The first feature of the Star Wars Anthology, a series in but apart from the main timeline that includes Episodes One through Nine, Rogue One is a scrappy but satisfying film befitting of its story and characters. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and directed by Gareth Edwards, it doesn’t have the pedigree of last year’s The Force Awakens and lacks a perfectionist streak that helped tighten, narratively and visually, the better Star Wars movies. Nevertheless, it compensates with some fine performances and a grittier story that expands on universe.
What I like about Rogue One that also sets it apart from the other films is the narrowness of its plot. The main series concerns itself with great galactic matters, and though its heroes embark on defining missions (e.g. destroy the Death Star, find Luke Skywalker), the movies tend to swell around their own mythology. This one is scattershot, especially the first half hour, but never bloated. Set just before the events of A New Hope, the story simply is about a band of outcasts who try to steal the plans for the Death Star. They are led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a sometimes criminal whose scientist father, Galen (a very noble Mads Mikkelsen), was compelled by the Imperial Army’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help the Empire construct the weapon when she was still a child. Some fifteen years later, the Rebel Alliance gets wind of the project and wants to use Jyn to locate her father, whom she hasn’t seen since he was taken away. After a brief rendezvous with extremist leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), she teams up somewhat reluctantly with Rebel officer and spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind, monkish warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his well-armed protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Together, they planet-hop trying to find the information they are looking for.
At this point, if you’re wondering what the hell the Empire is and who these damned Rebels are, then you may find this movie a little inaccessible and some of its references obscure. Rogue One expects its audience to be well versed in Star Wars lore, and a good working knowledge of the first movie, which is to say the fourth episode, which is to say A New Hope, is highly recommended. If you need to catch up, the Death Star is a moon-sized planet killer created by the Empire to assert its control over the galaxy, one that is far, far away. The Empire is a totalitarian regime, born out of the events from the 1999-2005 trilogy and exerting its full might during the original series. They are opposed by the Rebel Alliance, who want to restore democracy to the galaxy.
Those who grew up with A New Hope will find that this movie does more fan service than The Force Awakens, which was aimed at a broader audience and intended to introduce Star Wars to a new generation. Rogue One has a less glamorous role, filling in a lot of narrative gaps and bridging the first two trilogies. In fact, it leads directly into Episode Four in ways that were more surprising and exciting for me than seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca return to the Millennium Falcon. There were certain “oohs” in my opening night audience that warmed my fangirl soul to the core. Without revealing too much, some of the CGI magic will take your breath away and transport you back to 1977.
Streamlined as the plot may be, however, the film still lacks an elegance one would expect from the franchise. The first thirty to forty minutes require a detailed flowchart just to keep track of all the movement between characters, locations, and alliances. Ironically, once the story settles down, things really begin to take off. It moves light and fast, and one reason is that there are no abstract discussions about the Force or existential meditations on the Jedi’s place in the galaxy to weigh it down.
The dialogue is definitely clunky though, and the writing is one of the film’s main weaknesses. At one point, Galen and Jyn share what should be a moving scene, one of the three they have together. Rather than tender and affecting, it comes across as rushed and mawkish. Similarly, Chirrut’s comic interjections are lobbed haphazardly and land with a thud. K-2SO compensates with some wry humor and impeccable comic timing, thanks largely to Tudyk.
The rest of the talented and versatile cast go a long way to smooth the bumps. Last year, I unashamedly shed tears when a woman, a black guy, and a Latino dodged blasters and TIE fighters to best Darth Vader’s grandson. This time, I got misty eyed when Jyn roused her motley crew of non-white dudes to do their part for the Alliance. Jones is a (ahem) forceful lead, and like Daisy Ridley, who played Rey in The Force Awakens, she exerts an iron will that belies her slight physical stature. In many ways, that determination is emblematic of the whole group. No one would have pegged any of these stars to lead a global franchise, but here they are like their characters, doing their part with sheer wit and resolve.
Of Jyn’s gang, Luna and Ahmed have the most prominent roles and both show off a different kind of hero. Cassian’s commitment to defeating the Empire causes him to act in ways that initially seem indifferent and even amoral, but Luna gives his character a quiet strength that makes him one of my favorites. Ahmed, who is finally getting the recognition he deserves this year, does something similar with Bodhi, but after a promising introduction, his character starts to fade. Yen and Jiang also deliver strong performances and have standout moments, ones that will please home audiences in Hong Kong and China and introduce them to new ones abroad. But they too seem to be constantly searching for their character. Though the film’s strength is in its cast and in this scrappy band of brothers and sister, the script doesn’t do enough to maximize their talent or distinguish their characters. Even the dynamic Whitaker is left hanging in what amounts to an awkward cameo.
Still, Rogue One personalizes the war, and war itself, in ways that its loftier predecessors did not. Abstract principles and ideals underlie a story that’s told in small, individual battles. Our heroes aren’t the best fighters or the chosen ones tasked with overcoming Evil against impossible odds. Their main antagonist is, not unlike them, an important but ultimately expendable asset (or as Variety put it, a “mid-rank Nazi functionary”) trying to navigate the larger forces and events around him. The action is much closer to the ground, and even with a final well orchestrated space battle, it’s the dirty, frantic firefights, the ones that might double for images from the evening news, that make the biggest impression. They most movingly tell the stories of those who bear the cost of fighting for our ideals.
This is the trailer you’re looking for:
Alt Title: Rogue One
Prod: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll (story), Gary Whitta (story)
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Guy Henry, Genevieve O’Reilly, Jimmy Smits, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Jonathan Aris, Alistair Petrie, Valene Kane, Daniel Mays, James Earl Jones, Guy Henry, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, Peter Cushing (kinda), Carrie Fisher (kinda), Angus MacInnes (kinda), Drewe Henley (kinda)
Time: 133 min
Lang: English, various alien languages
Country: United States