scale fighting is saved for the final act); a Dirty Dozen from a galaxy far far away. For its two hours-plus run time, almost nary a lightsaber is drawn; blasters, grenades, turrets, tanks, AT-ATs, and space ship laser canons account for the bulk of the weaponry used between the Empire and Rebel Alliance.
Focused squarely on the events of this vital mission (along with some important backstory for its heroine), Rogue One doesn’t expand the mythology so much as just live and fight in it. In that sense its ambitions are kept in check, but probably for the better. It’s well-plotted and staged but not driven by twists, surprises, or reveals, and leaves no lingering questions. Future anthology entries would do well to stick to this approach of being a spectacular one-off.
Director Gareth Edwards creates a world that is very much of the classic Star Wars universe, even if his own aesthetic veers from the series’ traditions. Everything is meticulously designed, reflecting the Episode IV era in which it is set, but we also see war-ravaged ruins from prequel-style cities. It’s very much of a kind with the original trilogy, from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi (particularly in the space battle sequences).
But rather than a classic visual grandeur, Edwards prefers to go almost exclusively hand-held. That works for the battle scenes, to be sure, but outside of those it’s more modern than what the series has been (as are the constant cuts of its editing style, which pastes together coverage rather than crafting artful frames).
The new characters here are good if essentially serviceable, some little more than stock, and not nearly as fascinating, charismatic, complex or endearing as Rey and Finn (or Kylo Ren), but the cast makes the most of what they’re given (and even more than what’s on the page), with Diego Luna in particular bringing some conviction and grit to an otherwise stock rebel fighter.
Felicity Jones is strong as well, rising to the demands of the lead, even if Jyn Erso’s formative history feels all-too-familiar (not just to Star Wars, but to so many heroes journeys). Riz Ahmed is a standout as an Imperial pilot looking for some redemption, and Alan Tudyk’s voice offers comic relief as the refreshingly sarcastic droid sidekick K-2SO; he’ll likely be a fan favorite.
Darth Vader isn’t the only cameo we get of familiar characters, and Edwards offers up fan service aplenty (although it’s much more slight and lazy than what haters endlessly nitpicked from J.J. Abrams), plus there’s some cool new droids, creatures, and storm troopers. There’s also some advanced digital wizardry that will have George Lucas reflexively wanting to go back to his trilogies and tweak or add more.
Michael Giacchino has John Williams in his composing DNA and you can definitely hear it, especially as he emulates the brass, strings, oboes, and timpanis of that original 1977 score. Still, I’m surprised by how little they use the library of iconic themes, especially under the main title (which feels underwhelming without the Star Wars fanfare). Nevertheless, Giacchino’s music has the style, sound, and sweep of this singular saga.
What Rogue One does best is what it needed to deliver on most: combat scenes. The dogfights in space are as swarming as you’d expect while the land battles by contrast are narrow, involving squadron-size rebel attacks against much more daunting Imperial forces. Even though this war movie lacks a full-scale Alliance offensive, it has all the energy, intensity, and visual effect pyrotechnics you’d want from the high standards of this brand.
Rogue One validates itself if for no other reason than it provides a logical explanation as to why a behemoth like the Death Star is designed in such a way that it could be entirely destroyed by just a few laser blasts into a single small port. (Hopefully nerd obsessives can finally stop with that little gripe.)
If Rogue One is any indication, Lucasfilm’s expectations for its anthology films are pretty basic: tide the fans over between major episodes. Thankfully, as Edwards shows here, such a low baseline doesn’t have to result in something that’s half-hearted or compromised. Keep it simple, keep it fun, but keep it legit. For Rogue One, it’s mission accomplished.