After successfully reviving the franchise back from the dead last Christmas with The Force Awakens, Disney is back in the Star Wars game. Their latest venture is the beginning of a new brand of Star Wars picture that the corporation hopes to keep cranking out long after the new trilogy is complete. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story falls somewhere between spin-off and prequel. It takes a Star Wars story that everyone knew from the opening crawl of A New Hope and expands it out to a feature length rebellious adventure. Although the movie is clearly rooted deep in the Star Wars mythos, the tone, style, and execution do take some rather large departures from the usual Star Wars we’ve become accustomed to. That family so unavoidably at the core of every Star Wars story to date is pretty much gone and there isn’t much talk of the force either. Instead, it’s a swashbuckling tale of Rebellion against the Empire through scrappy ingenuity and sacrifice. It’s a good time. Not the best Star Wars movie to date, but certainly the best prequel to the original trilogy by a mile.
After ditching the usual opening scrawl, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kicks off relatively quietly and takes time introducing its characters. Felicity Jones stars as a young woman who spent her life causing trouble for the Empire, which landed her in an Imperial internment camp. She’s busted out by the Rebel Alliance and told that the plan is for her to help rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who designed the Death Star. The truth is more complicated than it seems, but she’s quickly whisked off with Diego Luna’s troubled rebel and his wise cracking droid sidekick (Alan Tudyk, thankfully more 3PO than Jar-Jar). They slowly build up a band of rebel buddies including Riz Ahmed’s imperial defector, Donnie Yen’s blind monk and Wen Jiang’s sharpshooter. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn’s chilly careerist imperial is supervising the building of the Death Star under the intimidating watchful eyes of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing revived through impressive CGI) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, naturally). There are scrapes and surprises, all leading towards the grand Death Star plans stealing climax that is the stuffy of giddy fanboy dreams made real.
Directing duties for the film fell into the hands of Gareth Edwards, the man who recently revived Godzilla. It’s worth noting off the top because the basic strengths and weaknesses of that flick return here, though thankfully the final results are an improvement. Edwards seems to be fascinated with the idea of starting a blockbuster as a muted character drama and then gradually blowing it up until it’s the biggest blockbuster on the block. The trouble is that he’s not as good at the first part as the latter. So it takes a while for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to get going. The tone isn’t as joyfully light and goofy as previous Star Wars projects either. It’s a little too quiet and dour, and the characters aren’t quite as complex as the movie wants them to be. After all, this is a cartoon world and Batman aside, watching cartoons brood isn’t as interesting as watching actual humans do the same.
The cast is damn good though, and that sure helps. Felicity Jones provides more strength and intensity than the script gives her, and Diego Luna hints at tragic depths that his character doesn’t quite have. Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen are two of the best actors of their generation, so obviously they are fascinating every time they walk on screen. Everyone else feels a little two dimensional, and the stabs at humor woven in fail more often than they should. Thankfully, the overall story is sound even if the individual pieces aren’t quite as strong. Once the movie finally gets out of it’s rough ride setting everyone up, it takes off. Edwards keeps cranking up the scale and excitement. Familiar sights, sounds, and characters start to pile on and Rogue One grows into its Star Wars Story.
The effects and set pieces are as stunning as you’d hope once the flick takes flight. The CGIed from the dead Peter Cushing works surprisingly well, and the ways in which Vader is slowly weaved into the narrative are amusingly appropriate, right up to a stunner of a finale from the man in black. Best of all is the grand ol’ climax of the movie. It’s an explosion of Star Wars action that will leave you breathless. Edwards’ knack for communicating scale and excitement from Godzilla is in full force using all familiar sights like AT-ATs and X-wings to get your inner child giggling. The action is insane, but it also hurts. With very little magical force guiding the tale, the stakes feel more desperate and dangerous. There are no future films for these characters, so there’s no guarantee of survival. Edwards skilfully makes his climax an emotional peak as much as a visceral one. Easter eggs are mixed with new surprises too, and some questions about A New Hope are answered. It all explodes into a heady, heart-pounding rush and then rolls credits right when viewers will be desperate for more. That’s where the original Star Wars takes over.
So Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t exactly perfect. All the flaws are front-loaded and anxious fans might find themselves worrying. Don’t do that. Stick it out. It all pays off and it’s all pretty glorious. Best of all the film accomplishes exactly what the first of these standalone spin off tales were supposed to do. It proves that there can be a Star Wars movie that doesn’t feel entirely like a Star Wars movie. There are further tales to tell in this universe and elements of emotional and storytelling complexity that never fit into George Lucas’ deliberately simple, mythical design. Maybe there is a good Star Wars movie tell every Christmas. The new team has certainly done a better job than Lucas at reviving the franchise, so it won’t be long now before there are more good Star Wars films made after Lucas’ involvement than during his reign as king (or emperor). Bring on the next one. It’s a good time to be a Star Wars nut (aka pretty much everyone).