Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A Review

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Approaching a Star Wars film as if it’s not a Star Wars film is dangerous territory for a studio. Even a juggernaut like Disney isn’t immune to risk. The smartest move they made in developing Rogue One, Disney/Lucasfilm‘s first non-episode (or anthologyStar Wars picture, is placing these (mostly) new characters in a familiar timeline. Less risk is involved when audiences know they’re visiting an era in the Star Wars universe that’s already been explored. While naysayers will immediately cry about nostalgia overdose, it’s nonetheless a calculated move from Disney’s marketing. I not only aim to preemptively defend Rogue One: A Star Wars Story from unreasonable hate, but reveal piece by piece why the feature was an engrossing, fun ride I wished never ended.

In the main series of trailers we received, the first immediately grabbed my attention with its emphasis on the psychology of the characters. It appeared to hint that our main hero Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) could be swayed by the Empire somehow, and dropped a rather subtle Darth Vader breath at the end (although 80% of this trailer didn’t make it into the final product). The second struck me as a rather paint-by-numbers affair, delivering an uncharacteristic amount of exposition for a Star Wars movie in a very traditional way. The back of Vader’s head is revealed briefly at the end, as if the marketing department was required to check that box. Then the third trailer comes. The third and final trailer is the best representation of the Rogue One you should expect, which we covered here. The trailer shows the emotional resonance each character could deliver and had a beautiful, epic-feeling score behind its captivating action teases.

Normally, this amount of dissection doesn’t go into any one movie’s trailer, but we are discussing a Star Wars picture. This is a franchise I’ve grown up with like most people, and these films continue to impress me. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a giant leap in the right direction from director J.J. Abrams, setting the bar for what future titles should deliver. Not only was The Force Awakens a pleasing blockbuster for non-fans and die-hards alike, it laid storytelling groundwork for future Episode and anthology movies in its pacing and character work. Fortunately with these bullet points already in place, it was rather easy for Rogue One to hit a certain quality threshold. All the studio needed to do was occupy the characters with the right players, and put the right eye behind the camera. With choices like Felicity Jones as Jyn, Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, and Gareth Edwards as the picture’s director, Disney hits yet another home run in 2016.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

(Donnie Yen)

Ph: Film Frame

©Lucasfilm LFL

Starting with the characters, Felicity Jones led this anthology feature with ease. She gave Jyn a closed yet vulnerable interior, a hardened exterior, and she handled her action sequences as if she’d already been performing in this genre for years. Simply put, Jones is a natural in this space (pun definitely not intended). Her closest cohorts in the Rebellion are Luna’s Andor and Tudyk’s K-2SO. Andor has no qualms living in a grey area for the greater good of the Rebellion, and Luna really shines when his own morality confronts him head-on. Tudyk’s motion-captured performance as the former Empire droid turned Rebel K-2SO is an absolute standout in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Never before have I uttered the phrase “what a badass” when referring to a droid in the Star Wars galaxy, but with Tudyk’s character, I said it and meant it. Tudyk is able to have tons of fun with K2’s surprisingly biting humor and uncompromising, statistical point-of-view.

Another noticeable standout is Donnie Yen‘s Chirrut Îmwe, a blind man who is a devoted follower of the Force. Yen is finally given a role in a gigantic American blockbuster, and takes full advantage by contributing an outstanding fight scene and well-timed humor. Jiang Wen plays Chirrut’s enforcer, Baze Malbus, who is merely a mercenary that doesn’t have time for Chirrut’s Force non-sense, and he succeeds in delivering a really pivotal moment for his character, but both Baze and Chirrut could have afforded more minutes dedicated to their backstory. If anything, Rogue One has me clamoring for a spin-off film or series of Chirrut and Baze’s preR1 adventures. Also, Riz Ahmed continues his breakout year after a riveting performance in HBO’s The Night Of and a supporting character in the latest Bourne sequel, Jason Bourne. Here, Riz plays a newly-defected former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, and has a handful of moments where he can show off his intense personality. Like Chirrut and Baze, Bodhi could have benefited from more time, but the film would probably be 3 and a half hours too long if it corrected itself based on my nitpicks.

On the Empire‘s side, we have the world-class natural Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic, who is primarily responsible for heading the Imperial military’s Advanced Weapons projects (like the Death Star, of course). There are glimpses of a real human being in Mendelsohn’s portrayal instead of yet another expendable blockbuster movie villain, and that’s thanks to the gravitas Mendelsohn brings to his roles. Krennic is a man who can’t survive without the Empire needing him, and you feel his desperation in key scenes throughout Rogue One. Also on the Empire’s payroll is Mads Mikkelsen‘s Galen Erso, Jyn’s father, who is behind the crafting of the Death Star. Galen is a conflicted man, who swore allegiance to the Imperial regime but his actions speak differently as he tries to reconcile past wrongs as a father and husband throughout the picture. Unsurprisingly, Mads is a solid key player, like in everything he does. Lastly of the main advertised cast, we have Forest Whitaker as extremist rebel, Saw Gerrera. Throughout the years, since the Clone Wars, Saw has seen many devastating things and evolved his philosophies. At times, Forest’s acting is borderline comical vocally, but his sense of paranoia comes off as justified and genuine, and your heart breaks for the damage that war has done to him.

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The casting directors did a stellar job bringing together such immense talent across the board, and it reflects in the work. You can tell these actors all enjoyed making this feature with each other. Additional players include a scattering of cameos from well-known characters, which I’ll leave unsaid to avoid spoilers. For me, one of these characters’ cameos is absolutely forced and unnecessary, yet there’s another that’s so well executed that it cancels out any of those negatives. What all the discussion appears to be online is how Rogue One created a few key Star Wars characters by use of CG effects (spoilers at the link). I acknowledge these were very bold choices that were awkwardly carried out in parts, but overall didn’t deteriorate the quality of the movie.

Shifting to the directing, Disney made an ingenious decision putting Godzilla director Gareth Edwards behind the lens. Gareth shows us scale in a way that’s unparalleled in any SW film. From the first frame of a planet and its rings swallowing an inbound ship, you recognize this as a unique vision in a familiar galaxy. Gareth further proves his singular skills by placing a focus on keeping the action grounded, for the most part. Yes, there is definitely a space battle that is astounding to watch, but when the fighting is on the surface of a planet, you’re only seeing things from the human point of view. It aids in helping you feel any loss the characters feel, and any sense of hopelessness a certain scenario presents. When displaying an aerial shot, Gareth again demonstrates it in an uncommon fashion, with occasional GoPro-esque shots on the wing of a ship. All in all, Rogue One is certainly a treat for the eyes.

Your ears are also treated by Michael Giacchino‘s splendid score. Giacchino has the unenviable task of being the first individual outside of the master John Williams to musically craft a Star Wars film. Even though Giacchino was a last minute selection after Godzilla composer Alexandre Desplat dropped out, he completely nailed it in every regard. After my second viewing of Rogue One, I’m starting to get certain recurring themes in my head, which shows potential for a soundtrack to become a future classic. Nothing about it feels too foreign either. Giacchino taps into a space between Williams-inspired and wholly original, evidenced by the end result you hear. Usually I’m hesitant to purchase instrumental movie scores by themselves since it’s hard to “jam out” to them, but this is one of the year’s best that I definitely recommend purchasing separately.

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Tonally, the studio can consider the mission accomplished in regards to their attempts at an actual war movie. Every ounce of story here resembles what you see in typical war movies from the buildup to the finale. For once in a Star Wars picture, the heavy focus is on the Wars part of its title. That makes the film as a whole a totally different experience from any SW feature before it. Where The Force Awakens presented an opportunity for enjoyment by the entire family, Rogue One possesses more adult themes and higher stakes that will be lost on younger audiences. For us longtime, dedicated Wars fans though, the drastic change in tone is something we’ve been anticipating for a few decades. To assure the uncertain, it was absolutely worth the wait, especially for this film’s considerably epic finale.

Much of the critical aspects I’m seeing online are about the use of nostalgia, with a few indicating that’s all this film uses to carry itself. It’s starting to feel like anytime the Star Wars universe is revisited, it’s a no-win situation for the hard-to-please. Considering how the 7 previous movies establish crucial plot points that aren’t fully explored in those said movies, it should surprise no one that we received a standalone film about the theft of the Death Star plans or how we will receive a young Han Solo picture. Furthermore, every time a SW film veers too off-course, you get a prequel movie full of Senate meetings, which inspires a different type of hate. I’m fully aware Star Wars occurs in a ridiculously large galaxy, but its stories revolve around core philosophies and battles that will often be referenced or revisited. There’s being reasonably critical and then there’s just being unable to enjoy anything and ponder on why it exists for more than a minute. The answer you’re searching for is the simplest and logical: Rogue One exists because this story hasn’t been told before.

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Lecturing aside, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a thoroughly enjoyable blockbuster adventure that offers plenty of new environments to get lost in, even if the exposition moves a tad slow. The movie also recontextualizes Star Wars: Episode VI – A New Hope in a surprising, satisfying way, and explores more moral shades of grey between both warring sides. Not only are the stakes high in the picture for our new heroes, but they elevate the stakes in A New Hope. The stakes definitely existed for the studio too in pursuing a different feel and aesthetic to a Star Wars entry, but with the film breaking box office records already, that risk is paying off. While I wouldn’t define this as a perfect title, it absolutely delivered when and where it needed to: as a big budget war movie, further exploring a recognizable universe that I can’t wait to revisit in Episode VIII next year!

Grade: B+

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