Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: December 16th, 2016
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker
I've been looking forward to Rogue One since they started releasing the trailers back in April. The few details that were being given during its production had given me a lot of hope: that it was set during the original trilogy, that it wouldn't have any Jedi or "Force" characters in it, and that it would focus on the "war" more than the "stars." I had felt that this, more so than even The Force Awakens, was the exact type of Star Wars film we needed. As longer trailers were released, we were given a tableau of unfamiliar faces within familiar sights, such as the astounding shot of the Death Star coming into view from the shadows of a planet. Now that Rogue One is out and blowing up the box office like it was Alderaan, how is it exactly? Warning: Minor spoilers. I'd suggest holding off on reading this review if you plan to see the movie and don't want any plot details spoiled.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
If you've been keeping track of what reviewers have been saying, or you've already seen the movie, then you've most definitely heard it already: that this is a "darker" Star Wars movie, and that it's grim, grim, grim. That it certainly is. Rogue One is not the fun fantasy-in-space romp with light sabers, little green aliens, and cute droids rolling around. This is a goddamn war movie. Rogue One takes place right before A New Hope, so we're well into the rebellion's fight against the Empire. This is a movie about intrigue, assassinations, and genocide. Rogue One wants its viewers to understand that war is hell and that hard decisions have to be made.
Overall this movie does not disappoint, and Rogue One hits it home on so many levels. The actors are all fully committed and clearly into their roles. Felicity Jones's lead character Jyn Erso and Diego Luna's Cassian Andor make for a proactive leading pair alongside the biting sarcasm of Alan Tudyk's droid K-2SO. The two aren't overly charismatic, but not many people in this film are, nor should they be. Not everyone is Han Solo. Jones herself takes a huge leap from her phoned-in performance in Inferno. Donnie Yen breaks out some sweet martial arts as the blind monk Chirrut Îmwe, and Riz Ahmed and Jiang Wen round out a solid, if slightly overstuffed cast. I really appreciate Ben Mendelsohn's new villain Orson Krennic, who's eye-catching style and ambition within the Empire lets us see him at different stages.
The visuals are what make this film, which should be no surprise being a Star Wars film. The set pieces, such as new planets Jedha and Scarif, are beautifully used, and the space battle at the end over the planet of Scarif is a sight to behold.
But most importantly, Rogue One finally gives us what fans of the video games and books have been hoping for, and that is a truly "adult" Star Wars film, that embraces the darker sides of the story. The original films are not what you'd call complex story-telling. Even when they use terrifying concepts such as genocide and infanticide, they're still considered "family-friendly." Star Wars as a film franchise has no problem cracking a joke or making light of the situation. But Rogue One doesn't have time for that crap. The heroes here are barely heroes at all, trying to come to grips with the terrible situation they've found themselves in. This alone makes the movie a richer and deeper experience than most of the other films in the franchise.
There are a lot of returning characters that make welcome reappearances, such as Grand Moff Tarkin (the big baddie from A New Hope), rebel leader Mon Mothma, and of course Darth Vader. Vader's moments are few and amazing, and do an excellent job bridging the monster we saw created at the end of Revenge of the Sith with the infamous figure we all know from A New Hope.
The Dark Side
As much as I loved this movie, there are some huge issues. Plot-wise there's a lot going on, so the first half of the film can be a bit confusing as you figure out who needs who for what and why they're doing what they're doing. The film begins to find its focus after the first third of the movie when they leave Jedha, and it culminates in a very well executed final act. While I loved the ending scenario, it felt very obvious that everything beforehand was used to lead up to that point instead of working on its own within the story.
As I said before, the actors are generally good (although Mads Mikkelsen does his typical "stare at things and talk in a deep monotone" routine... what's his appeal?). However, the stuffed plot and constant action sequences gives us very little time to get to know the characters. In A New Hope, we're given a lot of quiet downtime to let the heroes ingratiate themselves to us. In Rogue One, the characters are thrown together almost haphazardly, and we are given a few lines of vague backstory if anything at all. For instance, other than hating the Empire I have no idea why Donnie Yen or Jiang Wen's characters joined our heroes. They just sort of show up and follow them around for the rest of the film. It would have been nice to see the group bond a bit more, and for the audience to get to know them. This would make the already emotional ending even more affective.
While the film could have used some trimming in terms of plot and characters, I find these to be minor issues in the long run. The biggest issue I had was the use of CGI for actors. For certain returning characters, the creators decided to create CGI faces of the original actors over body doubles instead of recasting the parts outright. This might makes some sense for a certain character who appears very briefly at the end, but we spend a lot of time starring at the creepy out-of-place face of a younger Peter Cushing. And let me tell you, it is awful. It is the most distracting thing in the film, and will pull you out of the film as you stare at this horrifying Polar Express reject emote awkwardly all over the screen. If they replaced the actor or gave someone prosthetics to make him look like him, it wouldn't have been an issue. Sadly, this also applies to the returning voice of James Earl Jones, who's once-threatening and powerful Darth Vader voice is beginning to suffer as the actor gets older. It's not that Jones doesn't have the talent or energy, but the timbre of his voice has changed slightly, making Vader sound different.
A New Hope
These issues aside, I think Rogue One is a solid film and a great addition to the franchise. I stand by my statement that this is what Star Wars needed, and I hope we see more like this as they continue to film and produce these "Star Wars Stories." It was incredibly refreshing to return to the world of the original trilogy, and truth be told, this might be my favorite Star Wars film to date. I certainly enjoyed it more than The Force Awakens, and I hope the future films take some pointers from Rogue One. I highly recommend checking it out.