When Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012, they promised to expand the on screen universe of Star Wars. This included a sequel trilogy, beginning with The Force Awakens, as well a series of stand-alone expansion anthology movies, with Han Solo and Boba Fett films currently in the works. The first of these anthology films is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, set right before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope. It takes the Star Wars universe in a new and mostly successful and satisfying direction.
Rogue One is the story of the Rebel mission to steal plans for the Death Star that sets events into motion for Star Wars: A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial prison by the Rebels, after receiving word from a defector that her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a research scientist who has helped to build the Death Star, his secretly built a flaw in the weapon’s design. Hoping to be reunited with her father, she takes on the mission, led by Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Along for the ride is K-2S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid that has had its memory wiped. On their initial mission to retrieve the defecting pilot (Riz Ahmed) from an extremist Rebellion sepratist named Saw Gurrera (Forest Whitaker), they gain two allies in a blind warrior (Donnie Yen) who is not a Jedi but is strongly guided by The Force, and his traveling companion and mercenary (Jiang Wen) who is more skeptical of The Force than his counterpart. They also put themselves on the radar of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man who took Galen away from Jyn when she was a child and is overseeing the completion of the Death Star.
Though the most natural companion in the Star Wars universe to Rogue One is most certainly the original Star Wars: A New Hope, this film is a departure from typical Star Wars fare, which is evident from the opening, which eschews the traditional opening text scrawl and goes right into the film. It owes more to war movies than it does to sci-fi, space opera, or even previous Star Wars films. The influences of The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan’s Express, and even Saving Private Ryan seem readily apparent. It is certainly an interesting new direction to take in the Star Wars universe, essentially grafting a war movie into this space saga. It’s not original, but it is well executed.
Aesthetically, the film does a tremendous job approximating the retro-futuristic look and feel of Episode IV. Everything from the clothing to some of the hair styles and technology on display does a lot to visually tie this film to a nearly 40 year old film that was working with a significantly smaller technological palette in 1977. Something as small as having Jyn bump into a guy on the streets that has similar facial features to the snout-nosed guy with warts who threatens Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina helps to counterbalance the visuals of an entire planet surrounded by a force field defense system with only one way in and out; something that could not have been executed as well 40 years ago as it was here. This is maybe the greatest accomplishment of director Gareth Edwards and the crew that made this film, so effectively mimicking the visual appearance of Episode IV while making a film that is their own.
It’s also maybe the most effective film in the Star Wars catalog at treating the Rebel Alliance like a real rebellion. The Rebels behave like actual rebels fighting an insurgency against an empire. An early scene involving Cassian getting information from a source shows the dirty work that is required of the work he has chosen to do, while another on a planet named Jedha feels lifted from American Sniper with a tank rolling through the center of a city and an ensuing insurgent attack unfolding.
Alan Tudyk’s voice acting and the always terrific Ben Mendelsohn stand out most from the rest of the cast. Tudyk’s K-2SO serves much of the same purpose as C-3PO in the other films, providing some necessary levity to the proceedings, though with more bluntness than 3PO’s obliviousness. There is a nice nod to C-3PO even when K-2SO begins to say the classic “I have a bad feeling about this” line, only to be cut off. As the man who is overseeing the construction of the Death Star and its destructive capabilities, Mendelsohn as Krennic is perfectly cast as he is an actor so capable of playing sniveling characters with a hint of desperation. His character comes off as someone who is from Imperial middle management and even though he is effective and decisive in his job, has a tenuous grasp on his power, which is threatened by people like Grand Moff Tarkin.
Also making an appearance in the film is Darth Vader, who is deployed judiciously and in a manner that is menacing and helps to get the taste of the end of Revenge of the Sith out of our collective mouths. Residing on a planet that looks straight out of Middle Earth’s Mordor, Vader’s residence is imposing and fitting. There was some extensive reshooting for Rogue One, and it would not surprise me to find out that more Vader was added during those reshoots, but it feels like the right amount of Vader here in a story that he is not directly involved, but as a prelude to the Vader we see in Episode IV.
Another thing that the film gets right is the bit of retconning it does in creating an excuse for the design flaw of the Death Star. For years, it has been joked about by fans of Star Wars how stupid the Empire was to make a weapon with the power to destroy a planet have such a glaring design flaw. The purpose of the film is not to explain this or justify it, but it does a good job steering into the skid, so to speak, in saying that the design flaw is there on purpose.
The purpose of the film, rather, is to fill in more connective tissue and backstory of the Star Wars saga and take the anthology series in a different direction than the main franchise. To that end, the film is mostly a success, though it is not without its deficiencies. Because the purpose of the film is to fill in this connective tissue in showing how the plans were stolen to set up Episode IV, it is hard to invest in the characters because, like with so many prequels and in particular the Star Wars prequels, the purpose of the movie is not to tell the story of these characters but to be that connective tissue and backstory for Episode IV. It’s not that the fates of the characters involved don’t matter or are already sealed since we never hear of them past this film, but that their story is in service to another story at the expense of their own story.
Other problems are in the flimsiness of the main characters. Jyn, despite a compelling background, is less of a character than an archetype, and the same can be said of Cassian. They speak in war platitudes and little else. “Rebellions are built on hope!” The script also tries to shoehorn an emotional, not necessarily romantic, connection between them that feels forced (no pun intended).
By far, though, the most distracting aspect of the entire film though is the use of CGI to recreate Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s a bold move by Edwards and company to go in this direction, and there are articles out there detailing what went into bringing Peter Cushing’s classic character back to life, but the end result just does not work. The voice acting is fine, but the movement is off and the visage, particularly the face, looks lifted from a video game. Were this level of detail to be seen in a video game on a Playstation 4, for instance, it would look remarkable and truly impressive, but next to actual people it is distracting and firmly in the uncanny valley territory. There is another character toward the end that they use the same technology to recreate, with better results. The odd thing is that they could have done a simple work-around of having Tarkin appear in a hologram transmission rather than “in person” and still made everything work and it would have been far less distracting.
Despite a few flaws, Rogue One is an enjoyable sci-fi action movie. It succeeds in its modest goals of expanding the universe and establishing the template for future Star Wars Anthology entries. While it is not original, neither is the Star Wars franchise; what it is, though, is an effective piece of streamlined pop culture for mass consumption that wears its influences well. It grafts the familiar beats of a small band of soldiers on a near-impossible mission onto the template of a Star Wars movie. In the overall universe, it’s arguably the best of the films that could be classified as Star Wars prequels. It fits nicely into the galaxy far, far away.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars