Putting the War in Star Wars
Chris Kavan - wrote on 12/18/16
With The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams delivered a huge batch of nostalgia while reeling in a new generation of Star Wars Fans. Disney's plan going forward was to deliver a new Star Wars films each year - one part of the new trilogy and the other a stand-alone film set within the Star Wars universe and timeline. Rogue One is the first of those stand-alone films and it more than holds its own as it channels the sense of adventure and wonder while delivering an emotional punch that leans a bit darker and more action-oriented than the previous films.
Rogue One is essentially the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who, as the movie opens, is just a child and has to watch as her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen in an all-too-brief role) is forcibly taken by the Empire in a group led by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help complete a new, powerful weapon. Erso is a defector who wants nothing to do with the Empire, but after his wife rashly attempts to stop Krennic (with fatal results) he is dragged away. The young Jyn hides but is found by family friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
The film then flashes forward several years. Jyn is a young woman, currently in a forced Imperial labor camp, but is soon to be rescued by the Rebel Alliance. It seems her old friend, Gerrera, is leading his own faction on the ancient Jedi world of Jedha, where the Imperials are gathering Kyber Crystals (once used in making lightsabers) for their own project. It seems an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has defected and it in Gerrera's hands. Jyn might be able to get an audience as Saw is now a bit paranoid and largely mechanical. The Alliance sends top agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to rescue her, along with the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Once freed, she learns that her father actually sent the defector, and that he has been working on this weapon since his capture. While she doesn't believe fully in the Alliance, she goes along with the plan.
The cast is soon joined by blind monk and former Jedi temple guardian Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) - the closest thing to a Jedi the film has, along with his protector, a heavy-weapons expert Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Several familiar faces make an appearance: Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, Genevieve O'Reilly as Rebel leader Mon Mothma, a quite well done digitally-created Governor Tarkin and the man in black himself, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones - who gets proper credit). There are also plenty of Easter eggs to be found for the Star Wars fan.
The film works because it shows us a side of Star Wars that we haven't seen. Take Cassian Andor - a top Rebel agent - but one who isn't above killing a fellow soldier to keep a secret and taking on assassination missions for the "good of the rebellion". It's a dark look at the lengths the rebellion is willing to go to - and shows that at times the rag-tag group of "heroes" may be little better than the Empire. But the film also shows a lot more action. You still get the space battles we are accustomed to - but the action on the ground, especially the huge finale, really puts the war into Star Wars as never before. While it's not quite Saving Private Ryan - it is the most realistic and brutal depiction of what happens when these two sides really fight.
The film isn't all action, however, it provides a lot more. Tudyk lightens things up as the reprogrammed droid gets the best one-liners and provides much-needed levity. Jones also does an excellent job of transforming from a jaded woman into a full-fledged freedom fighter. One might say it happens too fast, but she puts power behind her performance and it a real addition to the Star Wars mythos. Everyone gets a hero moment here - and it is often powerful. Even Vader has his moment, and you won't want to miss it.
The film is gorgeous - the settings, from the desert world of Jedha to the sandy beaches of Scarif are great. We even get a glimpse of Vader's monolithic headquarters. While I was bummed to hear that John Williams wasn't going to score this film, Michael Giacchino is a fine substitute who still captures the right element (with a some familiar riffs as well) and comes up with a moving score all his own.
If there are any quibbles, they are few. Some characters (like Mikkelsen) don't seem to be given near enough screen time. And while the achievement in bringing an old character back to life is pretty amazing - it still feels just slightly off. Some of the call backs are also just a bit too obvious (looking at you Butt-face Ponda Baba) but overall, most of it works out well enough.
My final verdict is that Rogue One is a treat for Star Wars fans young and old. It leans a bit darker than the previous films, but I think that's a good thing as it shows that both the Rebellion and Empire can be on the same footing. This is war after all and while the Empire is evil, the Rebels aren't perfect.