Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is arguably the biggest gamble Disney has taken with the Star Wars franchise since acquiring it from Lucasfilm. The film is the first “spin-off” Star Wars movie, meaning it doesn’t get the “Episode” designation and will explore different happenings around the main narrative of the series.
So not only is Rogue One breaking new ground in a galaxy far, far away – it’s also a gritty, Jedi-less sci-fi war film directed by Gareth Edwards – a director with only one major film under his belt – and centers around a team of rebels that audiences have never met before. That’s enough to make any movie executive begin to sweat a little bit in their Mickey Mouse ears. Thankfully the gamble pays off, because Rogue One is a huge success and is going to make Star Wars fans very, very happy.
The film revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the engineer who helped design the first Death Star: Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelesen). The Erso family dynamic is not only extremely important to this film, but also the overall story line of the rebellion in Star Wars: A New Hope, and both Jones and Mikkelsen deliver dynamite performances.
The Ersos don’t get all the glory in the film, however, as the supporting cast is full of scene-stealers in roles sure to be instant fan favorites. In a film that is surprisingly funnier than expected, Alan Tudyk is superb as the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO. Imagine C-3PO as a hulking, grumpy old man programmed to kick ass and you kind of have an idea about K-2SO. He brings levity to many potentially very dark scenes and adds a lot to the Rogue team dynamic.
While Rogue One doesn’t have any Jedi fighting the good fight, the closest equivalent is the blind Force disciple Chirrut Îmwe, portrayed by the great Donnie Yen (IP Man). If your idea of awesome is an incredible real-life martial artist getting to play inside the Star Wars universe and taking down Stormtroopers with his considerable skills, then you’ve come to the right movie. Yen is a joy to watch in this film and brings a whole new combat style to the Star Wars universe, along with his considerable charm.
There’s far too many characters to break down each one, but I also want to give credit on the villainous side to Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military and Galen Erso’s biggest supporter/enslaver. Krennic is a great villain and has some wonderfully evil lines early in the film, but oddly enough as the film progresses Mendelsohn’s performance, paired with the slow unveiling of Krennic’s place in the Imperial hierarchy, actually gathers a little sympathy for the man. But only just a little, he’s still awesomely evil.
Rogue One takes a little bit of time to get moving since there’s a huge cast that needs to be introduced, but even the slower moments are quite beautiful to watch. The film looks stunning in every frame, and whether something is getting blown up or two characters are having a conversation in the shadow of a mountain, this is the most visually impressive Star Wars film in the entire franchise in my opinion. A bold statement, I know, but this film is just drop dead gorgeous from head to toe.
As mentioned above, the film does struggle a bit with pacing and not all of the characters are allotted enough time to flesh out their motivations. Even some of Jyn’s character development from vagabond to rebel at times feels like a bit of a jump. There’s also just a bit too much fan service scattered about in the story, which as I fan I don’t mind, but it could feel a bit pandering to some.
But the main thing that the marketing and trailers for the movie have been selling to viewers is classic original trilogy Star Wars action and the film delivers this in spades. Since the film is set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, it gets to play around in that oh-so-sweet time period with all the vehicle and weapon designs that made the original trilogy so iconic.
Watching X-Wings and Y-Wings flying through caverns or AT-AT’s stomping through beachfront property is the stuff of an 80s kid’s dream, and Rogue One handles it all with reverence and innovation. The epic third act battle is a sequence that needs to be watched over and over again and I can’t wait to see it a second time – it’s so dense and overflowing with eye popping imagery. The alien designs in the film are also very diverse and imaginative and brought to life with a terrific mix of CG and practical effects that looks nearly flawless in action.
While that’s good news for fans, I’m sure the first question on everyone’s mind about the film prior to seeing it is, “How much is Vader in the film?” I’m specifically avoiding spoilers in my review, but I think it’s good to temper expectations where you can and Vader isn’t in the film a great deal. But boy, is he utilized to full advantage and there will be many a fanboy covered in goosebumps during a few scenes near the end of the film.
I’ve also avoided mentioning any of the other surprises in the film and there a few others in there – especially for Star Wars fans that know their stuff. While I’m sure these surprises will spark many discussions, I don’t feel like they affect the overall film enough to be addressed in my review and I’d rather audiences discover them on their own.
When Rogue One begins to wind down to its final moments, audiences will see just how well the bridge is constructed to A New Hope and how it even actually helps improve that film’s story. Rogue One isn’t perfect, but I have a sneaking suspicion that many Star Wars fans, especially ones that grew up with the original films, may end up liking Rogue One: A Star Wars Story better than The Force Awakens and that’s a feat so impressive, I’d be willing to double down on anything Disney does next with the Star Wars franchise.