Those that have followed my Star Wars reviews since Disney purchased Lucasfilm will know I’ve been cautious of their handling. Rebels and The Force Awakens were generally okay in my book so I’ve been fairly happy thus far. But the idea of the ‘Star Wars Story’ sub-brand to tell one-shot stories in film form is new ground and as such arguably raises my concern even higher, especially given the subject for the series opening.
Since 1977, fans have known that the Death Star plans that drove the plot of the first film were stolen by the Rebels, thanks to the iconic opening crawl. For many this was enough, though now discredited sources did try to explain further (Kyle Katarn fans, represent!). However, what works for one level in a video game is different from what works in a full movie, so when Rogue One was announced as essentially ‘the heist movie of the opening crawl’ I was hesitant. Did we need to go this far for a piece of exposition that has worked just fine for 40 years by itself?
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the sole child of a noted former Imperial weapons designer (Mads Mikkelsen) who was forcibly re-recruited by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to complete the Empire’s most advanced weapon: the Death Star. Orphaned, Jyn grows up under the care of her father’s insurgent ally Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Years later, as the battle station nears completion, the Rebellion discovers Jyn’s connection to its senior designer and recruits her to attempt to locate him in the hopes of finding a means to stop this new threat.
Untold tales have long bugged me in science fiction because they are very rarely handled well or amount to much. Case in point: all those comic book mini-series that claim to be the ‘must-read lead-in’ to a big sci-fi blockbuster which itself barely references them, if it references them at all (pity IDW, trying to make a consistent narrative of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies). If there was a tale to be told, then why did A New Hope consider it perfectly safe to make it narration to the main event?
Thankfully, what we get is mostly workable and actively tries to avoid retconning or one upping the original film beyond some intentional fanservice that still feels balanced. A lot of care is taken with said fanservice, including some creative use of CGI to allow the presence of familiar faces, and even a prequel actor returning for the same reasons. Some of it is pretty dorky (like the a scene that exists to explain Luke’s Red Five call sign from the Battle of Yavin) but given the film’s placement as a lead in to the original, it’s to be expected. In fact I’m pretty sure this is what certain fans wanted from the prequels, but I’m glad those films went for more original stuff.
That segues into my feeling that the film is guilty of repeating elements of The Force Awakens for its own story. Jyn is very close to Rey in terms of character and backstory, even sharing the extreme parkour skills. Sadly, this sometimes leads to the feeling that Disney is being overly-cautious of veering away from the proven success of their first Star Wars film and ties into my wider concerns of them simply being interested in mining the decades of nostalgia that exists for the original trilogy, given how it’s at the heart of everything major they’ve done with the franchise thus far. The film even once again dips into the ‘sneaking into Imperial territory in stolen disguises’ shtick that Rebels has overused, making an off-the-cuff comedic strategy by Luke and Han into a disappointingly stock Rebel strategy.
Without question, this is the darkest depiction of the Rebellion we’ve yet seen, driven mainly by Diego Luna’s character Cassian Andor as a black ops-style soldier with a specialization in assassinations, following a history of similar missions. This is something I imagine will sit ill with many. Even if a real war needs such officers on both sides, the Star Wars canon has always cast the Rebels as plucky underdogs who do the right thing. In fact I’m sad to say the Rebellion comes off as moronic at times, especially entering the final act to give Jyn and her new allies impetus for their mission. It really doesn’t match the depiction in the original film of the Rebels being a secretive but a united and active front, but I guess there’s no movie without such concessions.
Acting is of a fine quality but I struggle to suggest anyone stands out. These are likeable enough characters but (probably not helped by the sequel trailer running beforehand) I couldn’t help but think of Guardians of the Galaxy, which seems to be an influence, especially for the characters of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). K-2SO is an amusing play on the C-3PO archetype, though one long time fans will have seen before in the likes of HK-47 and similar. Malbus and Imwe have a dynamic similar to that of Rocket and Groot, which likely comes to mind as they aren’t given a proper reason for being there and ultimately feel like part of Star Wars’ continued M.O. to sell toys. Imwe at least has the interesting shtick of believing in the Force though it’s kept vague as to if he’s actually sensitive or merely a spiritual believer. I actually found the character’s background his most interesting angle, as it ties into some Jedi lore the canon has half-heartedly acknowledged since the very beginning. Rounding up the group is Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, an Imperial shuttle pilot sent on a secret mission by Jyn’s father. I was worried this would mean an everyman character with wild reactions and freakouts but thankfully this shtick doesn’t last long at all.
As a fan of The Clone Wars, I was interested to see Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Saw, given he was central to an arc of that show. While linking everything could lead to audience confusion in the long-term, his appearance is understated enough that he works fine in this movie, with those familiar with him getting some extra tragedy out of his role. It’s essentially an extended cameo, but Whitaker does well and the character feels consistent with someone who has been fighting tyranny for so long. Speaking of veterans, Darth Vader appears complete with the iconic James Earl Jones boom once again. I won’t spoil the fun of what he does, but I’m tickled that they actually intentionally recreated the cheapness of the original 1977 costume. There are quite a few scenes in the film in fact where they manage to present such ‘frozen in time’ moments, so much praise is deserved to the various artisans on the production who worked so diligently.
Ultimately I think Rogue One: A Star Wars Story works well enough. There are elements I’m not too sure on and will continue to scrutinise as more Star Wars stories come on all manner of screens, but after one of the worst years on record I think this is a fun piece of escapism and a love letter to the original film in many ways. Disney needs to make it clear they aren’t simply going to mine the same elements with every Star Wars production, but for those looking for some nostalgic escapism which blends some of the best of new and old, this is an enjoyable experience.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.