ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY Review
Director: Gareth Edwards
Genre: Sci-Fi Action
After sobering up from the hype of THE FORCE AWAKENS, audiences quickly deconstructed it like Derrida to a Lego set and saw the film for the remake that it was. Though it was by all means a good film, FORCE AWAKENS still left a lot of itches unscratched for fans. With the quick disposal of nearly all of the Expanded Universe lore (at least we got Thrawn!), it seemed that the STAR WARS universe was too big and rich to merely retell A NEW HOPE. Enter Disney, Lucasfilm, and Kathleen Kennedy’s latest longtime endeavor: the “Star Wars Story” spinoffs. The gap in between the prequel and original trilogies has constantly begged for connective tissue since their conclusion. So, with a newly wiped canonical slate save for the STAR WARS REBELS television show, the opportunities were endless. Rather than kicking it off with a character origin story (though those are very much on the books with the young Han Solo film in preproduction and Ewan McGregor’s interest in an Obi Wan film), ROGUE ONE is a one shot story and the first feature film to cover ground that’s arguably more sacred than EPISODE VII’s.
So unsurprisingly, ROGUE ONE was under an immeasurable amount of fan scrutiny prior to release. Like J.J. before him, doubt stormed over director Gareth Edwards, whose latest notable work was the ill-conceived American Godzilla reboot. Rumors floated around that Edwards was gradually stripped of creative power by execs once screenwriter Tony Gilroy showed up during the infamous reshoots. Some said Disney thought an intense war epic would tarnish their kid-friendly brand and Edwards was promptly forbidden from the editing process. Even with the announcement of an incredibly capable cast, drama continued, as scheduling conflicts kept multiple Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat, a worthy John Williams replacement, from contributing and the film had to settle for generic tunesmith Michael Giacchino. Though the road seemed rocky, Edwards, Kennedy, and company were quick to reassure audiences that everything was going fine. And as a lifelong fan, I’ll say that the final product delivers despite its many flaws.
FIREFLY? You mean like the bug?
As many know, ROGUE ONE tracks a ragtag group, fighting for the budding Rebellion, and their theft of the Death Star plans from the oppressive Galactic Empire, directly leading to the events of A NEW HOPE. We first follow Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, whose scuffles with the Empire and interesting past perk the ears of the Rebellion. Her engineering father, Mads Mikkelson’s Galen Erso, has proven integral in the Empire’s development of the Death Star, yet holds ulterior motives: an exploitative weakness he intends Jyn to use to take down the super weapon. In her quest to honor her father’s wishes, Jyn is met with a plethora of both new and familiar faces of the Rebellion. Aboard the newly created Death Star, Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn, desperately attempts to convince imperial power players Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader of the deadly sphere’s destructive potential.
As an ensemble effort boasting a cast that could please popcorn moviegoers and film douches alike, almost all of the actors do a standout job given the circumstances. First alongside Jyn in her chase for her father’s breadcrumbs are Rebellion vet Captain Cassian Andor, done by Diego Luna, and reprogrammed imperial droid K2SO, with the voice of Alan Tudyk. As a former child resistance fighter, Luna could have gone deeper with Cassian, but only comes off as pretty boy edgelord with an obvious soft side. Sadly, this is a perfect love interest for our incredibly unlikable lead, who suffers from much the same, but with an even less believable arc. Seeing right through both facades is K2’s wit, which lands more smart alecky than 3PO, but with less bite than, say, fan favorite HK47 (pretty much STAR WARS’s Bender, ya meat bags). His relatable comedic relief and clunky yet effective combat tactics serve as a nice little stream in between the sticks in the mud of Jyn and Cassian. A better dynamic between two human characters lies with Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, played by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, respectively. Chirrut, a blind monk refugee of the sacked Jedi temple on the ancient Jedi homeworld of Jedha, kicks some serious Empire ass, with no need for force powers thanks to Donnie Yen’s impeccable martial artistry made popular by his IP MAN films. A skeptic to Chirrut’s unshaken devotion, Wen’s Baze Malbus is a big guy who thinks he can solve problems easier with his big gun. The two have a nice back-and-forth, recalling classic Han’s trusty blaster speech. Why are they even friends, especially when our lead is solely defined by her relationships? Who knows! That just means we want more of them.
This is the closest we’ll get to a ZATOICHI/STAR WARS crossover
The same is the case for many characters. Forrest Whittaker’s Saw Gerrera, who is camped in the outskirts of Jedha and deemed by the Rebellion as too radical, is a fun mix of kooky and virtuous, even for his limited screen time. The defected imperial pilot sent to him by Galen, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook, is serviceable, but Ahmed similarly has too little room to showcase his primo acting talent that drove home his roles in NIGHTCRAWLER and THE NIGHT OF. The same could even be said for Mikkelson, as his intentions as an imperial pawn or loving father could not be read by his performance. One of the few to really make good with his share is Krennic. Those who’ve seen STARRED UP and BLOODLINE know that Mendelsohn’s best when flying off the handle, but he brings both malevolence and classiness to Krennic, even when acting opposite Peter Cushing’s CGI zombification in Grand Moff Tarkin and Vader himself. Domhnall Gleeson should take notes, given his over the top General Hux in EPISODE VII. But screen time budgeting is rarely the fault of the actors, or even Gareth Edwards; the blame rests on the economized narrative.
In true AVENGERS fashion, the film only takes a few moments to really look at itself, and shoehorns in cheap thrills or cameos when not busy with an elaborate set piece or action scene. Granted, those grander moments never disappoint or drag. At its worst, characterization is present only when convenient, like when Jyn is given her obligatory save the kid/cat moment. Which is why, to me, Krennic and Tarkin’s imperial pissing contests are so compelling, as spectacle is left to the Death Star’s devastation. But the story works, perhaps better than FORCE AWAKENS, because we know just enough about these red shirts to root for their cause, instead of spending a third of the film with limp-dick villains or Mary Sue heroes played by actors with decades-long contracts. More to the film’s credit, big questions do get addressed, like the moralistic motivations of war and squabbles within a cobbled-together resistance, but only for a second. The “war movie” label is a bit of a misnomer. Folks do wear keffiyehs, many die like it’s going out of style, and we’re granted a large scale infantry warfare sequence in the exotic, Bay of Pigs-esque planet of Scarif. But the absurdity of Star Wars, including space battles (fuckin’ Y-wings!!!) and tank-like walkers (both AT-ATs and AT-STs) keep things light and fun.
THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!
At times, the film shoves so many callbacks in that it almost feels unnecessary. There are some nice nods, like those mentioned above, but some are more subtle than others. When you hear a tiny blast of classic John Williams, thankfully bringing a stop to Giacchino’s wannabe score, be sure to scream, “Ayyyyyy! I ‘member!,” like everyone else. ROGUE ONE certainly doesn’t rely on these cameos, but when scared it isn’t Star Wars-y enough, it sure thinks it does. The eyeroll-to-appreciation ratio does depend on personal taste, but it’s a problem when a lifelong fan such as myself finds them excessive. This rides the nostalgia train too hard and alienates newcomers. One silver lining: most familiar characters are at least done justice. Young Mon Mothma is sure to give me just as many wet dreams as old Mon Mothma did. The biggest sin is Vader making a pun, but it’s easily brushed off.
After full admittance that most are nitpicks, all of the film’s flaws may be equally brushed off, unlike those found in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Even in the third act, where everything is hastily funneled directly into A NEW HOPE, the craziness level is cranked to an all time high and it is an absolute delight to see. The film is simply greater than the sum of its parts. ROGUE ONE feels tighter, more believable, and way more badass than its predecessor. Whereas further contemplation on EPISODE VII rendered it hollow, my appreciation for ROGUE ONE only grows with repeat viewings. I truly, truly wish this film was released before FORCE AWAKENS, because ROGUE ONE is what fans really deserve. Those few who have seen the original trilogy, but not EPISODE VII, should definitely check this out first. If this is the route the series’s spinoffs are going to take, then my previous words still stand: there’s no better time to be a fan and no better time to become one.