In 2015, Disney proved something: it could tell a Star Wars movie when it released The Force Awakens. George Lucas wasn’t at the helm, and the cast was different, but we could recognize the same elements of the saga in its story and special effects. From its opening scrawl of text to the last notes of the John Williams score during the credits, we knew what we were in for.
Last December, Disney took a chance with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Here’s a film that took a step outside the usual arc: a Star Wars installment with no Jedi Knights, no Skywalkers, and almost none of the familiar faces.
And it proved that, yes, you can tell this kind of story.
Rogue One is set mere days before the events of A New Hope. When an Imperial pilot defects with a message from one of the top scientists, the Rebellion puts into motion a plan to use the scientist’s daughter, Jyn Erso, to retrieve the pilot from a more dangerous Rebel cell. What’s set up to be a simple operation goes astray quickly when the Empire tests out its new weapon, the Death Star, on the planet where all this is taking place. But from there, Jyn, Captain Andors, and the rest of their cobbled-together team will go on a series of raids to track down Galen Erso and the plans for the ultimate weapon before it’s too late.
As you’d expect from a synopsis like that, this isn’t the Star Wars of twirling lightsabers and brilliantly colored starfighter battles, though (spoiler warning) there are a couple of those here. This is the saga with grit and blood on the lens. We get to see what the galaxy far, far away looks like from a pedestrian level, where there is no hope, but a band of desperate Rebels (emphasis on the “desperate”). All the humor in this movie is dark, especially when news of the Death Star breaks. And we can see firsthand what its firepower does to even a city, let alone to a planet.
Now, when I first saw the original photo of the Rogue One team, I had a single thought: “Boy, am I gonna tell any of them apart?” But their dark appearance, while it fits with the film, doesn’t show you how different they truly are onscreen. Every character in the squad stands out. Jyn Erso is the cynical resistance fighter with a heart of gold. Cassian Andors is a quick-witted and coldhearted Intelligence agent. K-2SO is a massive droid with a sardonic wit and extremely efficient killing methods (picture HK-47, but more cinematic). And then you have more optimistic characters like the defector Bodhi Rook, the loyal gunman Baze Malbus, and the Force-worshipping martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (played by the great Donnie Yen) on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone is well-cast in this movie, from its heroes to its villains.
And just to clear that elephant in the room, here’s my take on the CGI effects used to “resurrect” a few faces from the original 1977 film: they’re fine. I know of a few moviegoers who cry “Uncanny valley!” about it, but I think they do a good job within the context of this film. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of trying to insert an entirely different actor into the role and just pretending that nothing’s changed.
If I had a single note of complaint, it would be that the pacing, at times, felt a little rushed. Not that it was bad, but more that it was the kind of breakneck speed that felt more suited for a movie’s Act 3. And once we got to Act 3, that kind of frantic editing was amazing, but it did leave me a little disoriented up until that point. Even so, I loved Rogue One from start to finish. We got to see an amazing story told with a diverse cast and some spectular visuals, all to set up what we know and love about the original Star Wars movies. This was everything that I ever wanted from the prequel trilogy that Lucas gave us in the early Aughts.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available through Lucasfilm and currently playing everywhere in theaters.
Bibliography: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel. Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Based on characters by George Lucas. Perf. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 16, 2016.