I Am One With The Force, The Force Is With Me
I know you’re worried about spoilers, so let me give you the bottom line. Rogue One isn’t a perfect movie, with a few issues of rushed pacing in the first and second acts and one really poorly-done character, but when it’s good, it’s great. It’s filled with interesting characters, does everything a good prequel should, packs one heck of an emotional punch, and features the kind of incredible action sequences we’ve come to expect from Gareth Edwards. Seriously: the final battle of this movie isn’t just the best in this series – it sets the bar for large-scale sci-fi action scenes. If you like Star Wars, see this movie. If you felt that Force Awakens stayed too close to its source material to be interesting, see this movie. If you thought previous Star Wars films were too black-and-white in their morality and want to see a darker take on the universe, see this movie.
If you still need convincing, read on. I avoid any major spoilers in this review (except for one paragraph, which is highlighted so as to be impossible to miss), but it should help you understand why I think Rogue One might be my new favorite Star Wars film.
The film is quite possibly the least Star Wars of any Star Wars movie. There’s no Jedi making vague, wordy proclamations about the fate of the galaxy – just ordinary people, fighting for their lives against a government that’s better-armed, better-staffed, capable of destroying planets, and led by a nightmare with a laser sword. As a result, Rogue One has the opposite problems of most Star Wars films (the ones that are good, obviously – the biggest problem the prequels had is that they exist, and weren’t thrown into a fire). While the original trilogy finds strength in its mythology and overall plot structure, its characters are weak archetypes delivering dialogue that sounds like somebody read The New Yorker and decided it wasn’t pretentious and fruity enough. Conversely, Rogue One delivers an ensemble cast of likeable, interesting characters, but sometimes doesn’t quite do the developmental arcs of those characters justice.
It’s the better way to go, in my personal opinion. While I for one would have loved to see a three-and-a-half hour film detailing the whole history of Captain Andor’s dark past, or giving more time to Baze Malbus, I’m a nerd, and I write for a nerd website, and the children in the theater are eventually going to have to go to the bathroom. The film gives us everything you really need to see – we see Diego Luna’s Andor do bad things in the name of the Rebellion, even if we don’t quite know the nature of “the prison he carries with him”, and Baze has a well-executed character arc even if he only has a handful of scenes. And having seen the movie twice now, a lot of the things I had problems with the first time around (“This doesn’t make sense”/”Why is this character acting like this”) are actually addressed in the film – they’re just small moments, moments that often seem meaningless when you don’t know how they connect to the titanic third act.
The reason Rogue One gets away with its quick and often uneven pacing is that it gets something George Lucas never did – the importance of letting actors act. The reason Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the original trilogy is because the director, Irvin Kershner, let the actors inhabit their roles completely, famously letting them improvise lines that have become the most memorable parts of the film. Rogue One can have eight principal characters whose story is mostly expressed through small moments of interaction because it has an all-star cast, even for minor roles – a cast that can make those moments work. If Saw Gerrerra wasn’t played by an actor of Forest Whitaker’s caliber, you’d wonder what he was doing in the film, but Whitaker takes every scene he gets and chews it, creating a striking portrait of a larger-than-life rebel leader consumed by paranoia and illness.
Nearly every time a new character was introduced, I thought to myself, “This is my new favorite.” From Alan Tudyk’s wisecracking K2-SO (who gets all of the best lines) to Donnie Yen’s ass-kicking Chirrut Imwe (whose last scene in the film is going to inspire a lot of tattoos), every member of the Rogue One unit is memorable, likable, and brought to life by incredible performances. This is true of the villains as well – Director Krennic, played to perfection by Ben Mendelsohn, stands in fascinating contrast to the rest of the Empire. Villains in Star Wars are generally aloof, reserved – Vader and Tarkin, who both make reappearances in this film, always seem to be in full control of the situation. Krennic, on the other hand, is a sniveling bully – he’s constantly put down by his superiors and passes it forward by being excessively cruel to those powerless to oppose him. I found it much more engaging, because as much as I love the classic villains, I don’t know a Darth Vader or a Palpatine. I know Krennic – I’ve met him, he was the guy who threw rocks at my brother and I in elementary school. And that doesn’t make him any less evil – if anything, it makes you more desperate to see him fail, and his downfall is a perfect ironic finish to everything his character is.
I find myself wishing Krennic had gotten more screentime, mainly because the single worst part of this film is the presence of Grand Moff Tarkin. Rather than hire a lookalike like they did for Mon Mothma and a few other characters in the film, Disney opted instead to digitally reconstruct Peter Cushner in CGI, and it…really doesn’t work. If I had seen the CGI Tarkin in a videogame, I’d praise the graphics, but that’s because CGI in a CGI videogame looks out of place. But as Star Wars goes back to having more of a physical presence (the aliens and robots involve at least some practical effects), the presence of an uncanny-valley cartoon man speaking to real human beings is jarringly unsettling, especially as he stands across from Mendelsohn giving his all. They could have had Tarkin be seen only from the back, or appear only as a hologram (where discrepancies in his appearance could be excused as bad transmission), or do any number of things, but they didn’t, and in five years when technology has continued to advance we’ll look back at this effect and cringe even harder.
But back to the film’s good qualities. You’ve heard by now that Rogue One is the darkest Star Wars film, and that is absolutely correct. I suspect that this will lead to it becoming one of the more “your mileage may vary” films in the series, but I think it works, mainly because it fits in with the rest of the story. It doesn’t feel like the Rebel Alliance suddenly aren’t the good guys, rather, it feels like the film is zooming in to show us the details. In the original trilogy, you see Mon Mothma or another general telling everyone the decision that has been made – in this film, you see the bickering and squabbling among the Alliance that led to that decision. There’s still no question that the Rebels are good and the Empire is bad, but now you’ve gotten to see the individual people that make up both sides, giving it more of an emotional connection.
And speaking of emotional, let’s talk about that ending. THE NEXT SECTION IS GOING TO HAVE MAJOR SPOILERS. I MEAN IT. IT WILL SPOIL THE MOVIE. SKIP TO THE NEXT PICTURE TO AVOID THESE SPOILERS.
So. Everybody dies. I’ve seen people dismiss the decision cynically as “Well, they have to explain why the characters weren’t in later films somehow,” and it’s possible that that was the motivation for the decision, but I think the way it’s executed manages to elevate it above that (again, largely due to the actors’ performances). But the real brilliance of the ending isn’t the finale of the battle on Scarif, brutal and heart-rending as it is. It’s the scene that comes right after, where we see the soldiers dying as they try to pass the plans to the Tantive IV like a grisly relay race. It’s like they’re showing us the entire film we just saw again – a group of Rebels, each no doubt with backgrounds as varied and stories as interesting as those who founded Rogue Squadron, dies to a vastly superior enemy, but they manage to pass the plans along. And by bringing us to the moment minutes before A New Hope starts, you see clearly that their sacrifice was worth it, because even though more Rebels are going to die along the way, the Death Star will be brought down as a direct result of their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of Rogue One.
That’s the thing about this movie. Unlike the Prequels Which Shall Not Be Named, it actually makes the original trilogy better. You knew that the Rebels were fighting an uphill battle, but now you actually get to form enough of an emotional attachment that that fact has meaning. And the scene that actually got me to tear up wasn’t any of the death scenes (though Chirrut’s came close) – it was the scene where Galen Erso (another fantastic performance courtesy of Mads Mikkelsen) is explaining to his daughter about what he’s done to the reactor. Not only does it patch up a plothole that a certain kind of condescending Star Wars fan has taken delight in snarking about forever, but it means that the mighty Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon, was destroyed by this guy’s love for his daughter. And that’s freaking powerful, a lot moreso than “it got blown up by space wizards” (even though I love space wizards).
Rogue One has its flaws, certainly. It’s a bit awkwardly paced, some of the character arcs feel rushed, and Grand Moff Tarkin has been replaced by some horrifying alien shapeshifter trying to mimic the human face. But every Star Wars film has its flaws, and the highs of Rogue One are so very high that it easily makes up for all its problems. Its action is superb, its respect for the Star Wars canon clearly evident but never cloying, and its characters and the emotional payload they convey might just be the best this series has ever had. Go see it, even if the trailers made you cautious. Once you get past the fact that it’s not John Williams’ music and it’s not quite the Star Wars you grew up with, I think you’ll find that there’s a fantastic film waiting for you.
Plus, didja see the part where Chirrut totally beats up all those Stormtroopers with his staff? AWESOME.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards, Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Released December 16, 2016.