Just a little pre-amble: I will have to reveal certain plot details in order to properly review the film. I’ll try not to spoil too much but it’s impossible to just be vague the entire time. Translation: if you don’t wanna know anything about the film before seeing it, don’t read this until afterwards. OK, now that we got all of that out of the way…
Well, it’s that time again. Ever since The Force Awakens, which I personally thought to be a wonderful and flawless addition to the Star Wars saga, we have all been waiting with baited breath to see what the next chapter of this franchise would be: would it be the next episode? A Han Solo backstory? A prequel to the prequels? Instead what we got was simply the title Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and not a whole lot of other details for quite a while. As plot details and cast slowly were revealed, it would become apparent that this film would act as a sort of prequel to Star Wars but a film that takes place after Revenge of the Sith. In fact, it takes place in a time period much closer to Star Wars than the latter film. Let’s dive in!
The film tells the story of a young lady named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who witnesses her mother die at the hands of Imperial forces when she is just a child. After this traumatic incident, she is raised briefly by a veteran of the Clone Wars known as Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker). In the meantime, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Army known as Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) forcibly recruits Jyn’s father (Mads Mikkelsen) to help him to complete the construction of a superweapon project, which will be known as the Death Star. Rebel forces catch wind of this plan and after freeing Jyn from an Imperial prison due to her connection to her father, they plan to use her to track down and assassinate her father and prevent the weapon from becoming fully operational. She is joined on her quest by Rebel Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a sarcastic reprogrammed Imperial droid known as K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). There is a lot more to it but that’s as far as I can take this description.
One thing that is apparent right away is that although it still has elements of the Star Wars films that we all know and love, it is still very different in a way as well. The film takes on a somewhat-darker tone than usual and there are a few staples of the franchise that are not present (or barely present) in the film as well. For instance, don’t expect to see an opening crawl, folks! I guess the biggest thing that separates this from most of the other movies is the scale of the battles. Now while we do get a lot of huge firefights involving ships and storm troopers, the scale of it all seems a lot more personal. Rather than seeing the Death Star blow up an entire planet like it was nothing, we see them fire on an unsuspecting planet inhabited by people and then the film really focuses on individual reactions from people in the midst of destruction rather than just a cold remark by a villain afterwards. There are a lot of grim moments to be had in the film and they cut like a knife for the most part. One particular character that accepts his fate and is ultimately killed almost feels like a samurai laying down his sword and surrendering to fate.
Since this is a standalone film, there are tons of new characters which is a difficult thing to present in a one-off movie like this but it’s pulled off rather well. Felicity Jones is a strong lead where you wouldn’t really expect her to play the bad-ass heroine but she does it in a more grounded, relatable way that totally works. Diego Luna also surprised me as I had only previously known him from a slew of mediocre films so it was nice to see that he had plenty of emotional range and vulnerability to spare. He spends the early part of the film a lot colder but then gradually we begin to humanize him. Ben Mendehlson is a wonderful villain while Mads Mikkelsen owns any scenes he does get to appear in (which aren’t many). Forest Whitaker also doesn’t have a lot of screen time but he has such a presence and you really feel the wear and tear that he’s gone through over the years. He is almost like an Obi-Wan Kenobi character in the sense of his wisdom and the way in which he carries himself. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make for a good duo and for some reason reminded me of two similar characters from The Magnificent Seven. Riz Ahmed is another good addition playing an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebel Alliance near the beginning of the film. Alan Tudyk is an absolute highlight as K-2SO, which is basically this movie’s version of a C-3PO character. However, Tudyk goes a much different route and makes this droid more of a sarcastic (for lack of a better word) asshole, who immediately decides that he doesn’t get along with Jyn. He is a far more effective character than our two friendly droids from Star Wars as well as he is actually able to fire weapons and take down enemies. There are also a few surprises and a recreation of a character directly from Star Wars that seems to be dividing people but I felt like it was tasteful and well-conceived.
The high-octane action sequences are just as good as ever. There are a few early on in the film and we don’t really go too long without a healthy dose of action at any given moment but that’s all an appetizer for the final 30 minutes or so. We follow branching storylines during that last sequence as well as tying into the original film that diehards will absolutely love. In fact, the last five minutes may be one of the best endings to any movie released this or any other recent year. It really does have a great mixture of fan service (admittedly it is kept to a minimum) and great storytelling that hooks you in whether you are a fan of the series or not. In fact, I would say you could definitely watch this as a standalone film (which more sequels/prequels/spin-offs need to strive for these days) but if you watch all the rest of the series, you will enjoy it that much more.
Rogue One is a great film, one which you can enjoy and take a breath while waiting for the Episode VIII in which more questions will hopefully be answered. If you ever wondered what happened leading up to the Death Star attack sequence in Star Wars, this is your film!
RATING: **** ½
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)