The rare prequel worth experiencing.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could not have released at a more topically relevant time. A film focused on finding hope against an unstoppable supremacist empire of fascists feels especially pertinent to the state of current events. For their first Star Wars anthology film, Disney somehow managed to craft an effective film based on a single sentence from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars: A New Hope: “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
And that’s exactly what transpires in this film. But it’s the details that matter, and Rogue One supremely delivers on that front. From the beginning, you know the end. The rebels successfully deliver the Death Star plans to Princess Leia. However, none of these characters are around in any of the other Star Wars movies. This vague uncertainty of the fates of these new characters gives Rogue One a genuine sense of danger, increasing both the stakes and tension of its grand finale.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s meet our new rebel friends. The film opens with a young Jyn Erso as she witnesses the death of her mother and the conscription of her father Gale Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) at the hands of the Empire. Gale, a brilliant scientist, has been recruited by old friend Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in the hopes that he will assist in finishing the construction of the mighty and monstrous Death Star. Jyn manages to escape the clutches of the Empire while her father is whisked away into a life of what essentially amounts to slavery.
After a time jump spanning fifteen years, we pick back up with Jyn (Felicity Jones). After being raised and subsequently abandoned by militant rebel activist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), Jyn is reluctant to align herself with any cause greater than her own self-preservation. That is until rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) informs her that her father knows how to destroy the Death Star and has leaked said information to Saw in the form of imperial turncoat Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Joined by reprogrammed imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn and Cassian set out to meet with Saw and bring the information back to the rebel alliance. Along the way, they manage to pick up a blind, force sensitive Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his guardian Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) to aid them in their quest.
The first act of the film is primarily concerned with tying together these various story threads. It also happens to be the sloppiest and most problematic section of the film. The first twenty or so minutes find themselves jumping hastily from planet to planet, plot point to plot point as it attempts to bring these characters together. After the initial awkwardness and whiplash of juggling these separated story-lines, our group of weirdos finds themselves assembled with a mission to complete and nothing but hope to motivate them. For the rebellion, hope is all they need.
Rogue One lives and dies on its characters and this group of rebels is a knockout. While a few of the characters are written more broadly than others, they are all likable, and I found myself caring about each and every one of them. Jyn and Cassian have the strongest character arcs, but K-2SO is the one who absolutely steals the show. K-2 is a boorish ex-imperial enforcer droid who has been reprogrammed to protect Cassian. The pair possesses an almost John Conner/Terminator relationship and it’s quite endearing to watch unfold. He doesn’t have a filter and will always speak in brutal honesty, leading to numerous moments of pure hilarity, sold by the comedic deadpan performance of Alan Tudyk.
Felicity Jones brings a fierce naturality to her performance as Jyn, giving the character an almost inborn sense of rebelliousness. Diego Luna plays Cassian about as straight as an arrow, but it works. Someone has to be the straight man in this rag-tag group of freaks and the character is written with an underlying darker side that helps make the character engaging. Donnie Yen is fantastic as Chirrut, constantly playing the part of scene-stealer as the blind martial artist. His belief in the force gives the film its spiritual core and provides a wealth of hard-hitting emotional beats. Riz Ahmed and Jiang Wen are also great as Bodhi and Baze, respectively, but their characters don’t receive near as much attention as the others.
So we have our group of rebels. Let’s get to some rebelling. Rogue One provides a more in-depth look than ever before at the inner workings of the rebellion. What were once the clear do-gooders of the original trilogy are painted in a much grayer light in this latest iteration. The rebels are obviously still the good guys, but in Rogue One they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. If that means the deaths of potential allies or the murdering of informants then so be it. Anything goes in taking down the Empire. This darker side of the rebellion that is portrayed helps give them more layers, leading to a more interesting and dynamic faction overall.
After assembling the team and engaging in various shenanigans, the rebels are ready to launch their suicide mission to steal the Death Star plans and kick off the final act. It’s here where director Gareth Edwards truly shines. Edwards has a magnificent eye for scale (see 2014’s Godzilla) and that ever apparent here. AT-ATs tower above our heroes as the rain havoc on guerrilla fighters, Star Destroyers dwarf rebellion X-Wings, which are subsequently dwarfed by the Death Star. For a lack of a better word, the scale of Rogue One feels significantly more epic than previous Star Wars entries.
The final act of the film is so very climactic. The sense of danger and urgency is felt on the ground battle whilst a desperate space battle looms overhead. The film seamlessly transitions from our heroes fighting planet-side to the dogfight above, not once feeling jarring. The stakes are felt ground side, allowing the action to be especially engaging. While the space battle is pure visual eye candy, the lack of any main characters involvement prevents the action from being as effective as what is occurring below.
Overall, the film absolutely sticks its landing, delivering a satisfying and surprising finale that manages to elevate the film as a whole. Rogue One is not a perfect film by any means, there are nits to be picked: Michael Giacchino’s score is fairly unmemorable in comparison to the works of John Williams, the lack of an opening crawl still feels weird, and a particular distracting CGI character that continuously approaches the uncanny valley. But when the film contains what might be the best Darth Vader scene in the entire fucking franchise, those nits aren’t worth much.