Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

A Star Wars movie without an episode number denoting its place in the franchise – how will people know where it fits in the chronology? Before you make the jump to hyperdrive, frantically racing to see it on the big screen, sit back, relax, and pour yourself a glass of Ryndonnian spicewine. Now let me tell you about Rogue One.

Suicide is Painless

It all started a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Oh, so you’ve heard this one before. Have you heard the one where there was no opening crawl or John Williams’ iconic theme? Say what? Not to worry, as it doesn’t take long for us to feel like we’ve been transported into the world George Lucas created nearly 40 years ago. Rather than recycle old standards like The Force Awakens did, seemingly bridging generational gaps of the viewers, here we get a better story that doesn’t have to meet certain criteria to be part of Lucas’ universe. The result is a good narrative that just happens to take place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) gives us a Star Wars feature that acts independently of George’s hexalogy before finally dovetailing into A New Hope. It is a better tribute than the greatest hits J.J. Abrams and the seventh episode (The Force Awakens) offered with only a few slight nods to the forebearers. Major fans of the intergalactic franchise will spot familiar characters and foreshadowing of events to come.

Essentially, Rogue One is a war movie. I’d liken it to an inverse of the legendary Alamo Mission where our heroes are trying to invade an outpost rather than dig in their heels and hold the fort. The mission is suicide and yet our heroes are a better squad than the group of ragtag hooligans Warner Bros. and DC gave us this past summer with the actual Suicide Squad.

Alas poor Gareth, I Knew Him When

It was just a few years ago that Gareth Edwards was tweaking his DIY monster movie called Monsters. One of my last trips in attending the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Tex., I caught this at the end of the day, which was actually the start of the next day, as the film played after midnight. His film was part monster movie, part relationship drama, part metaphor on the United States building a wall for protection. Protection from what? Zee Germans? (Oh, Jason Statham in Snatch – you slay me.) The success of Monsters led Edwards to Godzilla. Now steering a Star Wars flick, nothing should be greater. Yet, Rogue One doesn’t feel like Edwards had control. Which seems par for the course; studios getting eager directors for franchise features, but ones who they give little in the way of creative freedom.

Reports of re-shoots for Rogue One blew up the Internet, maybe the entire galaxy, and Star Wars fans were fearing the worst. The good news is that the film is not a stinker. It is the best since The Empire Strikes Back. Then again, look at the measuring stick. The climax of Rogue One features the return of Darth Vader, and those old enough to remember seeing this Man in Black menace will revel in seeing him wield his red lightsaber in explosive fashion. Forget the Dirty Dozen-inspired mission; Darth going off Oldboy-style in a corridor in the late proceedings is incredible. Also incredible is CGI wizardry in resurrecting Peter Cushing. Such a technical feat could inevitably open up a Pandora’s Box in bringing back other deceased actors.

Rebels With a Cause, or: The Inevitable Flaw of the Empire’s Final Solution

So the plot revolves around a growing Rebel Alliance while the dreaded Empire brings its Death Star on-line. Once it is fully operational it can cruise the galaxy and turn cities into rubble. The man responsible for such a final solution, er, doomsday device is Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is very reluctant about its construction for his superior, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Galen is the father of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), our story’s protagonist, and a pawn for the Rebellion. She, along with cocksure pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), are on a mission to locate and retrieve Galen. Ulterior motives are also at play as some would like to see Galen dead. Along the way the search and rescue party picks up some scene-stealing stragglers in Chirrut Imwe (the immeasurable Donnie Yen), a blind man whose mantra “The Force is with me; I am one with the Force” will join “May the Force be with you” as a quotable classic, and his friend Baze Mulbus (Wen Jiang). This not quite Seven Samurai contingent adds a sixth member with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a shuttle pilot and Empire defector.

Rogue One
is sandpaper-rough in giving us characters to empathize. We spend most of the time with Jyn and Cassian, so we get to know them and feel sadness during the film’s inevitable denouement. It’s a shame that this film is a one-off; I want to see more of Chirrut and Baze. They remind me of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in a way. And there’s one moment with Donnie Yen reminiscent of Kurt Russell in Tombstone walking into no man’s land and being unfazed as enemies shoot at him.

Much like the rough sandpaper characters, there is a fair amount of grit in this story. Yet when things appear their most dire the inherent optimism of hope is everlasting. K-2SO highlights the sci-fi opus with humor, his comments providing moments of levity when things take a turn. A lengthy first half leads to a battle sequence full of computer-generated dogfights and sabotage. Impressive visuals for sure, the action switching into high gear when Big Bad Vader makes his appearance and goes off on the Rebel Alliance.

While Rogue One may be a Star Wars stopgap between The Force Awakens and the yet-to-be-named Episode VIII (set to arrive in December 2017), it remains the best entry in the series since 1980. Let that year marinate just a little. Thirty-six years. With direct call-backs to the series, including a closing moment that splices perfectly with the opening moments of A New Hope, Edwards’ film is a success even if its just a singular story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Score: 7/10

Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action )
Running Time: 133 minutes

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